Authors: Juan José Arreola

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Mexican short-story writer

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Varia invención, 1949 (Various Inventions, 1964)

Confabulario, 1952 (Confabulary, 1964)

Punto de Plata, 1958 (Silverpoint, 1964)

Bestiario, 1958 (Bestiary, 1964)

Confabulario total, 1941-1961, 1962 (Confabulary, and Other Inventions, 1964)

Palindroma, 1971

Confabulario personal, 1980

Narrativa completa, 1997

Long Fiction:

La feria, 1963 (The Fair, 1977)


La hora de todos, pb. 1954

Tercera llamada ¡Tercera! O empezamos sin usted, pb. 1971


La palabra educación, 1973 (Jorge Arturo Ojeda, editor)

Y ahora la mujer . . . , 1975 (Ojeda, editor)

Inventario, 1976

Prosa dispersa, 2002 (Orso Arreola, editor)

Edited Text:

Lectura en voz alta, 1968 (anthology)


Estas páginas mías, 1985

Obras, 1995


Juan José Arreola (ahr-ee-OHL-ah) ranks as one of the major short-story writers of the twentieth century in Latin America, yet he is rarely studied outside his homeland. Born in Zapotlán, a large town near Guadalajara, Jalisco, he had formal schooling until he was twelve years old, at which point he found his first job as an apprentice with a master bookbinder. Arreola moved to Guadalajara in 1934 and to Mexico City in 1937, working odd jobs, most of which were menial, while attempting to break into the literary scene. He had a brief spell as an actor in the Teatro de Medianoche (midnight theater) while in Mexico City, but this venture ended in failure.{$I[AN]9810002008}{$I[A]Arreola, Juan José}{$I[geo]MEXICO;Arreola, Juan José}{$I[tim]1918;Arreola, Juan José}

Returning to Zapotlán in 1940, he began to teach in a secondary school. His short story “Hizo el bien mientras vivió” (he did good while he lived), published in Eos in 1943, attracted some attention in Mexico City. Arreola married in 1944, but his marriage was not a happy one. In 1945, he won a government scholarship to study in Paris but because of ill health was forced to return to Mexico the following year. He subsequently worked at the prestigious publishing house Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico City, writing blurbs for new books. In 1949, he brought out his first significant literary work, Various Inventions, a collection of eighteen short stories, which attracted positive reviews. This was followed in 1952 by Confabulary, which contains animal tales, existentialist horror and Magical Realist stories, and satiric essays. Arreola reused these two titles later on; rather than invent new titles, he would usually reprint earlier stories and add new work written in the intervening years. Arreola’s literary work thus should be seen as a series of concentric ripples emanating from these two early works rather than as a linear trajectory of separately conceived works.

In 1954, Arreola, always drawn to the theater, published a serious farce, La hora de todos (moment of truth), but it was a flop and convinced him that his talents lay elsewhere. In the early 1950’s, he embarked on two new projects: He founded a book series, Los Presentes, which aimed to publish new Mexican writers, and he collaborated with the Centro Mexicano de Escritores (Mexican writers’ center). In this collaboration, he and Juan Rulfo, one of Mexico’s most famous short-story writers, agreed to improve the writing skills of a group of promising writers, who received a scholarship from the center. Among the list of writers who learned their craft under Arreola’s tutelage were many who would one day form the backbone of the next generation of Mexican writers; they included Homero Aridjis, Inés Arredondo, Emilio Carballido, Rosario Castellanos, Alí Chumacero, Fernando del Paso, Salvador Elizondo, Carlos Fuentes, Luisa Josefina Hernández, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, José Agustín, Vicente Leñero, Carlos Monsivais, and Gustavo Sáinz.

Intriguingly, Arreola’s literary output, compared with that of some of the writers he coached, was small. Moreover, some of his short stories are small even by the standards of the genre (barely a page long). In a number of interviews, Arreola admitted to finding it difficult to write; he often needed an external agency (such as a deadline) or an internal event (such as a personal crisis regarding which he needed to achieve catharsis through writing) to force him to put pen to paper. Yet although Arreola’s literary output was slim, it is of high quality. During the 1950’s, for example, he wrote some of his classic short stories, such as “The Switchman,” “A Tamed Woman,” “I’m Telling You the Truth,” and “The Prodigious Milligram.” With these stories, Arreola created a new literary vogue: He encouraged Mexican writers to break out of the straitjacket of realism and inspired them to tap the potential of the magical in their literary works.

