Book Review: Pedro Padramo
Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the readers of his foreword to Pedro Paramo that he arrived in Mexico on 2 June 1961. He describes the day as “the same day Ernest Hemingway pulled the trigger”.
Although Garcia was well acquainted with Latin American literature and was well connected among Mexican writers, he had heard neither of Juan Rulfo nor Pedro Paramo until a writer friend threw a copy into his lap crying “Read this shit and learn”.
Pedro Paramo is a slim volume. My copy runs to 139 pages. On the night he was presented with the book, Garcia read it twice. He, eventually, got to where he could recite it from front to back with no appreciable error; he knew all the characters; and could say on what page of each edition particular events took place.
Of more importance for the fans of the great Colombian writer (who left us, last year) is the impact of Rulfo’s writing on Garcia. Garcia described himself as having written five underground books at that time. He felt that he had much still to say but he despaired of ever finding the way to get it down on paper.
Rulfo’s magnificent writing provided the guidance he needed. Love in the Time of Cholera may never have happened if not for Pedro Paramo.
“I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man called Pedro Paramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me.” These are the opening lines of the novel: the words of Juan Preciado. Apart from the economy of expression, the reader is promised a straight forward travel memoir told in the first person.
But nothing stays the same in Pedro Paramo.
Juan had promised his mother on her death bed that he would go to Comala. He never intended to keep his promise. But his imagination took flight and he built a world around a hope centred on the man who had been his mother’s husband. That was why he had come to Comala.
The weather is hot: the dog days of August. Comala is deserted. Abundio, the burro driver, who has guided Juan the last miles tells him that, when people from Comala die and go to hell, they ask for leave to go back and collect a blanket.
Abundio also tells him that Pedro Paramo is dead; that he is also Abundio’s father; and that the mothers of all of Pedro Paramo’s children had nothing.
The town is deserted and overgrown. Abandoned. Juan sees figures which cross the road and disappear. But Abundio tells him to look up Dona Eduviges Dyada. A ghostly woman, wrapped in a rebozo, guides Juan to the house beside the bridge.
Dona Eduviges has been waiting for him and shows him to a room at the back of the house. They walk through a narrow gap between the things which people have left and for which they have not returned. Dona Eduviges knew Juan’s mother, whose name was Dolores. She had lain with Pedro Paramo on Dolores’ wedding night at Dolores’ request.
Juan is left alone in the room at the back of the house. He is awoken by a terrible scream. We find out later that the source of the noise was a man who was accused of wrong and then lynched in the room at the hands of henchmen of Pedro Paramo. They acted at Pedro Paramo’s command so that the land of the hanged man, Toribio Aldrete, would be forfeited to their boss.
We begin to know why Abundio had described his father and Juan’s as “living bile” except he has been long dead.
Juan flees the house of deadly screams and is taken in by a brother and sister who live as man and wife and talk like characters from a play by Samuel Beckett.
He begins to realise that he is a world of ghosts and he, himself, dies and holds conversations in a grave with a woman, Dorotea, in whose dead arms he lies. Dorotea and Susanna San Juan, who lies in a grave nearby, link Juan Preciado’s experience of the ghostly town of Comala with the events of his mother’s time including her marriage to Pedro Paramo and the events before and after her departure from the Media Luna, the massive property that Pedro Paramo built from the indebtedness left by his own father by stealing from Dolores and others including the lynched ghost in the house of Dona Eduviges.
The dead Dorotea is a second narrator, taking over from Juan Preciado. But much of the book is written through the eyes of an omniscient narrator speaking in the third person. This narrator tells the story of Pedro Paramo as a child; the start of his lifelong love for Susanna San Juan through their shared childhood experiences; and his ruthless building upon his diminished inheritance.
There is a little more of the future Love in the Time of Cholera predicted in a story of early love, separation, and reunion in later life. Pedro Paramo effects his reunion and eventual marriage with Susanna in the same ruthless way he has achieved everything else.
But, unlike Garcia’s masterpiece, Pedro Paramo is not a tale of joyous consummation and long awaited but enduring happiness. Pedro Paramo ensures that he has Susanna but he has nothing of her. Susanna stays in her room and inhabits an internal world, populated by her long dead husband, Florencio, and by her father (whose death was both more recent and engineered by Pedro Paramo). Susanna’s internal world is as strange as the outer world of Comala and the Media Luna that the novel has created.
Pedro Paramo is an intensely personal novel. It is about the pain and disappointment that can be so much of life in Mexico: pain that affects the poor and the rich; the good and the evil ,notwithstanding that the rich and evil rig things so much in their favour, even the right to be granted absolution and forgiveness upon their death.
