Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortázar:
the Blueprint of contemporary Storytelling in Latin America
At the turn of the 20th century, it seemed that Latin American literature would be built on poetry. Authors like Rubén Darío, Vicente Huidobro, Alfonsina Storni, among others developed an impressive catalogue of literary work that could have defined the literary legacy of the century. However, the political and social turmoil of the continent set the stage for the introduction of narrative as a pivotal point in how the reality was portrayed. There are three particular writers that set the blueprint for innovation in how the reality of Latin America would be narrated.
Juan Rulfo, in his short stories shows the daily life of a post-revolution Mexico that coexists with death on a daily basis. In “The Burning Plain,” he manages to show the conflicts of the countryside and its people, and the consequences of war and revolution. But instead of a folktale snapshot with linear narrative, his stories are not social chronicles, but rather games in storytelling.
In “Macario”, the intradiegetic narrator offers scenes of his life in a suspended narrative timeframe. It can be inferred that Macario suffers from some cognitive impairment that limits his understanding of time and reality, therefore he narrates the events from his life in a disorganized flow of consciousness where time does not lapse and closes the narrative where it began. It also happens that this narrator gives images and details that he himself does not fully understand. His lack of malice in judging the events and the way Felipa and his godmother treat him means that he himself does not understand the implications of what he is telling. This strategy focuses on the narrator’s consciousness and allows the content of the story to hide for the receptor of the narration in the subtext of what Macario says.
In “The Night They Left Him Alone”, there is a constant tension in the narrative, there is no exposition, rising action, falling action, and resolution; the entire narrative space of the story exists in the climax of a submerged plot we can only infer. Rulfo uses phrases that build the storytelling by creating constant expectation. The anticipation of doom appears from the beginning with the sentences: “It was the last thing he heard them say. Their last words.” Since that initiation, the narrator increases the tension with short sentences that build on anticipation: “They can catch us asleep.” and “”… in case we have to run.” This scaffolding of the structure would anticipate the confrontation between Feliciano Ruelas, his companions, and those we later know are the soldier lookouts waiting for them. The background details of the story, that his comrades are his relatives, and that the scene takes place during the War of the Cristeros, we discover through dialogue, in what would have been the confrontation if the story followed a traditional structure. The narrator gives us the outcome of what will happen to Feliciano’s companions from the beginning but does not reveal their identity (family) or the context of what happens until almost the end of the story.
Both in “Macario”, and in “The Night They Left Him Alone” (and in most of his narratives) Rulfo tells the everyday content of life in Mexico, within the social framework, completely breaking with the traditional forms of how to tell the stories. Rulfo’s characters are always the underdogs; their stories are not extraordinary in plot devices, but Rulfo’s narrative strategy affects form, they are captivating in the shape of storytelling they embody.
In Cortázar’s case, his strategy is to tell the extraordinary plots as if they were ordinary. Narratives such as “The Night Face Up”, “Axolotl” and “The Southern Highway” show an absence of strangeness from narrative voices in the face of plot events that would prove extraordinary. There is a contrast in the title “The Night Face Up” and the actual location of the temporary space in which the story begins, the morning. Likewise, the narrative takes place with apparent normality, there is no over emphasis on the events of the plot beyond what would be a traditional story. There are some references to time that seem to suggest without ado the events: “He would arrive with plenty of time where he was going.” In increasingly brief lapses, the protagonist’s consciousness shifts from an apparent dream in pre-Columbian times to the reality of the twentieth century without strangeness. The narrative attitude shows no rarity in the face of that exchange, this resource is also used in “Axolotl” when the narrative voice goes from being a human to the creature that looks from the other side of the glass. There is no surprise or strangeness in the tone.
Cortázar moves narrative spaces naturally creating a time dislocation without being abrupt or seeming extraordinary. The pre-Columbian place/time is not dreamlike, because there is no sense of strangeness or ambiguity, when the protagonist becomes a Moteca native fleeing the Aztecs, he knows where he is and what to do. Even this story, despite having an extradiegetic narrator who appears to focus on the protagonist’s consciousness, does not give him a name; that does not commit him to either reality as the real one.
A reader of traditional narratives would expect the narrator to clarify and show the extraordinary, however, the dislocations of reality are treated with the normal tone that a more traditional short-story would have. Despite the innovation in the structure and focus of the narrator, Cortázar manages to create an emotional tension through the feelings of anguish of the protagonist, they are not lost in the conversions of reality.
In “The Aleph”, Borges begins by narrating an everyday scene to manifest an existential concern: the passage of time and oblivion. From the first sentence, the narrator shows us his lament because “… the incessant and vast universe was already moving away from her and that this change was the first in an infinite series.” In the small extent of this narrative, Borges works in many strategies. In my opinion, the most important is the “nod” to the reader. He is an encyclopedic writer, who stops at the details. The characterization of Carlos Argentino Daneri, is a bet that the reader will “catch” the references: the mediocre intellectual who sometimes seems to be a joke about Borges himself and other Scholarly writers of his time. Daneri as a character is unbearable, unfriendly, and in the story, he is the embodiment of the literary academy. There are even editorial comments that seem like a conversation directly with the reader: “So inept I found those ideas, so pompous and so vast in their exhibition, that I immediately linked them to literature…”
With a plot like we find in “The Aleph,” it would be easy to think that the most important aspect of the story is the metaphysical discovery of a point that condenses the entirety of the universe, all realities and time. However, the story contains layers of meaning, and within the narrative strategies, there is the direct, insinuating conversation with the reader. If one only suspected it, it is corroborated when the narrator identifies as “I am Borges” and at the mystical moment of seeing the Aleph it says, “I saw your face”. There are so many implicit games to discover in what this story tells that it becomes impossible for me to think that it doesn’t speak to the reader. Borges makes a bet in those strategies, and there is an acute awareness of the receptor of the narration as an active player in its meaning.
The three writers work narratives that exist between the everyday life and the extraordinary, breaking with the traditional linear narrative. Cortázar tells the extraordinary with a sobering, unsurprised tone; Borges tells the extraordinary with rational awareness, but counting on the astonishment of the reader, creating amazement, and returning to normality, and Rulfo creates everyday anecdotes in an extraordinary way. With different strategies, they conceive narratives of Latin American reality while creating a map, or a basis on which the Spanish-American story is anchored during the twentieth century.