Let's get this out of the way: The best part of The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings is not the title piece. In his introduction, translator Douglas J. Weatherford makes a big deal out of El gallo de oro, Mexican master Juan Rulfo's long-ignored second novel, but it's nothing compared to the sketches and fragments that come after.
Rulfo is best known for his 1955 novel Pedro Páramo, which is in turn best known for motivating Gabriel García Márquez to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. Pedro Páramo is a stark and surreal tale of man who goes in search of his father and stumbles into a town populated entirely by people who his father starved to death. It's beautiful and nauseating and, per García Márquez, somewhat life-changing. "The Golden Cockerel" is not going to change anyone's life. It's a good read, sure, but essentially, it's a well-written, fast-paced story about how life is short and then you die.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. I appreciate a truly unsentimental writer, and Rulfo is nothing if not unsentimental. When the titular cockerel dies, the last we see of him is his owner Dionisio admitting he's lost the cockfight: "The judge demanded proof that the contest was over. Dionisio raised his animal and passed him in front of the black and white bird, which began to peck fiercely at the bloodstained comb of the golden rooster, that, as everyone could see, was by then quite dead." This paragraph, for what it's worth, contains more detail and more authorial commentary than the one in which Dionisio himself dies.
But what follows is quite different. Some of the unfinished stories that Weatherford translates, seemingly as an afterthought to "The Golden Cockerel" are straight-up astonishing.
Take "A Piece of the Night," my favorite story in the book, which begins with the disclaimer "[a fragment]." The plot concerns a prostitute who gets picked up by a gravedigger who's carrying a baby, not his own. The two of them walk together through a shifting, hallucinatory night, talking and talking, falling in love. When they finally find a hotel, the woman refuses payment and goes to bed alone. The prose seems to relax as she does, drifting off with her, fading into sleep and memory. It's stunning.
It's also remarkably feminist for a story written in 1959, only six years after Mexican women got the vote. Even for 2017, The Golden Cockerel feels feminist. Dionisio and his cockerel are successful as long as he respects his wife's wishes, doomed as soon as he stops. Rulfo condemns another character by saying, "Don Tránsito Pinzón ... never killed anyone, nor did he rape a woman, with the exception, of course, of his wife." This feminism feels baseline, tossed-off, but Rulfo tends toward the offhand. The more important an idea is to him, the more matter-of-factly he treats it. This is never more true than when he writes about death.
Death is Rulfo's great theme, particularly the meaning of death to the living. This appears over and over in The Golden Cockerel. In one fragment, the protagonist comments about his father: "They killed him at dawn one morning, but he failed to notice when he died or why." Another character, lonely for his dead aunt, grumbles, "She shouldn't have loved me only to [die] so abruptly ... She should have fought a bit harder, let's say another hour or two; finding some way to hang on, and she could've used that time to wash her hands of me." In a second story, the same man murders his girlfriend, then thinks, "Cleotilde is dead, but not fully so. I'm the one who killed Cleotilde, however. And I know that everything you kill, while you remain alive, continues to exist. That's just how it is."
This is quintessential Juan Rulfo. That's just how it is. So in his spirit, let me tell you how it is. Get The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings; read "The Golden Cockerel." It won't take you much time; you'll enjoy it, but you don't need to linger. Then put the book down and wait until you have a long weekend morning. Make some coffee, find a sunny spot, get ready to think about death. Read the other writings as slowly as you can. Stop to think. Admire the politics, the elegantly tossed-off phrases, the authorial remove. Wonder, if you have the stomach for it, whether you'll notice when you die. Probably not, according to Rulfo. And that's fine. It doesn't matter. That's just how it is.
Lily Meyer works at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.