It's a very strange book; let me admit that at the outset. It's as primitive and uncanny as a folk tale, plain-spoken but infinitely complex, a neat little metaphysical machine—one of those small, perfect books that remake the world out of paradox, like Waiting for Godot, or Nadja.
When it was first published in Mexico City in 1955, it received a few tepid notices and sold poorly. Its author was 37 at the time, or 38. (No one seems to know for sure when he was born.) He was from Jalisco, near Guadalajara, and he'd published one mildly interesting collection of short stories a few years earlier. I suspect no one knew what to make of the new book, since it was entirely unlike—well—anything else. Perhaps the critics were astounded into silence; more likely, they were puzzled and a little bit blind. As for the author, he went silent and never wrote another book, though he lived on for more than 30 years, long enough to see himself credited with the invention of an entire movement, to see his only novel sell millions of copies, to receive mash notes from Nobel Prize winners.
In Latin America, he eventually came to be considered canonical, a master of modernism, but here in the United States, his reputation remains curiously split between those few who adore him and the many who have never heard of him. When I mention to people that I'm reading his book again (I've read it five or six times in the past few years), I invariably get one of two responses. A few will announce that it's one of their favorite books, but the majority will say, "Pedro …what? By Juan … who?" And to these latter I'll explain: Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo. A very great novel.
It begins, "I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Paramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him." First person, past tense, a perfectly lucid and concise setup. It doesn't last long. As the narrator—his name is Juan Preciado—approaches the outskirts of town, he's joined by a burro driver who mentions that Pedro Paramo is his father, too; together they enter town, and everything changes.
To begin with, Comala seems half disintegrated, like a newspaper that's been left out in the rain; and the people who live there are melancholy and diffident. A woman, a man, a priest: They're given names but left otherwise undescribed. They bring Preciado into their homes, but their homes are empty, and all the time they talk and talk, telling stories about the town, its history, its sorrows and scandals, and most of all about Paramo. They all have stories about Paramo, a bad man, a cacique, a rapist, a thief.
Peculiar things start to happen on the page, things I've never seen in a book. The tenses switch back and forth, past to present and back again, sometime in the space of a single paragraph, until time itself becomes senseless. The stories begin to refract, shatter, and rebuild; pronouns multiply—I, he, she, you, stumbling over each other. Dialogue and thoughts are left unattributed. The perspectives shift from internal to external and back again, from Preciado to Paramo to Paramo's childhood love, Susana San Juan. "This town is full of echoes," one character says. "It's like they were trapped behind the walls or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk, you feel like someone's behind you, stepping in your footsteps. You hear rustlings. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years." And why? Because—the reader realizes this about the same time Preciado does—all these people are dead.
Soon enough (very soon, for the entire novel is only 122 pages in the English translation) Preciado is dead as well—from grief, it seems, or fright—but the book just keeps going, sustained by the babble of ghosts. They speak in unattributed dialogue, interrupting one another, overlapping, addressing one another; and every so often the fog of voices lifts, and a third-person narrator, clear as a 19th-century novelist, steps in—though in context his voice is every bit as disorienting as the others. Out of this babble emerge tales of love, of cruelty, of poverty and misfortune, of the revolution and the succeeding Cristero Revolt; and then Pedro Paramo is killed by one of his many bastard sons—Abundio, the burro driver from the beginning—and, just like that, the book is done.