The brief novel Pedro Páramo by Juan Rolfo is deeply beloved in Mexico. Its standing has been compared to Don Quixote in Spain and The Devine Comedy in Italy primarily for two reasons. First, it is the first novel (1953) to give voice to the rural poor. Second it dramatizes the trembling veil between the living and the dead that permeates Mexican culture.
In the larger context of Latin American and world literature it is admired as the godfather of Magical Realism. Borges considered it to be one of the greatest texts in any language, while García Márquez, who “could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards”, acknowledges it as the breakthrough that allowed the inception of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “the examination in depth of Juan Rulfo’s work gave me at last the way that I sought to continue my books”.
"That night I didn't sleep until I'd read it twice; not since I had read Kafka's Metamorphosis in a dingy boarding house in Bogotá, almost ten years earlier, had I felt so thunderstruck"
- Gabriel García Márquez
"The essential Mexican novel, unsurpassed and unsurpassable ... extraordinary."
- Carlos Fuentes
The basic story is that the protagonist, an ordinary guy named Juan Preciado, returns to the town where he was born to find his father because he promised the journey to his dying mother. But his father is long dead. At first the town seems deserted, but a woman offers him a room and he then begins to meet or overhear conversations or dreams of other people who are the dead of the deserted town including his hostess. He himself dies halfway through the story and narration continues in fragments of third person narration.
The story behind the fragments of conversation and narrative is the life and death of a town. It centers on the patrón, Perdro Páramo ("Páramo" means something like 'wasteland'.) who is the son and grandson of local landowners. Very young he is in love with a child-hood friend named Susana San Juan who does not return his love, marries another man and leaves town. Páramo marries the mother of the initial narrator in order to settle a large debt. Never ceasing to love Susana, Páramo grows in viciousness; killing people who stand in his way, seducing and raping other woman. He fathers a number of illegitimate children. The Mexican revolution breaks out and splintered, armed groups ravage the countryside. On the death of her husband, Susan returns to town but then dies herself, throwing Pedro into despair. He owns the town but refuses to nourish it. All along and step by step the local priest despairs over his right to give absolution especially when Pedro pays him off to do so.
Several movies exist, the most notable directed by Carlos Velo, with a writing credit to Carlos Fuentes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQJnBOlJqsc). It mainly follows the plot in real time as in my summary above. The result is something resembling a stereotypical Mexican soap opera with plenty of shots of men with little mustaches and big hats packing guns and riding prancing horses, of women in luxurious peasant blouses, and of emotional confrontations with an emphasis on the difference of gender roles.
But that is not the experience of the reader. The place is the death of the town. The time is years that do not succeed one another-; events endure in timeless ambiance. A working title, The Murmurs, more evokes the reader's experience than the name of the villain. The initial narrator and the reader are exposed to the thoughts, dreams, and self-describing dialogue spilled out the dead in the order of revelation, not the plot, in the mood of violent, desperate and constricting privation. Rulfo declines to orient the reader in a chain of causes and consequences. All consequences are immersed in nostalgia, longing, death, and loneliness.
The characters are like etchings, we do not see deeply into them, we see them compassionately as hard, grey lines; we remember them more than we understand them. It is their communal history we remember, not thier individual stories. They are the dead, which many rural Mexicans feel as immanent, invisible presences, rapt, unabsolved. Death was cheap in rural Mexico in those days, and today still is; we daily read of new mass graves uncovered.
The prose is clear and beautifully simple (Media Luna is Páramo's hacienda):
I think I still can hear the slow pulsation of her breathing, and the sighs with which she lulled my sleep... But none of that is real. I am in a black box like those they use to bury the dead. Because I am dead.
I can feel the place where I am, and I think...
I think of when the lemons ripen. Of the wind in February breaking the stems of the bracken when the lack of care makes it dry up. Of the ripe lemons filling the patio with their odor.
The wind came down from the mountains on those February mornings. And the clouds were up there waiting for the weather that lets them fall down into the valley, leaving the blue sky empty, so that the light shines down with the wind, making circles on the ground, blowing the dust, and rocking the branches of the orange trees.
And the sparrows chirped; they pecked the leaves that the wind had blown off the trees, and they chirped while they did that; they left their feathers on the branches, and they chased butterflies and chirped some more. It was that time of the year.
I remember the February mornings full of wind, and sparrows, and blue sky. That was when my mother died. I probably shouted and my hands must have been torn to shreds after wringing out my despair. You would have liked the way things were. But maybe you were not happy that morning. The wind blew through the open door, rustling stems of the ivy. The hair between the veins on my legs began to rise, and my warm hands trembled as they touched my breasts. The sparrows were enjoying themselves. In the fields the corn was waving in the wind. I felt sorry that she would no longer be able to see the wind in the jasmines, that her eyes were closed to the light of day. But why was I going to cry?
Do you remember, Justina? You had arranged the chairs along the side of the corridor for the people who would come and wait for their turn to say goodbye to her. But the chairs were empty, and my mother was alone in the center of the candles; her face was pale, her white teeth were barely visible between her red lips that were hardened by the chill of death. Her eyebrows were motionless, the same as her heart. You and I were praying endlessly, without her hearing it, nor did you or I hear anything, since all was covered by the sonority of the wind that night. You ironed her black dress, starching the collar and the cuffs so her hands would look fresh when they were crossed over her breast, her loving breast where I once had slept, that had also given me something to eat, and that palpitated, soothing my dreams.
No one came to see her, but that was for the best. Death is not something that you offer as entertainment. No one goes around looking for sadness.
Someone knocked on the door. You went out.
“You go,” I told you. “I have a hard time seeing things clearly. And tell them to go away. Are they coming for the money from the Gregorian Mass? She didn’t leave any money. Tell them that Justina. She will not be able to leave purgatory if they don’t hold these Masses and pray for her? Who are they to enforce justice? You think I’m crazy? That’s okay with me.”
“And the chairs you set up were still empty until we went to bury her with those men we hired who were sweating under someone else’s weight. They lowered the coffin slowly; they covered the grave with damp sand, while they were refreshed by the cool wind. Their eyes were cold and indifferent. They told us how much it would cost. And you paid them, like one who is buying something, untying your handkerchief that was damp with tears, and was now wrapped around the money for the funeral...”
And when they left, you kneeled in the place where her face was now, and kissed the ground; and it could have made a hole in the ground, if I hadn’t told you: “Let’s go, Justina; she’s somewhere else now; here there is only a dead body.”
Later in the book, but at no clear time, Susan thinks, "It was as if the night were being dragged back and forth by the restless breath of the wind."
The presence of the events in reading are like the presence of events in memory. We remember stories, but we do not in any moment remember our life as a story. Try to tell it and you'll see. In our minds memories are what's going on in our mind, a succession of incidents and images, particularly of people, like beads spilled on the floor and taken up together in our hands.
In its disassociated structure and well as its incidents and characters, this novel projects the haunting sadness of the oppressive and violent history of rural Mexico. One way to look at the structure is as response to trauma. The trauma of Páramo’s oppression of the townspeople, and the related trauma of the civil war. Disassociation is a common consequence of trauma.
You can read this book as a puzzle. Rolfo is giving you clues as in a mystery novel or a thriller and you can work out what happened. Or you can open you mind to a night of vivid and unsettling revery. Or both. Pick up Pedro Páramo. Read it. If you are confused, read it again; it's short. Know you are holding in your hand something intimate to the character of Mexico.