Readers of Latin American literature may have heard one of the many versions of this story:
It is 1961 and Gabriel García Márquez has just arrived in Mexico City, penniless but full of literary ambition, trying desperately to work on a new novel. One day, he is sitting in the legendary Café La Habana, where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were said to have plotted the Cuban Revolution. Julio Cortázar walks in, carrying a copy of Juan Rulfo’s novel “Pedro Páramo.” With a swift gesture, as if he’s dealing cards, Cortázar throws the book on García Márquez’s table. “Tenga, pa que aprenda,” he says. “Read this and learn.”
That night, García Márquez reads the novelin a single, feverish, sleepless sitting. He is so deeply haunted by this slim book, set in a rural village full of ghosts and echoes from the past, that he reads it again that same night, and starts memorizing it. The next day, he is finally able to begin writing “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
This is the version I heard when I was a young student — a version, it turns out, that contains some errors. The place was not Café La Habana but García Márquez’s modest apartment, and it was not Cortázar but Álvaro Mutis who gave him the book. But the kernel of this literary legend — the bedazzlement, the rapacious reading, the swell of inspiration — remains true.
What I like about the story, which García Márquez recounts in a 1980 foreword that appears in a new translation of PEDRO PÁRAMO (Grove, 129 pp., paperback, $17), is not what it says about García Márquez the writer: his photographic and phonographic memory, his baroque literary fervor and his almost humble confession that it was this compact novel that showed him a way back into writing and ultimately made possible his masterpiece. What I like about it is what it says about García Márquez the reader, and more widely, what it says about the spell Rulfo’s bookcasts on so many of its admirers.
“Pedro Páramo,” first published in Mexico in 1955, often produces a feverish response. Jorge Luis Borges said it was one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Susan Sontag called it one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. Enrique Vila-Matas has said that it is the “perfect novel.” Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” would probably not exist without it. The book shows its readers how to read all over again, the same way “The Waste Land”or “Ulysses”does, by bending the rules of literature so skillfully, so freely, that the rules must change thereafter.
I first read the novel in high school, in Mexico, for a class called Reading, Redaction and Initiation Into Documentary Investigation. I was 14 or 15, and it was not love at first sight. The class was as stale as its name — it is astonishing how literary education often goes out of its way to bore readers out of the pleasure of books — and I understood nothing.
It was only the second or third time I read it, while at an international boarding school in India, that I began to understand and appreciate what Rulfo had done. I pored over it with a group of Latin American students, all of us around 16 or 17. We read it the way difficult things should be read: slowly, collectively, out loud and with a pencil in hand. We had different accents — Argentinian, Dominican, Costa Rican, Spanish, Bolivian — yet Rulfo’s unique use of the vernacular from the Altos de Jalisco seemed to resonate perfectly with the many inflections of our group.
We could not have articulated it properly back then, but I am sure we all felt it, something timeless and boundless in this seemingly ultra-local story of peasants and moguls during the Mexican Revolution. It is a story of all revolutions: the landless against the landlords, the dispossessed against the powerful. It is a story of usurpation, extraction and sexual violence. Of stealing land, settling it and exploiting it and its people. In other words, it is a story of nation-building in the Americas.
But at its core, “Pedro Páramo”is a tale of two journeys, or perhaps one journey that unfolds into two. The first is a linear one driven by a Telemachean quest: a man searching for his missing father. The narrator, Juan Preciado, goes to his parents’ hometown after his mother dies, seeking his long-estranged father, Pedro Páramo. He plans to demand reparations. But what he finds is a ghost town. Then he dies. (This is not a spoiler; the story continues after his death as if nothing really happened.) The second journey is Dantesque: a spiraling descent into a kind of underworld. But unlike Dante’s mathematically plotted inferno, with its concentric circles and somewhat navigable geography, Rulfo’s is largely sensory, densely packed with sounds and their endless reverberations.
Many Latin American readers know the opening sentence of the novel by heart: “Vine a Comala porque me dijeron que acá vivía mi padre, un tal Pedro Páramo.” From the beginning, we find ourselves in an unstable space-time that we will question and redefine as we move through the novel. For English-language readers, key differences in two translations of the opening line will help bring this ambiguity to light. The 1994 translation, by Margaret Sayers Peden, reads: “I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there.” The most recent translation, by Douglas J. Weatherford, is: “I came to Comala because I was told my father lived here, a man named Pedro Páramo.” Just as the exchange of “here” for “there” radically changes the story’s spatiality (where the narrator is speaking), the use of “was told” — less removed than “had been told” — shifts its temporality (when the narration happens).
Nothing can fall into place in a novel if the author does not have control over its sense of time, be it linear or fractured. In novels of fractured time, the sequence of events must be governed by a logic of its own, one justified by the book’s central questions. Throughout “Pedro Páramo” — in which a central concern is how the world of the living haunts the world of the dead, and not vice versa, as with most ghost stories — time ebbs and flows in a kind of tidal pattern. It is not quite circular, because circles are closed circuits, but the cadence is similar to something cyclical, to the uprush and backwash of water breaking over sand, over and over again. The dead, tormented by lives they can no longer participate in but which their memories replay, over and over again, produce a steady undercurrent of murmurs, laments, mutterings, chatter, whispers, quiet confessions.
