Juan Rulfo: Pedro Páramo
Although he wrote few works in his lifetime, namely a thin volume of short stories (The Burning Plain and Other Stories) and a single novel, the name of Juan Rulfo is well respected in Latin American letters. His novel, Pedro Páramo (1955) broke from the traditional realist novel and with its unique narrative ushered in magical realism, popularised in the Latin American Boom by the likes of Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes.
Why he only wrote one novel – he died in 1986 – will perhaps remain unknown, however Susan Sontag, in her introduction, takes a guess, observing that “the point of a writer’s life is to produce a great book – a book which will last – and that is what Rulfo did.” A small body of work is of course no barrier to greatness, with Rulfo being named, following a poll conducted by Editorial Alfaguara, alongside Jorge Luis Borges as the best Spanish-language writer of the 20th Century.
It begins with the narrator, Juan Preciado, heading to his mother’s home town of Comala, because his father, Pedro Páramo, lives there. Long before, not long after their marriage, Pedro Páramo had sent Preciado’s mother away to live with her sister. Now, on her deathbed, she makes a final request: “Make him pay, son, for all those years he put us out of his mind.”
To his mother’s mind, Comala is a boon for nostalgia. In his head echoes of her memories stir, talking of “a beautiful view of a green plain tinged with the yellow of ripe corn” and “the savor of orange blossoms in the warmth of summer.” However, on the road down to the town, Preciado meets a man, claiming also to be a son of Pedro Páramo, who says,
“That town sits on the coals of the earth, at the very mouth of hell. They say that when people from there die and go to hell, they come back for a blanket.”
In Comala, things take a turn for the strange. Preciado meets a woman, Eduviges Dyada, who claims that she hasn’t had much time to prepare for him as his mother, despite dying a week before, had only just informed her of his trip. From here we begin to see just how far Rulfo’s novel meanders from the traditional structure as the narrative begins to play host to other, seemingly unrelated stories. Voices come and go, uncredited, and tenses change. Where first we were reading Preciado’s account, we find ourselves faced with a third person narrative.
More and more voices enter the fray, providing distilled snapshots, into a narrative that becomes disorientating. As the fragmented stories abound, they start to come together forming a patchwork that illustrates the people of Comala. Only, what makes it more interesting, is that they are all dead. All that remains is the essence of the people, each whispering their thoughts, secrets, and reliving moments over and over. Such is the force of all this trapped experience that when, halfway through the novel, Preciado announces his own death (“The murmuring killed me. I was trying to hold back my fear. But it kept building until I couldn’t contain it any longer. “) the book continues on, unraveling more and more.
“This town is filled with echoes. It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping on your footsteps. You hear rustlings. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years.”
The main thread of the novel is the titular, Pedro Páramo. “Living bile”, as the stranger Preciado meets at the start labels him. Páramo is the son of a rancher who, after his father’s death, “flourished like a weed”. Considered a lost cause by his father, Páramo became an opportunist, stealing land from others and populating it through the rape of the woman working his land. Indeed, Páramo’s marriage to Preciado’s mother only came about as she was his largest creditor – after the wedding properties were made out in both names.
Páramo’s story is the most linear within the novel, weaving in and out of his rise from hopeless child to vengeful old man. In creating such a vile character it’s easy to make him completely evil and deny him his humanity, and Rulfo ensure’s no moralising over the man’s actions here. In fact, to balance his ruthless nature we are regularly shown the unrequited love he feels for Susana San Juan, who even in marriage never loves him.
He had thought he knew her. But even when he found he didn’t, wasn’t it enough to know that she was the person he loved most on this earth? And – and this was what mattered most – that because of her he would leave this earth illuminated by the image that erased all other memories.
But what world was Susana San Juan living in? That was one of the things that Pedro Páramo would never know.
One of the biggest achievements Rulfo manages with Pedro Páramo is that such a slight volume can feel so epic. Years come and go in whispers, the story dancing back and forward between them. From the Mexican Revolution through the Cristiada we see lives lived and torn apart. As readers we are encouraged to fill in the blanks and join the dots of the story, a task that doesn’t come easily, thanks to the scattered narrative, the first time round, but is more than cemented with a second reading. There’s probably more in a third and fourth reading – who knows what in a fifth.
As one character, oblivious to their own revenant state, notes early on:
‘Nights around here are filled with ghosts. You should see all the spirits walking through the streets. As soon as it’s dark they begin to come out. No one likes to see them. There’s so many of them and so few of us that we don’t even make the effort to pray for them anymore, to help them out of their purgatory. We don’t have enough prayers to go around.’
You should see all the spirits walking through the streets. It’s a good thing novels are not prayers, as Pedro Páramo is one that needs to go around.
December 17, 2008