World Literature

Juan Jose Arreola

 

BORN: 1918, Ciudad Guzman, Jalisco, Mexico

DIED: 2001, Guadalajara, Mexico

NATIONALITY: Mexican

GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Bestiaries (1958)

Confabulario and Other Inventions (1962)

The Fair (1963)

 

 

Juan Jose Arreola. Arreola, Juan Jose, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

Juan Jose Arreola was outstanding among the generation of young writers who transformed the Mexican short story in the mid-twentieth century. He wrote satirical and boldly irreverent Modernist works that treat themes of universal consequence, breaking with the Mexican tradition of realistic literature that focuses on native themes and subjects. In his writings, Arreola comments on the absurdity of life and attacks hypocrisy, complacency, religiosity, commercialism, and materialism, as well as the possibility of harmony between the sexes.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Brief Acting Career and Nervous Breakdown. Arreola was the fourth of fourteen children born to a deeply religious family in Zapotlan el Grande (now Ciudad Guzman), in west central Mexico. As a child, he demonstrated an excellent memory and an interest in literature, but he was forced to end his formal schooling at the age of twelve to become a bookbinder’s apprentice. He worked a series of jobs in Zapotlan before moving to Mexico City, where he enrolled in the Instituto de Bellas Artes to study acting in 1939.

During his time in the capital, Arreola was also writing and becoming acquainted with a group of young Mexican writers. He collaborated with Juan Rulfo in the creation of the short-lived literary journal Pan in the early forties, and in 1943 published his first nationally recognized story, ‘‘Hizo el bien mientras vivio.’’ Arreola’s acting provided the opportunity for him to travel to France on a fellowship in 1945, but his stay in Europe was brief, cut short by symptoms of a nervous disorder. He was back in Mexico City the following year, working in an editorial position at the Fondo de Cultura Economica.

Arreola Turns to Writing. Arreola continued his writing during this period, publishing Varia invencion, a collection of stories, in 1949. The work elicited almost no response from critics, although it was noticed and read in the literary circles of Mexico City. However, his next collection of stories, Confabulario (1962), published three years later, inspired generally positive comment. La hora de todos, his first play, was performed in 1953 and published the next year, followed by a series of prose sketches called Punta de plata, together with illustrations by artist Hector Xavier, in 1958. This latter work was expanded and renamed Bestiaries and appeared, along with almost everything else he had previously published, in the Confabulario and Other Inventions of 1962.

Career Takes Off. In 1963, Arreola wrote his only novel, The Fair, a work often cited as one of his most significant literary accomplishments. That same year he was awarded the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize. In 1964, he edited the anthologies Los Presentes and El Unicornio. In addition, he accepted a professorhip at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Eight years later, he completed Palindrome, which includes his second play, Tercera llamada tercera! o empesamos sin usted. Arreola’s production of new fiction dropped off after Palindrome, as he focused his attention on lecturing and became involved in television. In 1973, Arreola published La palabra educacion, and in 1976, Inventario. Years later a literary study followed—Ramon Lopez Velarde: Una lectura parcial de Juan Jose Arreola (1988). With this book Arreola pays homage to a poet he recognizes as an important presence in his works: ‘‘Mis biisquedas, mis disparates y mis fortunas surgen de Lopez Velarde’’ (My search, my nonsense and my fortune come from Lopez Velarde).

The Favorite Son of Guadalajara. Toward the end of his career Arreola received numerous accolades for his contributions to Mexican literature. In 1969, Arreola was recognized by the Jose Clemente Orozco Cultural Group of Ciudad Guzman. In 1979, he received the National Prize in Letters (Premio Nacional en Letras) in Mexico City. In 1989, he was awarded the Jalisco Prize in Letters and in 1992 the Literatura Latinoamericana y del Caribe Juan Rulfo Prize. In 1997, he received the Alfonso Reyes Prize; and in 1998, the Ramon Lopez Velarde Prize.

