If he were alive, Mexican novelist and short story writer Juan Rulfo would be 100 years old today.
Generally considered to be the most universal of Mexican writers, Rulfo is best known for his short novelette “Pedro Páramo,” which recounts the life and death of a man named Juan Preciado who travels to his dying mother’s hometown to find his father, only to come across a literal ghost town of spectral figures.
The book, originally published in 1955 and later translated into more than 20 languages, was influential in the writings of numerous Latin American writers, including Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”) and Argentina’s Julio Cortázar (“Hopscotch”).
Pioneering the style of magical realism, the book also became one of the seminal works of magical realism.
In 1952, Rulfo obtained a fellowship at the Centro Mexicano de Escritores, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, which spurred his writing career.
His first book, a collection of harshly realistic short stories centering around life in the time of the Mexican Revolution, titled “El llano en llamas” (“The Burning Plain”) was published in 1953.
It was originally met with little public acclaim, but was revisited by literary critics after the publication of “Pedro Páramo” three years later.
A native of Jalisco, Rulfo, who was the first Mexican to be awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for literature and who also was the first recipient of Premio Xavier Villaurrutia, is mandatory reading for Mexican secondary students and his unique style of combining past, present and future tense is still debated and studied by literary critics worldwide.
Rulfo was also an accomplished photographer, and a collection of his photographs was published after his death in 1986.
Back in the early 1980s, I had the honor of meeting and interviewing Rulfo when I was working at Canal Once producing a series of documentaries on Mexican artists and writers called “Semblanzas.”
He has a sharp sense of humor and a flirtatious nature, and seemed to discredit his own fame, barely aware of the fact that nearly every living Latin American author had, in one way or another, made reference to his works.
García Márquez once stated that he had never been so moved by any book as he was by “Pedro Páramo,” and U.S. essayist Susan Sontag described the book as “not only one of the masterpieces of world literature in the 20th century, but one of the most influential books of the period.”
Rulfo was a man of few words, a suffering soul, set in the middle of the world, listening to the voices that surrounded him, while insulating himself in a quiet apartment in Polanco surrounded by his vast collection of crocodile figures (his self-proclaimed talisman) and a seemingly endless library of books.
Rulfo died in on Jan. 7, 1986, at the age of 68, from advanced lung cancer, but “Pedro Páramo” and “El llano en llamas” are still mandatory reading for every Mexican grammar school student.
Rulfo would never live to see the documentary we produced about his life and works, and, as it turned out, the station ended up using it as a televised eulogy about the writer after he passed away.
But I still remember his charm and humor, and find myself constantly referring his writings.
Juan Rulfo, who would have turned 100 today, is dead, but his literary legacy will live on forever.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].