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"The privations that filled his life": A Review of Juan Rulfo's The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings

Joshua Foster

The cycle of desperation and abundance play a significant role in The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings, Juan Rulfo’s legendary lost novel translated into English to mark the 100-year anniversary of the author’s birth. Alongside a rich translation of the titular lost novel, translator Douglas J. Weatherford offers English readers a look at Rulfo’s uncollected story manuscripts and character sketches, and includes helpful support texts—a Rulfo chronology, glossaries of language and geography—to accompany his insightful translator’s note. All this serves the uninitiated Rulfo reader a platform to access Rulfo’s heralded—and bingeable—canon: The Burning Plain (1953, short stories) and Pedro Páramo (1955, novel), underread books as insightful to our cultural moment as any.

Octavio Paz writes that Rulfo was “the only Mexican novelist who has given us an image—instead of just a description—of our landscape.” Where The Burning Plane gives images of poverty and the land, and Pedro Páramo of land-use and the rich, “The Golden Cockerel” (alternately titled De La Nada a La Nada [Nothing to Nothing]) gives the image of the surviving Mexican populace and its cycle across a harsh and fantastical landscape, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.   

Rulfo’s work is infinitely readable, inventive, and short. The Burning Plain is a bleak look at the lives of the surviving campesinos in rural post-revolution Mexico and includes stories with titles like “We Are Very Poor” and “Tell Them Not to Kill Me!” Pedro Páramo, in contrast, is a search narrative of a son returning to his village to claim his birthright from his father, the rich, corrupt, (and dead) Pedro Páramo. Different from those early books—influential keystones to writers like Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many more—The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings shows Rulfo at his most intellectual and socially aware. Here, instead of remote villages and dead cities, stories are set in urban scapes. The cast includes the multiplicitous Mexican population, and the tenuousness of their daily lives. Everyone in these pages is alive—but just barely.

Take Dionisio Pinzon and his golden fighting cock, Crooked Wing, the underdog protagonist duo central to “The Golden Cockerel.” In an early critical moment, the duo travels to neighboring San Juan del Rio for their first big-money main event fight. The undersized, untested Crooked Wing—“a golden one from Chihuahua”—is pitted against a bull-like killer rooster. The betting begins. The odds are so uneven that Dionisio’s bookie flees the arena, later to be found drinking in a bar, waiting to be lynched. Dionisio watches as the crowd grows agitated, anticipating the unknown golden cockerel’s death by the local stud, begetting easy money all around.

The crowd doesn’t understand that the strangers are desperate to the point of dangerous—they have nothing left. Before this, Dionisio had paced the blocks as the town’s crier, working on commission to spread the word of a lost cow or daughter. A job for the malformed, poor, and otherwise useless, and Dionisio, with his homebound elderly mother and his own mangled arm, fit the bill. His deplorable state is compounded when he has to cry out the news that his fiancée has left town with another man. This job, commissioned by his almost father-in-law, breaks his will to live.

But Dionisio’s voice has different value once he is introduced to cockfighting; it is he who calls the matches. One night, Dionisio inherits the nearly dead golden rooster, a broken-winged, bled-out loser. A near carcass of a bird. As Dionisio nurses it back to health, seeing it as a ticket out of town, he neglects his mother, and she dies. The two truly come into form as characters once they go on the road, to San Juan del Rio and beyond, to encounter chance and fate, but most importantly, to try and survive a world that does not care if they live or die.

Desperation, abundance, corruption, greed, celebration, choice and the lack thereof, rise and fall, fall and rise—these themes vibrate across the narrative, characterized by Pinzón and the rooster as well as the striated Mexican masses that encircle them most nights. However, “The Golden Cockerel” is not an easy or predictable rags-to-riches tale, especially once La Caponera (translated as “Lead Mare”), with her witchy influence and songs of lament, takes stage and serenades Dionisio and Crooked Wing as they fight on, day by day, town by town, all of them gambling to make something from nothing, ultimately paying the inevitable cost.