In 1999, on his eightieth birthday, Arreola was named favorite son of Guadalajara, where he died two years later.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Arreola's famous contemporaries include:

Graham Greene (1904-1991): English novelist who wrote in a range of genres, including the Western and religious novels.

Jorge Amado (1912-2001): Brazilian novelist whose works are set in the Bahia region of northeastern Brazil and reveal the author's fascination with the rich cultural heritage of Bahia's inhabitants.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997): French explorer, ecologist, and inventor responsible for co-developing the aqua-lung, an important scuba diving device.

Mother Theresa (1910-1997): Albanian nun who won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1997, for her humanitarian work.

Paul Tibbets (1915-2007): American Army Air Corps pilot who flew the airplane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

 

Works in Literary Context

Although he wrote in a variety of genres, Arreola is best known for his short stories and sketches, which have been praised for their stylistic originality and philosophical sophistication. Ranging from one-page vignettes and brief, comic pieces to apocryphal biographies of historical figures and existential short stories, his works demonstrate his wry and satirical humor, as well as his deep cynicism and pervasive sense of absurdity. Arreola’s work was influenced by authors including Giovanni Papini, Marcel Schwob, Franz Kafka, and Borges, among others.

Allegory, Cynicism, and Satire. The vignettes of Arreola’s Bestiaries combine allegory, cynicism, and satire, displaying human foibles in a series of animals— among them a rhinoceros, a boa constrictor, and a hippopotamus. His tone in these works, ostensibly that of an objective naturalist, masks a clever allegory, which satirizes human vanity, destructiveness, and insensitivity and criticizes the state of sexual relations between women and men. Of this bestiary, Margaret Mason and Yulan Washburn have written, ‘‘[Arreola] regards animals as a mirror in which man sees himself reflected. Man’s qualities and defects, both spiritual and physical, are accentuated in beasts.’’ The allegorical nature of Arreola’s writings is also evident in one of his most famous short stories, ‘‘The Switchman.’’ In this tale the traveler X-attempts to make his way along a national railroad system that seems to obey no laws of rational order. The switchman who explains the workings of the railroad describes areas where one of the rails does not exist, false facades of stations, chasms without bridges and the unlikely chance of X-ever reaching his destination, the town of T-. The work is seen as a comment on the inadequacy of Mexico’s transportation system, as well as an exploration of the inescapable absurdity of human existence.

Absurdity. The absurdity in Arreola’s short stories appears with different modifications. In ‘‘A Reputation’’ everyday life is depicted, but the story is nonetheless set on a bus where the protagonist sees himself as the hero and savior of the women who ride the bus. ‘‘Parable of the Exchange’’ presents another situation with absurd elements: a merchant arrives in a certain town to trade old wives for new ones. The character that narrates the story does not trade his, and thus he is not a victim of the deception suffered by the husbands who are dazzled by the mirage of the promised exchange.

Contradictory Attitudes Toward Women. Men’s attitudes toward women are contradictory throughout Arreola’s canon, as is the case in ‘‘A Tamed Woman.’’ A woman’s inhuman status as the object of a street show ends at the conclusion of the story when the narrator values and honors her. The strong feminine characters can never be subjugated, as illustrated in ‘‘The Bird Spider,’’ which prefigures his short-story collection Bestiaries with its treatment of the relationships between animals and human beings. ‘‘The Bird Spider’’ is distinctly a horror story, told by a narrator who is, or at least feels, caught between life and death. The anguish of being trapped by a spider reminds him of the feeling he previously experienced with a woman, with whom he was also unable to live. Absurdity is again present: the main character has bought the spider and taken it home. Arreola’s prose creates a poetic vision out of a situation where horror is established from the very first lines.

