I would like to be even more silent. The need to write thankfully only comes once in a while, and when it does I do my best to keep it short. The upshot of many books on writing seems to be: Write, write a lot. When you are done writing a lot, write some more. I wonder if this is always the best route to the creation of something enduring. Am I alone? Or do you find yourself longing to escape from a daily tsunami of words? What if people wrote less and paid attention more? For months, I’ve been promising a new Lonely Voice about not writing. I got so good at it I never finished the column.
I am now about to undo all that progress.
My plan was to support my idea of not writing (so much) with a brief homage to Juan Rulfo. Rulfo wrote two books, a story collection called The Burning Plain (1953) and a novel, Pedro Páramo (1955). Mexico, and readers around the world waited for another book, a novel allegedly called, La Cordillera. People waited, and they waited. Rulfo died in 1986. No new work has ever appeared. The story of Rulfo is not the book he didn’t write – but rather the essential books he did. And when he was done, he was done.
When asked once why he stopped writing, Rulfo told an interviewer that most of his stories came from a favorite uncle. What happened, Rulfo explained, was that this beloved uncle died. Has anybody ever given a better answer?
In her introduction to the Grove edition of Pedro Páramo, Susan Sontag wrote:
Everyone asked Rulfo why he did not publish another book, as if the point of a writer’s life is to go on writing and publishing. In fact, the point of a writer’s life is to produce a great book – that is, a book which will last – and this is what Rulfo did. No book is worth reading once if it is not worth reading many times.
My un-written column was going to make a small but important correction to Sontag’s otherwise beautiful argument. Rulfo wrote two lasting books. I know of no novel that approaches the nearly overwhelming – call it orchestral – multi-voiced and sorrowful intensity of Pedro Páramo. All in 124 pages.
But I also return to The Burning Plain again and again. Though the brief stories have a far less web-like structure, you can find the seeds of the novel in the earlier stories. Yet I return, again and again, to Rulfo’s first book to re-experience something even more basic: how to listen.
I intended to focus on a story called “Luvina.” Two men, a drunk and a traveler, are in a bar in a small, unnamed town. Outside children are playing by the river. The drunk, in exchange for drinks, is telling the listener about the town where the listener is headed – a place called Luvina, a town where the wind blows so hard it “takes the roofs off houses as if they were hats” and the rain only falls for a few days a year and some years never falls at all. Luvina, a desperate place – dry as old leather, too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer – where the only hopeful thing is the inevitable peace of death itself. The drunk talks on – and on. It emerges that he’s a former schoolteacher who himself once went to Luvina with high hopes.
“In those days I was strong. I was full of ideas – you know how we’re all full of ideas. And one goes with the idea of making something of them everywhere. But it didn’t work out in Luvina. I made the experiment and it failed – ”
I thought about how the listener remains silent. Throughout the story he doesn’t say a single word in response to what the drunk is telling him. We never learn what he thinks about his own journey to Luvina. Is he afraid? Or does he believe his youth – for some reason I read the listener as young – will be stronger than the drunk’s? Does he think Luvina won’t defeat him as it did the teacher?
At one point, the drunk pauses and is quiet. The narrator, a voice hovering above the story breaks in at that moment to tell us what has been going in the bar as the drunk has been talking:
The flying ants entered and collided with the oil lamp, falling to the ground with scorched wings. And outside night kept on advancing.
I began to consider: what could I possibly say about “Luvina” that isn’t encompassed in this single line? And outside night kept on advancing. Doesn’t it? For us all? Always?
In the end, I took the listener’s cue and decided that the only honest way to pay tribute to this story – and to Rulfo – would be to keep my thoughts to myself. Maybe this is as it should be when it comes to that most intimate of relationships, the one between a writer and a reader. It need not be explained. It need not be trumpeted. I stopped promising to finish this column.
