A Wild, 'Burning' Journey Back To Old Mexico

Burning Plain i i
Burning Plain
The Burning Plain and Other Stories
By Juan Rulfo
Paperback, 175 pages
University of Texas Press
List price: $17.95
Read an Excerpt

When I was a kid, hearing someone say "you must read this" actually made me not want to read the book. Here's why: None of the books I read growing up came close to the real-life stories my uncle, Tio Nico, used to tell me — like the story from the 1930s where the Texas Rangers almost shot his cousin dead along the border; or the one from the 1850s when Indians kidnapped my great-great-grandfather in northern Mexico and brought him to this side of the Rio Grande.

But then, two things happened on my way to becoming a reader in my early 30s: First, I started writing fiction and realized that writing would only ever be possible if I started reading. Then a friend recommended The Burning Plain and Other Stories, by the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo.

Originally published in Spanish in the 1950s with the title El Llano en Llamas, Rulfo's collection of 15 short stories takes place across a brutally rugged terrain in the years after the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

To read Rulfo's stories is to inhabit Mexico and, in the process, to have Mexico inhabit you. In the story "We're Very Poor," a rural family barely survives a massive flood that takes with it a cow that the father had hoped might someday attract a worthy suitor for his 12-year-old daughter. This daughter, as the narrator tells us, now cries streams of dirty water as if the river had gotten inside her.

Oscar Casares i i

Oscar Casares is the author of the short-story collection >Brownsvem>illeem> and the novel Amigoland. Born and raised in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, he now teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, Austin. hide caption

itoggle caption
Oscar Casares

Oscar Casares is the author of the short-story collection >Brownsvem>illeem> and the novel Amigoland. Born and raised in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, he now teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, Austin.

Another story is about a band of guerrillas fleeing from the army's forces, only to be picked off later by vengeful Indians. They hope to break the guerrillas' spines like the rotten branches of the barranca, where they've taken cover.

Rulfo wrote only two books, The Burning Plain and Pedro Paramo, both classics of Mexican and world literature. Though these are thin books by any standard, they are so well-crafted that you realize that each sentence, each line of dialogue, each bit of punctuation had to fight for its life on the page.

I remember taking a copy of The Burning Plain with me to Mexico when I was researching some of the material for my own novel. To say I felt myself transported back to the time of distant relatives sounds overly sentimental. But as I reread these stories, I did have the sense that I was listening to a corrido, or Mexican folk song, describing the injustices and hardscrabble life along the border region and to the south. It reminded me of the real life stories of my Tio Nico.

Take it from me — someone who didn't start out as a reader — that you must read The Burning Plain by Juan Rulfo.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'The Burning Plain and Other Stories'

'The Burning Plain and Other Stories'
The Burning Plain and Other Stories
By Juan Rulfo
Paperback, 175 pages
University of Texas Press
List price: $17.95

No Dogs Bark

"You up there, Ignacio! Don't you hear something or see a light somewhere?"

"I can't see a thing."

"We ought to be near now."

"Yes, but I can't hear a thing."

"Look hard. Poor Ignacio."

The long black shadow of the men kept moving up and down, climbing over rocks, diminishing and increasing as it advanced along the edge of the arroyo. It was a single reeling shadow.

The moon came out of the earth like a round flare.

"We should be getting to that town, Ignacio. Your ears are uncovered, so try to see if you can't hear dogs barking. Remember they told us Tonaya was right behind the mountain. And we left the mountain hours ago. Remember, Ignacio?"

"Yes, but I don't see a sign of anything."

"I'm getting tired."

"Put me down."

The old man backed up to a thick wall and shifted his load but didn't let it down from his shoulders. Though his legs were buckling on him, he didn't want to sit down, because then he would be unable to lift his son's body, which they had helped to sling on his back hours ago. He had carried him all this way.

"How do you feel?"

"Bad."

Ignacio didn't talk much. Less and less all the time. Now and then he seemed to sleep. At times he seemed to be cold. He trembled. When the trembling seized him, his feet dug into his father's flanks like spurs. Then his hands, clasped around his father's neck, clutched at the head and shook it as if it were a rattle.

The father gritted his teeth so he wouldn't bite his tongue, and when the shaking was over he asked, "Does it hurt a lot?"

"Some," Ignacio answered.

First Ignacio had said, "Put me down here— Leave me here— You go on alone. I'll catch up with you tomorrow, or as soon as I get a little better." He'd said this some fifty times. Now he didn't say it.

