Born in 1918, Juan Rulfo was considered an esteemed figure in the world of Spanish literature, and his novella Pedro Páramo, particularly, appears to have influenced the writing of many authors including Gabriel García Márquez who provides an introduction for this Serpent’s Tail edition. That’s not surprising because I thought this was a remarkable book.
Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a hypnotic, fever dream of a novel of death, ghosts, visions, violence, and vengeance.
It’s a tad difficult to articulate my thoughts on this novella, its vivid imagery is striking and still etched in my mind, but there’s a slippery feel to the story that’s hard to capture.
In the opening pages, Juan Preciado makes a promise to his dying mother that he will make the journey to Comala to visit his father, Pedro Páramo, a man he has never met before. Complying with her dying wish (“Make him pay, Son, for all those years he put us out of his mind”), Preciado sets off for Comala (“you can see Comala, turning the earth white, and lighting it at night”); a town that both he and the reader soon realise is haunted by the dead.
The Comala of the present is a ghost town – deserted, barren, almost dystopian (“In the shimmering sunlight the plain was a transparent lake dissolving in mists that veiled a grey horizon. Farther in the distance, a range of mountains. And farther still, faint remoteness”).
Most people that Preciado encounters are probably ghosts, a town where the dead outnumber the living with every likelihood that Pedro Páramo is dead too.
“What happens with these corpses that have been dead a long time is that when the damp reaches them they begin to stir. They wake up.”
As he traverses these empty streets craving for the company of real people but is instead assailed by sounds or voices, Preciado meets several people along the way, but alas, they are probably apparitions or a figment of his imagination; indeed, Preciado himself is tormented by dreams and illusions, overwhelmed by fears and sometimes claustrophobia. Frequent references are made to purgatory and hell; many of Comala’s dead have not been forgiven for their sins, the doors to heaven are forever closed.
Interspersed with the present are flashbacks to Comala’s past, a period that seems more grounded in reality simply because it was a robust town of the living then. And yet, it’s a tortured place, simmering with violence, and driven by revenge, where boundaries – both physical and personal – are often encroached not only by Pedro Páramo but also by his illegitimate son Miguel. The timeline of these dramatic forays into the past is non-linear, fragments that when pieced together give a broader picture of the doomed fate of the town and its inhabitants.
Various characters are fleshed out as the novella progresses. We are told about Lucas Páramo, Pedro’s father who died a gruesome death and had a low opinion of his son; we learn of Pedro Páramo’s indifference towards his wife Dolores (Juan Preciado’s mother) who abandons him to settle in another town and his yearnings for Susanna who leaves Comala with her dad at a very young age.
The day you went away I knew I would never see you again. You were stained red by the late afternoon sun, by the dusk filling the sky with blood.
To Pedro, Susanna is the love of his life, the woman he desperately wants. Thirty years later, Susana returns with her father since reports of armed rebellion compel the pair to leave their remote hut on the site of the abandoned La Andromeda mines and head for Comala. Pedro’s happiness knows no bounds, although hints emerge about Susana’s madness, the true nature of which becomes clearer later on, and forms the kernel of Pedro Páramo’s desire to wreak havoc (“And all of it was don Pedro’s doing, because of the turmoil of his soul”).
“Don’t you believe it. He loved her. I’m here to tell you that he never loved a woman like he loved that one. By the time they brought her to him, she was already suffering – maybe crazy. He loved her so much that after she died he spent the rest of his days slumped in a chair, staring down the road where they’d carried her to holy ground. He lost interest in everything. He let his lands lie fallow, and gave orders for the tools that worked it to be destroyed. Some say it was because he was worn out; others said it was despair. The one sure thing is that he threw everyone off his land and sat himself down in his chair to stare down that road.”
Pedro wields a considerable influence over Comala (“He is, I haven’t a doubt of it, unmitigated evil”), a town he rules through frequent recourse to violence, a warped legacy he passes on to Miguel, who unsurprisingly given his brash personality, meets an untimely death in a freak accident. Despite his longing for Susana, Pedro also seems to be a chronic womanizer having fathered many children; at the very beginning Preciado comes across a tone-deaf man called Abundio Martinez who informs him that “Pedro Páramo’s my father too.”
So potent is Pedro’s power in Comala that even the priest, Father Rentaria, is compelled to pardon Miguel at his funeral, even when he internally revolts at the idea (Miguel had killed his brother and raped his niece).
“I know you hated him, Father. And with reason. Rumour has it that your brother was murdered by my son, and you believe that your niece Ana was raped by him. Then there were his insults, and his lack of respect. Those are all reasons anyone could understand. But forget all that now, Father. Weigh him and forgive him, as perhaps God has forgiven him.”
He placed a handful of gold coins on the prie-dieu and to his feet: “Take this as a gift for your church.”
Tired, defeated and burdened by the knowledge that he had set in motion a chain of events that got out of control, Father Rentaria seeks salvation himself from a fellow priest, but is refused. Salvation is not always forthcoming to Comala’s people. Father Rentaria, on his part, refuses to pardon a destitute woman called Dorotea who confesses to having brought girls to Miguel, this is revealed to us in her conversation with Juan Preciado in their graves…
“I don’t know, Juan Preciado. After so many years of never lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done? The sky is so high and my eyes so clouded that I was happy just knowing where the ground was. Besides, I lost all interest after padre Rentaría told me I would never know glory. Or even see it from a distance… It was because of my sins, but he didn’t have to tell me that. Life is hard enough as it is. The only thing that keeps you going is the hope that when you die you’ll be lifted off this mortal coil; but when they close one door to you and the only one left open is the door to Hell, you’re better off not being born. For me, Juan Preciado, heaven is right here.”
Pedro Páramo, then, is a novella about dashed hopes, twisted love and boundless tragedy, the fates of its characters inextricably linked to the senseless actions of a mercurial, brutal man. There’s a trancelike, hallucinatory quality to the storytelling that flits between past and present, where the boundaries between dreams and reality are often blurred. It’s an enthralling mood piece; prose that has a filmic texture to it, an amalgam of non-chronological snapshots patched together to form a rich reel of an ill-fated town. Not to mention the limpid, poetic sentences pulsating with haunting sensory images.
Green pastures. Watching the horizon rise and fall as the wind swirled through the wheat, an afternoon rippling with curling lines of rain. The colour of the earth, the smell of alfalfa and bread. A town that smelled like spilled honey…
Pedro Páramo is a vessel of collective voices and whispers as it effortlessly moves between the realms of the living and dead; the narrative switches between the first person in the present (Preciado is the narrator to be joined in the second half by Dorotea as the two begin conversing) and a third person point of view when the focus shifts to events of the past. Cinematic in scope, strange and unique, Pedro Páramo can be a disorienting experience in the beginning but then transforms into something magical as it coasts along. Highly recommended!