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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

21 responses to Juan Rulfo: Pedro Páramo

  1. Tom C said:

    A fine review Stewart. I have never heard of Rulfo but am now seeking him out.

  2. KevinfromCanada said:

    I suggested on Trevor’s blog that I thought Javier Marias would appeal to you. I am wondering if you have ever tried him? Kevin

  3. Stewart said:

    I suggested on Trevor’s blog that I thought Javier Marias would appeal to you. I am wondering if you have ever tried him

    He’s been on my radar for a few months now, Kevin, after a couple of positive reviews on World Lit Forum. Soldiers Of Salamis would probably have been the one I started with, give it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few years back. But All Soul’s Day you say? Duly noted.

    Tom, with only two books out there you at least don’t have much to seek out. Interestingly, I was out Christmas shopping this evening and happened across a revised edition of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die, which I’ll stick up on my lists. This one has much more of an international focus, which is better. 282 books out, 282 new in. Fresh from Pedro Páramo I thought I’d confirm it was now on the list. It wasn’t, but The Burning Plain was. Lists, eh?

  4. emma t said:

    I read this book a few years ago exactly because it popped up in one of those “2260 most ameeezing books ever” list. I can’t remember anything about it! Except that it was deeply weird. And not unenjoyable.

  5. Stewart said:

    My first reading was like that, Emma. When I got to the end I was saying, “What?” to myself. I felt, however, that the first read was not unlike opening a jigsaw and getting the pieces all over the place, with the second reading being my attempts to put those pieces into perspective. That’s why I jumped straight back to page one on finishing, something I’m glad I did as otherwise I would probably have found the book like you did, “not unenjoyable”. I’m sure if you gave it another spin, you’d enjoy it more.

  6. nico said:

    It’s great to see some Latin American authors in your blog! This is a classic novella, owing much, of course, to Faulkner. Did you know that the volume was organised by some friends of him? The stories are worth reading and contain that ‘epic’ feeling as well, as you described P Páramo.

  7. Stewart said:

    It’s great to see some Latin American authors in your blog!

    Thanks, nico. I intend on reading more in the near future. I’m in and out of Bolano at the moment and have some Julio Cortazar to and. Any recommendations of other writers?

  8. nico said:

    I’m sorry, I’m kind of daunted by Bolaño’s stir. I think he is overrated, but who am I to judge! Here in Chile everyone’s infatuated with him. My favorite chilean writer is Diamela Eltit. There’s some novels of her translated, (‘Sacred cow’, ‘Custody of the eyes’), it’s more experimental, similar to the caribbean baroque (Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, Carpentier, and so on), and of course Brazilian’s Clarice Lispector. And you mention Cortázar. That’s such a great writer, especially the stories (you know there’s this short story ‘Las babas del diablo’ that Antonioni made into a movie–the result is not very good and it fails to get the sinister quality of the paedophile’s ambush), and of course ‘Rayuela’ (Scopscotch). You should also try José Donoso, that’s a great narrator. His novels are worth re-reading.

  9. Stewart said:

    nico, thanks for those names. I’ll look into them. I’ve sampled Clarice Lispector, at least. Eltit, Lima, and Sarduy are new names, as is Donoso. (The latter’s The Obscene Bird Of Night doesn’t seem to come cheap, on scouting around.)

    Since you say you are in Chile, I’m reminded of another Chilean that I read last year but didn’t get around to writing about on the blog (partly because the ending lost me) and that was Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. It’s only about seventy pages, so I’ll be giving it another shot at some point.

  10. nico said:

    Great! Yes, ‘the obscene bird’ is his most ambitious novel, but he is a very versatile novelist and i would recommend first his others works (don’t know the translations, but ‘Coronacion’, ‘Casa de campo’ and ‘El jardin de al lado’ are some you can check out). ‘The obscene bird’ can be quite confusing. I would insist on Eltit. Regarding Zambra, i read both his novels. It’s plain to see he comes from poetry, his narrations are extremely economical and ephemeral, in my view. Bonsai has that à la Kundera flair, and the last one, ‘Secret life of trees’ (also about 80 pages) i read in one sitting but found it so so…

  11. Stewart said:

    He’s been on my radar for a few months now, Kevin, after a couple of positive reviews on World Lit Forum. Soldiers Of Salamis would probably have been the one I started with, give it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few years back. But All Soul’s Day you say? Duly noted.

    And it’s only now, several weeks later, that I realise I’ve been mixing up Javier Cercas and Javier Marias.