There was the moon. Facing them. A large red moon that filled their eyes with light and stretched and darkened its shadow over the earth.

"I can't see where I'm going any more," the father said. No answer.

The son up there was illumined by the moon. His face, discolored, bloodless, reflected the opaque light. And he here below.

"Did you hear me, Ignacio? I tell you I can't see you very well."

No answer.

Falteringly, the father continued. He hunched his body over, then straightened up to stumble on again.

"This is no road. They told us Tonaya was behind the hill. We've passed the hill. And you can't see Tonaya, or hear any sound that would tell us it is close. Why won't you tell me what you see up there, Ignacio?"

"Put me down, Father."

"Do you feel bad?"

"Yes."

"I'll get you to Tonaya. There I'll find somebody to take care of you. They say there's a doctor in the town. I'll take you to him. I've already carried you for hours, and I'm not going to leave you lying here now for somebody to finish off."

He staggered a little. He took two or three steps to the side, then straightened up again.

"I'll get you to Tonaya."

"Let me down."

His voice was faint, scarcely a murmur. " I want to sleep a little."

"Sleep up there. After all, I've got a good hold on you."

The moon was rising, almost blue, in a clear sky. Now the old man's face, drenched with sweat, was flooded with light. He lowered his eyes so he wouldn't have to look straight ahead, since he couldn't bend his head, tightly gripped in his son's hands.

"I'm not doing all this for you. I'm doing it for your dead mother. Because you were her son. That's why I'm doing it. She would've haunted me if I'd left you lying where I found you and hadn't picked you up and carried you to be cured as I'm doing. She's the one who gives me courage, not you. From the first you've caused me nothing but trouble, humiliation, and shame."

He sweated as he talked. But the night wind dried his sweat. And over the dry sweat, he sweated again.

"I'll break my back, but I'll get to Tonaya with you, so they can ease those wounds you got. I'm sure as soon as you feel well you'll go back to your bad ways. But that doesn't matter to me any more. As long as you go far away, where I won't hear anything more of you. As long as you do that—Because as far as I'm concerned, you aren't my son any more. I've cursed the blood you got from me. My part of it I've cursed. I said, 'Let the blood I gave him rot in his kidneys: I said it when I heard you'd taken to the roads, robbing and killing people—Good people. My old friend Tranquilino, for instance. The one who baptized you. The one who gave you your name. Even he had the bad luck to run into you. From that time on I said, 'That one cannot be my son.'

"See if you can't see something now. Or hear something. You'll have to do it from up there because I feel deaf."

"I don't see anything."

"Too bad for you, Ignacio."

"I'm thirsty."

"You'll have to stand it. We must be near now. Because it's now very late at night they must've turned out the lights in the town. But at least you should hear dogs barking. Try to bear."

"Give me some water."

"There's no water here. Just stones. You'll have to stand it. Even if there was water, I wouldn't let you down to drink. There's nobody to help me lift you up again, and I can't do it alone."

"I'm awfully thirsty and sleepy."

"I remember when you were born. You were that way then. You woke up hungry and ate and went back to sleep. Your mother had to give you water, because you'd finished all her milk. You couldn't be filled up. And you were always mad and yelling. I never thought that in time this madness would go to your head. But it did. Your mother, may she rest in peace, wanted you to grow up strong. She thought when you grew up you'd look after her. She only had you. The other child she tried to give birth to killed her. And you would've killed her again, if she'd lived till now."

The man on his back stopped gouging with his knees. His feet began to swing loosely from side to side. And it seemed to the father that Ignacio's head, up there, was shaking as if he were sobbing.

On his hair he felt thick drops fall.

"Are you crying, Ignacio? The memory of your mother makes you cry, doesn't it? But you never did anything for her. You always repaid us badly. Somehow your body got filled with evil instead of affection. And now you see? They've wounded it. What happened to your friends? They were all killed. Only they didn't have anybody. They might well have said, 'We have nobody to be concerned about.' But you, Ignacio?"

At last, the town. He saw roofs shining in the moonlight. He felt his son's weight crushing him as the back of his knees buckled in a final effort. When he reached the first dwelling, he leaned against the wall by the sidewalk. He slipped the body off, dangling, as if it had been wrenched from him.

With difficulty he unpried his son's fingers from around his neck. When he was free, he heard the dogs barking everywhere. "And you didn't hear them, Ignacio?" he said. "You didn't even help me listen."

Excerpted from The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo Copyright 1967 by Juan Rulfo, Renewed 1995. Excerpted by permission of University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.

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