Apuntes de un lugareño, 1932 (Notes of a Villager, 1988)
El pueblo inocente, 1934
Mi caballo, mi perro, y mi rifle, 1936
La vida inútil de Pito Pérez, 1938 (The Futile Life of Pito Pérez, 1966)
Una vez fui rico, 1939
Cuentos rurales, 1915
La musa heroica, 1912
Breve historia de mis libros, 1942
During his sixty-two years José Rubén Romero (raw-MAY-roh) was, among other things, a poet, short-story writer, grocer, haberdasher, civil servant, revolutionary, diplomat, novelist, and essayist–more or less in that order. His lifetime (1890-1952) was for the most part a period of violent and sweeping change unparalleled in Mexican history; not even the war of independence from Spain (1821) was as protracted or witnessed such carnage.
Although Romero did not participate in the military phase of the revolution, through the influence of his father he was named private secretary to the revolutionary governor of the state of Michoacán. Accused of political agitation, Romero fled the state capital, Morelia, for Mexico City, later settling in Tacámbaro, where he engaged in the politically safe professions of grocer and haberdasher. At the age of twenty-eight, however, literary fame and political connections brought him back to Morelia to serve the new governor, Pascual Ortiz Rubio. Once again on the move, he returned to Mexico City in 1920 as the emissary of the governor and to take a position in the diplomatic service, an appointment he held until his retirement eight years before his death.
The first diplomatic posting for Romero outside Mexico occurred in 1930 during the presidency of his mentor, Ortiz Rubio. While he was in Barcelona, Spain, nostalgia for his homeland inspired an autobiographical novel, Notes of a Villager, published in 1932. The title of this novel seems a foreshadowing of two characteristics that reappeared in his later fiction: a preference for anecdote at the expense of plot and the use of rural settings. By the end of the 1930’s Romero was the author of seven novels and the subject of two critical studies.
Before the age of forty-two Romero wrote only rather uninspired poetry and unread short stories. The publication of Notes of a Villager signaled a change in his literary fortunes. In novel writing he at last achieved the leisurely pace and the discursive nature that best suited the shrewdly crafted, yet seemingly disorderly memories which were to become the basic ingredients of his fiction. The broad sweep of the novel also provided him with a vehicle for the portrayal of the social, political, and economic ills that preceded, survived, and transformed the revolution.
The sentiments of the rural and village poor to which his novels gave voice were also present in his poetry, but not even in his best book of poems, Tacámbaro, are they expressed as clearly and as effectively as in the fiction. Like many uninspired young poets, Romero chose as his principal subject the passions of youth, a theme which he could not separate from the worn-out rhetoric of popular Romanticism. Aside from the sentimentality and general poverty of expression, the weakness of his poetry is in its predilection for the consciously literary, resonant phrase to the exclusion of the simple articulation of felt experience. A success among readers of poetry in his home state, Romero owed his popularity more to the revolutionary fervor of the times than to the quality of his verse.
In his novels, however, Romero was more concerned with the forceful rendering of character and incident than with sonority. Furthermore, by the time he began to write his novels, youthful optimism and revolutionary fervor no longer seemed appropriate; it had become clear that the revolution had betrayed the ideals of his youth and of “the innocent people” who provide the title for his third novel, El pueblo inocente.
Essentially a moralist in the tradition of the Spanish and Mexican picaresque, Romero was skilled at detecting hypocrisy and exposing hypocrites. In his best-known and still widely read novel The Futile Life of Pito Pérez, the protagonist is granted representative status. Endowed with the capacity of simple people to see the truth about life, Pito comes to embody the nub of Mexican experience. An expert liar and swindler, he knows the truth about the lives of his dishonest, self-deceiving victims better than they do. The sins of Pito against his victims’ property and his own purity are depicted, therefore, as a form of moral resistance or revenge against duplicity, mere innocent pleasures at the expense of those who have no use for innocence. In his final novel, Rosenda, Romero returns to the theme of innocence betrayed. This time, however, the subject of the introspection is an archetypal, self-sacrificing Mexican woman, and the meditations about Mexican life are from a female perspective.
The warmth and color of The Futile Life of Pito Pérez contrast with the allegorical dryness of Romero’s earlier fiction. Pito’s joyful misanthropy and verbal play are an antidote to the cynicism that darkens the final pages in this and other works. Paradoxically, this novel proves that as long as there are false pieties and official lies, there is reason for cheer; there is reason to celebrate life as a comedy of deceit. Without liars and cheats to defraud, Romero implies, life would offer little fun.