Here is What Happens When a Son Overburdens His Father with Grief
By Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega
In just five pages of dialogue between a father and a son, author Juan Rulfo returns to the essence of what makes Mexican literature of the twentieth century so refreshing. A rural sensibility, categorized by images of people and their land and the desolate and terse rhythms of a Mexico left in poverty—after promises of revolution and reform gone unfulfilled—are iconic Rulfo. With darkness and light, through silence and sound, through ghost towns shackled by a hot and barren landscape, Rulfo revisits the history of a country that aches with the pain of its people.
I was initially drawn to Juan Rulfo when assigned his most notable work, the novel “Pedro Páramo,” in my Spanish literature class at UC Santa Cruz. I was intrigued by Rulfo’s depictions of sparse yet dramatic Mexican landscapes and was impressed that he was a compatriot of my mother’s home state of Jalisco. I read his short story, No oyes ladrar los perros (No Dogs Bark), during a field study in Guadalajara, Mexico, and visited Sayula, the town where he grew up, when a short time later I went with a production crew to film footage for a documentary about the Mexican economic crisis. These experiences—visiting my mother’s birth country and reading Rulfo while I was visiting native farmers, ranchers, and journalists—informed my interest and passion for this writer whose works I consider enduring classics of literary Mexico.
Rulfo’s No oyes ladrar los perros moved me, this story about a man carrying his wounded adult son, Ignacio, over his shoulder for hours seeking a doctor said to be available in a nearby town. Rulfo has a way of immediately immersing his readers into scenes of tension and urgency. In this story, he constructs an eerie atmosphere, remote and mysterious with a doom-ridden swell that infuses the story as a father dialogues with his son. The father is determined yet somber, chronicling his grief with words that are also terse and spare, as well as intense and blunt. The son he carries remains silent through most of the story.
This father is not proud of his son. The son has become a thorn in his flesh, a sour disappointment, having lived as a thief and murderer. As the father endures the weight of his son’s life upon him, the father’s legs fold beneath him, his feet cramp, his vision clouds. His neck is weighted with the grip of his son’s hands. The father’s condition, caused by the burden of the son he now carries and has carried through the years, mirrors Ignacio’s debilitation.
Surrounded by distant hillsides, illuminated only by the moon, the father becomes more vocal and rancorous over his son’s reckless lifestyle. When the son thirsts, the father recalls him as an infant. Even after consuming his mother’s milk, Ignacio was rabid with a hunger that could only be placated with water. This past foreshadows the present; Ignacio’s parents did everything they could to nurture him, and as an adult he did nothing for them. His unquenchable thirst for more and dissatisfaction for the little his parents were able to provide him, eventually steered him off course. The father rebukes Ignacio, telling him he would surely have killed his mother had she lived to see this day and not died giving birth to another son.
As the father and son draw closer to their destination, the barking of dogs echoes the father’s reluctance and while typically a sound associated with danger, it becomes a beacon of hope, an indicator of the father’s imminent relief and the son’s possible salvation.
Yet, the father admits to the son that his motivation to help is not for his son’s sake, but for the memory of his dead wife, the boy’s mother. He confesses to struggling with the ambivalence he feels about whether to see his son through this dilemma or abandon him to those who had first bludgeoned him. The father curses his son, as the son has hurt even those that he knew personally, including his own godfather. Symbolically, the shadow of father and son in the moonlight unites them, however morally divided they now may be.
No oyes ladrar los perros, set among the landscape of rural life in Mexico, is a masterful depiction of anticipation, conflict, and failed relationships. It is a portrait of agony between a father and son, under the cover of night, illuminated by moonlight, that shows the physical impression a rebellious son leaves on a father and a bitter father’s dubious love and final endeavor to save his son’s life—ominously announced by the barking of dogs.
Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega holds an MFA from Mills College and a BA from UCLA. Her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Other Voices, Santa Clara Review, and Calaca Review. She contributes interviews at The Review Review and her most recent publishing essay is featured in Front Porch Commons: A Project of [CLMP].