The Burning Plain is, on the face of it, a collection of short stories. As with Babel’s Red Cavalry [which was perhaps an influence on the work], however, it feels more like a novel wherein each chapter is concerned with a different character and situation; there is a very clear thread linking each story, which is the plains of the title. The setting of the stories is a constant, and this consistency of place reminded me of Ivo Andric’s great novel The Bridge on the Drina. I’ve heard people complain about short stories, saying that it is frustrating to have to accustom yourself to new characters, new themes, new settings, every couple of pages, and Rulfo’s work pretty much negates those concerns; while there is no crossover of characters one feels with each new story almost as though one has merely moved a couple of doors down, not moved into another world completely. Rulfo’s stories have a unified vision; they are trying to tell you something about what life was like for the people who lived in rural Mexico, not about the lives of disparate people with a host of different backgrounds, ideas, and approaches to the world.
It is probably fair to warn you that this unified vision is that life on the plains is near-unparalleled misery. This is perhaps the most grim collection I have ever read. Nearly every story features despair, desperation, death, murder, and extreme poverty. Three stories stood out for me, and by giving a brief description of each of them you’ll get some idea of what you’re getting yourself into if you read the book. In the first, a bunch of plainsmen wander, almost deliriously, around the desolate plains, grumbling, mumbling and gabbling to themselves about their situation. They’ve been given this land, and yet the land is worthless; nothing grows there, there is no rain, no life, no hope. I was reminded of King Lear but most strongly of Beckett and his physically and mentally oppressed characters who we always meet already knee-deep in some absurd situation from which they cannot escape, like being unable to get out of bed, or off the floor, or being buried up to the neck.
The second story I want to mention also reminded me of Beckett; it features a man, a father, carrying his dying son on his back. He is attempting to get him to a place where he can receive medical treatment. The absurdity of this situation is that he can’t put the boy down, for if he did he wouldn’t have the strength to raise him back up to his previous position. The heart of this darkly humorous tale, the bit that jabs at your funny bone and your heart simultaneously, is that the father no longer likes his son, who is a murderer and a robber. So, there you have it: an old man dragging his exhausted body on, while carrying his violent but dying son on his back, as, as he tells it, his last act of fatherly affection and responsibility. I mean, fucking hell.
The third story is the one that touched me most personally, for reasons I’m not really going to get into but which relates to the intense affinity I feel for women and particularly those who find themselves in, what we’ll call, a bad situation. Here we have a young girl, whose father had given her a cow. The plains flood and the girl’s brother and father suspect that the cow might have been washed away. That would be sad enough, y’know, a girl and her cow and all that, especially if Michael Jackson’s Ben makes you sob, but the real heartbreaking aspect of this situation is that her family predict that without the cow, without the small amount of money it would bring in, the girl will turn to prostitution in order to make a living, like her sisters did. Goddamn. Rulfo concludes this story:
“She’s right here at my side, in her pink dress, looking at the river from the top of the ravine, unable to stop crying. Streams of dirty water run down her face as though the river were inside her[…]Her two little breasts bob up and down, continually, as if they had suddenly begun to swell, bringing her ever closer to perdition.”
And that little quote is a neat way of showcasing his skill, not just with situations and plots, but his talent as a prose-writer. Rulfo was a very fine stylist, an excellent writer of prose. I wrote earlier about how this collection reminds me of Isaac Babel [it reminds me too, very strongly, of Cormac McCarthy], and it was Babel’s ability to impress me with his prose and stab at my heart with his anecdotes that makes Red Cavalry one of the greatest short story collections. The Burning Plain is another. We’re talking the best of the best here, folks.
SOME EXTRA WAFFLE AND BULLSHIT
The book titled The Burning Plain is no longer in print. It has been replaced by a new title and a new translation. Indeed, I chose to read the book again primarily because a couple of weeks ago I just happened to come across this more recent translation and I wanted to suck it and see. Well, I sucked and it, er, tasted both good and bad. It’s strange because generally speaking I thought the prose was better, and yet there are occasional phrases or sentences that are incredibly clumsy [I remember one that contained a had had had!!]. Having read the introduction the translators prided themselves on their work being more accurate than the previous, as they always do, so perhaps the clumsiness is to be found in Rulfo too. Who knows.
I find the vagaries of translation incredibly frustrating, and it’s something I try not to think about too much as I’d probably lose my fucking mind. Some time ago I bought a collection of Akutagawa’s stories called Rashomon and 17 Other Stories, primarily because of the cover:
I knew it was translated by Jay Rubin, whose translations I can’t bear, but I figured the cover meant it was worth giving him another go. Anyway, a couple of stories in and I couldn’t take it any longer,and so I threw it down and have not picked it back up since. Recently I decided I wanted to read some more Akutagawa, so I started scouting for different translations. As I did so I came across this comparison, which is two different takes on the same line from one of Akutagawa’s stories:
De Wolf: …the presence in that same pillow of a centaur quite escaped his notice.
JAY RUBIN has it: That even such a pillow might hold a god half-horse, he remained unaware.
And, well, I dunno. What can you say about that? I mean, God Half Horse? Thing is, I’m sure Rubin would say that in the text the Japanese word used by Akutagawa isn’t equivalent to centaur, but, for me, it is the translators job to make sure that your English makes sense, while retaining the essence of the original. I have never felt as though Rubin does this; it’s almost as though he always deliberately chooses the naffest, most banal word or expression available to him. So what if the word in Japanese isn’t directly translatable as centaur, the point is that he should have enough of a feel for English and respect for his source material to make more successful decisions regarding word choices etc, i.e. that even if god half horse [fml] is more accurate you ought to be aware of how horrendous that sounds in English and work harder to come up with something else. And, yeah, you might say: cut him some slack, perhaps Akutagawa couldn’t string a coherent sentence together either [I’ve chosen not to mention, so far, how that line I quoted doesn’t even make sense, the word order being almost impossibly ugly and confusing]. And, uh, yeah maybe, but in that case it’s some coincidence that Rubin seems to gravitate towards writers that couldn’t, like, write.
In any case, in terms of the collection, and translation, under review here the missteps, boom moments, etc are never so glaring and for that we should be thankful. In the main the new translation is readable, smooth, and maintains a Latin American atmosphere [which isn’t easy when one is dealing with something that is meant to represent the speech of uneducated working class people, and where occasional slang is necessary]. The biggest misstep for me is the title, The Plain in Flames, which, yes, more closely resembles the original El Llano en llamas, but, in English, is clunky and less poetic.
Finally, this edition [the one I read over the weekend] reintroduces 2 stories cut from The Burning Plain. There are 17 in total.