Influences on Contemporary Latin-American Literature. Inventario, a series of reflections on culture, was published in 1976; years later a literary study followed—Ramon Lopez Velarde: Una lectura parcial de Juan Jose Arreola (1988). With this book, Arreola pays homage to a poet he recognizes as an important presence in his works: ‘‘My search, my nonsense and my fortune come from Lopez Velarde.’’ Indeed, Mexican literature has two major figures in these two provincial writers: Lopez Velarde in poetry and Arreola in prose. The artistry of Arreola’s writing and his work as a teacher and guide of various generations of writers make Juan Jose Arreola one of the most important figures in contemporary Mexican and Latin-American literature.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Arreola's Bestiaries includes a number of animals that have human characteristics. In art, the attribution of human qualities to animals (and, indeed, inanimate objects and even forces of nature, like thunderstorms) is called ''anthropomorphism.'' The technique is extremely common throughout the history of literature, dating back at least as far as the representation of Greek Gods as thunderclouds, bulls, and snakes. Here are a few more examples of anthropomorphism in art:

Aesop's Fables (c. sixth century B.C.E.), a collection of stories by Aesop. This work, though quite old, features stories still told today, including ''The Boy Who Cried Wolf'' and ''The Tortoise and the Hare.''

Animal Farm (1945), a novel by George Orwell. A satire of the Soviet government, Animal Farm uses animals to represent different important historical figures from the Soviet Union.

The Rabbits (2003), a children's book by John Marsden. Marsden and illustrator Shaun Tan presented an allegorical depiction of the effects of colonization and environmental degradation.

 

Works in Critical Context

Although Arreola wrote and published in a variety of genres, he has received little critical acclaim for his novel and his drama. Indeed, Arreola’s career and reputation rest mostly upon his short stories, which have engendered nearly universally positive responses, which have been praised for their subtle beauty, their scathing satire, and their insightful allegorical elements. His point of view has been described as existential—emphasizing the emotional isolation of human beings and the irrationality of human existence—and decidedly modern; his friend Seymour Menton has called him ‘‘a true man of the twentieth century, an eclectic who at will can draw upon the best of all who have preceded him in order to create truly masterful works of art which in turn will be seized upon by others.’’

Confabulario and Other Inventions. Arreola’s best-known collection of short stories and sketches is Confabulario, which was first published in 1952 and, after being expanded twice, was published in English translation as Confabulario and Other Inventions. Selections from Confabulario were also included in a later Spanish collection, Estas paginas mias, which was published in 1985. Among the pieces reviewers have lauded are ‘‘Verily, Verily I Say Unto You’’ and ‘‘The Disciple.’’ The story ‘‘Verily, Verily I Say Unto You’’ alludes to the biblical warning that a camel can pass through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich person can enter heaven. In the tale a scientist devises a costly method—which would be financed by wealthy people—to disintegrate a camel and thus allow it to pass through a needle. The scientist reasons that if he and the rich people can make the camel go through the needle, they will go to heaven. In his introduction to Confabulario and Other Inventions, translator George D. Schade described Arreola’s often cynical portrayals of human shallowness and greed, such as the one in ‘‘Verily, Verily I Say Unto You’’: ‘‘With mordant descriptions, pungent attacks, or sly irony, [Arreola] shows how silly mankind is, how outrageous man’s behavior and antics are, how one is at the mercy of a world and society that more often seems to care for what is trivial and ephemeral than for what is essential.’’

‘‘The Disciple’’ reveals Arreola’s artistic, rather than social, concerns; in the story, an art teacher draws an outline for his pupil and calls the outline ‘‘beauty.’’ The teacher then creates a splendid picture by filling in the outline, but he explains that he has destroyed beauty and subsequently burns the picture. Menton considered the story a reflection of Arreola’s sentiments about literature as well as other forms of art. The reviewer explained in his Hispania article, as quoted in Modern Latin American Literature, ‘‘Arreola’s message is, of course, that true beauty lies in suggestion only. Once a work of art goes beyond suggesting beauty, it loses its charm.’’ With the looseness of plot and the ephemeral portrayal of action and character in Arreola’s short stories, it is clear that his work abides by this simple but difficult-to-achieve description of beauty.

