Ben Winch's Reviews > The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings

The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings by Juan Rulfo
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bookshelves: latin-american, mexican

Well I’m disappointed but I’m not surprised: realistically, what else could there have been lurking in Rulfo’s oeuvre but a lacklustre first draft of a pulp novel and a few fragmentary stories? After all, the man’s a legend, and he’s been dead since 1986; were there any more thrilling discoveries to be made they would have been made by now.

That said, there’s a few worthwhile pieces here – maybe not vintage Rulfo, but displaying his requisite raw power nonetheless. “Ángel Pinzón Paused” (apparently a fragment of a projected novel, though it works fine as a story) is probably the best. The depiction, from various subtly gradated viewpoints, of an unabashed murderer whose father had died among sordid smalltown land-grab politics, it’s brutal and typically dexterous, with a stark semi-mythic denouement; and it – along with the first-person prostitute’s testimony “A Piece of the Night” (also a fragment), the murderer’s testimony “Cleotilde”, and the eternity-in-an-instant fantasy “He Was on the Run and Hurting” – convinces me that Rulfo is in the house here.

At first, it’s true, I’d worried that these stories lacked the crucial Rulfo style. If I’d read them not knowing who’d written them would I have guessed their author? Not immediately, and I would have fought the realisation because of how attached I am to Rulfo’s style. It’s that disjointed voice of the semi-inarticulate Rulfo protagonist I miss. In “A Piece of the Night”, for eg, though the psychology is believable, the prose is thin, stretched almost to breaking point, not as if to reveal Rulfo behind it (so far in my reading of Rulfo, Rulfo is never revealed) but to collapse into the prosaic. Yet the solution to this thinness would not be to fatten it with words, but to take words out, to excise entirely the parts that call attention to themselves, that don’t jibe with the voice. And at first, that lack of discipline disappoints me.

Then that night – BAM! – it takes hold of me: the dream-state, the Rulfo factor. I’d been lying drifting, sleeping poorly, when a flavour, a scent, rose from out the stories and almost ushered me into dreams. I woke, too thrilled I’d felt it to surrender to it. Somehow (and I’d felt this before, I realise, with a few unfinished Raymond Carver stories in the posthumous Call if You Need Me ) the very fact of their incompleteness – of their not having the sheen (a strange word for Rulfo, but let’s go with it) of Rulfo’s other stories – had let me intuit my own completeness. Or let’s say, normally Rulfo is so dense, so stubborn, so deep in the minds and mysteries of his protagonists, that though the dream-feeling is ever-present it’s also overwhelming.

Granted, these stories are weaker than his best. If they were in The Burning Plain he would have rendered them blacker – not a black that’s painted on but an empty black, a black seen through holes, through spaces. If The Burning Plain (as I suddenly see it) is like a series of woodcuts, with harsh, carved, sometimes chipped outlines around which black spaces coalesce, then these posthumous stories are simple preliminary sketches for the craftwork of digging and gouging that would make of them something raw and as-if-divine, like readymade/entire dreams which the reader views in waking life – like dreams pulled from dark into the light.

And yet, when have I, till now, ever dreamed of a Rulfo story? Just maybe, the best of the stories in The Golden Cockerel are dream-triggers, and triggers for multifarious interpretations that Rulfo himself did not have time to manufacture. That said, it may well be you need to be familiar with Rulfo to respond to the triggers, and given the presence of The Golden Cockerel itself – a kind of half-baked noir novel which had far less of an effect on me than the stories – this volume is certainly not the place to start with Rulfo. (As a side-note, how could Rulfo have written this novel after Pedro Paramo ? Is this quoted fact a biographical mistake, and he actually resurrected the thing from a piece of juvenilia secreted long before he wrote his major writings? Or was it a loss of nerve from a writer deeply skeptical, in his previous writings, of the Mexican Revolution and – who knows? – hounded by the victorious so-called revolutionaries into not repeating that “mistake”? Or was it simply a natural development – had Rulfo’s talent simply run its course?)

The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings, then, is a flawed collection of inspired fragments and an indifferent novel, probably invaluable for the Rulfo enthusiast but very unlikely to attract new fans. Also, Douglas J. Weatherford may well be a talented translator, but I don’t feel he was qualified to write the Introduction and the long Translator’s Note that together take up thirty pages of the book. Certainly I found nothing striking in either piece and I’m surprised that no-one with more compelling insights could be found to write about a subject so revered as Juan Rulfo.

(Oh, and by God this is poorly edited. I didn’t take note of the many copy and grammatical errors – I’m not a proofreader – but if anyone in the public or at Deep Vellum doubts me they should take a look about a third of the way down page 70, at an incoherent paragraph whose beginning seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. These things matter.)
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