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The Burning Plain and Other Stories (Texas Pan-American Series) Paperback – June 1, 1971
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"Juan Rulfo's fifteen tales of rural folk prove him to be one of the master storytellers of modern Mexico.... Rulfo has an eye for the depths of the human soul, an ear for the 'still sad music of humanity,' and a gift for communicating what takes place internally and externally in man." (Houston Post)
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The stories in The Burning Plain take place in rural Mexico, around the time of the Revolution of 1910, and often focus on the harsh aspects of peasant life. While some of the stories are very specifically Mexican, others are so stark and devoid of detail that their time and place are indeterminate. Common to all is a harsh, desolate landscape whose inhabitants struggle to eke out a living, some by coaxing a meagre crop from the arid soil, others by violently wielding a gun or machete. Poverty and murder permeate these stories, and death is a ubiquitous presence that Rulfo treats with an alternatingly bleak and comic fatalism.
Rulfo's writing style is as sparse and severe as the land he depicts. No one can say as much with as few words as Juan Rulfo. His characters are often just the faint outline of human beings, his stages set with but a few rocks and trees, yet from these paltry ingredients he manages to craft complex narratives that vividly capture the drama of human existence. His prose is terse and stark, almost crude in its poetic simplicity, yet he also uses modernistic literary devices such as switching from first to third person in mid-story or alternating simultaneous stream-of-consciousness narratives. When Rulfo employs such techniques, it never feels gratuitous or forced, but always effortless and vital to the tale being told. The plots often start out deliberately obscure, sometimes frustratingly so, then slowly coalesce and develop like a figure emerging from a fog.
Reading this collection is like strolling through a gallery of masterpieces. The stories are consistently excellent throughout. In the bluntly titled "We're very poor," a flood inundates a rural village, washing away a cow belonging to the narrator's sister. Without that cow for her dowry, her family fears she will become a "bad woman" like her sisters. In "Tell them not to kill me!", an elderly man awaits his impending execution, grasping for a shred of hope, as he recalls his past 40 years as a fugitive, and the murder that led to his downfall. In the bleak but powerful "No dogs bark," an old man, carrying his grown son on his back, stumbles through darkness in search of medical attention, lamenting the trouble brought about by his son's evil ways. "Remember" starts out as a folksy anecdote, with the narrator detailing the personality quirks of his home village's inhabitants. It then slowly and unexpectedly escalates into an account of a brutal killing. If there's one brilliant gem to be singled out from this treasure chest it would probably be "Talpa." Tamilo, whose body is covered in mysterious, disgusting sores, convinces his wife and his brother (or sister, perhaps; I don't believe Rulfo ever specifies) to take him on a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Talpa, little knowing that the two are carrying on an affair behind his back.
The Burning Plain is a landmark work, not only of Latin-American literature but of literature in general. I can't think of a better collection of short stories overall. Even for those who have absolutely no interest in Mexico, its history or its culture, Rulfo's stories transcend their setting to offer profound and unblinking insight into the universal human condition.
Well, Juan Rulfo is a master of the highest sort and this book is NOT magical realism, but pure, hard realism. He only wrote two books, this one and "Pedro Paramo", another masterpiece which I also don't count as magical realism, although some do, as well as a few lesser works. He didn't need to write much. His is a literature worked and reworked restlessly, until reaching perfection. Every single word fits perfectly with the rest. There are no digressions, no philosophy, no theories or grand landscapes. All his tales develop in Southern Jalisco, in a poor, dry, vast, sunburned and sad land. The prose is also dry, precise, economical and to the point. The characters are ignorant, miserable, but conscious and courageous. The titles say much: "It's because we are so poor" is one of them. However, you will not find self-pity or corny sad tales. Only bits of human misery perfectly narrated. By the way, this is the first review I write for Amazon in which I use the word "perfect". Probably it won't happen again, with one or two exceptions.