No one knows what an environment can do.—Bruno Latour1
Voices resound, multiply, proliferate: the barks of dogs, human cries of allegiance to this or that general, fragments of song, death rattles, and incomprehensible rumors. They rarely coalesce into anything so orderly as a crescendo or decrescendo. A dissonant chorus of desires: such is the sonic world of Juan Rulfo’s brief, luminous fiction. In Comala, the desolate ghost town where Pedro Páramo (1955) is set, echoes of the past are like a plague of insects, hiding in every crevice. “It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping in your footsteps. You hear rustlings. And people laughing.”2 Rulfo’s voices are disembodied, the cipher of a presence nowhere to be found. They commingle with the elements. They bounce off cliffs and are dampened by the mud. They delight at the burning plain and lament the rising flood waters. They are carried on the billows of the wind. “For a while,” we read in The Burning Plain (1953), “the wind blowing from below brought us a tumult of voices scrambled together, making a noise like rising water when it rolls over stony stretches.”3 The voices ride on the air. They just as easily could have been carried by a river, swept over the land, or consumed in a pyre. [End Page 139]
But who hears these fragmentary voices? Who is the unique receptor for these inchoate vocal missives? “How can it be that for billions of messages, I am a rock on which their waves break without resonance, while certain voices and instructions unlock me and make me tremble as if I were the chosen instrument to render them audible, a medium and mouthpiece simply for their urge to sound?”4 Peter Sloterdijk’s question matters because sound and communication are not the same thing. One critic has persuasively argued that Rulfo’s fictional universe is full of interference, more noise than signal: “a world in which the message cannot get through, and individuals chatter noisily away in communicative isolation from one another.”5 This is a world of disjointed speech acts and uncomfortable silences, dialogues that become monologues, where the heat stifles the will to speak. When voices emerge, they don’t engage in conversation. No one articulates them; they just happen. And hearing them isn’t voluntary. Sounds impose themselves on those who were never listening. They choose their receptors rather than the other way round.
Speech is impeded or unexpectedly magnified. A politics of nature lies in this representation of the voice—and through it, also a model of negative engagement with the monolithic Mexican state. Both Pedro Páramo and The Burning Plain, the only book-length works Rulfo published, appeared in the 1950s. By then, the Revolution (1910–20) was a distant memory. The Cristero uprising (1926–29) had been defeated. The activist government of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) was over, as was his emphasis on land redistribution. Fueled by oil extraction, import substitution industrialization (which favors city-dwellers) was the order of the day. The economy was booming, and the bourgeoisie was ascendant. The PRM (Party of the Mexican Revolution) had become the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party)—its new, oxymoronic name alluding to its consolidation. To speak critically meant engaging with the state on its own terms, words running up and down the edges of the pyramid of power.
Rulfo’s characters do the opposite. In the world he paints—the Mexican countryside in the aftermath of the Revolution—speech means a missed encounter. “We don’t know anything about the government’s mother,” says a group of peasants. Their interlocutor, who wants to persuade them of the state’s good will, responds: “I told them that it was their country. They shook their heads saying no. And they laughed. It was the only time I saw the people of Luvina laugh.”6 In another story, some men receive a massive (though entirely uncultivable) expanse of land. They protest to a government...