This morning I received a package from my daughter containing the slim novel, Pedro Páramo, by Mexican author Juan Rulfo. I glanced at the first page and within moments was captured by its spare but compelling opening lines that, like a fairy tale, only hint at the dark journey to come:
"I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him. I squeezed her hand as a sign I would do it. She was near death, and I would have promised her anything."
The novel follows Juan Preciado's return to Comala to find his estranged father and as his mother instructs "make him pay, son, for all those years he put us out of his mind." It is late August when Juan arrives in Comala, a town so hot and dry, popular myth has it that "when people die and go to hell, they return for a blanket." Juan is greeted by Eduviges Dyada, an old friend of his mother's, and quickly learns that Pedro Páramo is long dead. But the conversation takes an odd turn, as Eduviges tells Juan that his mother had told her just that day to expect him. When told his mother is dead, Eduviges merely shrugs and responds, "So that was why her voice was so weak."
As Juan remains in Comala, trying to learn about his father (and indeed something of his heritage), he gradually discovers that all the inhabitants he meets in this abandoned town are themselves ghosts -- each desperate to tell their stories. The novel breaks into shorter, non sequential fragments -- moving backward and forward in time even as it slowly weaves together the different narrative threads of the town's inhabitants. And the stories are powerful -- full of violence, lust, corruption, and tragedy. Juan seems to gradually fade among these powerful ghosts, and there comes a terrifying moment when one fears that he may have merged with the dead. He wakes to discover he is sharing a grave with another woman, listening to the muttered complaints of the restless dead in nearby graves.
First published in the 1950s, Pedro Páramo is still considered one of the most significant contributions in Latin American fiction. Rulfo is such a brilliant storyteller -- the prose clean and sharp like a knife. The different narrators tell their stories in simple but heart-breaking language -- what the dead fear most is silence and the loss of communication. And as in fairy tales, there are evocative images of the natural world throughout -- intense heat and dust, followed by constant rain and mud, -- the very elements that come to define the dead in their graves. Having read it once -- I know I will read it again, just to savor the skill with which Rulfo orchestrates the chorus of voices in this story into a single piece -- with an ending that leaves me breathless. (No wonder Marquez said this novel was one of the inspirations for 100 Years of Solitude.)
I would also recommend this fascinating review of the novel and a biography of Juan Rulfo by Mexican poet and novelist, Carmen Boullosa. And keep your eye out for the upcoming movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal (of Motorcycle Diaries fame) as Juan Preciado.
* the art above is El Jarabe en Ultratumba (The Folk Dance Beyond the Grave) by Jose Guadelupe, 1900