Juan Rulfo: Pedro Páramo (1955) A Classic of Mexican Literature

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.

This is my second read for Carl’s R.I.P VI. Don’t forget to visit the reviewsite.

52 thoughts on “Juan Rulfo: Pedro Páramo (1955) A Classic of Mexican Literature

    • I love the cover. I’d love to go to Mexico for the Día de los muertos.
      I wasn’t sure whether I should link it to the RIP site. I still could…
      I’m sure the short stories are great too.
      Thanks for the book tip.
      He is an amazing photographer.

  1. Wonderful review, Caroline! I haven’t heard of Juan Rulfo before and so he is a new discovery for me. This book looks fascinating from your description. I love the premise of the book. I loved Susan Sontag’s observation – so beautifully put. The pictures that you have posted are quite interesting. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • Thanks, Vishy, I’m gald you liked it.
      I was thinking for a long time about the quote by Susan Sontag. It also made me think of Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird is a work of perfection. I can imagine that after having written a book like that there is nothing more to write.
      I love his photography and that is how he writes.
      I found him through a book about Susan Sontag. He was very influential, it seems.

      • I was reading Francine Prose’s book called ‘Reading like a writer’ a few days back. This book had a section called ‘Books to be read immediately’. Surprise, surprise, Rulfo’s ‘Pedro Páramo’ was there on that list 🙂 The same book coming up in two places within a space of a few days was quite fascinating – first in your wonderful review and then now in Francine Prose’s list. I really should read it now.

        • What a coincidence. I love Francine Prose’s book and always recommend it but didn’t remember she mentions Pedro Páramo. She does mention this month’s readalong choice The Things They Carried. That made me want to read it in the first place.

  2. Caroline, so glad you chose to write about this for R.I.P.! I actually thought this would be a perfect read for Carl’s challenge as well, but I’m not quite ready to reread it just yet. The short stories I’ve read by Rulfo are also powerful but almost completely different in tone than Pedro Páramo (more matter of fact and social realist). Anyway, love the choice–well done!

  3. What a strange and intriguing book this sounds. Isn’t it odd the way that the great novels are so often the ones people don’t get or dislike when they first appear. Or perhaps it’s not so strange – perhaps if any book is going to stand the test of time, it must need be in advance of its own era. And those pictures are so chilling!

    • He certainly was ahead of his time, and, as you say, that’s often the case with great literature. It’s a fascinating book. When you start to picture the episodes, they are quite creepy, all these dead people talking, wanting to be understood and forgiven.

    • That’s probabaly the Mexican influence. We don’t have this in Europe at all, at least not in the north, maybe in Spain or Italy.
      I have read the book and was thinking of it a few times while reading Rulfo. I have alos seen the movie but I did prefer the book.

  4. It’s interesting that the book failed when it was first published. Susan Sontag is right, though – the point is to produce something that lasts. I suppose that the overwhelming majority of writers do continue to write more over the course of their lives, so it’s legitimate to be curious when someone doesn’t do that. I see what you’re saying about books like To Kill a Mockingbird, but to me it seems unnatural to view something as perfect and stop there – I’d always be at least curious to see if I could produce something even better. Of course, it’s possible that they did but never published the results. Thanks for the review of a book I wasn’t aware of but will be seeking out now. Thoughtful and informative as always!

    • Thanks Andrew. Despite it being so highly influential, I don’t think it’s all that known. Rulfo tried to write another novel, he never finished it.
      I’m not sure that those who stop do it willingly, some just fail or are intimidated by their own former achievement.
      It could be that Harper Lee was hit with writer’s block. In her case I really thought she didn’t try further.
      There is the idea of the perfect work of art in what Sontag says, a book that would contain so much, nothing else would have to be added.

  5. This is one of my all-time favorite books. Completely stunning and utterly unforgettable. And I wished more people will read this gem. Susan Sontag is spot on. Rulfo’s one book towers over multiple books by other writers. Another one-book gem is The Leopard by di Lampedusa. Thanks for the review. I wanted to join the RIP challenge but could not come up with a list of books as I don’t read much mysteries and such. I might just reread Paramo for the challenge. Thanks for that too. All the best.

    • Thanks Kinna and I’m glad I gave you an idea. I think there are far more books that fit the challenge once you start looking. Of course, the majority might rather choose genre, it at first but Sarah and Richard helped make the decision.
      Lampedusa, indeed. I need to re-read him.
      I think it opens up Pedro Páramo much more when you know he was a photographer. He paints with words. Very strong pictures that stay in ones mind.
      I don’t mind writers who go on writing but some do not come up with new ideas and just rewrite the same book over and over again.

  6. I feel ashame that I have never heard of this book before…being famous as you’ve said. The ghost town is very interesting (wondering myself why I never heard it). Thank you for sharing this…will see if I can find the English translation version.

    The way you explain how you are curious with writers that only write one book is liked Stephen King when he talks about to kill a mocking bird

  7. Creepy cover. Isn’t there a church in Rome which full of bones?

    I’m not familiar with South American literature so I’m adding this one on my list. Thanks.
    Those things exist in Spain, isn’t it in Volver?

