The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings by Juan Rulfo tr. Douglas J. Weatherford (Deep Vellum, May 2017) Reviewed by Henry Zhang

The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings
by Juan Rulfo
tr. Douglas J. Weatherford
(Deep Vellum, May 2017)

Reviewed by Henry Zhang

To read the translator’s note for Juan Rulfo’s The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings is, in a sense, to witness border politics in action. The translator, Douglas J Weatherford, says: “A desire to capture both the universal and the regional qualities of The Golden Cockerel is at the heart of my decision to retain a modest selection of words and phrases in their original Spanish. A few of those are simply left untranslated and in regular type (e.g., pesos, tequila, cerveza, amigo), an indication that these are labels that are commonly known to English speakers in the US. Other expressions that are left untranslated are italicized to indicate their less common nature (e.g. mezcal, politico, rebozo). These are words and phrases that have a significant cultural component, are problematic in translation, or add a local flavor.” It is implied that everything else might be rendered in English without much violence.

But to see these three types of words—italicized, unitalicized but markedly Mexican, and, might we say, naturalized?—is to witness different stages in a process of cultural assimilation. Sensitivity to this process is to be expected of Weatherford, who served on a mission in Chihuahua’s Mormon Colonies, just 200 miles south of Texas. It also might explain why, in his commentary, he often sounds defensive: the forces of militant monolingualism, represented in the US by movements like “Official English,” have become louder than ever in recent years. Their goal: to ban Spanish from being spoken in the hallway and to shame transgressors—bilingual children, usually—into silence. So it is not with Weatherford—whose glossary of Spanish terms is a welcome addition to any reader unfamiliar with Spanish, and who, on the whole, has painstakingly rendered the book’s “regional qualities” into a dialect of English that feels faintly Southwestern—but with these forces which we might take issue. After all, writers like Cormac McCarthy have put entire paragraphs of Spanish into their novels, and appeals to McCarthy’s “virtuosity” are unconvincing, when you consider that a book like Pedro Paramo isn’t exactly lacking in virtuosity.

Juan Rulfo was born in 1917, during the latter part of the Mexican Revolution, and his childhood was probably not much worse than most children who had to live through that period. When he was six years old his father was killed in an dispute of unknown origin, and his mother died four years later. Rulfo was sent to live with his grandmother, and then to boarding school. Student strikes and financial difficulties made it all but impossible him to finish college, though he did audit some classes at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, which is also where he began to write short stories. In his twenties he worked as an immigration official, a foreman, and a traveling representative, the latter two under payroll of Goodrich-Euzkadi—“You know what, Chachinita,” he wrote, in a letter to his girlfriend, “I’ve thought about washing my hands of Goodrich…[But] It’s as if they have me shackled to my relatives…And now I understand why I never liked asking for favors, and it’s because I don’t like accepting them.” Nonetheless a grant from the a grant from the Mexican Writers’ Center did allow him to quit, and finish his first work of fiction, The Plain in Flames. A second grant helped make Pedro Páramo possible.

This is the novel for which he is rightly known, the story of the don whose stratospheric rise to power is built on acts of enormity—stealing cattle-grazing land, seducing a creditor’s daughter, not lifting a finger to stop his son from terrorizing the town, and later bribing the priest, whose niece the son has raped, to keep quiet, and so on, acts which doom not only the don but the entire town. The narrator, Juan Preciado, is one of Pedro’s sons—he has made the journey to the town of Comala, to exact an obscure revenge on behalf of his mother—yet within a few pages, Juan seems to be dissolved, from within, by a chorus of ghostly voices and memories. The rest of the novel is more modernist than magical realist, with plenty of unattributed dialogue, sudden shifts of tense, nested timelines, and schizoid breaks. Like the best modernist novels, it’s also got a realist alibi—though purgatory is evoked often, both in the story’s present and by some critics, the haunted voices could be explained as a kind of mass hysteria. There are no beautiful women drifting inexplicably into the air, still holding onto their bedsheets, or men with wings washing up onto the shores of a provincial seaside town. Perhaps this explains something of the neglect Pedro Páramo suffered for so long at the hands of English-speaking critics, before the Latin American boomers canonized it, ex post facto. It does not totally belong either to Marquez’s generation, which it influenced, nor to the Anglo-European writing—Faulkner and Hamsun, to name two names—that influenced it. And this is to speak nothing of the Mexico that seems to have fertilized and watered its soil. Too close for comfort, perhaps, and not far away to be exotic: border politics.

