My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It sometimes seems as if great novels—where “great” implies success at the historico-political task of summing an epoch or capturing a society in fiction—almost have to be long. You know the list: Bleak House, War and Peace, Middlemarch, The Magic Mountain, Underworld, etc. But I am also interested in a certain type of shorter novel, often even straddling the novella/novel boundary*, that has the perhaps peculiar ambition of taking up the job of the big-canvas Balzacian or Dickensian novel (and behind it, the epic) in a much smaller space. These novels often address themselves to generational time-scales, vast territories, communal experiences, or transpersonal institutions; formally, they often incorporate multiple perspectives and conflicting voices. While you might think that the shorter or short novel would mainly concern very particular moral problems or psychological experiences (and many examples come to mind, more examples than of the kind of book I am discussing, as in the short novels of James or Mansfield or Bellow, for instance), the short or shorter novel I am thinking of manifestly exhibits the world-describing or world-making power of bigger books with the additional ambition of compressing this power within a small compass: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Billy Budd, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Toomer’s Cane, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Morrison’s Sula, Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Sometimes these brief texts are even the fictional treatments of their historical subjects (American Puritanism for Hawthorne, modernist London for Woolf), yet they will fit in the back pocket as similarly epochal novels like Lost Illusions or Ulysses will not.
Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is such a novel. My little old Grove Press paperback, translated by Lysander Kemp, is 123 pages, and that is with fairly wide line spacing, but the book’s historical reputation is as the great Mexican novel. Rulfo’s first novel, published in 1955, is a deliriously fragmented tale, surreal and supernatural, about what befell the village of Comala in the early twentieth century.
It begins with seeming straightforwardness, as a narrator named Juan Preciado ventures to Comola at the behest of his dead mother because it is where his father, the eponymous Pedro Páramo, lives. But it soon becomes clear to Juan that Comala is a town empty but for ghosts of its prior residents, who take turns taking him in on his voyage, and from whose testimony he pieces together the scarifying story of his father’s life (though not before, midway through the novel, joining the dead himself). Pedro Páramo was a ruthless, expansive landowner, cheating and murdering his way to control of his territory, dominating the women he desires, and even manipulating the Mexican Revolution to his own advantage; the center of his life, however, is his obsession from childhood with a woman named Susana. The last third of the book, as the vital Pedro Páramo’s story comes to dominate over that of his now-dead son, narrates the land baron’s attempt to recover Susana and her own erotic madness.
Carmen Boullosa, writing in The Nation in 2006, summarizes the many meanings that have been attributed to this classic (which, she notes, every Mexican inevitably reads in school):
It has been said to represent, embody, allegorize or illuminate: the times of Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship, the social context of the Revolution, patriarchal rancher culture and the repression of women, the poetic qualities of rural speech, Mexico’s relationship with death, the lingering influence on Mexicans of Aztec cosmology, Mexican deruralization and the ghost towns it created, Mexican culture, Mexican history, Mexican modernity, universal myths and archetypes. All of these interpretations are right, except those asserting that they alone are right. For me, the novel is about the Novel: the wonders of storytelling, the power of the literary word that spins so fast it never lets the reader catch it.
While I am admittedly inexpert on the specifics of Mexican history, I obviously appreciate Boullosa’s point about “the Novel”; for me, though, Pedro Páramo is about the difficulties and paradoxes of belatedness: the sense that, though the past was brutal, at least it was alive, while the present feels like a gray colloquy of ghosts. This is just where “the Novel” comes in. As I have said before, art might be our only substitute for the life we no longer can or want to live, the man we no longer can or want to be. In reading about Pedro Páramo, we do not have to be him. The son of the absent father, Juan Preciado, in that sense, is the reader’s surrogate. (And the author’s surrogate? Perhaps the chorus of women who tell so much of the story—a feminist essay that I am sure has been written already.)
My book’s back cover refers to Faulkner, and Boullosa, in cataloguing the notoriously cagey Rulfo’s artistic exaggerations, notes that he claimed never to have read Faulkner. This is not convincing, and anyway there is no shame in influence. Faulkner with his modernist hinterland gothic taught us all to look with relativizing multiple perspectives on absolutist monomaniacs, to elegize monstrous tragic heroes we are relieved not to have to live with even as we are perversely sad they are gone, and to communicate in worldly or cosmopolitan literary form the particularities and hauntings of our local experience (whether the locality is in our villages or in our heads). Speaking of influence, Rulfo’s novel has also been said to have been a forerunner of magical realism; its own magic is somewhat traditional, that of the ghost story, not the more baroque inventions of a García Márquez, but the impact on One Hundred Years of Solitude is evident. Recurring to my first paragraph above, note, though, Rulfo’s almost novella-length tale as compared to García Márquez’s vast saga.
Anyway, I recommend Pedro Páramo most highly, from the beautifully surreal details that begin on the first page—
They say a road goes up or down depending on whether you’re coming or going. If you’re going away it’s uphill, but it’s downhill if you’re coming back.
—to the comic, poignant voices that ring through the empty town, those that belong in a horror movie—
“The village is full of echoes. Perhaps they got trapped in the hollows of the walls, or under the stones. When you walk in the street, you can hear other footsteps, and rustling noises, and laughter. Old laughter, as if it were tired of laughing by now. And voices worn out with use. You can hear all this. I think someday these sounds will die away.”
—and those more intimate and tender—
“Illusions are bad. It was an illusion that made me live longer than I should have. That’s how I paid for trying to find my son, who was only another illusion. I never had a son. Now that I’m dead I’ve had time to think everything over, and I understand. God didn’t even give me any home to keep him in. Just a long, weary life, always searching wherever I went, looking sideways, looking behind people, always suspecting they’d hidden my child. And it was all the fault of my bad dream.”
—to the moments of lyrical description that seem to arrest time in evoking its passage—
The wind blew during all those days, the wind that brought the rain. The rain had gone now, but the wind stayed on. The corn-shoots dried off in the fields and lay down to protect themselves from the wind. It was bearable enough in the daytime, although it shook the vines and rattled the tiles on the roof, but at night it moaned and moaned. The clouds drifted like great, silent pavilions over the earth.
A great twentieth-century novel, and not a bit less great because you can read it in a day.
* Isn’t it odd that we insist on the novella/novel distinction, but no distinctions among texts considered long enough to be novels? Why is there a qualitative difference embedded in our language between a 30,000-word fiction and a 70,000-word one, but not between a 90,000-word fiction and a 1,000,000-word one?