In Association with

Choose another writer in this calendar:

by name:

by birthday from the calendar.

Credits and feedback

for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Juan Rulfo (1918-1986)


Mexican novelist and short story writer, one of Spanish America's most esteemed authors. Rulfo's reputation is based on two slim books, El llano en llamas (1953, The Burning Plain), a collection of short stories, which included his admired tale 'Tell Them, Not to Kill Me!', and the timeless novel Pedro Páramo (1955), one of the models for Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. After publishing the work, Rulfo fell silent as a novelist.
"But that's why they brought him from there, from Palo de Venado. They didn't need to tie him so he'd follow them. He walked alone, tied by his fear. They realized the couldn't run with his old body, with those skinny legs of his like dry bark, cramped up with the fear of dying. Because that's where he was headed. For death. They told him so." (from 'Tell Them Not to Kill Me!')

Juan Rulfo was born Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Pérez Vizcaíno Rulfo in Sayula, in the province of Jalisco, into a family of landowners. (According to one source, his birth year was 1917, not 1918.) His ancestors came to South America from the north of Spain around 1790. During Rulfo's childhood the region was a scene of political unrest, erosion and war, and it later provided the background and atmosphere of his fiction.

Rulfo experienced the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and cristero rebellion. It caused widespread destruction in the late 1920s. Rulfo's family suffered financial ruin. His father and two uncles were murdered in the troubles, and his mother died in 1927 of a heart attack. Rulfo was brought up by his grandmother in San Gabriel and sent to the San Gabriel orphanage.

After attending the Luis Silva school in Guadaljara from 1928 to 1932 and then seminary and secondary school, Rulfo moved to Mexico City, where he studied for a short time law at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Yet for all his efforts he could never overcome his feeling of depression and solitude. He acknowledged that it was his childhood memories that helped him employs magic realism as his narrative approach. Rulfo never stopped abusing alcohol as a way of handling his inner demons. ('Ecstasy and the Creative Experience' by Lilian Sutton, in Montreal 2010 - Facing Multiplicity: Psyche, Nature, Culture: Proceedings of the XVIIIth Congress of the International Association for Analytical Psychology, edited by Pramila Bennett, 2012,  p. 1639)

Forced to give up his studies, Rulfo worked for the next two decades as an immigration agent in Mexico City, Tampico, Guadalajara, and Veracruz. In 1947 he married Clara Aparicio, they had one daughter and three sons.

In 1944 Rulfo cofounded with Juan José Arreola and Antonio Alatorre of the literary review Pan. He worked for Goodrich-Euzkadi rubber company (1947-1954), and in 1955-56 he was a staff member of the publishing section of the Papaloapan Commission for land development. In the late 1950s he wrote screenplays in Mexico City and worked then in television in Guadalajara.

As a photographer Rulfo concentrated on nature, architecture and people; especially sixteenth-century churches and pre-Columbian buildings ad ruins fascinated him. His early black and white pictures in the 1930s were taken with a Leica, a high-quality German camera. Later he used Hasselblad and Rolleiflex 60x60 format cameras, also widely used by professionals. (A Companion to Juan Rulfo by Steven Boldy, 2016, p. 173) His first published series of photograps appeared in 1949 in the journal América.

From the early 1960s Rulfo was a staff member and later the director of the editorial department of National Institute for Indigenous Studies (the INI), where he edited anthropological and archaeological volumes on indigenous peoples. Curiously, there are not many Indigenous characters in Pedro Páramo. He once said that "despite heading the Departemento de Publicaciones of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, and having brought to press more than 88 studies of social anthropology, I still do not know how and why the Indigenous mind works". (A Latin American Existentialist Ethos: Modern Mexican Literature and Philosophy by Stephanie Merrim, pp. 114-115) The daily work took him away from writing fiction. In 1980 Rulfo was elected member of the Mexican Academy of Letters. His many  awards include the National Literature Prize in 1970 and Príncipe de Asturias Prize in 1983. Rulfo died in Mexico City on January 7, 1986. 

Rulfo began writing around 1940, but destroyed his first novel. At the age of 35 Rulfo published first collection of short stories, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain), which consisted of fifteen tales. It was issued in the series 'Letras Mexicanas' in editions between 2,000 and 4,000 copies. Rulfo was frustrated at its low sales.

Moreover, Pedro Páramo was poorly reviewed when it first appeared. It took four years to sell the first 1,000 copies. Gabriel García Márquez tells in his foreword to the Douglas J. Weatherford's English translation of the novel, that when he arrived in Mexico in 1961, he not only had not read Rulfo's books, but he hadn't even heard of the author.

Cruel view of human existence marked Rulfo's world – a girl is forced to prostitution, a cuckolded husband dies on a pilgrimage, people are crippled by their poverty. In 1953, while a Fellow of the Centro Mexicano Escritorers, Rulfo started to write the novel Pedro Páramo. Originally he intented to call it Los desiertos de la Tierra (The Deserts of the Earth). Rulfo did not talk much of his fiction. Writing, he maintained, was not his profession, but his hobby. Nicanor  Parra said in a poem that Rulfo "refused to write / Any more than was absolutely necessary". He was known to work on a novel entitled La cordillera, but he did not show the manuscript to anybody. Rulfo wrote several film scripts, of which Gallo de oro from 1964 is most famous.

