Douglas Weatherford, translator of the first English-language version of Juan Rulfo’s second novel The Golden Cockerel, knows that Rulfo isn’t a household name. And Weatherford thinks that’s a tragedy.
“It’s important for English speaking readers, especially in the U.S., to discover Juan Rulfo. For some unfortunate reason he never reached the same acclaim as Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, or Carlos Fuentes. But he’s as important as those figures in the Spanish-speaking world. Rulfo deserves to be read and discovered and take his rightful place as one of the best American writers.”
For Weatherford and Rulfo’s other devotees, the power of Rulfo’s work goes beyond his native Mexico and has the power to explain the larger American experience from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
Set in the rural towns and countryside of central Mexico, Cockerel tells the story of Dionisio Pinzón, a man who nurses a wounded rooster back to life and then wins a fortune in cockfighting. After Dionisio meets La Caponera, a tough-as-nails singer, his fortunes rise even higher and fall even further. This translation also includes several short stories and fragments that provide the reader an even more extensive tour of Rulfo’s Mexico.
Rulfo, who died in Mexico City in 1986, is best known for a collection of short stories, The Plain in Flames, and his landmark first novel, Pedro Paramo, which had a seismic influence on writers across the Americas. Even if the average reader hasn’t heard of Rulfo, they’ve definitely heard of the writers he inspired.
“Soon after he arrived in Mexico City, a friend gave García Márquez a copy of Pedro Paramo and he devoured the book. He loved it so much he read it over and over again, suggesting at times that he knew the book by heart,” Weatherford says. “García Márquez later suggested it was reading Pedro Paramo that gave him the grounding to write Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude).”
Weatherford, an Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Brigham Young University, found Rulfo in a similar way. “I spent time in Mexico in the mid-1980s. I was about to head home and asked a friend which writers from Mexico I should read. He took me to a bookstore and pulled three off the shelf,” Weatherford says. Those three books were Los de Abajo (The Underdogs), the classic novel by Mariano Azuela about the Mexican Revolution, Pedro Paramo, and The Plain in Flames.
“Later, in part because of my love of reading Rulfo, I decided reading Mexican and Latin American literature is something I wanted to do,” Weatherford says.
Despite this devotion, Weatherford didn’t set out to “find” an untranslated novel by Rulfo. Weatherford discovered the Cockerel while working on a study of Rulfo’s screenplays and other film work. When the book was first published in Mexico it had the subtitle: “And Other Texts for Film.” Weatherford says this label led critics and readers to assume The Golden Cockerel was a sketch for a film or even a full film script.
“The labeling led many to ignore and pass over what was Juan Rulfo’s second published novel, and it has never received the audience it deserves,” Weatherford says.
Considering that Rulfo’s other books have been translated into more than 30 languages, Weatherford was shocked to discover there had never been an English translation of The Golden Cockerel.
Weatherford insists that the Cockerel isn’t some rushed or half-finished novel. “Those people who know Pedro Paramo will find something very familiar, and I think those who don’t know Rulfo will discover an interesting and colorful tale,” Weatherford says. “And they’ll read an author that is certainly one of the most esteemed in Latin America and that many would consider Mexico’s finest writer.”
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in the Rumpus, the Texas Observer, the Morning News, Cosmonauts Avenue, and many others. He’s currently working on a novel.