Wednesday 9 April 2014

Pedro Páramo (by Juan Rulfo) - A Review

Pedro Páramo

Location: Mexico
Author: Juan Rulfo
Publisher/Year: Fondo de Cultura Económica/1955
Genre: Drama (?)
Theme: A first and third person narrative about the life and legacy of Pedro Páramo, an important but not particularly pleasant figure from the town of Comala

A famous work in Latin American literature, this short novel has been a major influence on the writings of many modern greats such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. It has an occasionally surreal quality to it, and is considered influential in the development of magical realism.

Now, down to the synopsis. I couldn't give you a rundown of the plot in half an hour, since it's fairly complex, so I'm going back to the Wikipedia well for this. It's still complex, to the extent that I'd recommend reading the Wikipedia play-by-play as well, but this should do for a review:
The story begins with the first person account of Juan Preciado, who promises his mother at her deathbed that he will return to Comala to meet his father, Pedro Páramo. Juan suggests that he did not intend to keep this promise until he was overtaken by subjective visions of his mother. His narration is fragmented and interspersed with fragments of dialogue from the life of his father, who lived in a time when Comala was a robust, living town, instead of the ghost town it has become. Juan encounters one person after another in Comala, each of whom he perceives to be dead. Midway through the novel, Preciado dies. From this point on most of the stories happen in the time of Pedro Páramo. Most of the characters in Juan's narration (Dolores Preciado, Eduviges Dyada, Abundio Martínez, Susana San Juan, and Damiana Cisneros) are presented in the omniscient narration, but much less subjectively. The two major competing narrative voices present alternative visions of Comala, one living and one full of the spirits of the dead. The omniscient narration provides details of the life of Pedro Páramo, from his early youthful idealization of Susana San Juan, his rise to power upon his coming of age, his tyrannical abuses and womanizing, and, finally, his death. Pedro is cruel, and though he raises one of his illegitimate sons, Miguel Páramo (whose mother dies giving birth), he does not love him. He does not love his father (who dies when Pedro is a child), or either of his two wives. His only love, established from a very young age, is that of Susana San Juan, a childhood friend who leaves Comala with her father at a young age. Pedro Páramo bases all of his decisions on, and puts all of his attention into trying to get Susana San Juan to come back to Comala. When she finally returns, Pedro makes her his, but she constantly mourns her dead husband Florencio, and spends her time sleeping and dreaming about him. Pedro realizes that Susana San Juan belongs to a different world that he will never understand. When she dies the church bells toll incessantly, provoking a fiesta in Comala. Pedro buries his only true love, and angry at the indifference of the town, swears vengeance. As the most politically and economically influential person in the town, Pedro crosses his arms and refuses to continue working, and the town dies of hunger. This is why in Juan's narration, we see a dead, dry Comala, instead of the luscious place it was when Pedro Páramo was a boy.
Not the smallest synopsis, is it? I'd like you to reflect on the fact that this is a fairly short novel featuring all this in significantly greater detail. It's a bit of a marvel, really, that Rulfo was able to pack all this in while redrawing narrative structures and incorporating elements that would have a great impact on the development of literature. As recently as 1955, this oeuvre managed all this.

The characters are beautifully outlined, and the setting of Comala is brought to life gloriously, particularly in the second part of the novella. This is a product of a different time, but it could apply to any period in many ways, not unlike the work of Machado de Assis in Brazil. The dual narrative makes for a complex read, and the transition can be a bit sudden, but this is all done without taking away from the manner in which readers immerse themselves in the tale. This is engaging, absorbing stuff, and at no point does it feel like the writer has not taken the time to flesh details out.

This work is not for everyone, I'd say. But it is certainly a great piece of art, and a masterclass in crafting stories. For those interested in reading a great work displaying elements that had a major impact on Latin American literature, this is definitely worth a go.

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