The rebellion of the Cristeros (self-designated followers of Christ the King) had a strong impact on Rulfo's imagination, which can be seen in the title story of El llano en llamas, 'La noche que lo dejaron solo.' Autobiographical material, especially the killing of his father, shaped 'Tell Them Not to Kill Me!' In the story about a revenge an old man pleads to his own son, Justino, to intervene on his behalf. Another son, colonel, has come back and orders the damned man to be shot – years ago during a drought he had killed the colonel's father. "There he was, slumped down at the foot of the post. His son Justino had come and his son Justino had gone and had returned and now was coming again." The most famous story is perhaps 'Nos han dado la tierra' (They have given us the land), about four peasants, who walk through a dry, hard wasteland, where nothing grows. It is the land they were promised following the land reform.

When Rulfo finished Pedro Páramo its title was Los murmullos (The Murmurs). Because his publishing house had just published Los falsos rumores (The False Rumors) by Gastón García Cantú, the name was dropped. ('Rulfo, Juan 1918-86,' in  Concise Encyclopedia of Mexico, edited by Michael S. Werner, 2001, p. 686) The starting point of the story is the search for the father: "I came to Comala because I was told that my father, a certain Pedro Páramo, lived there." (Vine a Comala porque me dijeron que acá vivía mi padre, un tal Pedro Páramo. Mi madre me lo dijo. Y lo le prometi que vendría a verlo en cuanto ella muriera.) Rulfo blends black humor and modern experimental techniques with Mexican folklore. Noteworthy, the indigenous people are mentioned only in one passage. He once said: "I never use Indians because it's impossible for me to enter and be able to delve into the indigenous mentality."

Juan Preciado, the son of the main character, travels to his mother's birthplace, where he only hears voices of phantoms. Comala, a barred dustbowl, is so hot, that when its people die and arrive in Hell they have to come back to fetch a blanket. Doña Eduviges, Damiana who had lived in Páramo's house, Dorotea a mad woman who had procured women for Páramo's son, all these appear as living people to Preciado. Pedro loves Susanna, who dies and allows his land to fall into ruin: "From that moment, the earth remained fallow and as if in ruins. It was terrible to see it overrun with such infirmities and so many scourges which invaded it as soon as it was left alone. And all because of the ideas of Don Pedro, for the conflicts of his soul." But everybody is already dead, his father has also taken the town, Comala, with him to the grave. The reader realizes that Juan Preciado is another afterlife voice in this Mexican Spoon River Anthology. The story ends with Pedro Páramado's murder by one of his other sons. Pedro Páramo has influenced deeply Latin American literature. Gabriel García Márquez included a sentence from the book in One Hundred Years of Solitude; he claimed that he had learned the novel, literally, by heart. Rulfo's ghost town, populated by phantoms, partly inspired García Márquez's portrayal of his mythical town of Macondo.

Rulfo challenged the mainstream of Mexican narrative, its adherence to French naturalism. He mixed reality and fantasy, used short sentences, concentrated on behavior rather than states of consciousness, and avoided clearly judging characters he described. Rulfo's work also showed the influence of such Nordic writers as Knut Hamsun, Selma Lagerlöf, F.E. Sillanpää, and Halldor K. Laxness. Also Emily Brontë and William Faulkner left traces in Rulfo's fiction. Typical for Rulfo's stories were problematic father-son relationships, flashbacks of violence, upside-down chronology, haunting visions, and the burden of guilt and death. Dialogue is often treated as monologue. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said that Rulfo is "the only Mexican novelist to have provided us an image – rather than a mere description – of our physical surroundings."

