Pedro Páramo was voted by literary critics in the Spanish newspaper El País (May 5, 2001) as the most important book written in Spanish in the 20th century. It is generally understood that the technique of the novel of the Mexican Revolution, that is, the documentary technique of naturalistic realism, came to an end and a new literary trend was established with Pedro Páramo. Masterfully blending Mexican folklore and modern experimental narrative techniques such as stream of consciousness, flashbacks, and consequent monologues, Juan Rulfo (1918–86) created a phantasmagoric, mythic narrative as one of Mexico’s founding fictions. In 1969, Carlos Fuentes said, “The work of Juan Rulfo is not only the highest expression which the Mexican novel has attained until now; through Pedro Páramo we can find the thread that leads us to the new Latin American novel.”
The Mexican Revolution and its aftermath cast a large shadow over Pedro Páramo, the tale of an illegitimate son seeking his father across a sterile landscape of a devastated town set in the wake of the revolution. Even though Rulfo did not directly experience the armed aspects of the revolution, he heard stories about it and was greatly influenced by the turmoil of the Cristero Revolt, which killed his father and his uncle. The aftermath of the revolution, which consequently left little Juan Rulfo an orphan, inevitably colored Juan Preciado, who travels to his mother’s birthplace to search for his father, Pedro Páramo. Rulfo wrote at a time when the official history of the revolution was questioned in terms of lack of social justice and equality, unsuccessful land reform, and political control by the few oligarchs, among others. Some critics categorized Pedro Páramo as a sociological novel that criticizes the unsuccessful social and economic reforms brought about by the new bourgeoisie who benefited from the revolution. Other critics recognized the Oedipus myth behind the father-son relationship.
Pedro Páramo is the story of a dead town inhabited by dead people. Comala is a purgatory of ghosts and souls in penance whose murmurs and disembodied voices fill the otherwise empty space. The dry and sterile landscape of the town refl ects actual, isolated regions of Mexico after the revolution. The locale is an in-between space, and the inhabitants have doubled attributes, both real and spectral. Rulfo says, “Pedro Páramo is the result of a desire to bring a dead town back to life.” The story begins with the arrival of Juan Preciado, the protagonist and narrator of the novel. “I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. And I had promised her [his mother] that after she died I would go see him.” He soon finds that Comala is dead, but it is ironic since he himself is already dead, as the reader later discovers that he remembers only the arrival in the grave and talks to another dead person.
There are several editions of the book due to Rulfo’s frequent revision after the first publication. The last edition authorized by Rulfo consists of 70 fragmented narratives, which as a whole reconstruct the life of Pedro Páramo with concise, precise, dry language. The reader gradually comes to know how he rose from poverty to become the most influential cacique (local chieftain) in Comala by a ruthless process of exploitation and with the assistance of the local church. His life is given depth and complexity by episodes concerning not only him and his son Juan Preciado but also various characters such as Miguel Páramo (complementing his father’s machismo, boorishness, and cruelty, the only one of Pedro’s many sons who is fully acknowledged), Father Rentería (a symbol of the subordination of church to state in anticlerical, postrevolutionary Mexico), and Susana San Juan (representing the lost innocence of youth and idealized lost love to Pedro), among others.
The story of Pedro Páramo is completely encased in the structural circle within which everything is destined to collapse. Rejecting the empirical law of time (past, present, and future), life and death, reality and dream, the narrative adopts the circular structure that gives the novel a mythic feature. The fate of total collapse of Pedro Páramo and Comala is even carved into the novel’s title. “Pedro” etymologically connotes “rock,” and “Páramo” means “wasteland.” The last line of the novel echoes the significance of the title: “He fell to the ground with a thud, and lay there, collapsed like a pile of rocks.”
The novel also depicts the tragic love of Pedro Páramo for Susana San Juan, the only figure in the novel exempt from Comala’s sterility, despair, death, and collapse. In contrast to the many other women Pedro Páramo seduces and rapes, she is his idealized love. When she dies, Pedro Páramo leaves the town dead in revenge, perhaps against death itself. Pedro Páramo’s monologue for her is filled with lyricism, which is sharply contrasted with the description of his cruel and merciless behavior. The very duality of his characterization makes him a universal model of human love and hatred.
Two poles of Rulfo’s art, regionalism and idealism, made Pedro Páramo a precursor of magical realist fiction and the boom novels in the 1960s. The boom period represented an intense output by Latin American authors of world-acclaimed fiction. Gabriel García Márquez once said that he knew the whole book by heart, and included a sentence from Pedro Páramo in his One Hundred Years of Solitude. The mythical town Macondo was inspired by Rulfo’s village of phantoms. The novel was translated into more than 18 languages. The filmic version of Pedro Páramao, adapted by Carlos Fuentes and Carlos Velo, was released in 1966. Rulfo was not satisfied with the execution of the film version because he felt that it changed the novel into a western.
Cacheiro Varela, Maximino. La poesia en Pedro Páramo. Madrid: Hurga & Fierro Editors, 2004.
Fuentes, Carlos, ed. Juan Rulfo’s Mexico. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2002.
Leal, Luis. Juan Rulfo. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Zepeda, Jorge. La receptión de Pedro Páramo, 1955–1963. México: Ediciones RM, 2005.