Monday, December 27, 2010

The Failure of Stoicism in the Stories of Juan Rulfo

            Everything That Is Under the Burning Plain

One of Ernest Hemingway’s motifs for writing, especially short stories, was that of the iceberg in the deep ocean.  The narrator doesn’t have to talk about what’s under the water for the unknown depths to be felt by the reader, both dimly and powerfully.  Juan Rulfo employs a similar kind of surfaced, but limited, realism that examines the human lives upon the scorched landscapes of Mexico.  The stories are stripped down to their bare essentials of mostly action, while the greater depths of compassion and fear are felt, but not fully understood by the reader.  In this narrative technique, social commentary and moral judgment are nascent, near the surface, but not fully articulated in any of the stories.  The reader is not completely exposed to the social problems, but he or she may see enough to grasp that there are no easy answers.  Despite the stoic realism of these stories, they are far from heartless, though indirection and obscurity abound as a kind of self-protection from the natural elements and social perils.  In each of these stories, there is a moment when stoicism fails, and the ties of family and blood bind the observer to the suffering of another, despite the literary style that promises self-protection.  The moment of exposure is inevitable if the storyteller and listener have any heart at all.  What is seen on the surface, and what lies under the plain, can only be felt rather than fully known, and they are too much to bear in the places where objective knowledge and deeper feeling truly meet. 
The story “We’re very poor” is the most direct story in title and in subject matter, but, like the other stories, it is absent moral judgment about the poverty of its characters.  All that stands between a twelve year old girl and a life of prostitution is a cow who has just been swept down the river.  If a God of mercy is listening to her cries, Mother Nature is certainly deaf.  Juan Rulfo often focuses on animals as a way to understand the human condition, and what will go down tomorrow.  There is an implicit understanding that what happens to the animals will soon happen to the people.  Many of the stories show people carrying their family members as they would an animal, and the proximity of death is nearly the same for the animals and the human beings.  The stoicism necessary to butcher an animal seems to be just as requisite for daily life in human society. 
            We don’t know very much about the narrators themselves in the stories.  Individualism is subordinated to survival, which is at the tip of the iceberg.   
Despite the two daughters that have already become prostitutes in “We’re very poor,” there really is no stern division between good people and bad people in this story and others.  Ordinary people may become murderers if the circumstances are right, and little girls can become prostitutes if a single cow dies.  If the cow lives, then Tacha will make a wife.  When life cuts to the bone, virtue and morality are shed like clothing.  It is a luxury few characters can afford for long.  The narrators are often on guard, partially hidden themselves, fearing exposure.  The narrator in “We’re very poor” is a boy because he doesn’t fear that he will become a prostitute like his sisters, but he never tells the reader directly.  The boy sits with his sister watching the rising river, and the sorrow of their poverty penetrates the helpless brother and sister.  These are tough kids, but they aren’t tough enough.  If they toughen up, how can they still be any good?  The child narrator has no answers, just a story to tell: “She’s here at my side in her pink dress, looking at the river from the ravine, and she can’t stop crying.  Streams of dirty water run down her face as if the river had gotten inside of her.”(p. 30)   
            Even when the tip of the iceberg is described with realism, there can be long periods of confusion for the reader.  “The burning Plain” puts the reader into Mexican battlefields without any moral compass about who is who or what side, if either, is right.  The reader discovers that he is among rebel followers of Pedro Zamrora scattered against the government forces led by General Petronilo Flores.  Neither the sins of the government nor the hopes of the rebels are ever explained in the story.  Whether they have been forgotten or are no longer relevant, the human shape of ideas has fully given way to the animal shadow.  The animal references are abundant at the beginning as snakes, iguanas, and badgers fuel the metaphorical descriptions of human behavior, while anyone slaughtered in an ambush is a bull.  Real coyotes howl around scenes of human warfare.  The first slaughter is of the government troops in an ambush, and we see “the bulls” that the narrator sees through his gun sights: “They almost closed the gun sights with their bulk…”(p. 67)  But the ambush is quickly reversed with government fire from the rear, and it is clear that the narrator is not much better oriented than the reader: “We just looked at Pedro Zamora, asking him with our eyes what had happened to us.”(p. 68)  Though we have been dropped among the rebels in this battle, the odds are better on the other side.  The hunter can quickly become the hunted, and the rebels’ best hope is soon to be just forgotten.  But Pedro Zamoro won’t let his troops give up the fight.  In this animal kingdom of human warfare, there is, darkly, something worse than being dead.  You can be really dead: “They really killed those; no hope for them.”(p. 70) 
For a long time in the story, the emotional life of the narrator has flatlined.  He seems to register no emotion throughout the carnage.  People he knows by name are killed, and so is his horse, but he expresses no feeling other than fear.  Human death and animal death register in him equally, which is seemingly not at all.  The central atrocity of the story is the “bullfighting” where government soldiers are tortured as bulls in a mock bullfighting ring: “The eight soldiers were good for one afternoon.  The other two for the other.”(pgs. 75-76)  The scene is described simply, dispassionately.  None of this breaks the narrator.  It is the appearance of a woman he once raped that makes his heart start beating in this story.  He remembers killing her father and the difficulty that he had “taming” her.  It is the union with his own son that provokes the guilt that no other event could inspire: “I hung my head.”(p. 81)  It is only through this woman, with whom he now lives, that we learn the narrator’s name: Pichon.  Through her, once his victim, he becomes human again.  He has a human name.           
            Juan Rulfo’s stories have a hard outer shell, but the shared blood of family still gets under the skin in “We’re very poor” and “The burning Plain.”  These stories have a moment when stoicism fails, and the formerly insulated narrator is exposed to the harshness of the burning plain, and the subterranean power of his broken feelings.  The hardboiled shape of these stories is a durable compassion at the beginning of “We’re very poor” and at the end of “The burning Plain.”  Any other kind of compassion would be too dangerous.  Anything less would make you go bad.  If a traveler wants to journey to the many places in the world where stories like Rulfo’s are being lived, he better protect his heart accordingly. 


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