    My favorite chilean writer is Diamela Eltit. There’s some novels of her translated, (’Sacred cow’, ‘Custody of the eyes’)

    Well, Nico, I’ve ordered Sacred Cow and, since Eltit provides an afterword, a book called Carmen’s Rust by Ana Maria del Rio. Have you read the latter?

    I’m certainly intrigued by Eltit, having stumbled across this.

  12. Damn. I thought you had discovered some Marias that I didn’t know about. Perhaps that means I will have to try Cercas.

  13. nico said:

    That’s wonderful. I hope you like it. Eltit is much appreciated in the american academy, and also in the English (Jo Labanyi was one of the first to analyze her fiction).
    ‘Carmen’s Rust’ is a brief novella, very pretty. Ana María del Río is also an important writer, especially because of her ‘transitional’ role (from Pinochet’s dictatorship to democracy), and that piece of work is in my opinion her best.
    Now that you are mentioning Marías, if you decide to read some novel of his, please go directly to ‘A heart so white’. His other novels can be tedious and extremely speculative. That one, though, is a real masterpiece!! Thanks for your interest!

  14. nico said:

    I just saw the post by the U of iowa about Eltit’s first novel. That is a very experimental novel, very fragmented, that makes use of a lot of intertexts, operetta, golden age theater and postmodern fiction; it even has different types of letters and fonts, and it has caused quite a controversy, especially when it was first published (under dictatorship–no one knows how it eluded the censorship), but i wouldn’t recommend that one as a start.

  15. Stewart said:

    ‘Carmen’s Rust’ is a brief novella, very pretty. Ana María del Río is also an important writer…and that piece of work is in my opinion her best.

    Nico, glad to hear it. I do have a tendency to impulse buy authors who I’ve never heard of, especially the serendipitous findings.

    Regarding Marias, I did buy All Souls a few weeks back. Only found it tonight, tucked away amongst a bunch of other stuff. (I really need to get into a read and purge mentality, as I’ve got far too many books now, so much that all the shelf space has gone, that all my desk space has gone, and I can’t even open the scanner any more because it’s covered in books. Not to mention the ones I’ve had to put under chests of drawers and up in the loft.)

  16. The sign of a true devoted reader is someone who already has too many books that they haven’t read and yet keeps buying more. I too have piles like that but have the luxury of enforcing a rule that says I only bring books that I am writing about into the room where my computer is located.

    Nico raises a good point about Marias — from what I can tell, his work definitely settles into two genres, although all were written originally in Spanish. There are his Spanish books (which I admit to not having read) where Heart So White seems to be acknowledged as the critical favorite. And there are what I will call his English books — a Spanish writer observes England through a fictional lens — which start with All Souls (not at all speculative in my view) and then move on into the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (definitely speculative, not tedious in my view, but I could understand those who think it is).

  17. nico said:

    Yes, I agree, Kevin. I read ‘All Souls’ a while ago. That’s the one in Oxford, right? I don’t know, there’s something slightly fascist in that book, (or at least hierarchycal) that’s the only feeling that still lingers about that narration. But the other one’s really really beautiful.

  18. I wouldn’t say fascist, but hierarchical is very much on the right track (and that thought continues throughout Marias’ English work, if you accept my distinction). One of his fascinations is the various kinds of stratification (economic, hereditary, academic, you name it) that exist in English society and that utter lack of logical explanation for them — despite the fact that they often produce tragic consequences (a subject he explores in much more depth in Your Face Tomorrow). His positioning of himself as “an observor from outside” is one of the reasons that I like his English novels.

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  20. john hilden said:

    I’ve only read one by Marias–“All Souls” and found it enjoyable. Coetzee thinks Marias is one of the best writers in the world. Don’t know about that.

    As far as Rulfo goes, he is definitely a little bit off-putting when you first encounter him. Don’t think I got fifty pages in the first time I tried “Pedro Paramo” but subsequent readings–many years later–proved worth the effort. I would definitely recommend “The Burning Plain” first. There are some really powerful stories in it.

    Anyone ever read Cortazar’s story “The Night Face Up”? It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.

  21. Stewart said:

    I’ll need to get myself a copy of The Burning Plain. I do have a copy of All Souls and should dig it out and give it a spin at some point.

    Regarding the Cortazar story, I may have to read it soon. I just checked my copy of Blow Up and Other Stories, and it’s in there.