If where and when we are in “Pedro Páramo”is constantly shifting, then sound is the swift and sinuous vehicle that carries us through it. For a class I taught this fall, I asked my students to find the many sonic markers in the novel. (It was a fun experiment, and we shared the results with the sound designers of a forthcoming “Pedro Páramo”film. They wrote back to say they were inspired by our sound lists and wanted to credit the students.)
I was astonished to see how much of the novel is composed of aural details. Still air shattered by doves’ flapping wings. Hummingbirds whirring among jasmine bushes. Laughter. A tap of knuckles on the confessional window. A church clock ringing out the hours, “one after another, one after another, as if time had contracted.” Also sounds we cannot hear, but can almost imagine: “the earth rotating on rusted hinges, the trembling of an ancient world pouring out its darkness.” And of course, the myriad sounds of rain.
It rains a lot in “Pedro Páramo.” And it is usually water that marks the book’s space-time transitions. The dead become restless when it rains. “The moisture must have reached her so she’s tossing in her sleep,” one character says of a woman buried in a sepulcher. The dead start listening, and like seeds underground they begin to stir in disquiet, until they burst into conversation. One of my students called it “seepage”: As rain softens the soil, the voices in “Pedro Páramo” are able to seep through it and become audible. There’s an inevitable elusiveness to a novel with a narrative structure pieced together from muffled voices in muddy waters, but it is the kind of elusiveness that has us leaning in, so as to listen better.
Rulfo (1917-86) was shy to the point of evasiveness, nearly mute in interviews and conversations, uncomplicated in his ways and routines. “My name is Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Pérez Rulfo Vizcaíno,” he wrote in an unfinished manuscript. “They piled on me the names of my ancestors, paternal and maternal, as if I were the clustered stalk in a bunch of bananas … I would have liked a more simple name.” The simplicity he longed for in his name is a signature of his writing. His prose is spare, almost frugal; his sentences are full of staccatos, his dialogues full of pauses. “Yo creo en el silencio,” he said in an interview. “I believe in silence.”
Rulfo was an immigration agent — a terrible one, by his own account, who never deported anyone. Later, he was a traveling tire salesman. He became an avid photographer in that period, and produced a wealth of pictures documenting rural Mexico. After publishing “Pedro Páramo,” he became an editor at the national agency for Indigenous communities, where he worked for over 20 years. He was proudly prolific in that job, editing many books about the more than 50 Indigenous groups in Mexico. But as a writer, he was quite the opposite: He published only one novel and one collection of stories in his lifetime, and never finished another book after “Pedro Páramo.”
He is often included — incorrectly, I believe — in the magic realism canon. It makes more sense to map Rulfo within a constellation of writers like T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, writers who took literature to the frontiers of their languages, who wrote in a kind of “foreign” tongue, in that they allowed strangeness to seep into the familiar and turn the everyday into the uncanny.
Although it is widely accepted that García Márquez borrowed heavily from Rulfo, one senses a much greater debt in the work of Cormac McCarthy. Beyond the more obvious Rulfian strokes and motifs in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, there are also imprints of “Pedro Páramo” in “The Road,” with its sparse prose and haunting cadence, its bleak world, inconsolable characters and stirringly melancholic journeys. McCarthy also offers a wink to Rulfo in “The Crossing,” in which a Señor Páramo appears as a character.
I am not sure what it is that allows some works of translated literature to flow easily into the minds of foreign readers and become part of the collective imagination. “One Hundred Years of Solitude”passed swiftly into the Anglophone world, just as “The Metamorphosis”and “The Stranger” had. But “Pedro Páramo,”translated into more than 30 languages and revered for decades by writers, readers and critics, has had a different fate. I have read the book at least 15 times; there was a period in which I read it once a year, every year. I have no hesitation in saying that there is no novel more mesmerizing and paradigm-shifting. But ithas not quite reached the ears of many English-language readers; in the United States, it remains something of a best-kept secret, a book that people either cherish or have never heard of.
One straightforward explanation would be inadequate past translations. I have always been frustrated when trying to read or teach “Pedro Páramo”in English. The first translation, by Lysander Kemp, was published in 1959 by Grove and famously excluded entire sentences that seemed opaque to him. The second, by Sayers Peden, perhaps overcompensated for the baffling omissions by adding many more words to Rulfo’s stark prose. She may have passed Rulfo through the ornate filter of the many Latin American magic-realist novels she translated (including at least 11 of Isabel Allende’s). I began reading this third edition, by Weatherford, with skepticism. But I grew more and more enthusiastic as I went along. His translation is, by far, the best of Rulfo in English.
Interviewed on Spanish TV in 1977, Rulfo suggested that “Pedro Páramo”is meant to be read three times before it is understood. Readers, he explained, would probably face as many challenges reading it as he did writing it. Fair enough. Maybe the novelwas also meant to be translated three times before it seeped more broadly and indelibly into the Anglophone consciousness. Maybe its time has finally come.