Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo

I’ve recently discovered the hidden places on the Internet where book lovers across the world meet to discuss and share favourite works or argue over the merits of an author or era, and Pedro Páramo, the only novel by Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, was the first major reward of that adventure. First published in 1955, it met with a cold reception, but today it is regarded as Mexico’s preeminent work of fiction, lauded by critics and cited by major Latin American literary figures like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Márquez as a major influence or work of genius (Márquez went much further, describing the 300-odd pages of Rulfo’s collected works as “as durable as the pages that have come down to us from Sophocles”). Its English-language translation has sold more than one million copies in the United States, and it is now available in over 30 languages worldwide. In her effusive Foreword to the book, Susan Sontag describes it as “not only one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature, but one of the most influential of the century’s books,” and when one surveys the explosion of “magical realism” that came after it, it’s easy to see why. What explains this incredible reception? Rulfo’s novel is simply haunting, a fairytale-turned-nightmare that employs the familiar storytelling tricks of fables and legends in the service of making the reader intensely uncomfortable. The only two analogues I can offer from my reading are Dante’s Inferno and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Here there is hell on earth, the dead speak, and the reader is made to lose their footing, their sense of the real and the imaginary, almost from the very first page.

The opening is beguiling, lifted right from a fairytale:

I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him. I squeezed her hands as a sign that I would do it. She was near death, and I would have promised her anything …

We are given, in five short sentences, character, setting and plot, as well as the expectation that these will be carried forward. We are grounded, ready to set off on this son’s quest after his father. But scarcely have we turned the page before our assumptions are undone. On the road to Comala, our protagonist Juan Preciado comes across a donkey driver headed towards Comala, who, it turns out, is also a son of Pedro Paramo. “Who is he?” Juan asks him, only to be given the terse reply: “Living bile.” We will soon learn that only the living part is a lie: Pedro Paramo was Comala’s wealthy tyrant, but he has been dead for years. The town of Comala likewise dashes our narrator’s hopes: it does not resemble the vibrant town of his mother’s stories so much as a ghost town, long ago deserted by its former inhabitants. The industrial revolution, when it finally came to Mexico, stripped many towns like Comala of their young people, leaving them to die slow and lonely deaths until the desert eventually reclaimed them. Thus we have an odd temporal situation: the past, normally associated with death, is in Pedro Páramo the only source of vitality, and the present – for the few alive to witness it – is a barren wasteland. It is at about this time that the narrative begins to break down: the past and present blend into each other, characters – alive or dead we cannot always know – enter and leave the narrative abruptly, and that promised plot of a son searching after a long-lost father dissipates like so much smoke.

In Pedro Páramo, the town of Comala takes on a character all its own. In Preciado’s mother’s telling, Comala “smells ike spilled honey,” but in the narrative present it is a desolate place, oppressed by heat during the day and rain at night. Even the stars seem menacing here: “Shooting stars. They fell as if the sky were raining fire.” But it’s the towns inhabitants who most disturb us. One woman, a ghost from the town’s past, when the titular character was alive and taking advantage of his wealth to father as many children as possible, describes the setting perfectly, presciently:

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 in your footsteps. You hear rustlings. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years. Sounds like that. But I think the day will come when those sounds fade away.

For this woman, it is the very vitality of the town that gives rise to these echoes and this sense of density that prohibits privacy, but for the reader – already acquainted with the town’s grim future – the echoes and “voices worn away by the years” take on a more sinister meaning. Through the dialogue of these shades of Comala, trapped between life and death, we gradually comprehend the history of Pedro Páramo: how he seduced Juan Preciado’s mother only to gain control of her family estate, while secretly lusting after another woman whose affections are reserved for her dead husband. When all his guile and wealth prove powerless to win him the only thing he truly desires, he exacts vengeance on the town by starving it, refusing to put his vast farmlands to use.

One reviewer described the character of Pedro Páramo as a “satanic Gatsby,” and that’s incredibly apt: all his accumulated fortune, his scheming and self-fashioning, ultimately corrupt and destroy an entire town. But where Fitzgerald relies on conventional narrative techniques to unmask his self-made man, Rulfo disrupts every convention, dashes every expectation, to force his reader to share in the confusion and discomfort of his characters. In 1955, when this novel first appeared, Mexico was still recovering from both the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War (1926-29), in which the rural Catholic masses rebelled against the government’s attempts to stamp out organized religion. Juan Rulfo personally witnessed much of the resulting bloodshed, and infused his only novel with violence and brutality of the era. The result is a waking nightmare, a novel peopled by the dead and damned. “This world presses in on us from every side; it scatters fistfuls of our dust across the land and takes bits and pieces of us as if to water the earth with our blood,” one character says. “What did we do? Why have our souls rotted away?” The answers linger with the reader long after the final page has been turned.