Pedro Páramo, Juan Rulfo

‘Pedro Páramo’ Is a Masterpiece that Resurrects and Welcomes the Dead

In our world, we irrevocably control the dead and their narrative. In Juan Rulfo’s masterpiece Pedro Páramo, however, the dead control their narrative.

Pedro Páramo
Juan Rulfo
Grove Atlantic
November 2023

A memory. On a fateful day as a child, I return home from school to find it full of grieving people. Bewildered, I scrutinize the unfamiliar faces. As I make my way through the crowd, sporadically encountering recognizable faces, flowers and sobbing decorate the unhappy occasion. At the center of it all is a picture of a distant uncle, Isaias. My family is having a wake.

Isaias was killed by an enraged co-worker. The details are murky; the consequences are devastating. The breadwinner of his family is gone – an insurmountable loss. His mother holds his stiff hand as he lay in the casket. This is my first encounter with death. It still haunts me.

The dead have made their mark on literature. Indeed, where would poets be without death? Few novels are as poignant about the subject of death and the dead as Pedro Páramo by the late Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. One of the first scenes in the book is of a son, Juan Preciado, holding his mother’s hand as she dies. It’s no coincidence that the novel begins with the dying mother’s request, “Make him pay dearly, my son, for the indifference he showed toward us.” Farewells are a constant fixture of the novel; however, they are never final.

I stand when I read Pedro Páramo. My posture straightens with each flip of a page. The novel takes me back to that memory of my uncle’s wake. I find within the pages of Pedro Páramo an elegy for all those I’ve loved who have passed. I stand out of respect for their memory. I look for them in the legend of this novel. Throughout my life, I return to Pedro Páramo.

Juan Preciado travels to the sad town of Comala, where the cold and disquieting explanation for its sadness and decay is, “it’s the times”. This small book rewards subsequent readings with new insights about grief, loss, and life each time. Once understood, it holds devastating clarity. Pedro Páramo, constructed with words and punctuation, is the mausoleum of Babel, where all people, living and dead, live forever within its hallowed pages.

Rulfo famously proclaimed in a 1983 interview after receiving the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature that he “believes in silence”. While reading Pedro Páramo, one must revel in and revere silence. The lack of exposition throughout the book is radical. Silence punctuates and obstructs. The story demands patience. Rulfo’s writing is poetic. Yet, it’s not written in verse, instead silence is utilized to enliven the story. “And on blustery days, you see the wind as it blows the leaves here and there, even when it’s easy to see there aren’t any trees around these parts. There must’ve been at some point.” Scenes of nature silence the dialogue that readers are accustomed to. The story echoes as a result of the empty space.

This new translation by Douglas J. Weatherford and published by Grove Press is the new gold standard. Weatherford has done the extraordinary work of making Rulfo’s lyrical quality and fleeting poetics discernable to English-language readers. Rulfo wrote no ordinary book; Pedro Páramo is a pilgrimage crafted with loving sensitivity that doubles as an examination of loss. It’s not an easy work to grasp, though its short length and slim sentences are a kindness.

Ruflo applies crucial stylistic choices to this text. How else could a story whose central topic is the Forever—where dreams, hopes, and nightmares occur in tandem, and the dead and living mingle—have been written, yet alone understood? To those unsure, it’s worth the challenge to find out.

Rulfo employs various forms of punctuation throughout Pedro Páramo to demarcate dialogue. This is necessary as a means of illustrating who is speaking and when. Is the speaker alive? Are they dead? Is this a dream? Is this the past or the present? Time vacillates for the narrative and characters of Pedro Páramo. As Weatherford writes in his notes, it’s a novel “designed to challenge its readers”. The story destroys our general concept of time and space.

Pedro Páramo‘s narrative unfolds like a Buddhist haiku. It’s a story devoid of minutia. It feels ancient. The life of its characters, many of them campesinos (peasant farmers) are at the mercy of nature. Parts of the novel have a spareness and lucidity akin to the work of the master poet Bashō. Brief lines of dialogue coalesce with short, vivid descriptions of the natural world. This infuses the story with its lyrical quality and fleeting poetry. Take, for example, the following passage: “—I’m also one of Pedro Páramo’s sons—he told me. A flock of crows passed overhead through an empty sky, crying caw, caw, caw.” A bitter chorus of crows colors the shocking reply.

In our world, we irrevocably control the dead and their narrative. In Pedro Páramo, however, the dead control their narrative. The living are moribund, and the dead walk the earth. They speak. Its world illuminates ours with tonal textures and syntax. “There’s wind, and sun, and clouds. Above us a blue sky and beyond that perhaps there’s singing, maybe in voices sweeter than our own… In a word, there’s hope. There’s hope for us, a hope set against our suffering.”

Rulfo’s early childhood during the Cristero War – a bloody conflict sparked over broad reforms to how the Catholic Church could operate following the Mexican revolution – informs Pedro Páramo. On Rulfo’s account, his father was killed during this period, as were many of his family members. His home in Jalisco was in constant mourning. The bereaved are a prevalent fixture in this story. Legend has it that the characters even get their namesakes from tombstones found in cemeteries in Jalisco. Rulfo revived them to walk a cursed earth.

The titular character, don Pedro, owns most of the land. He makes a case of showing it. His son, Miguel, is coddled and encouraged to womanize, harass, and even assault the citizenry. Both are a curse on Comala and their home, Media Luna. They are omnipresent. The death of Miguel and later Susana, don Pedro’s love, begins a cascade of vengeance and wrath—the patriarch’s curse. Don Pedro, as a result, vows to “…cross my arms and Comala will die of hunger“. To a man like don Pedro ,it doesn’t matter if the inhabitants are guilty of Miguel’s death or not. It is simply enough that he feels that they are guilty.

I’ve read Pedro Páramo nine times, both the Lysander Kemp and the Marget Sayers Peden translations. The only Spanish version I’ve read is the one published by Editorial RM in 2010. The new Grove Press edition has added two delightful additions to Pedro Páramo. The cover photograph, taken by Rulfo in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1955, shows a hedge of towering cacti whose shadows loom like guardians over the land. Rulfo was also an accomplished photographer.

The other inclusion is Weatherford’s translator notes, which detail his process and give insights into how his translation – the best translation of this book in the English language – was created. I read this edition twice for this article. Hopefully, this new translation will bring greater attention to Rulfo as an artist and see his work more widely read in English. Rodrigo Prieto’s forthcoming Netflix adaption, the first in over 50 years, will help expose a new audience to Pedro Páramo and Juan Rulfo’s artful writing.

“What exactly do you understand?” is a key question posed in Pedro Páramo. The “you” within the question is the reader. Many who’ve read and studied Pedro Páramo, including the Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who wrote the forward included in this edition, search for Rulfo’s “rare wisdom” in the book. The more I return to this story, the more I’m convinced that its greatest achievement is the rejection of certainty. In taking us to Comala and Media Luna, Rulfo shows us the ethereal and reveals that certainty is for charlatans.

Grove Press’ recent edition of Pedro Páramo gives readers a new way of experiencing a masterpiece of world literature. Be brave. A reader’s relationship to literature permanently changes after reading Pedro Páramo.

RATING 9 / 10