Today I am sitting at a picnic table in Butano State Park, not far from Pescadero, California. A family of what I take to be Russians are sitting a few feet away from me, and I’ve enjoyed listening to them bellow at each other for the past couple of hours. At first I thought they were having a heated argument and that soon they would start murdering each other with their plastic picnic cutlery (and in fact, at one point, one them did reach over the table and bop another one on the head with what looked like a large piece of ham) but it’s become clear that this is just the way this particular family converses over lunch. There are only five of them, what seems to be a mother and father, around 70 or so, and possibly their three adult children, two men and one woman, all in their late 30’s, early 40’s. Only five of them but they make the noise of twenty marauding Cossacks. They are all biggish people, yet it is their voices that are truly gargantuan – they yowl, they laugh, they bang on the table. My monolinguality shames me again. God damn, in another life, I will learn Russian if it kills me. I’ll read Chekhov and Babel, I’ll eavesdrop on an entire country’s most intimate conversations. I’ve come to this place for the peace of the Redwoods (and something called a fern canyon) and instead I’ve become mesmerized by the raucous. Screw the trees; it’s these crazy, wonderful people I will never understand. I’ve come for them. And for some reason I’m reminded of the column I’ve been not writing. What does Juan Rulfo, master of silence, have to do with the Dostoyevskian lunch booming at the next table? Not much, of course, at least on the surface, but sitting here the thought just lurched into my mind that Rulfo might enjoy this also. Am I alone? Or do you too sometimes commune with dead writers as with dead friends? It may be that I have this moment conjured Rulfo out of guilt because of what I had long promised and failed to deliver. Whatever it is, he’s here (a gleaming white shirt, a camera slung over his shoulder) and I think of his stories and how they are so often revolve around characters telling each other stories. And if I had to guess what my friends at the next table are talking about, I’d say they are telling each other stories, stories each of them has probably heard countless times already.
And so: not just telling, repeating. Rulfo’s work is at its core about people who do their best to unburden themselves of the stories they never stop telling. It’s for this reason above all, I think, that Juan Rulfo is here with me at this out this obscure state park, at this dinky picnic area, listening to a language that I assume he can’t understand either.
I also believe – and so does the ghost of Juan Rulfo – that the stories our Slavic friends are telling each other, in their own inimitable way, have something to do with what happened to the hopes and dreams they all had when they were younger. Lately, I’ve begun to feel the faith I used to have in myself slowly slipping away. At what point in our lives do we fall so in love with our own failures that we can’t stop talking about them?
So “Luvina,” with apologies to Juan Rulfo for not being able to maintain the quiet reverence he and his work deserve. As I think of the story now (I don’t have the book with me), I recall the simple structure I recounted above in my notes for an aborted column. A local, a drunk is talking to a stranger. You want to know how it is Luvina? I’ll tell you how it is in Luvina…And yet, as I remember the story, what I remember most are the bats that aren’t really bats. There is something different, isn’t there, about remembering certain stories as opposed to actually re-reading them. “Luvina” has become a part of the chaos of my own memories.
And a story by a writer who never wasted a single word becomes even less like literature and more like it happened to me personally. I’m the guy in the bar who thinks I’m finally going to turn my life around in a place called Luvina. And I’m listening to the drunk tell me about his own first day in that town.
The drunk – then a young teacher – sends his wife to look for some food. The wife goes off. She leaves the teacher and their kids in the town square and, if I remember correctly, is gone for hours. Finally, the teacher goes searching for the missing wife who he finds kneeling and praying in an empty church. When the teacher asks what took her so long, the wife answers that she hasn’t finished praying. Because she, unlike the teacher, has realized where they’ve ended up, this literal, and metaphoric, dead-end, Luvina. That night the family sleeps huddled together in the freezing church. Just before dawn, the teacher wakes up to a strange sound. At first he thinks it is the beating of bat wings. In his groggy half-sleep, the teacher goes to the door of the church and sees a group of old women in black dresses moving slowly by, empty jugs on their shoulders. He asks them what they are doing this time of night. One of these women – who may or may not be ghosts – tells him that they are going for water.
Rulfo doesn’t need to tell us that it is the fabric of the women’s dresses that creates the bat-like noise. These old women are a kind of parade of the living dead. Remembering the scene makes me think of my own streets, of all the streets I’ve lived on, of all the people who used to walk up and down them who are gone now, including me.
In spite of all the omens, the teacher will stick it out in Luvina. He’ll try and make a go of it. Eventually, years later, he’ll flee. But for better or for worse, the place will become his story, the one he will tell and re-tell to anyone – you? – who will listen (and buy him a mescal, or five or six), the one about that time when he was young and full of expectations.
Chekhov once wrote, “The Russian loves recalling life, but he does not love living.”
This might be true of us all. Our failures are our stories. I’ve failed here too. (I’ve gone on too long in a column about not writing.) Sometimes we can’t help ourselves, we got to tell them. I say tell them good, tell them sparingly, but tell them. And when the telling is done, like my California Russians who have now retreated, utterly spent, to sagging lawn chairs, like Rulfo’s drunk who rests his worn out head on the bar, it will be time to sleep.
A rare recording of Juan Rulfo reading “Luvina” in Spanish:
Brazeros Colectivo Escénico will perform a rendition of four short stories by Juan Rulfo during Litquake tonight at the Consulate General of Mexico in San Francisco. Click here for more details.