What few people know is that Rulfo wrote not one, but two long pieces of fiction in his lifetime. His second, published in 1956, is titled The Golden Cockerel (El gallo de oro), a book, Weatherford says, that has “routinely and unjustly been marginalized from the Mexican author’s literary canon,” explaining that the “primary cause of the novel’s marginalization was its misidentification as a film text when in 1980, nearly a quarter century after it was written and sixteen years after having first been adapted to the big screen, it was released as The Golden Cockerel and Other Texts for the Cinema.” While we might argue with Weatherford about what constitutes a novel—at a mere 70 pages, The Golden Cockerel is shorter than William Gass’s exemplary novella, “The Pederson Kid”—his basic assertion that it deserves to be treated as a serious work of fiction is certainly inarguable. True, the third-person narration in The Golden Cockerel, especially towards the end, can sometimes feel a bit like camera directions. Take this sequence, 20 pages before the end: “ Dionisio Pinzón, without getting worked up, shuffled and re-shuffled…Time let its years pass by. In the same mansion of Santa Gertrudis and in the exact same spot, Dionisio Pinzón, as if he hadn’t changed his posture from so many years earlier, continued shuffling.” Indeed, almost every new section is headed by a simple, declarative sentence, easing the reader into the scene, which rarely flouts the authority of these headers that might as well be in bold. Compare this to one of the finest sentences from Pedro Paramo, and probably one of the most uncanny utterances in literature: “I took note that her voice had human overtones, that her mouth was filled with teeth and a tongue that worked as she spoke, and that her eyes were the eyes of people who inhabit the earth.” It’s the protagonist, Juan Precadio, who thinks this, in Margaret Sayers Peden’s fine translation, yet the reader understands instantly that this woman is certainly not just any old inhabitant of the earth—why draw such attention to obviously human traits unless you are struck with sudden terror that what you are seeing is not human at all? The answer, of course, is Faulknerian. Our strongest emotions are often structured in the form of disavowals: One doesn’t hate the south!

The Golden Cockerel does not give quite this kind of performance—yet it has plenty of its own literariness. The story’s protagonist, Dionisio Pinzón, would be a strong and able-bodied man, if not for the the fact that he has had “one of his arms disfigured, who knows just how. What’s certain is that this made it impossible for him to complete some tasks, whether as a laborer or as a farmhand.” To earn a living, he goes around a from street to street shouting out people’s runaway animals, advertisements for products. His professional title: town crier, or pregonero. It is useful to think of Dionisio as crying out the names of things which he ought never to own, just as later on, he will later go on to make his fortune betting money that shouldn’t have been his in the first place. One of Dionisio’s gigs is announcing local cockfights, and when at the end one of these fights the loser, a golden rooster, its wing broken, is about to be put down, he convinces the owner to give the bird to him. He takes it home and in a kind of mock resurrection, buries it up to the head in mud, puts a crate over it, and beats on it for hours. When he lifts the crate, the bird is healed. It will make his fortune—not because it will never be defeated, but because it brings out Dionisio’s will to believe, that a cast of the die, a shouted number, has the power to transform, with a clap of thunder, his very being. Rulfo’s point here is that gambling and religion derive from the same deep well, and that the fall from real belief into idolatry—for the gold in golden cockerel is certainly fool’s gold—is easy as losing poker because you don’t quit while you’re. Dionisio never quite learns this. As cockfighter, he eventually turns to underhanded tricks to ensure victories, working with other professional cheats, but his all-consuming faith is transferred onto a woman named La Caponera, a singer of corridos. His love for her turns into covetousness, and, as he did with the cockerel, he cages her in—denies her the lifestyle she truly wants, which is to travel from town to town, singing her corridos. He comes to see her, not as a companion, but as a “lucky charm.” Dionisio’s dazzling ascent and eventual fall might be called a tour of the Mexican Dream. When the divine creditor comes to pay a call, we get the sense that after all of it, he feels remorseful. This remorse humanizes him, compared to the mythic don at the center of Pedro Páramo, unrepentant to the end.