    • There are a few. I visited a creepy one in Palermo. It’s an interesting book should you want to read more South American Literature because he was one of the first, with Carpentier, to use magic realism, or rather real maravilloso which isn’t exactly the same.
      It should be very good in French.
      What exists in Volver (I haven’t seen it yet)?

  8. Wow, the cover of that book is super creepy. Sounds like a very interesting read, though! I’ve never heard of it before, which seems a shame. I’ll have to see if I can get my hands on a copy. Great review! 🙂

    • Thanks, Anna. I hope you will like it. There is also a movie, I haven’t watched it, I wonder how they depicted dead people talking.
      I used to read almost only South American Literature for a year or two and never heard of it then. Odd.

  9. Agree entirely when you say this is “powerful” Caroline…it really infects your mind. By chance I just last week finished Rulfo’s stories (The Burning Plain) which are also excellent: less of the athmosphere of death and corruption, but more of the terrible effects of vengeance, cruelty and greed on peasant lives. It goes without saying that if you liked Pedro Paramo they’re worth reading as well.

    Funny, like Guy I automatically thought of Under the Volcano as well. Now that’s one that needs a re-read.

    • I was quite young when I read Under the Volcano, maybe 17. It haunted me for weeks. It does need a re-read. I never read anything else by Lowry after that.
      I’ve read a lot about Rulfo but it was very different from what I expected. The images he creates are powerful. Also as a photographer. I got his stories as I have the Spanish edition. I’ll wait a bit but will certainly read them.

      • I really liked the photos you posted above, I must look into more of that side of Rulfo.

        NYRB have issued a collection of Lowry’s diaries, letters, stories, fragments etc called The Journey That Never Ends. I have it but have only dipped into it…given the life he lead, you can’t expect him to be consistent. But the peaks are very high.

        • I think he was also involved with the film version of Pedro Pâramo. He certainly wrote the script. His photos are stunning. I’ve seen more, you can google and find the easily. I think Sarah (tuulenhaiven) also mentions a book. Thanks for the tip on Lowry”s book. That tempts me a lot. I think it took him 10 years to write Under the Volcano. I think one could call his life excessive. I owe him the worst hangover of all times. Absoluetly had to try mescal…. Boy, that was bad… I could never be an alcoholic.

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  12. Just came to this from your Books of the Year – It was also one of mine. It has one of the most perfectly realised atmospheres of any book I’ve read. It also made me think of Under the Volcano, and Leone’s High Plains Drifter</b.. I hadn't seen the photographs, but will now do a google search for more. I'll also have to watch the movie now that I know it's available.

    • It’s a great book and once you have seen the photographs I think you can really feel how visual he is in his writing. He creates very powerful image.
      I need to re-read Under the Volcano. I haven’t seen that Leone movie.
      Now that you mention it, the movie of this book would be a great choice for the World Cinema Series. I hope you will watch and review it.

  13. I don´t know exactly why I dropped here, but certainly I was looking for some information about Pedro Páramo for a friend.
    Not so fascinated for the cover of the book at the top by the way.
    I live in México and probably I have another conception of death.
    It is so nice to know that people who live in other places, specially those who speak in English, like this author, probably my favorite one. I have read this book around 7 times at different moments and I have found something new each.
    There are 2 movies based on the novel, I like most the 2nd one.
    Hope to have further contact to speak more about Literature, and specially from Latin America.


    • Hi Arturo, thanks for dropping by. The book was a major discovery. I’m sure I would find a lot more if I read it again. I wasn’t aware of a second movie. I will have to have a look.
      I ry to read more Latin American Literature. I used to read a lot. In Spanish even but I’m rusty. I just reviewed Alvaro Mutis. A great find as well.
      If you have any recommendations, do please let me know. It’s always wonderful to hear from people who grew up with the literature of another country.

      • Hello, Caroline. Thanks for reply!
        It will be a pleasure to give you some recommendatios.
        To be more precise, could I have a big picture of what you already have read, known about LatAm literaure? Authors, titles, etc., please.


        • Hi Arturo, the obvious ones Allende, Márquez, Fuentes, Cortázar. Maria Luisa Bombal, Borges, Vargas Llosa. A failed attempt to read Bolaño (Savage Detectives – did not work for me). I own a few others which I haven read yet like Lezama Lima, Asturias and Cabrera Infante. My very favourite was Marquez and Maria Luisa Bombal. I started Alfredo Bryce Echenique’s Un mundo para Julius last month but had to abandon beacuse I had too many things to do. The beginning was great. I’m not totally ignorant but there is so much to discover. Thanks in advance.

          • Thank you for the info, Caroline. I’m gonna send you via e-mail directly a list of Essentials of Latin American Literature according to my experience. I hope you like it and had the opportunity to find the works there. Just wait, please.
            Have a nice day.

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  15. What a gorgeous edition! So much nicer than mine, I’ll look out for this one.

    Its fascinating to see his eye as a photographer. I find the landscape images like his writing, uncluttered but so impactful.

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