Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pedro Paramo

Now that the year rushes to an end, like everything else, I thought I should write about Pedro Paramo, a novel that I again read quite recently. It is one of those novels one must read a few times, one has to. I will not repeat what has been said by everyone great and small about this novel. Suffice it to say that it occupies a space, a niche in Latin American literature that few other works have. Its influence was far reaching, it helped shape a new literature or gave old expression a new name, namely magic realism, albeit unfortunately.

Juan Rulfo is an intriguing writer. One book famous writers are anyway. I sense in him the same hum as one does in Walser, though Walser wrote more. Rulfo's tone, his prose has the quality of timing and rhythm that sets it apart immediately. It is the pace, the delivery and the narrative style as also the limpidity of thoughts, thoughts loose that are set and worked in together in a coherent fashion. As Sontag points out, "With the opening sentences........we know we are in the hands of a master storyteller" However, this novel is not an easy read.Although only 122 pages long, it demands of the reader what perhaps life or death wanted of Juan Preciado, the narrator.

At the outset, the narrator is off to a village called Comala because "I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Paramo, lived there". He promises his mother that he would "go and make him pay, for all those years he put us out of his mind". But his arrival in Comala is the only straight forward thing that happens in this novel, for as we realize, we are in the midst of a village that is deserted, peopled by ghosts, ghosts that are actually living, alive, moving here and there. As Preciado settles in a house for a night, it seems that his host too is dead, a friend of his dead mother, a woman who knows his father Don Paramo too. In fact, from that point on, the reader struggles to follow till one gets in tune with this village and its principal ghosts. The rest of the story, a discovery of Pedro Paramo and his history is told backwards, through dialogues, interspersed with other characters, all dead and all waiting in a way to tell their story, for having given up their souls, they seem to be lingering, on the plains of Media Luna, where all this action takes place.

"The great stories", wrote Sontag in her fine preface to this novel, "are not only told in the past tense, they are about the past". "In my life", wrote Rulfo, "there are many silences. In my writing, too". It is with these silences and all the stories and memories of the past that one has to contend with as we read on, in a prose that is hypnotic, to say the least. We recognize three main characters.........the narrator Juan Preciado who is looking for Pedro Paramo, his father. The other character of importance is Susana Juan, with whom Pedro Paramo is madly in love with. But all this has already happened and I was unsure whether Juan Preciado too was dead, whether the journey he was undertaking had already happened and his narration was the voice of his ghost, as he himself heard and saw other ghosts, what is constantly referred to in this book as murmurings, stirrings. Pedro Paramo is a feudal landlord, petty criminal, mafia boss who has fathered many a child and has never been in love, not with his son Preciado's mother apart from Susana Juan. His other illegitimate son, Miguel dies in an accident and this is a time of social change in Mexico as revolutionaries on horse backs start hunting down the oppressors of the common peasantry.

The silent villages are signs of change themselves as people leave and immigrate for cities leaving behind everything including their most precious belongings, their identities and their memories. It is one such village Comala that we are in, but one where the only things stirring are the dead, speaking and breathing their hypnotic trance like dreams, weaving one sad memory after another, hanging and leaving behind a trail of tears and melancholy. "You will hear the voice of my memories stronger than the voice of my death.....that is, if death ever had a voice", we are told early. Or later, "the day you went away I knew that I would never see you again. You were stained red by the afternoon sun, by the dusk filling the sky with blood".

Pedro Paramo is a novel that I have sought to love and read and understand many times before. It is not an easy love nor is it sullen but it calls for an understanding of the entire social milieu of rural Mexico , of changing times and of an intersection of life with death. It is quite a rewarding book, unique in its own way and more haunting than poetic, or more poetic than haunting. There is considerable rain, much dust, many memories and so many loves scattered on these few pages that it stands on its own as perhaps one of those novels that are true masterpieces. We finish the novel remembering noises and stirrings, rain mixed with sobs, "sobs mixed with the sound of the rain".
A brilliant essay on this novel here.


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