‘The Switchman’ by Juan José Arreola

The Switchman by Juan José Arreola, 1951

The magic trick:

Setting up a single platform for the entire story

This story introduces its central concept early on and doesn’t deviate. An old man appears mysteriously and proceeds to educate our protagonist about the weird-bordering-on-nonsensical ways of the local railroad. I’m understating when I say bordering-on-nonsensical. It’s nonsensical. Much of what he says is impossible. But that’s the point.

This is the entire story – the old man talking. Using that platform, we get social commentary and criticism of all sorts. And that’s quite a trick on Arreola’s part. 

The selection:

“But is there a train that goes through this city?”

“To say yes would not be accurate. As you can see, the rails exist, though they are in rather bad shape. In some towns they are simply marked on the ground by two chalk lines. Under the present conditions, no train is obliged to pass through here, but nothing keeps that from happening. I’ve seen lots of trains go by in my life and I’ve known some travelers who managed to board them. If you wait until the right moment, perhaps I myself will have the honor of helping you get on a nice comfortable coach.”

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