Rediscovering Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo. 

Reading between the lines.
March 10 2008 7:17 AM

The Perfect Novel You've Never Heard Of

Rediscovering Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo.

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Very strange, as I say; and yet one never suspects that Rulfo is being willfully elusive, or mannered, or gratuitously obscure. His work is built on an intricate lattice of time and space, but it doesn't seem planned so much as grown, something natural, inevitable, efficient, and effortless. All its paradoxes are innate. For example: It's the most morbid book I've ever read, since all of the living are dead; but it's also one of the most vivifying, since all of the dead are still living.

Rulfo himself died of lung cancer in 1986. We know a little about him—not very much. He was famous enough in his own lifetime to attract scholars and biographers, but private and mischievous enough to enjoy vexing and misleading them. We know this: that he was born to a well-to-do family in a small town southwest of Guadalajara and raised in the wake of the revolution. When he was 6, his father was killed by bandits; two years later, his mother died of heart failure. He was educated in an orphanage, a bookish child—"I spent all my time reading," he said, "because you couldn't go out for fear of getting shot"—who became a somewhat reclusive adult, at once retiring and proud. Something like Wallace Stevens, it seems: the peculiar genius with a day job. Rulfo worked for the Mexican government, then as a tire salesman for Goodrich, then, after his two slim volumes were published, as a bureaucrat again. He wrote a few scripts for television and films, and he was a dedicated amateur photographer; but his career as a novelist was done.

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His reputation, though, was just beginning. In Mexico, as elsewhere, social realism was the inevitable companion of political upheaval. It was what you got until someone figured out how to make art again. Rulfo was that someone, and what he began was an entirely new style: a kind of rural modernism, eclectic in its influences (Knut Hamsun was one of Rulfo's heroes, and he once expressed an affinity with Faulkner) but specific enough to its time and place that it transfigured generations of Latin American literature.

Here's what Carlos Fuentes said: "The work of Juan Rulfo is not only the highest expression which the Mexican novel has attained until now: through Pedro Paramo we can find the thread that leads us to the new Latin American novel." And when Gabriel Garcia Marquez first arrived in Mexico City in 1961, a friend pressed a copy of Pedro Paramo on him; he read it twice that night and so often thereafter that, he has said, "I could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards." Moreover, he acknowledges, "The examination in depth of Juan Rulfo's work gave me at last the way that I sought to continue my books." And thus was Magic Realism born, although, in truth, Rulfo's own book is more diabolical than magical and more phenomenal than real; and, more importantly, none of his descendants are like him at all.

The '60s passed, then the '70s. There was supposed to be another book on the way, but that may have been a ruse on Rulfo's part. "I am not a professional writer," he once said. "I write when I feel like it." Apparently, he felt like it less and less, for when he died, little of the rumored second novel was found.

I was steered to Pedro Paramo by writer Ruben Martinez. (Thank you, Ruben.) I read it and then read it again almost immediately, and then again, and then again; I was trying to reverse-engineer it, but I never did figure out quite how it works. At the same time, I couldn't understand how Rulfo had escaped my attention for so long; it was like happening on a new primary color, entirely unlike any I'd seen before. But then I read something else Marquez had to say. He, too, didn't know Rulfo's name until he was given the book; he, too, was surprised. How could a book be at once so admired and so obscure? "Juan Rulfo," he said, "to the contrary of what happens with the great classic writers, is a writer whom one reads a lot, but of whom one speaks little."

Well, yes: So I have spoken about him a little and about his book a little more. He would have been 90 this year (or 91), and where are the celebrations in his honor? You'd think the author of Pedro Paramo had become one of its characters: a melancholy and slightly mysterious man, long since passed away, a voice from the grave with a story to tell, which he speaks with an insistence that only madmen, masters, and the dead can maintain.

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.

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