One of the better parts of my job is the periodic obligation to read Juan Rulfo. I’ve recently gone back to the short stories of El llano en llamas, mostly looking for ways that the voice appears in his fiction. More specifically, I’m interested in how the voice is entangled with the elements, specifically the air. The air is, of course, the most common medium for the voice, but in Rulfo’s work it is so in a more palpable way:
For a while, the wind that blew up from below brought a tumult of accumulated voices, making the same noise as when the water’s swell rushes over rock beds. Suddenly, coming out of the same place, another voice twisted through the bend in the ravine, bounced off the face of the cliff, and arrived at us with still more force:
“Long live General Petronilo Flores!”
Voices are an indistinguishable hum, until one cuts through the rest, ricocheting off the walls, gaining speed and volume with each bound, until the soldiers hear it. These voices become something we can imagine in very visual terms, as if clouds and lightning. I think that this emphasis on the physicality of the voice–its clear figuration–is an important part of the sonic paradigm in Rulfo’s fiction.
And it matters for lots of reasons. For one, representing the voice in this manner makes it impossible to see sound in neutral terms. Sound, voices, speech…: all of them are propagated by concrete media. Rulfo’s focus on the brute physicality of this transmission reminds us, if we turn our attention to the sphere of state politics, that official speech works like this too. I was recently reading a book chapter by Joy Elizabeth Hayes, which begins with a description of a state-sponsored radio program in the early 1930s. The Ministry of Public Education (SEP) had disseminated a number of radios to rural locales. The radios were set to receive only the SEP’s transmissions. When an audit was performed, the inspector discovered, however, that in almost all cases the devices had been jailbroken and were being used to listen to other radio programs. The state wants the people to hear it speak, and they will provide the devices necessary for it. Whether people will listen is another story.
I think that these people’s indifference to the state radio broadcast is mirrored in some parts of El llano en llamas. Like, for example, in the story “Luvina,” when a group of peasants asks a government official about the mother of the government. It is the Patria, he responds, but they just shake their heads and laugh, amused by the assumed transcendence of the state’s narrative.
But beyond this encounter and others like it, I think that the way Rulfo treats voices in general in his fiction makes it clear that there is no transcendent speech. All voices rely on some sort of transmission, a conduit or amplifier, and modifying the nature of this conduction is one sort of ecological politics.