Friday, 29 April 2011

Pedro Páramo

Imaginary cover from here
Pedro Páramo - Juan Rulfo
(Translated by Lysander Kemp)

"Noises. Voices. Murmurs. Faraway songs."

I first came across the name of Rulfo amoung many other Mexican writers in Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives. I had no idea what to expect but the cover looked interesting and the excerpt on the back saying that Rulfo "views history as a tragic circus in which evil impresarios betray clowns by making them believe in their own masquerade" was intriguing.

And this is a strange and intriguing book. On one level this is the story of an immoral, Macchievellian ranch owner which could form the basis for a Sergio Leone film. On another it is a Mexican The Waste Land, with a vertiginous chorus from beyond the grave whispering parts of their stories into our ears as the wind blows the dust through the empty landscape or the rain turns the dust into mud.

The narrator has come to the village of Comala to find his father Pedro Páramo and keep a promise to his dead mother. Early on we get hints that Comala may not be an ordinary place.
'"It's hot here," I said.
"This is nothing. Just wait, you'll be a lot hotter when you get to Comala. That town's the hottest place in the world. They say that when somebody dies in Comala, after he arrives in Hell he goes back to get his blanket."
"Do you know Pedro Páramo?" I asked him.
"He's hate. He's just pure hate."

Soon the voice of the narrator is joined by the voices of the dead and the stories of how Comala came to be deserted by all but the dead are spun. The book is soaked in funerals, graves and prayers for the dead.  People hide from the outside world - are there some who are alive or are all dead? Is it all a dream? Is this purgatory?

"They told me in Heaven that they'd made a mistake. They said they'd given me the heart of a mother, but not a mother's womb. That was the other dream I had. I arrived in Heaven and looked all over to see if I could recognize my son's face among the angels. It wasn't any use. Their faces were all the same, every one of them. So I asked about him. One of those saints came up to me without saying a word and buried his hand in my stomach as if he'd put it into a ball of soft wax. When he took it out again he showed me something that looked like a nutshell: 'And what I show you is the proof.' " ... "Go back to earth and rest a little longer, my daughter, and try to be good so you won't stay long in Purgatory."

An old woman in the grave asks her son who is buried with her to listen hard to what a nearby corpse is saying as she can't hear it herself. Some find it hard to talk with the taste of clay in their mouths. Bodies and souls have separated and these corpses that we listen to are decaying.

The town is bathed in woe, much of it clearly generated by Pedro. But this is not necessarily the eternal state. Things may change.  "At daybreak the day gives a turn, slowly. You can almost hear the rusty hinges of the world. The vibration of this ancient world as it tilts the darkness off itself."

This is a hugely atmospheric read and can be (and is) seen as a precursor of the literature of  Magic Realism. This short book, as concentrated and rewarding as the finest poetry, will possibly be even finer on a second read. (And both its length and quality make that likely.)


  1. Reading your review now puts me in the mood to go back and read it again.
    It is hugely atmospherical.
    I'm curious to see how they will show the dead in the movie version.
    I just started the Savage Detectives for Richard and Rise's Readalong this month. I'm not sure I saw it mentioned yet. I hope you will join that discussion.

  2. It's certainly a book that deserves rereading, and it's not as if you feel pressure to read Rulfo's other novels - although I do want to read The Burning Plain. I'm also curious about how the movie tries to capture the book - I'd guess it concentrates on the actual histories rather than the voices in the graves.
    I'm certainly hoping to join in the discussion on The Savage Detectives and haver started re-reading it. Time seems to be collapsing, however. I'll at least have made some headway by the end of the month, even if I don't manage to finish it.