Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)


The impact of Mexico’s revolution (1910-20), the last of the great peasant revolts and the first major revolution of the twentieth century was felt on much of the literary production of the country throughout the first two-thirds of the last century. Novels such as Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (1915), Augustín Yañez’s At the Edge of the Storm (1947), more indirectly in, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (1955)….

Again, the opening paragraph for the section dedicated to Mexican literature in the text-book style reference work ‘The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño and After’ Edited by Will H. Corral, Juan E De Castro and Nicholas Birns, however, having completed ‘The Edge of the Storm’ and ‘The Underdogs’ , I have moved to the books that are “indirectly” associated with the Mexican Revolution.

From a narrative point of view, Susan Sontag sums up this novel perfectly in her ‘Afterword’:

The novel’s premise – a dead mother sending her son out into the world, a son’s quest for his father [Pedro Páramo] – mutates into a multi voiced sojourn in hell. The narrative takes place in two worlds: the Comala of the present, to which Juan Preciado, the ‘I’ of the first sentences, is journeying; and the Comala of the past, the village of his mother’s memories and of Pedro Páramo’s youth. The narrative switches back and forth between first person and third person, present and past. (The great stories are not only told in the past tense, they are about the past.) the Comala of the past is a village of the living. The Comala of the present is inhabited only by the dead, and the encounters that Juan Preciado will have when he reaches Comala are with ghosts. Páramo means in Spanish barren plain, wasteland. Not only is the father he seeks dead, but so is everyone else in the village. Being dead, they have nothing to express except their essence.

And this is a haunting tale of essences mingling, pieces of human existence slowly dissolving and becoming scarce. Although in some circles this is considered a canonical work, it is not for the narrative style that I visited this novel, it was for its references to the Revolution and to understand the development of Mexican literary production in the 40/50 years after the revolution. It takes quite some time before the historical placement of this work is revealed. Late in the novel Pedro Páramo (“living bile”), as a landowner who exploits the local peasants, is to be targeted by the revolutionaries:

“Th-they ignored me. But they t-told don Fulgor to get off his horse. They s-said they were r-revolutionaries. And th-that they wanted your land.”

A little later the revolutionaries arrive at Pedro Páramo’s property:

“We’ve rebelled against the government and against people like you because we’re tired of putting up with you. Everyone in the government is a cork, and you and your kind are nothing but a bunch of lowdown bandits and slick thieves. And as for the governor himself, I won’t say nothing, because what we have to say to him we’ll say with bullets.”

As a work that switches back from the present to the past, and to various times in the past, there is a difficulty in understanding a linear view of the narrative, however this is not the intention of the author and this fragmented style is one of the major contributing factors in the novel’s longevity, along with the first seeds of “magic realism” (there’s a whole study in that term alone, so I will steer clear of it here).

We have a, brief, mention of the Cristeros war (1926-29), a rebellion “in central-western Mexico in response to the imposition of secularist and anti-clerical articles of the 1917 Constitution of Mexico, which were perceived by opponents as anti-Catholic measures aimed at imposing state atheism.” (Wikipedia).

There are a few common themes that also appeared in Mariano Azuela’s ‘The Underdogs’ (1915) and Augustín Yañez’s ‘At the Edge of the Storm’ (1947). The former novels both opened with howling or barking dogs, a warning, here they appear much later, the abandoned decaying town of Comala:

“This town is filled with echoes. I’m not afraid anymore. I hear the dogs howling, and I let them howl. And on windy days I see the wind blowing leaves from the trees, when anyone can see that there aren’t any trees here. There must have been once. Otherwise, where do the leaves come from?”

Another common link is the padre questioning his beliefs, going mad:

He rapped on the window of the confessional to summon another of the women. And while he listened to ‘I have sinned,’ his head slumped forward as if he could no longer hold it up. Then came the dizziness, the confusion, the slipping away as if in syrupy water, the whirling light; the brilliance of the dying day was splintering into shards. And there was the taste of blood on his tongue. The ‘I have sinned’ grew louder, was repeated again and again: ‘for now and forever more,’ ‘ for now and forever more,’ ‘for now …’

As a work that encompasses the Revolution and periods prior and post, there are numerous examples of this pivotal time in Mexico’s history. How a nation moved away from, and then became stuck again, in feudal landownership, how Catholic faith ebbed and flowed:

Nights around here are filled with ghosts. You should see all the spirits walking through the streets. As soon as it’s dark they begin to come out. No one likes to see them. There’s so many of them and so few of us that we don’t even make the effort to pray for them anymore, to help them out of their purgatory. We don’t have enough prayers to go around. Maybe a few words of the Lord’s Prayer for each one. But that’s not going to do them any good. Then there are our sins on top of theirs. None of us still living is in God’s grace. We can’t lift up our eyes, because they are filled with shame. And shame doesn’t help. At least that’s what the Bishop said. He came through here some time ago giving confirmation, and I went to him and confessed everything:
“I can’t pardon you,” he said.
“I’m filled with shame.”
“That isn’t the answer.”

Catholicism is questioned:

I want to think that your parishioners are still believers, but it is not you who sustains their faith. They believe out of superstition and fear.

Once “Juan Preciado, the ‘I’ of the first sentences” arrives in Comala he cannot leave, it is a town of spirits, a place where spirits of the past haunt, and there is no road out, “all the roads are grown over. You might get lost.” I thought that maybe Comala was representative of Mexico itself, it is a town not far from the coast, west of Mexico City, a place where there is no future as it is haunted by its past. However, that is probably a simplistic view. It also crossed my mind that Pedro Páramo’s only love, Doña Susana, could represent Mexico, attached to a patriarch who is overthrown, she becomes tied to another “leader”, again possibly too simplistic.

A novel that shimmers with possibilities, it is an interesting text to have included in my Mexican reading journey;

‘I will cross my arms and Comala will die of hunger.’
And that was what happened.

3 thoughts on “Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)

  1. Pingback: The Labyrinth of Solitude – Ocatvio Paz (various translators) | Messenger's Booker (and more)

  2. Pingback: Rosario Castellanos – Monologue of a Foreign Woman (tr. Maureen Ahern) | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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