Tuesday, 12 November 2019

El Llano in flames, Juan Rulfo

By the time I arrived at the penultimate story in El Llano in flames by Juan Rulfo I was nearly drama-numb, like listening to current news from almost anywhere in the world. The Guardian Weekly that arrived today has an article on Mexico and its drug wars, with a sub-heading 'We Mexicans live in a cemetery full of bodies with no story, and stories with no body'. Read a Mexican writer and Mexican stories flood in.

Juan Rulfo's stories are set at the time of the revolution of 1910-20 which led to a democratic Mexico (though drugs make nonsense of democracy). I went to Mexico once, in 1981, which left me with one distinct memory — a mariachi band playing in a café facing the television, which was on, not the people in the café — and one general memory — that Mexico was like Ireland but in colour.

Juan Rulfo writes in the talky street style that a number of writers used after world war two, as if one of the effects of war were to loosen literary (often male) tongues from correctness, give voice to the voiceless, without abandoning a richness of palette, or should that be palate? If violence and misery are everyday currency, they can be redeemed by the language in which they are played out.

The penultimate story, 'The legacy of Matilde Arcángel', is a father/son tale, the father literally a towering figure. 'You felt, when you saw him, like you'd been thrown together in a slapdash kind of way, from the offcuts.' Whereas the son was 'a scrawny ravel of a lad ... (who) lived ... under the rock of a crushing hatred, and it's fair to say that his adversity began with being born.'  The story ends with the son riding his father's horse, 'his left hand playing away on his flute, and his right holding on to his father's dead body, slung crossways over the saddle'.

Death is always a solution as well as a dissolution. The place and the time Juan Rulfo writes about were rife with it. If a time can be full of holes. Plenty of movies represent such realities, and it's easy, confronted by a gap-toothed actor in a Mexican hat who shoots someone every five minutes, or the Magnificent Seven carried through hills and valleys by the music of Elmer Bernstein, to ride along with it all, past the white-clad villagers who somehow always look like actors.

This sounds like an argument for the deeper powers of written language over the language of (mainstream) cinema. And maybe it is. A film has one story, however complex or fragmented. A book is a collection of, in this case, 17 stories, though so consistent, so mythico-real that it's hard not to feel as if the stories have merged into one. As if the heroes of movies have been removed and what we read about is what's left: the people, the villages, the stories, if not myths, which they sometimes become, the deaths, inadvertent and other, the hens scratching in the dust, all that movie heroes sweep aside so that the villagers, no longer actors nor indeed heroes, are exactly what remains.

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