Pedro Páramo” (1955) treats the physical and moral disintegration of a laconic ‘cacique’ (boss) and is set in a mythical hell on earth inhabited by dead individuals who are constantly haunted by their past transgressions.
Since years I wanted to read Pedro Páramo. It’s Juan Rulfo’s only novel and not only a classic of Mexican literature but one of the most important and most influential works of Latin American literature. Rulfo was a script writer and photographer (among other things) and his photos are quite impressive. Apart from this only novel, he left a collection of short stories El llano en llamas or The Burning Plain. Should you read Spanish, you are lucky as the stories are included in the same book in the Spanish version.
It’s always mysterious when someone writes only one novel, especially when it is an important one like Pedro Páramo. Susan Sontag who wrote the introduction to the English edition also touches on this.
Everyone asked Rulfo why he didn’t write another book, as if the point of a writer’s life was to go on writing and publishing. In fact, the point of a writer’s life is to produce a great book – that is, a book that will last – and that is what Rulfo did. (Susan Sontag)
When the book was published it was absolutely no success. It was called too Faulknerian, too loose, too heterogenous.
It isn’t an easy book but it is highly evocative and contains a multitude of powerful images. The photos below have been taken by Rulfo and many of them could serve to illustrate the novel which has also been turned into a movie.
On her deathbed Juan Preciado’s mother begs him to travel to her home village Comala and to look for his father the landowner Pedro Páramo and ask for his due. Juan does as he is told. When he approaches Comala it doesn’t look as his mother described it. Where is the beauty, the life? He meets people on his way and asks them about his father and also about the village and why it is so quiet and deserted. All the men and women he meets are elusive. Someone at last indicates the house of a woman in which he can stay.
When the woman starts to tell Juan things about the people it becomes obvious that the village is deserted because everybody who lived there is dead. The people he sees are all ghosts. The noises he hears are the whispers of the dead.
The novel breaks into various different story lines from here. All those ghosts and voices start to tell their story. There is the story of the son of Pedro Páramo, killed by his horse. The story of the love between Juan’s mother and Pedro Páramo. The story of Susana, Pedro’s childhood sweetheart and second wife.
All the voices tell a different personal story but the underlying tale is the same. There is talk of corruption and oppression, exploitation and abuse. Murder and rape. Páramo is a bad man and so are his sons and it is only natural that the peasants and villagers plan an uprising.
The novel reads like a patchwork of different stories. As broken up as they are, it isn’t confusing, we know who speaks, we know who tells his tale.
While this isn’t a linear story, it is a stunning book. The writing is impressive. We hear the rain, we smell the odour of the dry earth when it is soaked, we see the shining full moon in the hot nights, we hear the ghosts whisper and see their shadows scurry along the walls. We see the tiny corn plants how they struggle for survival in the dry earth.
It’s a powerful novel infused with the spirit of the Mexican Día de los muertos or Day of the Dead at the same time it is an allegory of oppression and freedom that comes at the highest cost.
When you read Pedro Páramo it becomes obvious that “magic realism” has many faces.
I found this recording of Juan Rulfo reading one of his short stories in Spanish: Juan Rulfo reading ¡Diles que no me maten!
I attached it because I liked the way he reads it a lot.