At the peak of his career, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez suffered a major writer’s block after publishing four novels. The only way Márquez conquered this block was by reading Pedro Páramo, a Mexican novella by Juan Rulfo, published in 1955. Later on, the Colombian author would credit this novella with saving his career, as it inspired him to write his classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude.As you read Pedro Páramo, our novella for this week, it’s not difficult to see why and how it inspired great South American authors such as Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges.
The story follows Juan Preciado, who’s pressured to promise his mother at her deathbed that he’ll go back to her hometown and find his father, Pedro Páramo, a man he never knew.
As soon as he arrives, he finds the town of Comala is a barren, uninhabited land that appears to be in perpetual decay, one that resembles nothing of his mother’s stories. From this moment forward, author Juan Rulfo masterfully blurs all boundaries between what is real and what isn’t, the living and the dead, the past and the present. In fact, between all his characters too. The point of view washes from one character to the other, and there is little textual evidence to guide the reader. What is left is a disorganised narrative that embodies real life.
However, that is not to say the story makes no sense at all, quite the contrary. The novella, at times, seems to be a distilled version of a much longer story, one that is boiled and brewed down until nothing remains but the absolute essential. The fears, dreams, love, and hatred of all those who once inhabited this place. And here, death isn’t the final relief of life but an eternal damnation in Comala.
“The village is full of echoes. Perhaps they got trapped in the hollow of the walls, or under the stones. When you walk in the street you can hear other footsteps, rustling noises, and laughter. Old laughter, as if it were tired of laughing by now. And voices worn out with use. You can hear all this. I think someday these sounds will die away”, the narrator says.
Midway through the novella, our character dies and is buried with a woman in the same grave, where he hears the woes of another buried woman, Susana San Juan. This brings the story to answer its central mystery: What happened to this town? The answer, of course, goes back to the character who gives his name to the title and it makes the story, in addition to the countless things it already is, one of the most tragic tales of vengeance that has ever graced literature.
It’s a testimony to the author’s skill and prose that he’s able to defy the essential nature of the written art: sequence. That is that words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages must come one after the other. Against their will, they have to bend to any sequence, to the restraints and rules of time. Rulfo’s careful manipulation of his raw material, uniquely, in his surreal and ghostly prose, sets up the novella’s events, emotions and characters to read as though the drape of time has been lifted off this town, where everything is happening at the exact same time, yet in perpetual motion.
It’s a short work that won’t take more than two sittings to finish. But once you’re done, you’ll want nothing more than to go back to the first page and start again.