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21 responses to Juan Rulfo: Pedro Páramo

  1. Tom C said:

    A fine review Stewart. I have never heard of Rulfo but am now seeking him out.

  2. KevinfromCanada said:

    I suggested on Trevor’s blog that I thought Javier Marias would appeal to you. I am wondering if you have ever tried him? Kevin

  3. Stewart said:

    I suggested on Trevor’s blog that I thought Javier Marias would appeal to you. I am wondering if you have ever tried him

    He’s been on my radar for a few months now, Kevin, after a couple of positive reviews on World Lit Forum. Soldiers Of Salamis would probably have been the one I started with, give it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few years back. But All Soul’s Day you say? Duly noted.

    Tom, with only two books out there you at least don’t have much to seek out. Interestingly, I was out Christmas shopping this evening and happened across a revised edition of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die, which I’ll stick up on my lists. This one has much more of an international focus, which is better. 282 books out, 282 new in. Fresh from Pedro Páramo I thought I’d confirm it was now on the list. It wasn’t, but The Burning Plain was. Lists, eh?

  4. emma t said:

    I read this book a few years ago exactly because it popped up in one of those “2260 most ameeezing books ever” list. I can’t remember anything about it! Except that it was deeply weird. And not unenjoyable.

  5. Stewart said:

    My first reading was like that, Emma. When I got to the end I was saying, “What?” to myself. I felt, however, that the first read was not unlike opening a jigsaw and getting the pieces all over the place, with the second reading being my attempts to put those pieces into perspective. That’s why I jumped straight back to page one on finishing, something I’m glad I did as otherwise I would probably have found the book like you did, “not unenjoyable”. I’m sure if you gave it another spin, you’d enjoy it more.

  6. nico said:

    It’s great to see some Latin American authors in your blog! This is a classic novella, owing much, of course, to Faulkner. Did you know that the volume was organised by some friends of him? The stories are worth reading and contain that ‘epic’ feeling as well, as you described P Páramo.

  7. Stewart said:

    It’s great to see some Latin American authors in your blog!

    Thanks, nico. I intend on reading more in the near future. I’m in and out of Bolano at the moment and have some Julio Cortazar to and. Any recommendations of other writers?

  8. nico said:

    I’m sorry, I’m kind of daunted by Bolaño’s stir. I think he is overrated, but who am I to judge! Here in Chile everyone’s infatuated with him. My favorite chilean writer is Diamela Eltit. There’s some novels of her translated, (‘Sacred cow’, ‘Custody of the eyes’), it’s more experimental, similar to the caribbean baroque (Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, Carpentier, and so on), and of course Brazilian’s Clarice Lispector. And you mention Cortázar. That’s such a great writer, especially the stories (you know there’s this short story ‘Las babas del diablo’ that Antonioni made into a movie–the result is not very good and it fails to get the sinister quality of the paedophile’s ambush), and of course ‘Rayuela’ (Scopscotch). You should also try José Donoso, that’s a great narrator. His novels are worth re-reading.

  9. Stewart said:

    nico, thanks for those names. I’ll look into them. I’ve sampled Clarice Lispector, at least. Eltit, Lima, and Sarduy are new names, as is Donoso. (The latter’s The Obscene Bird Of Night doesn’t seem to come cheap, on scouting around.)

    Since you say you are in Chile, I’m reminded of another Chilean that I read last year but didn’t get around to writing about on the blog (partly because the ending lost me) and that was Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. It’s only about seventy pages, so I’ll be giving it another shot at some point.

  10. nico said:

    Great! Yes, ‘the obscene bird’ is his most ambitious novel, but he is a very versatile novelist and i would recommend first his others works (don’t know the translations, but ‘Coronacion’, ‘Casa de campo’ and ‘El jardin de al lado’ are some you can check out). ‘The obscene bird’ can be quite confusing. I would insist on Eltit. Regarding Zambra, i read both his novels. It’s plain to see he comes from poetry, his narrations are extremely economical and ephemeral, in my view. Bonsai has that à la Kundera flair, and the last one, ‘Secret life of trees’ (also about 80 pages) i read in one sitting but found it so so…

  11. Stewart said:

    He’s been on my radar for a few months now, Kevin, after a couple of positive reviews on World Lit Forum. Soldiers Of Salamis would probably have been the one I started with, give it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few years back. But All Soul’s Day you say? Duly noted.

    And it’s only now, several weeks later, that I realise I’ve been mixing up Javier Cercas and Javier Marias.