Earl Shorris describes Pedro Paramo as a dream. Its significance is that it freed Latin American writers from the need to use the form of writing that had come from the colonisers. He says that the form of the novel is an exact reproduction of the approach to form found in the art of the Olmecs . The novel gave rise to an entire school of literature called magical realism (in which it could rain butterflies ). 
The dreamlike nature of the novel is heightened by the way in which scenes and incidents are presented in small slices of narrative and the slices themselves are interwoven so that early parts of the chronology are juxtaposed with others from a later time.
The personal nature of the stories can be seen in one scene which has no discernible connection to any other part of the narrative. A young woman, Chona, is visited by her fiancÃ© who urges her to come with him, at dawn, tomorrow. “I have the team hitched”. Everything is ready. There is no time to be lost.
But Chona has obligations to her sick father whom she has been nursing for more than a year, now. She cannot leave him even for love. They must wait until he passes away.
The fiancÃ© won’t wait. His need for Chona is great. But he holds over her head the prospect of another young woman, Juliana, who, he says, will be more accommodating: “She is crazy about me”.
Chona is not to be intimidated. “Fine”, she says. “I don’t ever want to see you again”.
It’s a tough world and obligation often clashes with desire.
Notwithstanding its dreamlike qualities, Pedro Paramo is set in an historical context. Danny J. Anderson points out that the murderous and amoral approach to capital accumulation of Pedro Paramo is a reflection of way in which local power brokers managed to dominate in the days of the Porfiriato, the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz that only came to an end with the commencement of the Mexican Revolution after 1910.
The revolution is also reflected in the novel. Paramo’s overseer, Fulgor Sedano, dies at the hand of a band of local armed rebels. Pedro Paramo, however, is not daunted and, with promises of large sums of money, only a tiny bit of which is delivered, he places a neighbour in charge of the rebels and ensures that they do their best work away from the Media Luna and without disrupting local power structures.
Bizarre as the story sounds, it is not at all surprising in a ten year revolution in which alliances were formed and broken; heroes were betrayed and assassinated; and only those who died young managed to retain any semblance of reputation at the end of their lives.
After a short period of peace and consolidation, Mexico threw up an even more unusual modern phenomenon in the form of the Cristero wars in which the Catholic Church took up arms to protest against encroachments upon its longstanding privileges. Pedro Paramo has connections there, also. We find out that Father Renteria commands a fighting force on the side of the Church.
Father Renteria is the priest who refused absolution to the sister of Dona Eduviges, and countless other poor, not because they were not good but because they could not afford the money for elaborate church ceremony but granted it to Miguel Paramo, the one son of Pedro whom he recognised and loved, because of the silver coins that Pedro left behind on the altar. Father Renteria’s need for the support of the rich in his conduct of the Church’s work was such that he overlooked the fact that Miguel had murdered the priest’s own brother and raped the dead man’s daughter (the priest’s niece) when he came around to apologise to her for the murder of her father.
The history is important to Pedro Paramo. When it was published in 1955, much of the rural population had been drawn to the cities and the winners and losers of the social upheaval had tended to forget the events that led to their present position. Anderson describes the novel as having “made readers aware of the disquieting presence of a dying but not dead traditional Mexico looming just out of sight – a lingering reality no longer present but not yet past”.
The presence of ghosts in Comala is appropriate.
I am in the Garcia camp. I stayed up and read it in a night. I could not match the achievements of the young Garcia. I am an old man: once a night is enough. I read it again for this review.
It is a novel, however, that seized my heart and imagination. I suffered with every character, even the living bile, himself. I also love Susanna, forever, for those few shared brief experiences of our youth.
The drama plays out on every page. Since the chronology is sliced together, there is no end to which we are working. Every page is a climax and a denouement.
But the reader does strive to find out what happened to Pedro Paramo. And is told.
Gabriel Garcia also reread Pedro Paramo for the purpose of his foreword. “Once again”, he said, “I am the helpless victim of the same astonishment”. And he described the three hundred pages of Rulfo’s writing as “as enduring as those of Sophocles”.
Ghosts are not unique to one rural Mexican deserted town. Our own streets and lives and workplaces are populated by those who have gone before us. We also allow the past, on which so much of our lives depend, slip from sight.
As well as its characters, its sadness, its lives and loves, lost and won, Pedro Paramo leaves us with something else. Honour our heroes, no doubt. But honour every one of those ghosts whose presence is still framing our decision making and leading us on, for good or ill.
 See Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico, WW Norton and Company, 2004, page 355