Arreola was, indeed, one of the forerunners of Magical Realism, which describes the fantastic as if it were ordinary. His most anthologized story, “The Switchman,” is an excellent example of this new style. It begins with an unnamed “foreigner” who arrives at a railway station waiting for a train to take him to a place called T. He engages in a conversation with a little old man (who is later revealed to be the switchman of the title), who advises him to forget about catching a train, but instead to “look for lodging in the inn.” The traveler is then treated to a long description of how trains are very irregular, how they often do not go where they are meant to, and how the derailment of one train led to the foundation of a village. Finally, a whistle is heard in the distance, and the train arrives. In this story, Arreola builds on an everyday situation (waiting for a train in a train station) that can function simultaneously as an allegory of the Mexican nation (bureaucracy gone wild) and an existentialist tale of metaphysical aimlessness (the train, like life, goes nowhere).

In 1955, Arreola published his two earlier collections Various Inventions and Confabulary in an expanded edition that included some new works written in the intervening years. From the late 1950’s onward, a new emphasis emerged in Arreola’s work; fiction became less prominent and essays more so. In 1958, he published Silverpoint, written to accompany illustrations designed for the zoo in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. In 1962, he brought out an anthology of his favorite selections from world-renowned authors, Lectura en voz alta (reading aloud), and in 1971 he published Palindroma (palindrome), a new collection of short works, combining short stories with satiric pieces and including a one-act play. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Arreola turned his attention to journalism and the television industry. He died in 2001 at the age of eighty-three.

BibliographyBurt, John R. “This Is No Way to Run a Railroad: Arreola’s Allegorical Railroad and a Possible Source.” Hispania 71, no. 4 (1988). Compares “The Switchman” to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad” (1843).Gilgen, Read G. “Absurdist Techniques in the Short Stories of Juan José Arreola.” Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century 8, no. 1/2 (1980): 67-77. This concise treatment of the notion of the absurd focuses on techniques that help explain Arreola’s artistic philosophy. The notes provide references to a few other studies on the absurd as well as on Arreola’s work.Heusinkveld, Paula R. “Juan José Arreola: Allegorist in an Age of Uncertainty.” Chasqui: Revista de Literatura Latinoamericana 13, nos. 2/3 (1984). Argues that Arreola’s short stories need to be seen as allegories of the modern world. Shows that Arreola chooses symbols such as animals or nameless antiheroes that represent human limitations rather than human potential.Larson, Ross. Fantasy and Imagination in the Mexican Narrative. Tempe: Arizona State University Center for Latin American Studies, 1977. A systematic survey of the substantial, although somewhat neglected, body of literature of fantasy and imagination written in Mexico over the years. Arreola is viewed as a major contributor to the movement away from literature with an explicit social purpose. Several of his stories are dealt with, although in somewhat cursory fashion. Contains an extensive bibliography and a useful index.McMurray, George R. “The Spanish American Short Story from Borges to the Present.” In The Latin American Short Story: A Critical History, edited by Margaret Sayers Peden. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Argues that “The Switchman” is an excellent example of Albert Camus’s philosophy of the absurd. Suggests that the railway journey is a metaphor for life and that the act of boarding the train means accepting life’s challenges and uncertainties.Menton, Seymour. “Juan José Arreola and the Twentieth Century Short Story.” Hispania 42, no. 3 (September, 1959): 295-308. This study of Arreola by a critic who became his close friend remains the classic introduction to the man and his early work. Arreola is credited with developing the fantastic as a viable way to represent the conflicts and concerns of people trapped under the pressures of modern society. Attention is given to his place within the surrealist movement, his major themes, techniques, and worldview.Menton, Seymour, comp. The Spanish American Short Story: A Critical Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. This collection of Spanish American stories translated into English includes information on the literary movements and tendencies that have shaped the genre in Latin American countries from the 1830’s to the “Boom” period of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Thumbnail sketches introduce Menton’s choices as the best and most representative stories available at the time. Brief critical commentaries assist with interpretation of the texts. Arreola’s “The Switchman” is included.Schade, George. Introduction to Confabulario and Other Inventions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964. This excellent English translation largely follows the text and arrangement of the 1962 edition of Confabulario total. Excluded is the one-act play La hora de todos, which Schade deems ineffectual and out of place in this collection. Provides a brief but incisive introduction to the stories.Washburn, Yulan. Juan José Arreola. Boston: Twayne, 1983. The most thorough study of Arreola and his work available in English. Drawing on a variety of critical studies in both Spanish and English, as well as on a series of personal interviews with the writer himself, this critic carefully analyzes most of Arreola’s major stories, his novel, The Fair, and the overall preoccupations reflected in his work as a whole. Detailed plot summaries are followed by scrupulous textual analyses. Included is an extensive discussion of Arreola’s life and times and a substantial select bibliography of primary and secondary sources, most of which are available only in Spanish.
Categories: Authors