The Burning Plain
  by Juan Rulfo
Translated by George D Schade

University of Texas Press
1967 (Spanish 1953)
First Collection

"Of the mountains in the south Luvina is the highest and the rockiest. It’s infested with that gray stone they make lime from, but in Luvina they don’t make lime from it or get any good out of it. They call it the crude stone there, and the hill that climbs up towards Luvina they call the Crude Stone Hill."

Reviewed by Andy Thatcher

The fifteen stories collected in The Burning Plain (seventeen are collected in the original Spanish language El Llano en Llamas) are nearly always and unforgivably overlooked in preference to its celebrated successor, Pedro Paramo. As an early example of Latin American magical realism, Pedro Paramo was a major influence on the "Boom" writers of the 1960s and 1970s: indeed, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is said to have claimed reading it in 1961 to be an epiphanic experience without which he would not have found the strategies to write 1967’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But The Burning Plain, which is staunchly realist, is no lesser work and deserves far more praise than it receives.

The setting of the collection is rural Central Mexico – specifically the state of Jalisco, where Rulfo was born and raised. Typical of this environment are the filthy river at the bottom of a canyon in We’re Very Poor, the remote pockets of farmland in The Hill of the Comadres, the isolated track of No Dogs Bark along which a father carries his dying son and the many small, violent towns against which are played out lives of desperation and betrayal.

Violence is never far off, whether meted out by soldiers on deserters, a husband on his wife, a sniper on his bounty, a simpleton on the town’s frogs, all set in an unforgiving landscape that "burns" and out of which the characters scrape barely enough to sustain themselves and their families, often at the expense of one another. It seems implicit that such a violent environment is at least partially responsible for the violence in the lives of those which inhabit it and the connections drawn between human and environmental cruelty are more than passingly reminiscent of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

The Burning Plain is deeply etched with a second elemental force – that of political history – and its characters are often depicted as trapped between the two. Through each story flows the turmoil of Mexico in the 1920's and 1930's: the final years of the Mexican revolution, the bloody Christero Revolt and the Agrarian Land Reforms which displaced millions of peasants, decimated families and turned neighbour against neighbour in the stampede for the control of land (ˇTierra y Libertad! was Zapata's revolutionary battlecry).

History is both remote and omnipresent: the reformist policy of a president that re-allocated land to the peasants with staggering arbitrariness is the central event of They Gave Us The Land which follows the dreams of a group of men, wandering through a darkened landscape towards a plot of land they ultimately find to be entirely unusable. It is also as present as the gunplay between the two opposing groups of soldiers, on opposite sides of the title story's canyon. Even in those stories that confine themselves more closely to the domestic, such as Talpa or Anacleto Morales, the stress of the great upheavals is still felt in the breakdown of communities in which they take place.

The language is direct, unembellished and conversational. Most stories are narrated by a character, either present in the narrative or else relaying an anecdote heard elsewhere, creating an intimate reading experience that is further helped by the razor-sharp depiction of physical detail in both the human and non-human environment. More than one of the stories also carries a sense of the confessional. And yet in spite of the careful control of detail and voice, the stories are free to wander through space and time, drawing to them a patchwork of memories, anecdotes of other characters, overheard conversations, superstitions, family legends: Rulfo was a great admirer of Faulkner. Full credit goes to George D. Schade's immaculate 1967 translation that, wisely, does not attempt to transpose the original vernacular into an English language equivalent, as did Sergio Waisman's in his unintentionally funny translation of Mariano Azuela's classic Revolution-era novel, The Underdogs, which had the peasant army speaking like '30s Chicago gangsters.

Rulfo is a master of the killer final sentence. However loose and – albeit powerfully – rambling any of these fifteen tales might sometimes appear to be, the full meaning is nearly always postponed until the last few lines, not just of theme but of plot and structure. There is something uniquely euphoric in finishing each one that gives pause to reflect and admire before pressing on. As a masterclass in the short story, The Burning Plain is a joy, but it is also a vivid historical document of a terrible and remote historical era and a sympathetic but wholly unsentimental examination of an Indian (the word is acceptable in Mexico) population struggling to keep itself from the brink of social, cultural and moral collapse.


Read an excerpt from a story from this collection on University of Texas Press

Andy Thatcher is an unpublished novelist, teacher and sometime reviewer, currently finishing off an Mphil at the University of Exeter investigating the use of dialogism in lower middle class fiction. The short story is a new and increasingly potent creative influence, especially those of Borges, Akutagawa and Lovecraft.
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Born in 1917 Juan Rulfo was a Mexican writer who published just two books: The Burning Plain (1953) and the novel Pedro Paramo (1955), regarded as a modern classic and, along with Borges, a major influence on Latin American Boom writers including Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Juan Rulfo  was awarded the Mexican National Literature Prize in 1970 and the Príncipe de Asturias Prize in 1983. He died in 1986.