PEDRO PARAMO BY JUAN RULFO

[P] came out of the airport and into the stifling heat of a Mexican midsummer. Overhead, birds as big as cats circled slowly as though tired of the day. By the exit, a line of black taxi cabs dozed. [P] rapped on the window of the closest cab and waited, his forehead already damp with sweat. The cab slowly pulled away as though trying to free itself from something thick and sticky. An identical cab shuffled forward to take its place. [P] approached, and the window came down erratically, like the movements of a large spider with a missing leg.
‘Get in, señor,’ said a voice from inside.
[P] gripped the handle, which sent a shock of electric heat through his hand.
‘Son of a…’
‘Get in.’
Hot as Hell. Leather seats clinging to his back and his legs.
‘Where to, señor?’
‘Comala.’
The driver did not turn around, but laughed into the windscreen.
‘To Comala? This is your first time in Mexico, no? You do not want to go to Comala, señor.’
‘Why not?’
‘It is, how you say, dead there? Very few people. For a tourist, you understand.’
‘I’m not a tourist. I’m here to write’
‘Escritor, señor? Ah, you are a journalist?’
‘No, I’m writing a review. Research. Comprende?’
‘Si, si. And what are you researching, señor?’
[P] ran his hand across his brow. It felt like burning sand.
‘Pedro Paramo. You know it? By Juan Rulfo.’
‘Si. The action takes place in Comala, no? I understand. You like this book, yes?’
‘Naturally. It’s a favourite of mine.’
‘It’s a book about a quest. Juan Preciado, his mother she have died, no? And he have promised her to find his father, Pedro Paramo, and make him pay. You are on a quest, to Comala to find Pedro Paramo too. Is clever.’
‘Well, yes, I guess. It is a kind of mystery too. There are two questions at the heart of the narrative. One is ‘what is happening in Comala?’ and the other is ‘who is Pedro Paramo?’’
‘Living bile.’
‘Yes. Abundio, I think, describes Pedro, within the first few pages, as living bile and you read on wanting to know what he has done to deserve it.’
‘Si.’
‘And what you find out is that he was a powerful, brutal man, who appropriated land and murdered people.’
‘Don’t put that in your review, señor. Is spoiler, no?’
‘I guess. But you would want to explore that, right? Because it is important. The unscrupulous business man, who holds a village in the palm his hand, and eventually crushes it. Rulfo wants to make a point about what life was like in these places, about the corruption, the immorality, the exploitation. Pedro Paramo is, amongst other things, a political novel; Paramo actually means barren plain.’
‘I know that, señor.’
[P] mopped his brow again.
‘It’s awfully hot in here. Haven’t you got any air conditioning?’
‘Is hot everywhere in Mexico.’
‘I see. Well, anyway, the book is a kind of Shakespearean tragedy about power and control and poverty…about memory and grief…’
‘And family too, no?’
‘Yes, and family too. Abundio says to Juan Preciado that ‘we are all Pedro Paramo’s sons.’ Or something like that. And he means it figuratively, of course, in that Paramo is the patriarch of the village, the overlord, but he means it literally too, for Pedro fathered many of the inhabitants. One of these children he decided to recognise, Miguel, almost as a wager with Father Renteria. And he, Miguel, turns out maybe even worse than Paramo himself.’
‘The sins of the father are passed to the son, señor.’
‘Sin is central to the novel, actually. I don’t know anything about Rulfo’s religious beliefs, or even if he had any, but his book could certainly be interpreted as a comment on, a criticism of Catholicism. Everyone in Comala has sinned; but they are poor and cannot pay for the masses, for the absolution that would save their souls or the souls of their loved ones. These people are beyond saving, seems to be the idea.’
‘Mexico is a superstitious, a religious place, señor. The grip is strong. Father Renteria, he is interesting, no?’
‘I think so. He is the one who can give absolution. He takes money from Paramo to absolve his son, to give his son forgiveness and, in essence, allow him into heaven. This son, who committed atrocious crimes. Crucially, Renteria himself asks for absolution from a Priest, and is denied it.’
Suddenly the taxi came to a halt. [P] was thrown forward.
‘We’re here, señor,’ said the driver.
‘Uh? What? Where?’
‘Comala.’

‘Where are you, señor?’
‘Comala.’
‘You know better than that, [P].’
‘How do you know my name?’

Comala. The earth scorched his feet through the melting rubber soles of his shoes. The landscape seemed to glisten, to move and slide away before his eyes, like images seen in a puddle of oil.You must go to Comala to research your review…
‘So this is Comala?’ said [P] to the burro driver.
‘You know better than that. This is a ghost town, señor.’
‘Ah, yes, si, it is quiet. And hot.’
‘Hotter than Hell, señor?’
‘I’ve never been…ah, what’s your name?’
‘Gabriel Garcia Marquez.’
‘You don’t say! Listen, I’m…’
‘You’re looking for Pedro Paramo.’
‘Yes, I guess. I’m here…’
‘To conduct research for a review.’
‘How do you know all these things?’
‘I spoke to your mother.’
‘My mother is dead.’
‘Si.’

Doña Gloriana opened the door of her little hut and ushered [P] inside.
‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ she said.
‘How can that be?’
‘Gabriel said that you were on your way.’
‘But I was just with him.’
‘Si. You look tired, [P].’
‘Where am I?’
‘Comala, señor.’
‘No.’

His arms and face so sunburnt they looked like raw meat…

‘Have you read Pedro Paramo, Doña Gloriana?’
‘Of course, everyone in Comala has read that book.’
‘There are hints, early on, that Comala is Hell.’
‘Si.’
‘First of all, as he enters Comala Juan Preciado is accompanied by a guide, an inhabitant of the village.’
‘Like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, no?’
‘Si. Exactly. And the way to the village is described as always down, always descending. And there’s the intense heat, of course.’
‘Of course. Si. But don’t think about these things, my son; sleep, rest.’
‘All the inhabitants of Comala, the people Juan Preciado meets, are deceased; I think everyone picks up on that eventually. But they are also in purgatory. That became clear to me. They cannot absolve themselves of sin, they are, then, ghosts, or souls, trapped, in an intermediary stage, between Heaven and Hell…they cannot buy their release. Life in a poor Mexican village is a kind of purgatory; maybe that was the point.’
Shhh, [P], go to sleep, my son…

In the dark room [P] could hear chattering voices. Echoes of the past.
‘Who is there?’ he shouted.
We are here. Who said that? I did. Let him speak! Tell him. He came all this way to research his review. To Comala, for that? Si. And he has spoken to Gabriel, the taxi driver, and Doña Gloriana, and never once mentioned the voices. That’s us! Si, si. Pedro Paramo is polyphonic. Did he not say anything at all about that? No, señor. It is composed of multiple voices, echoes of the past. So many voices vying for attention. He hasn’t spoken about the structure, either. Shut it. Let him speak, goddamn it! The narrative is jumbled, as though it were a painting that someone has cut into tiny pieces and thrown all over the floor. So you have to pick up the pieces and put them together again? Si.
‘Be quiet, all of you. Let him have his rest.’
Can the dead rest, Doña Gloriana?
‘Si. Si. If they are good boys.’

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2 comments

  1. Excellent stuff. I am sadly ignorant of literature involving Mexico but this sounds worth exploring…

  2. It’s great. It is generally considered to be one of the very best Latin American novels. Gabriel Garcia Marquez reckoned he had large chunks of the thing memorised and Borges rated it highly. Rulfo only ever wrote one novel and a book of short stories. The short stories are even better, in my opinion.

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