Like other stories in The Burning Plain, “Luvina” is written in the form of a confession or story told by one man to another. In this case the speaker is the teacher who previously taught in the town of Luvina, speaking to the new teacher who is about to travel there. The reader does not discover this until midway through the story, however. The narration occurs in first person except in moments where an omniscient narrator intervenes with some general details about the scene.
The story begins with a description of the terrain in which the town is situated. Luvina is a mountain in the south and it is “the highest and the rockiest.” The narrator goes on to describe in great detail how treacherous the mountainous terrain is. It is “steep and slashed on all sides by deep barrancas, so deep you can’t make out the bottom.”
The man speaking goes quiet for a moment and the sound of the river can be heard along with the air gently rustling through the tree branches. The sounds of children playing can also be heard. Because of this the reader knows that the two men are not currently in the town of Luvina.
The speaker asks for two more beers from the barman named Camilo. He continues talking to his listener about Luvina, describing the landscape and the lack of luxuries – like the beer they are now drinking. After much of this description, the reader learns that the narrator used to live in Luvina, where the listener will be visiting. He says, “I went to that place full of illusions and returned old and worn out.”
He says that when he first arrived in Luvina the mule driver who took him didn’t even want to stop in the town. He left “spurring his horses on as if he was leaving some place haunted by the devil.” The narrator was left with his wife and three children in the middle of the plaza, and all they could hear was the wind. He then asked his wife: “What country are we in, Agripina?” She didn’t answer and he sent her to find a place to eat and spend the night. Agripina is not able to find either, and ends up sleeping with her child in the church. When the narrator finds her there, she explains that she was denied food.
The family sleeps in the church. They awaken to see the women of Luvina carrying their water jugs down to the river for water: “As if they were shadows they started walking down the street with their black water jugs.”
The narrator says that the only people who live in Luvina are these dealth-like old women and the unborn children. Everyone flees the town.
The narrator explains that one day he tried to convince the inhabitants that they should go to another place where the land was good, or to at least ask for the government’s help. After all, the government was beholden to them because it is their country. In response, the people of Luvina laughed at his naive speech. The narrator explains that they were right. The only time the government visits Luvina is when one of its sons has done something wrong in a part of the country that matters: “Then he sends to Luvina for him and they kill him.” The narrator explains that the only reason the people of Luvina don’t leave is because they do not want to abandon their dead.
The narrator explains that this is why he left Luvina and does not intend to return. His listener, however, is going there in a few hours. He remembers how fifteen years ago told him the same thing when they assigned him to teach there: “you’re going to San Juan Luvina.” He remarks that once upon a time he was idealistic and hoped to change the town and make a difference, “but it didn’t work out in Luvina. I made the experiment and it failed.” The name “San Juan Luvina” originally sounded heavenly to him, but now he knows it is “purgatory;” “A dying place where even the dogs have died off, so there’s not a creature to bark at the silence.” He remarks that when the young teacher arrives there he will understand.
The narrator then proposes that the two ask the bartender for some mescal instead of more beers. He is about to begin talking again, but goes silent as his gaze becomes fixed on the table where the carcasses of flying ants have collected in a ring around the lamp. The night closes in outside and the children’s shouts are now further away. The narrator finally falls asleep on the table.
In terms of building an atmosphere of suspenseful malevolence, “Luvina” might well be Rulfo’s most chilling tale. This is quite an accomplishment given no one dies in the story, and Rulfo’s cultivation of dread is often predicated upon the presence or presentiment of death. It is also notable that this story is practically devoid of action. It is simply one man’s account of his first visit and subsequent stay in Luvina, told to a listener who is about to depart for the town and does not speak. The only tangible action in the story is the narrator’s description of his family’s first night in the town (his wife finds refuge in an abandoned church and the family cannot sleep because of the wind and the bat-like shuffling sound made by the town’s women before dawn). Other than this, the vast majority of this story is comprised of vivid description of the town and the natural elements that endeavor to rid the town of any vestiges of life. As a result, the wind is really the only active “character” that inhabits the town. Everyone else simply “waits for death.”
The descriptions of the wind are particularly frightening: “it takes hold of things in Luvina as if it was going to bite them,” “sweeping along Luvina’s streets, bearing behind it a black blanket,” “it scratches like it had nails: scraping the walls, tearing off strips of earth, digging with its sharp shovel under the doors, until you feel it boiling inside of you as if it was going to remove the hinges of your very bones.” The wind is not the only inhospitable aspect of Luvina’s environment, however. It’s backdrop is equally menacing: the moon is “the image of despair,” the hills are “silent as if they were dead” and Luvina sits atop “the highest hill with its white houses like a crown of the dead.” The horizon is also “always clouded over by a dark stain that never goes away,” the terrain “is steep and slashed on all sides by deep barrancas, so deep you can’t make out the bottom,” and as one walks on the ground it’s “as if the earth itself had grown thorns there.” All these descriptions make Luvina the most threatening and cruel terrain in The burning plain. The barren Great Plain in “They gave us the land” might seem like stiff competition, but it lacks the “active” menace of the wind in “Luvina” that willfully seeks out life in order to slowly wear it down and eventually extinguish it.
The interiorization of the narrative action in “Luvina” (in the memory of the narrator) will be familiar to readers who have read Rulfo’s later and best known work, Pedro Páramo. This technique is intensified in Pedro Páramo, where much of the narration follows the thoughts of the characters, often in a “stream of consciousness” format. This is not the only similarity between the novel and “Luvina,” however. On the contrary, “Luvina” and Pedro Páramo are so similar that the characters in the short story could easily fit into the novel and vice-versa. In “Luvina” the town’s inhabitants have an ethereal, ghostly quality about them, and the same is true of the residents of Comala in Pedro Páramo. In fact, in the novel the characters actually are ghosts, although the reader does not realize this until late in the story. While Luvina is described in the story as “purgatory,” and Comala is most certainly yet another place where lost souls cannot find rest. One wonders if perhaps the idea for Rulfo’s master work might draw heavily on “Luvina.”
While Luvina might seem otherwordly, like the other stories in The burning plain it is nevertheless tied into the Mexico’s historical reality during the post-revolutionary period. In this story the critical social issue at hand is the education of a country in desperate need of social justice and modernization. As the narrator explains, however, not only is the government deaf to the needs of the citizens of Luvina (it only pays them a visit when in pursuit of one of their delinquent sons), but the citizens themselves are so closely tied to provincial traditions that they cannot bear the thought of abandoning the town. This would mean leaving dead ancestors behind, perhaps a metaphor for their strong attachment to the past: “If we leave, who’ll bring along our dead ones?”
These two forces combine to crush the idealism of even the most spirited educators, as was the narrator’s case so long ago. As the he describes his urging of the townspeople to appeal to the government for assistance, we are reminded that—for the first time in The burning plain—the protagonist is a employee and promoter of the revolutionary government. However, his time in Luvina changes his mind about both the hope for the modernization of rural Mexico and its political trajectory since he eventually confesses that the citizens were right all along and the leaders aren’t aware of the existence of towns like this. In the end it is clear that the likelihood of successfully integrating Luvina into the nation — the task laid out for both the towns old (the narrator) and new (the listener) teachers — is slim. In fact, one wonders by the story’s end if the new teacher was not scared off by the narrator long before the story’s end, or if the narrator has been talking to himself all along.