Indeed, critics have most often responded positively to his short stories—succinct, universalizing pieces that have evoked comparisons to those of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In his shorter works are found the finest examples of ‘‘Arreola’s fertile imagination and his sense of form and humor,’’ which according to Russel M. Cluff and L. Howard Quackenbush ‘‘have immortalized him as one of Mexico’s foremost writers of prose.’’

The Fair. The Fair, Arreola’s sole novel, shares certain affinities with his other writings. Like many of his shorter works, The Fair lacks the well-defined characters and plots of conventional fiction. Instead, the novel develops from related and unrelated scenes, partial conversations, and portions of letters and diaries; it suggests plot and character instead of depicting them directly. ‘‘Yet the totality of the work has body, literary development, and novelistic scope,’’ suggests critic Joseph Sommers. The novel’s fragmented parts coalesce, Sommers explains, to portray the life-cycle of a Mexican village, from its founding in colonial times to its deterioration in the present age. The Fair concludes with a fabulous display of fireworks set off by vandals, which, instead of providing harmless entertainment, kills several onlookers. ‘‘If this symbolism implies anguish and cynicism,’’ writes Sommers, ‘‘these qualities are mediated by the author’s understanding and sympathy for the complexity of human problems. Arreola’s sensitive use of language ... and his wry tone of bitter humor are the basis for the literary unity of this novel.’’

Although early reaction to The Fair was mostly negative, the novel’s publication did much to address a stereotype from the mid-fifties that labeled Arreola an overly cosmopolitan writer uninterested in Mexican themes. Over the years, however, the novel has achieved greater esteem.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Both Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell and Bestiaries use anthropomorphism to satire human beings. Read these texts and then write a short essay in which you explore the effect achieved by the use of anthropomorphism in each text. In your response, consider the following question: How would the text work differently if the authors chose to use humans, rather than animals, as their main characters? In other words, why use animals?

2. Arreola’s The Fair has been described as ‘‘chaotic.’’ Read the novel. Then, in a discussion with your peers, try to explain why the text is so chaotic in form. How does the form complement the content? What is Arreola trying to achieve with the chaotic style of the text?

3. It has been suggested that beauty is best captured in the outline—in suggestions of it, not in an attempt to display it fully. Arreola himself says as much in the short story ‘‘The Disciple.’’ Respond to this idea in a discussion with your peers. Consider these questions: What do you find beautiful? In what ways does this conception fit with Arreola’s? In what ways does it differ?

4. Give anthropomorphism a shot. Write a short story or a scene for a movie or play in which at least one of your characters is an animal or inanimate object that has human characteristics. Then, reflect upon this process. Why did you choose this animal or inanimate object? Why did you choose to give it the human characteristics you chose to give it?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Foster, David William and Virginia Ramos Foster, eds. Modern Latin American Literature. New York: Ungar, 1975.

Washburn, Yulan M. Juan Jose Arreola. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Periodicals

Cheever, Leonard A. ‘‘The Little Girl and the Cat: ‘Kafkaesque’ Elements in Arreola’s ‘The Switchman’.’’ American Hispanist (April 1979).

Gilgen, Read G. ‘‘Absurdist Techniques in the Short Stories of J. J. Arreola.”Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century (1980).

Heusinkveld, Paula R. ‘‘Juan Jose Arreola: Allegorist in an Age of Uncertainty.” Chasqui (May 1984).

Knapp, Bettina. “Arreola’s ‘The Switchman’: The Train and the Desert Experience Confluencia. ”Revista Hispanica de Cultura y Literatura (1987).

McMurray, George R. ‘‘Albert Camus’ Concept of the Absurd and Juan Jose Arreola’s ‘The Switchman’. ’’Latin American Literary Review (Winter 1977).

Menton, Seymour. ‘‘Juan Jose Arreola and the Twentieth Century Short Story. ’’ Hispania (1959).