The short story was originally published as a confabulario , a word created in Spanish by Arreola, in , in the collection Confabulario and Other Inventions. It was republished ten years later along with other published works by Arreola at that time in the collection El Confabulario total. A stranger carrying a large suitcase runs towards a train station, and manages to arrive exactly at the time that his train bound for a town identified only as T. As the man speculates about where his train might be, he feels a touch on his shoulder and turns to see a small old man dressed like a railroader and carrying a lantern. When he asks if the train has left, the old man wonders if the traveler has been in the country very long and advises him to find lodging at the local inn for at least a month.
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His best-known and most anthologized tale, "The Switchman" exemplifies his taste for humor, satire, fantasy, and philosophical themes.
The story, first published as "El guardagujas" in Cinco Cuentos in , is translated in Confabulario and Other Inventions Briefly summarized, "The Switchman" portrays a stranger burdened with a heavy suitcase who arrives at a deserted station at the exact time his train is supposed to leave.
As he gazes at the tracks that seem to melt away in the distance, an old man the switchman carrying a tiny red lantern appears from out of nowhere and proceeds to inform the stranger of the hazards of train travel in this country. It seems that, although an elaborate network of railroads has been planned and partially completed, the service is highly unreliable.
The horrified stranger, who keeps insisting that he must arrive at destination T the next day, is therefore advised to rent a room in a nearby inn, an ash-colored building resembling a jail where would-be travelers are lodged. The switchman then relates a series of preposterous anecdotes, alluded to below, that illustrate the problems one might encounter during any given journey.
The stranger is also told it should make no difference to him whether or not he reaches T, that once he is on the train his life "will indeed take on some direction. But upon inquiring again where the stranger wants to go, the switchman receives the answer X instead of T. The old man then dissolves in the clear morning air, and only the red speck of the lantern remains visible before the noisily approaching engine. As demonstrated by its numerous interpretations, "The Switchman" is fraught with ambiguity.
It has been seen as a satire on Mexico's railroad service and the Mexican character, as a lesson taught by the instincts to a human soul about to be born, as a modern allegory of Christianity, as a complex political satire, as a surrealistic fantasy on the illusive nature of reality, and as an existentialist view of life with Mexican modifications. The latter comes closest to the most convincing interpretation, namely, that Arreola has based his tale on Albert Camus 's philosophy of the absurd as set forth in The Myth of Sisyphus, a collection of essays Camus published in Three years later Arreola received a scholarship to study in Paris, where he may well have read these highly acclaimed essays.
Camus writes that neither humans alone nor the world by itself is absurd. Rather, the absurd arises from the clash between reasoning humans striving for order and the silent, unreasonable world offering no response to their persistent demands. The absurd human is one who recognizes a lack of clear purpose in life and therefore resolves to commit himself or herself to the struggle for order against the unpredictable, fortuitous reality he or she encounters.
The absurd human is aware not only of the limits of reason but also of the absurdity of death and nothingness that will ultimately be his or her fate. Awareness of the absurd human condition can come at any moment, but it is most likely to happen when, suddenly confronted by the meaninglessness of hectic daily routine, he or she asks the question "Why? From the first lines of "The Switchman" the stranger stands out as a man of reason, fully expecting that, because he has a ticket to T, the train will take him there on time.
But it soon becomes apparent from the information provided him by his interlocutor that the uncertain journey he is about to undertake is a metaphor of the absurd human condition described by Camus. Thus, the stranger's heavy suitcase symbolizes the burden of reason he carries about, and the inn resembles a jail, the place where others like him are lodged before setting out on life's absurd journey.
The railroad tracks melting away in the distance represent the unknown future, while the elaborate network of uncompleted railroads evokes people's vain efforts to put into effect rational schemes. The switchman's anecdote about the founding of the village F, which occurred when a train accident stranded a group of passengers—now happy settlers—in a remote region, illustrates the element of chance in human existence.
Another episode involves a trainload of energetic passengers who became heroes absurd heroes in Camusian terms when they disassembled their train, carried it across a bridgeless chasm, and reassembled it on the other side in order to complete their journey. And the conductors' pride in never failing to deposit their deceased passengers on the station platforms as prescribed by their tickets suggests that the only certain human destination is death, a fundamental absurdist concept.
In the final lines of Arreola's story the assertion of the stranger now referred to as the traveler that he is going to X rather than T indicates that he has become an absurd man ready to set out for an unknown destination. The image immediately thereafter of the tiny red lantern swinging back and forth before the onrushing train conveys the story's principal theme: the limits of reason, that is, the small light of reason, in a world governed by chance.
Why, then, does the switchman vanish at this moment? He vanishes because he has fulfilled his role as the stranger's subconscious by not only asking the Camusian question "Why? Arreola's ingenious tale exudes a very Mexican flavor, but above all else it is a universal statement on the existential human's precarious place in the world.
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The Switchman (El Guardagujas) by Juan José Arreola, 1951
His best-known and most anthologized tale, "The Switchman" exemplifies his taste for humor, satire, fantasy, and philosophical themes. The story, first published as "El guardagujas" in Cinco Cuentos in , is translated in Confabulario and Other Inventions Briefly summarized, "The Switchman" portrays a stranger burdened with a heavy suitcase who arrives at a deserted station at the exact time his train is supposed to leave. As he gazes at the tracks that seem to melt away in the distance, an old man the switchman carrying a tiny red lantern appears from out of nowhere and proceeds to inform the stranger of the hazards of train travel in this country. It seems that, although an elaborate network of railroads has been planned and partially completed, the service is highly unreliable.