    My favorite chilean writer is Diamela Eltit. There’s some novels of her translated, (’Sacred cow’, ‘Custody of the eyes’)

    Well, Nico, I’ve ordered Sacred Cow and, since Eltit provides an afterword, a book called Carmen’s Rust by Ana Maria del Rio. Have you read the latter?

    I’m certainly intrigued by Eltit, having stumbled across this.

  12. Damn. I thought you had discovered some Marias that I didn’t know about. Perhaps that means I will have to try Cercas.

  13. nico said:

    That’s wonderful. I hope you like it. Eltit is much appreciated in the american academy, and also in the English (Jo Labanyi was one of the first to analyze her fiction).
    ‘Carmen’s Rust’ is a brief novella, very pretty. Ana María del Río is also an important writer, especially because of her ‘transitional’ role (from Pinochet’s dictatorship to democracy), and that piece of work is in my opinion her best.
    Now that you are mentioning Marías, if you decide to read some novel of his, please go directly to ‘A heart so white’. His other novels can be tedious and extremely speculative. That one, though, is a real masterpiece!! Thanks for your interest!

  14. nico said:

    I just saw the post by the U of iowa about Eltit’s first novel. That is a very experimental novel, very fragmented, that makes use of a lot of intertexts, operetta, golden age theater and postmodern fiction; it even has different types of letters and fonts, and it has caused quite a controversy, especially when it was first published (under dictatorship–no one knows how it eluded the censorship), but i wouldn’t recommend that one as a start.

  15. Stewart said:

    ‘Carmen’s Rust’ is a brief novella, very pretty. Ana María del Río is also an important writer…and that piece of work is in my opinion her best.

    Nico, glad to hear it. I do have a tendency to impulse buy authors who I’ve never heard of, especially the serendipitous findings.

    Regarding Marias, I did buy All Souls a few weeks back. Only found it tonight, tucked away amongst a bunch of other stuff. (I really need to get into a read and purge mentality, as I’ve got far too many books now, so much that all the shelf space has gone, that all my desk space has gone, and I can’t even open the scanner any more because it’s covered in books. Not to mention the ones I’ve had to put under chests of drawers and up in the loft.)

  16. The sign of a true devoted reader is someone who already has too many books that they haven’t read and yet keeps buying more. I too have piles like that but have the luxury of enforcing a rule that says I only bring books that I am writing about into the room where my computer is located.

    Nico raises a good point about Marias — from what I can tell, his work definitely settles into two genres, although all were written originally in Spanish. There are his Spanish books (which I admit to not having read) where Heart So White seems to be acknowledged as the critical favorite. And there are what I will call his English books — a Spanish writer observes England through a fictional lens — which start with All Souls (not at all speculative in my view) and then move on into the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (definitely speculative, not tedious in my view, but I could understand those who think it is).

  17. nico said:

    Yes, I agree, Kevin. I read ‘All Souls’ a while ago. That’s the one in Oxford, right? I don’t know, there’s something slightly fascist in that book, (or at least hierarchycal) that’s the only feeling that still lingers about that narration. But the other one’s really really beautiful.

  18. I wouldn’t say fascist, but hierarchical is very much on the right track (and that thought continues throughout Marias’ English work, if you accept my distinction). One of his fascinations is the various kinds of stratification (economic, hereditary, academic, you name it) that exist in English society and that utter lack of logical explanation for them — despite the fact that they often produce tragic consequences (a subject he explores in much more depth in Your Face Tomorrow). His positioning of himself as “an observor from outside” is one of the reasons that I like his English novels.

  19. Pingback: booklit

  20. john hilden said:

    I’ve only read one by Marias–“All Souls” and found it enjoyable. Coetzee thinks Marias is one of the best writers in the world. Don’t know about that.

    As far as Rulfo goes, he is definitely a little bit off-putting when you first encounter him. Don’t think I got fifty pages in the first time I tried “Pedro Paramo” but subsequent readings–many years later–proved worth the effort. I would definitely recommend “The Burning Plain” first. There are some really powerful stories in it.

    Anyone ever read Cortazar’s story “The Night Face Up”? It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.

  21. Stewart said:

    I’ll need to get myself a copy of The Burning Plain. I do have a copy of All Souls and should dig it out and give it a spin at some point.

    Regarding the Cortazar story, I may have to read it soon. I just checked my copy of Blow Up and Other Stories, and it’s in there.

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