Friday, April 6, 2012

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

The Mexican Masterpiece
Pedro Páramo is the quintessential Mexican novel, and possibly the greatest work of Latin-American literature since the Popol Vuh. It was the only novel ever written by Juan Rulfo, who also published one excellent collection of short stories, The Burning Plain (El Llano en Llamas).

After his mother dies, Juan Preciado travels to the village of Comala to find his father, Pedro Páramo, whom he has never known. Upon arriving, he finds Comala to be a ghost town inhabited by wandering spirits and faded memories. From this eerie background gradually emerges the story of Pedro Páramo, a powerful and unscrupulous land baron driven by greed, lust, and a lifelong unrequited love.

This novel is not divided into chapters, but rather into short passages. Each new passage brings a feeling of disorientation as the reader tries to get his bearings. Rulfo switches back and forth between first to third person narration, with different characters acting as narrator. It is often difficult to tell whether what you’re reading belongs to the realm of dreaming or waking, of the past or the present, of the living or the dead. It’s like a surrealist painting in which forms emerge haphazardly: some concrete, some ethereal; some beautiful, some horrific. The passages interconnect like an intricate puzzle, albeit a puzzle with missing pieces, spaces deliberately left empty, like rests in a symphony.

When modernism came along, it promised us that experimentation in language and form would yield works of literature more profound and more evocative than the traditional narrative styles of romanticism and naturalism. For the most part that was an empty promise, and instead of better books what we got was decades of verbal gymnastics and mental masturbation. Not so with Pedro Páramo. There is nothing flashy or gratuitous about Rulfo’s prose. His style is stark and spare, with every word carefully chosen and perfectly placed. No other writer can say so much with so few words as Juan Rulfo. In a scant 120 pages, he gives us a novel so rich in imagery it could serve as a scaffold upon which 100 novels could be built. Pedro Páramo was first published in 1955. I don't think a better novel has been written since.

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