There is plenty besides that to distinguish The Golden Cockerel. In La Caponera, and later, her daughter, we are given a kind of corrective to Dionisio’s centripetal tendencies, women who drag him, along with the reader, out of the house and onto the circuit of cockfights and corridos in the Mexican countryside. Here, the book gives away its folk sympathies, for the circuit is governed by metonymy: most fighting cocks are represented by their owners’ hometowns—Nochistlán, Tesquisquiapan, Dionisio’s own San Miguel del Milagro, and so on. The corridos, too, are ballads of oppression, history, and the “romance of everyday life,” and serve as miniatures, stilted but affecting, for the rural lifestyle that Dionisio wants to escape: “Beautiful peacock my messenger be / as you travel along distant roads,/ if someone happens to ask about me, / beautiful peacock tell ‘em I cry.” True, mother and daughter’s freedom is highly conditional—even without a man like Dionisio to trap them, it depends on their being young and beautiful. There is something undeniably abject about these women who must sing to eat to get the strength to sing and eat again, yet it is an abjectness that has managed to break free of the event horizon that Comala becomes, of the mansion that Dionisio eventually builds. Though corridos and cockfights are long things of the past, the book’s finale—corrido and a cockfight—seem to burnish themselves in our memory.

The “other writings” in this collection are a bit miscellaneous—some are taken from Rulfo’s notebooks, whose posthumous release by the author’s wife was greeted with controversy; some were published while Rulfo was alive but not included in The Plain in Flames. “Their frequent isolation,” says Weatherford, “makes them perfect additions to this collection dedicated to making a wider selection of [his work] available to an English-speaking audience.” “The Secret Formula” is a poem with proletarian overtones—“la fórmula secreta” refers to all the North American mega corporations and the bleak human toll behind the their folksy pretensions. “Life Doesn’t Take itself Seriously” is a Kafkaesque short story about a woman whose world seems populated only with males named Crispin—her dead husband, her prematurely dead son, and the baby is now raising alone. “A Piece of the Night” is a wonderful evocation of urban Mexico, in which a broke, wisecracking gravedigger talks a sex worker into going to a hotel, even though he’s got a baby in his arms. His manic temporizations contrast sharply with her irritable dismissals—she fears reprisal from her pimp, a man named the Quiebranueces, which means “the nut cracker.” “Castillo De Teayo” is a fragment Rulfo wrote about the pre-Columbian ruins which dot Mexico, juxtaposed with photos he took of the actual site. The photos were published, the story was not, but Weatherford’s clever decision to include them both creates a kind of faux travelogue which seems to anticipate Sebald’s work.

Perhaps the most surprising addition that stands up to rereading is “A Letter to Clara,” which Rulfo wrote to his fiancé, Clara Aparicio Reyes, a year before they were married. It gives us a glimpse both of his hatred for factory life—“in this strange world men are machines and machines are considered men,” he writes—and his sparkling ability for flirtation: “I made more copies of each of the three photos I’m sending you, but I’m not giving you more than one of each out of fear that you might go crazy handing them out to all of those boyfriends you have…On the other hand, I can’t imagine how such a tiny little wisp of a girl can USE SUCH HUGE LETTERS when writing a letter. That’s quite a trick.” The remaining pieces are fragmented but unmistakably Rulfan—each deals, in some way, with pity and penitence, how the latter often manifest themselves too much—“Don’t make others weep,” says the narrator of one, who is a corpse rotting in a casket. “It’s a rebuke that endures and that weighs on those who have died.” The only piece that seems redundant is “Synopsis of The Golden Cockerel,” which Rulfo wrote as a kind of pitch for a movie, eventually released in 1964, that will be remembered as the one whose screenplay not only he, but Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes worked on. The synopsis, however, is merely the story boiled down into a kind of Wikipedia summary, with spoilers.

It is best to think of The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings as a collection of neglected gems and quirky B-sides, released partly as an effort to reintroduce, not Rulfo’s writings, but Rulfo’s life, to an international audience on the centenary of his birth. The texts, we are told, were “chosen in close consultation with [the] director of the Fundación Juan Rulfo, and members of the Rulfo family.” Weatherford, for his part, comes across as a translator who has found himself in the unenviable but necessary position of cultural ambassador. His anxiety about what Spanish words, as it were, make it across, speaks not only of the hope that monolingual audiences will learn something of Rulfo’s art, but also of a deep concern for people who hail from Rulfo’s home, who do not need a glossary, who have always understood the words in the italics. Translation, we are told, makes the foreign familiar. Yet these are words that have been here, American, all along.


Henry Zhang is a graduate student at Beijing Normal University. He is an interpreter for the University's Writing Center and translates Chinese poetry in his spare time.