This review contains plot spoilers.
About ten years ago, not too long after graduating high school, a friend of mine recommended this novel to me. I had been chatting with him over the Internet for a long time. He was pursuing a Ph.D. in Spanish language literature in Florida, and I asked him for a list, as extensive as he wished, of literature that he thinks I should eventually read. I distinctly remember “Pedro Paramo” and “The Burning Plain and Other Stories,” both by Rulfo, being on that list. Without him, I would never have picked up Cortazar, Amado, or Eca de Queiros, all of whom I have appreciated greatly since.
I think this is one of those novels whose historical moment is of more import than its actual literary execution. This might be due either to a mediocre translation (I can’t judge since I don’t read Spanish) or Rulfo’s cautious literary experimentation that falls somewhere between the recognizable realism of his day and the innovative so-called magical realism that would be endlessly copied soon after the appearance of “Pedro Paramo.” My intuition is that it’s a little of both.
With this story, Rulfo takes some considerable steps away from realism. While she’s on her deathbed, Juan Preciado’s mother beseeches him to pursue his father (Pedro Paramo) in the state of Comala. Soon after entering the state of Comala (thought to be based on the real Mexican state of Colima), he starts to realize that the few people that he encounters there are haunted, and haunting. He hears unbearably painful moaning and caterwauling from all corners of the city, and from the people he encounters. He soon realizes that almost everyone he meets there is actually already dead. Comala brings a whole new meaning to the words “ghost town.”
Rulfo’s omniscient, roving narration is particularly interesting: the point of view switches from Juan Preciado to Pedro Paramo to the woman that Juan eventually realizes was the love of his father’s life, Susana San Juan, all of whom are also dead. Through these successive narrative shifts, Juan Preciado learns more about his father’s life: he was the impresario of Comala in its heyday, was a ruthless Lothario, and was madly in love with Susana even though she herself is haunted by the memory of her dead husband Florencio. After Susana’s death, Pedro Paramo breaks down and refuses to do anything, which causes Comala to fall into its current state. Halfway through the story, Juan Preciado himself dies.
The style here wasn’t the only bit that seemed to taken up by other offers in the few years after “Pedro Paramo” first appeared in 1955. The themes seem oddly familiar, too. The dead, and the past they inhabited, are sometimes much more alive than those who just happen to have blood flowing through their veins; remembering that past isn’t something that we do in a linear, objective way but rather is tied up with passions, poignant memories, and anxiety; finally, this is a wonderful example of how places too, never die, even if no one is there to remember them. They have a pulse all their own, a kind of indelible biological imprint that they leave that may or may not ever be discovered. These ideas were inseparable from much of the work of Borges, Marquez, and Faulkner. It wasn’t for no reason that Borges called it the one of the greatest novels of all time. He had the great fortune of being able to read it in Spanish. I would certainly encourage anyone who this ability to do the same, and would give a nudge to everyone else, if just to see how far and wide Rulfo’s influence has really been.