Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Oct 2nd, 2020, 3:29 pm

TITLE: The Plain in Flames
AUTHOR: Juan Rulfo
GENRE: Literary Fiction / South American Literature / Magical Realism
RATING: ★★★★☆


Description: The Plain in Flames: First translated into English in 1967 as The Burning Plain, these starkly realistic stories create a psychologically acute portrait of poverty and dignity in the countryside at a time when Mexico was undergoing rapid industrialization following the upheavals of the Revolution. According to Ilan Stavans, the stories' "depth seems almost inexhaustible: with a few strokes, Rulfo creates a complex human landscape defined by desolation. These stories are lessons in morality…. They are also astonishing examples of artistic distillation."

Review: Juan Rulfo was born in 1918 in the state of Jalisco. He lost his parents when he was young (his father passed away when Rulfo was only 8 years old and his mother, a year later). In addition, the violence also took away other male members of his family. These losses will be significant within the work of the Mexican author - although the author takes, as a reference, real facts, such as the loss of his parents or the Cristero war, that make this book interesting; it is that written as a creative response to history.

The Plain in Flames is a set of 17 rural-themed stories. The characters are humble peasants, the anecdotes, facts of daily life, the language seems completely simple. To understand the reactions of the characters that can seem so surreal and consider the reason for their vision of the events, we must acknowledge death as another character that is part of their daily life. The author is capable of depicting the crudest acts of violence in a peaceful and calm way. You have to read it to believe it but his mastery doing this is truly great.

One aspect I would like to highlight is the contrast of violence versus calm. The vision that the author captures of certain violent acts in his work is striking. A frequent contrast in which he goes from an astonishing tranquillity to the crudest violence or vice versa. One of the clearest cases of this abrupt calm that follows an act of extreme violence is in the story "The Man" in which the murderer, after killing a family (except the father) with machetes, compares the noise of the pouring blood with snoring:
“Bubbles of blood leaped in his head. “I thought the first one would wake up the other ones with his death rattle; that’s why I hurried.” “Sorry for the hurry,” he told them. And then he felt like the gurgling noise was like the snoring of people sleeping; that’s why he became so calm when he went outside to the night, to the cold of that cloudy night.”

This dichotomy (calm/violence) occurs not only between the characters. Nature also plays an important role in the stories. In other cases, the obvious violence of the landscape is frequent. A clear example is the title story of this book, The Plain in Flames.

Another recurrent theme is violence within dysfunctional families since the characters that present some type of dysfunctionality in their family nucleus usually end up succumbing to the use of violence or suffering it. Those that may shock the reader the most could be the parallelism between two stories, "You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking" and "The Legacy of Matilde Arcángel". Both stories present broken family structures in which the protagonists are parents, who dramatically remember their wives and motherless children whose mother’s death has been indirectly produced by the children. The level of anger exhibited by both parents is quite brutal. I won’t give too much detail but let’s say that in the first tale his rage goes beyond death although this is more of a psychological type of violence and in "The Legacy of Matilde Arcángel" we go from psychological to mostly physical violence, and it is yet outstanding the way the author has to describe such wild acts as if it was a regular day.

Furthermore, hunger is also an important factor that generates the appearance of violence. The ability of the author to transmit to the reader that desperation to find the food that appeases that feeling of anxiety is remarkable:
“So she already knows how hungry I am from dawn to dusk. And as long as I find things to eat in this house, I’ll stay here. Because I think the day I stop eating I’m going to die, and then I will surely go straight to Hell.”

It is a compendium of universal problems that generate violence shaped into tales that are written in the most simple but powerful language. There is a complexity that the reader will face by going beyond the perspective of the characters and interpreting the stories as a whole. In addition, aspects of the Mexican people should be considered as not very communicative characters (the pain is hidden even from oneself) or the vocabulary that acquires a concrete meaning.

Honestly, I am not immediately attracted to books that depict sorrow, violence, poverty, and madness but these tales made an impact the first, second, and following times I read them. You will see how crazy simple life can be and most of all how the author makes you feel calm while wearing the shoes of a mad man. Rulfo manages not only to reflect a deep side of the Mexican culture but also to make you reflect upon other relevant universal themes that affect us nowadays as a collective society.
Oct 2nd, 2020, 3:29 pm