The Dust Blows Back

Juan Rulfo – El Llano in Flames (Structo Press, 2019)

In Mexico, the land is treacherous. To survive, you must be stubborn.

Juan Rulfo is a legend of Mexican storytelling. His short stories contain the depth of novels, the melodrama of movies and all the passion and tragedy one expects from Latin American writing.

He isn’t well known in England. In the United States, he is known for his novel Pedro Paramo (1955). In Mexico itself it is his short story collection, El Llamos en llamas (1953), that is studied in schools, adapted into TV shows and available in all good book shops.

Stephen Beechinor has finally translated the second of these books for an English market, and Structo, a literary magazine specialising in “slipstream” lit, founded its own publishing subsidiary, Structo Press, in 2019 purely to bring it out.

It had been well worth the wait. Despite its slim size, El Llano in Flames feels like an odyssey. A panoramic view of the sprawling Mexican deserts. The land where nothing grows and the hard men that try to live there.

The book begins with “They Gave us the Land”; a story of poor dirt farmers, trekking across a waterless plateau only to learn that the government has granted them that desert land for farming.

“A thousand acres of land, just for you!”

“But… there is no water on that land.”

It is a story foretelling much to come.

We meet a teacher, broken by his attempts to reform the dirt farmers. In the end, he realises there is nothing to be done. If they want to get out of starvation, they must move. This, too, they refuse.

Their dead live under the dry earth. They could not leave them behind.

Men get caught up in murders. They live their lives in fear, then die sapped of everything but their regrets. Revolutionaries rove through the land, rustling cattle and burning crops in the name of high causes, only to be hunted and killed; leaving devastation behind.

We are left with the sense of a haunted land. A land where nothing moves forwards; things die faster than they grow, every plan ends in tragedy and betrayal.

But in among the pain are moments of such poignancy that one almost envies the people of the Llanos. Only at such extremes of experience can one truly sacrifice. Only here is one tested, and can triumph or fall.

The man who carries his dying son on his shoulders, across two valleys in the heat; not for the sake of his son, but in memory of his dead mother.

The boy born with a hard head, who stays up all night carrying a plank of wood, bashing the frogs that disturb his mother’s sleep. In the morning he thuds his head into the ground, over and over, so it sounds like the big, booming drums at the church.

The woman they call “belly-up”, who had and lost a dozen kids by a dozen fathers, only to die as the surviving one is born.

These are tales of great intensity, sincerity and truth. They are strange, but only as the world itself is strange. They are also masterful in their concision. I could not name another writer who could do so much in such a short space.

This is a book that deserves to be read. A classic of world literature that Beechinor and Structo have finally brought to our shores.

Joe Darlington

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