For further reading: A Latin American Existentialist Ethos: Modern Mexican Literature and Philosophy by Stephanie Merrim (2023); Diego Rivera and Juan Rulfo: Post-revolutionary Body Politics 1922-1965 by Lucy O'Sullivan (2022); 'Juan Rulfo's World Literary Consciousness' by Nuala Finnegan, in Mexican Literature as World Literature, edited by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado (2022); 'Tales from Eternity: María Luisa Bombal, Alejo Carpentier, Juan Rulfo,' in In Search of the Sacred Book: Religion and the Contemporary Latin American Novel by Aníbal González (2018); Juan Rulfo: estudios sobre literatura, fotografía y cine by José Carlos González Boixo (2018); A Companion to Juan Rulfo by Steven Boldy (2016); Rethinking Juan Rulfo's Creative World: Prose, Photography, Film, edited by Dylan Brennan and Nuala Finnegan (2016); The Fiction of Juan Rulfo: Irony, Revolution and Postcolonialism by Amit Thakkar (2012); (Re)Collecting the Past: History and Collective Memory in Latin American Narrative, ed. Victoria Carpenter (2010); Juan Rulfo's Mexico by Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Margo Glantz and Jorge Alberto Lozoya (2002); 'Rulfo, Juan.' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven Serafin (1999); Ensayos sobre la obra de Juan Rulfo by Gustavo Fares (1998); Juan Rulfo by Gustavo C. Fares (1994); Los caminos de la creación en Juan Rulfo by Sergio López Mena (1993); Juan Rulfo by Silvia Lorente-Murphy (1988); El Texto En Llamas: El Arte Narrativo De Juan Rulfo by Terry J. Peavler (1988); Rulfo: dinámica de la violerncia by Magda Portal (1984); Juan Rulfo by Luis Leal (1983); Analisis Arquetipico, Mitico Y Simbologico De Pedro Paramo by Nicolas E. Alvarez (1983); Claves narrativas de Juan Rulfo by José Carlos Gonzáles Boixo (1980); 'Rulfo, Juan,' in World Authors 1970-1975, ed. by John Wakeman (1980); El lugar de Rulfo by Jorge Ruffinelli (1980); El Estilo De Juan Rulfo by Nila G. Marrone (1978) ; La narrativa de Juan Rulfo, ed. by Joseph Sommers (1974); Paradise and Fall in Rulfo's "Pedro Páramo" by George Ronald Freeman (1970); An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature by Jean Franco (1969); After the Storm by J. Sommers (1968); Into the Mainstream by L. Harss and B. Dohmann (1966); El arte de Juan Rulfo by Alcalá Rodríguez (1965)

Selected works:

  • El llano en llamas, 1953
    - The Burning Plain and Other Stories (translated by G.D. Schade, 1967) / The Plain in Flames (translated from the Spanish by Ilan Stavans with Harold Augenbraum, 2012)
    - Tasanko liekeissä (suom. Tarja Roinila, 1998; 2014)
  • Pedro Páramo, 1955
    - Pedro Páramo (translated by Lysander Kemp, 1959;  Margaret Sayers Peden; with a foreword by Susan Sontag, 1994; Douglas J. Weatherford, foreword by Gabriel García Márquez, 2023)
    - Pedro Páramo (suom. Tarja Roinila, 1991; 2014)
    - films: 1967, dir. by Carlos Velo, screenplay by Carlos Fuentes, starring John Gavin, Ignacio López Tarso, Pilar Pellicer; 1978, dir. by José Bolaños, starring Manuel Ojeda, Venetia Vianello, Bruno Rey, Narciso Busquets, Blanca Guerra; 2009, dir. by Mateo Gil
  • Tambien ellos tienen ilusiones, 1956 (documentary film; co-writer, dir. by Adolfo Garnica)
  • El Despojo, 1960 (short film; writer, dir. by Antonio Reynoso)
  • Paloma herida, 1963 (film; co-writer, dir. by Emilio Fernández)
  • Que esperen los viejos, 1976 (film; co-writer, dir. by José Bolaños)
  • Obra completa, 1977
  • Antología personal, 1978  
  • El gallo de oro y otros textos para cine, 1980 (edited by Jorge Ayala)
  • Inframundo, El México de Juan Rulfo, 1980
    - Inframundo: The Mexico of Juan Rulfo (edited by Frank Janney, 1984)
  • Pedro Páramo, 1981 (2nd edition; edited by José Carlos Gonzáles Boixo)
    - Pedro Páramo (suom. Tarja Roinila, 2014)
  • El llano en llamas, 1985 (14th edition; edited by Carlos Blanco Aguinaga)
    - Tasanko liekeissä (suom. Tarja Roinila, 2014)
  • Donde quedo nuestra historia: hipotesis sobre historia regional, 1986
  • Toda la obra, 1991 (edited by Claude Fell)
  • Los cuadernos de Juan Rulfo, 1994 (edited by Clara Aparacia de Rulfo)
  • Aire de las colinas: cartas a Clara, 2000
  • Voces y silencios, 2001
  • Letras e imágenes, 2002 (introduction by VÍctor Jiménez)
  • 100 photographs, 2010 (with Daniele de Luigi, Andrew Dempsey, Victor Jiménez)
  • El gallo de oro; La fórmula secreta: otros relatos, 2017 (introduction by Jose Carlos Gonzalez Boixo, Douglas Weatherford)
  • The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings, 2017 (translated from the Spanish, with an introduction and additional materials, by Douglas J. Weatherford)
  • Obra, 2018 (Spanish Edition; contains El Llano en llamas, Pedro Páramo, El gallo de oro)

In Association with

Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. 2008-2023.

Creative Commons License
Authors' Calendar jonka tekijä on Petri Liukkonen on lisensoitu Creative Commons Nimeä-Epäkaupallinen-Ei muutettuja teoksia 1.0 Suomi (Finland) lisenssillä.
May be used for non-commercial purposes. The author must be mentioned. The text may not be altered in any way (e.g. by translation). Click on the logo above for information.