Book Review: Pedro Paramo
I read Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo at a time in my life when strange dreams were invading my sleep and, perhaps for want of rest, long days were spent wrestling with old ghosts.
This second (and last) book by the Mexican author opens with the tale of Juan Preciado who, in fulfilling a promise to his late mother, travels to her birthplace to search out a man named Pedro Páramo, a father he never knew.
The Comala he finds is, however, nothing like the lively village of his mother’s nostalgia; today, the land is barren, and death inhabits houses without roofs.
And, Pedro Páramo, as he learns upon arrival, had died years ago.
The son, who had come in search of self-identity and revenge “for all those years he – [Pedro Páramo] — put us out of his mind”, stays on, nonetheless.
We start to walk down the hot and empty streets with Juan Preciado, running into a variety of characters, experiencing them, and watching, before feeling with him, through Rulfo’s inimitable technique, the same spooky bewilderment each time we realise that those encounters had really been with the dead.
Like him, we begin to question the existence of those with whom we later meet, and try to cobble together from those conversations a story of what had come before.
Presented in fragments, with enormous silences within cut-scenes — a pattern that is to pervade the whole textual fabric — the first-person account that follows Juan Preciado’s journey is punctuated with lyrical recollections of his mother’s words.
Disoriented by the disconnect between what he sees and hears and what his mind (influenced as it is) thinks it sees and hears, Juan Preciado is himself eventually driven to his grave, if not by madness, then by fright.
Weaving through these fractured parts, too, is the (largely-)chronological biography of Pedro Páramo.
Born into a family of landowners now languishing in debt a young Pedro Páramo is thrust into the helm of the household when his father dies. There, through duplicity and violence, during the reign of President Porfirio Diaz that favours capital accumulation, his empire expands with little restraint.
Variously giving orders for people who get in his way to be killed, he also marries Juan Preciado’s mother, the heiress of his biggest creditor, to not merely wipe off their account, but usurp her wealth, only to send her away after he has exhausted her use.
In a novel that explores love and loss and retribution, though, Pedro Páramo has his own share of suffering. Despite a stature that opens doors into every girl’s bedroom, the woman the baron loves, Susana San Juan, a childhood friend with whom he remains obsessed until the end of his life, is herself consumed with passion for someone else.
In this, the second narrative thread, the third-person conventional voice is heavily dribbled with interior monologues in which the man who owns everything there is to have pines at every turn for a sweetheart whose emotions he never wins.
Then, in pioneering magic realism, that transformed him into a giant in Latin American literature, Rulfo takes us into the ground where Juan Preciado is buried, and lets us in on the dialogue he has with an old resident of the town, as they listen to the plaintive rhapsodies of other bodies resting close-by.
So, interspersed between the pieces of poetic prose that tell of Pedro Páramo’s progress through life, bribing his way out of the Mexican Revolution, dispensing with loyal servants of no more value, are luminous revelations from Susana San Juan’s restless corpse.
Subtly, she illuminates the subjugation of women in the late-19th, early-20th century Mexican society. Sexual violation by her father is hinted at. And there are plain suggestions of how Pedro Páramo manipulated circumstances to bring her to live with him. Finding herself in a period when women are regarded as chattel, she seeks refuge in delusions and delirium both before-death and after-life.
But if Pedro Páramo is a ruthless manipulator of circumstances, Rulfo is an unflinching manipulator of time. We know we are in the hands of a confident writer when the present tense juxtaposes with the past tense, often, and with ease, and on occasion even in the one paragraph.
Moving the clock back and forth, the story-telling master makes things happen at the same time, or at no time at all.
Meticulous with details swollen with meaning, this slim, yet intensely complex volume is in essence a study of life under the Porfirian regime that, in striving to modernise the nation, ended up distilling a medieval, mercenary society.
Women (including Juan Preciado’s mother), by and large, allowed themselves to be ravaged by the likes of Pedro Páramo who littered the land with countless children born out of wedlock.
And the church, for all the convictions it represented in a massively Catholic environment, seemed to offer redemption only to people who could afford it.
But most importantly, what the extraordinary novel highlights is how when innumerable Juan Preciados of the 1950s embarked on a quest for an understanding about the past, they were in fact trying to explain the absurdities of their own social order.
Maybe, as brazen as it sounds, I too can, by interrogating the apparitions of my history, grasp the amorphous order that governs my living.