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The Lonely Voice: 'Luvina' By Juan Rulfo

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Juan Rulfo
Juan Rulfo

In literature, we often encounter the characters who live their days steeped in nostalgia, the Willy Loman types who harken back to the glory days when everything was cast in the golden light of hope and potential.

In “Luvina,” by Juan Rulfo, however, we find a character who is convinced that the past is cast only in darkness — because it was spent in Luvina, a town that he claims was inhospitable, unlivable, even phantasmagorical in its dark silences and lack of vivacity or color.

The man had been a teacher in Luvina — had arrived there with his wife and children in the dark of an endless night that portended the awful years he would spend there. When our story opens, the old teacher is sitting in a bar, one town over from Luvina. He drinks beer and tells his tale of woe as a cautionary tale to the younger man who will be the new teacher in the town. With that man, we listen to the teacher’s story, watch as he downs his beers, shushes the children playing around him. If those were the bad old days, how can sitting in this bar getting drunker by the minute, impatient with the sound of children, be any better?

Peter Orner

Juan Rulfo has said that the story “Luvina” was a sort of gateway to his acclaimed novel Pedro Paramo, calling his other stories mere “exercises.” That would be difficult for many of us who admire all of Rulfo’s stories to accept. What is sure is that Rulfo achieves incredible moments in the short stories where, as Susan Sontag wrote, “the elaboration of a single event or the introspection of a single character allows him to illuminate the meaning, often the utter despair, of a man’s life.”

Rulfo had many gifts and talents as a writer. He was able to give us the most memorable characters in the most essential and spare terms. Sontag writes, they were, “like the landscape, frequently clouded over and hazy,” or “blurred and imprecise, and taciturn figures.” What does come forth, she says, “clear and ubiquitous” is “death — overpowering life.”

Alberto Reyes Morgan
Alberto Reyes Morgan

We see again and again in these stories a landscape that is bleak and harsh. Life seems paralyzed, and even the introspection of the characters comes through in fits and starts that leave us only clues about characters whose lives remain richly mysterious to us. These are ostensibly simple people whose interior lives are as complicated as any we will ever encounter in literature.

That may well be what is before us in this story — an old teacher bemoaning the years he lost in a place that only by his own accounting here — wasn’t worth living in. But what do we make of the fact that he remained there for 15 years, and that it is only now as he sits reaching across the table to take the beer of his listener that he allows the bleak elements of this present situation color the time he spent in "Luvina."

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.