Novella a Day in May 2020 #22

Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (1987, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden 1993) 122 pages

I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of Pedro Páramo, as in the introduction to my edition Susan Sontag proclaims it “one of the masterpieces of twentieth century world literature”. Apparently it was huge influence on Gabriel García Márquez when he wrote 100 Years of Solitude. Eek, how have I not heard of it? I might have been intimidated had I known of its reputation, but as it was, I just picked it up because I thought it looked interesting and found all this out afterwards (I always read introductions at the end).

It opens with a man named Juan Preciado travelling towards an unknown town:

“I had come to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him.”

He meets a man who may be his brother, who tells him his father is both “living bile” and also dead, so he won’t be able to fulfil his mother’s wish to get what his father owes him.

Soon it becomes apparent that Pedro Páramo is not the only one who’s dead; Comala is a ghost town, filled with spirits of previous occupants. Juan can never be sure if anyone he meets is living or dead, and whether they are speaking of the present or the past.

As the various apparitions tell their stories the narrative moves back and forth across time and we learn of the events that led Comala to change from a thriving centre to a desolate no man’s land. Pedro is cruel and powerful, and that combination is devastating.

“the day you went away I knew I would never see you again. You were stained red by the late afternoon sun, by the dusk filling the sky with blood. You were smiling.”

I know a lot of people find magic realism off-putting, but I would urge you to give Pedro Páramo a try. The story of corruption and personal tragedy being acted out on the inhabitants of a town is grounded in a recognisable reality and the engaging story is easy to follow despite its complexity.

I know I’ve not said much about it here, but I really enjoyed discovering Comala alongside Juan so I don’t want to go into too much detail! The characters are intriguing and the story constantly surprising. Pedro Páramo is a richly detailed, mutli-layered novel that I’m sure will reward re-reading.