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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Houston MEXICO’S greatest writer died in January . His name was not Carlos Fuentes but Juan Rulfo, and there is no shortage of readers in Latin America and Europe who have long since proclaimed him the greatest writer of fiction Mexico has ever known. Rulfo never won the acclaim in the United States that has come to writers who were deeply influenced by him, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who claimed years ago that it was his reading of Pedro Paramo that “taught me to write 100 Years of Solitude.” But in Mexico, Rulfo was ensconced as a living legend as far back as the early ’60s. Rulfo’s legend derives from several sources. First, he published very little: a collection of short stories, El Llano en Llamas and the short novel, Pedro Paramo, in 1955. The two works together total less than 300 pages. That was it. Both were immediate successes. And Rulfo promised another work a novel, La Cordillera. When it kept failing to appear, a sense of heightened, prolonged expectation arose, and the cult of waiting for Rulfo began. On a trip to Mexico in 1974, some 19 years after his last publication, I came across an interview with Rulfo \(“T throw accompanying article included much speculation about when La Cordillera would appear, and I felt lucky to have chanced across an article about this know that this type of article was a virtual industry in Mexico. It seems that with the arrival of the ’80s, and with Rulfo having passed his 60-year mark, the belief thatz new work would appear became part of modern Mexican myth, a folk belief for intellectuals. In 1981, Rulfo was officially declared something akin to a national treasure, and, with the difficulties that David Theis is a freelance writer and novelist living in Houston. Mexico has endured in this decade, Rulfo’s next work became one of the few things the country could look forward to. Which is not to suggest that Rulfo’s fame is solely, or even chiefly, founded on his shutting up early . Rereading his work after his death, I found the few words he did leave remain oddly alive, oddly right, as if he had invented a Mexican language. In the words of one Mexican writer, “Four or five of the seventeen stories in El Llano en Llamas are perfect.” I’m not sure which ones he had in mind, but among them I’d put “Diles Que No Me Matan” \(Tell “Luvina.” “Diles,” told largely in dialogue, is the story of an old man about to be executed for a murder he committed some , 35 years before and whose consequences he’d fled ever since. The old man can’t understand why it’s his turn to die and pleads for his life as a miserable, harmless old man, one who has already suffered enough by having spent the better part of his life trying to hide from death. Hiding from death is an impossible task anywhere, but in Mexico they convert such illusions into the stuff of jokes. There is something perversely funny about the story’s ending. The old man’s son, Juventino, has tied the corpse to a burro and is carrying it home for burial. He thinks of the dead man’s grandchildren and says, “They’ll look at your face and believe it’s not you. They’ll figure that a coyote has eaten at your face so full of holes from the tiros de gracia \(coups -. stories I mentioned above are more complete and richer than “Diles,” but it’s the quick drop into the brutality of Mexican country life that makes that countryside the sole province of Rulfo. Pedro Paramo, his novel, was so soaked in the desperation and cruelty of that country that it completely burst the bonds of naturalism Rulfo observed in his stories. Pedro Paramo is the story of a young man who has gone to the village of Comala to look for his father, Pedro Paramo. His mother sent him, in her words, “to demand from him what is ours.” From the novel’s beginning, we see that Comala is a hell on earth. \(It is said that when one of its inhabitants dies and goes to Hell, he inevitably has We also learn that Pedro Paramo has other sons in the village and that he owes most of the people there something, if for nothing else than the harm he caused them while alive. But, as we slowly learn that the inhabitants of Comala are all dead and beyond remedio, we see that Comala and its people are metaphors for Mexico itself. “Now all of Mexico is Comala” has been something of a refrain in the Mexico City newspapers. When Octavio Paz said that Rulfo was “the first writer to give an image of Mexico, rather than a description,” he must have been referring to the melancholy village of the dead, Comala. In his treatment of death, Rulfo showed his complete absorption of Mexican folk culture. The anima en pena, or lost, wandering soul, is a fixture of Mexican folk belief and psychology. In it, life and death are two sides of the same cruel coin: each feeds off the other. Rulfo’s achievement in Pedro Paramo is that he not only uses folk belief as a folkloric basis for his novel, he elevates it to the level of myth; that is, he provides Mexicans with an image of their reality that is so clear, and so beautiful, that they can’t help marveling at it, for all the despair it contains. Finally, Mexico went into such mourning over Rulfo’s death because he was a well-liked man. Friends referred to him as the most humilde of Mexicans, and few living writers have ever attracted as much praise from their contemporaries. His full-time work was in the Mexican equivalent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Rulfo was remembered as fondly by his co-workers there, as well as by an Occasional campesino, as he was by his fellow intellectuals. Still, it strikes a foreigner as odd that his death was so deeply felt. The President was part of the honor guard. A small protest broke out at his memorial service when President de la Madrid said that Rulfo’s remains would have to wait the obligatory year before being entered in the Pantedn de Hombres Ilustres. As I write this, a The Death of Juan Rulfo By David Theis 18 FEBRUARY 7, 1986