Journeys to the Land of the Dead usually fall under the rubric of the epic. We think of Odysseus talking with the shades of ancient heroes while they drink blood to help remember what it was like to be warm and alive, or Dante touring the punishments of Hell, or Orpheus chasing Eurydice into the Underworld. The ancients peopled the afterlife with, well, people, imagining it as a rather large and dreary retirement community.
Juan Rulfo is Mexican and as such has a foot in the ancient world of myth and epic. In writing Pedro Páramo, he is often credited with inventing Latin American Magic Realism and the novel of the cacique, the thuggish, semi-feudal autocrats of post-colonial
Pedro Páramo is 125 pages long and split into 57 unnumbered subsections or fragments that range in length from a few lines to several pages. It starts out in the first person in the voice of Juan Preciado, Pedro Páramo’s son by an estranged and abandoned wife, but then develops several narrative lines and points of view. There are multiple third person point of view sections (Pedro Páramo, a priest named Father Renteria, Páramo’s wife, and various villagers) and a few italicized sections which are mostly Pedro Páramo’s thoughts about his childhood love, a girl named Susana (who later marries him, goes insane and dies). About half-way through the book, Juan Preciado’s first person narration turns into a dialogue between Juan and a village woman named Dorotea who, apparently, was buried in the same grave with him.
Like the similarly fractured chronology, the fractured point of view structure is motivated within the text by the fact that the characters are all dead. They speak as ghostly “voices” or as people who look real enough but are, in fact, moribund. Released from their bodies, no longer tethered to place or time, these spirit memories seem to float in and out of the text, not to mention triggering the occasional personal identity crises.
I could hear the dogs barking, as if I had wakened them. I saw a man cross the street.
“You!” I called.
“You!” he called back. In my own voice.
The point is that when you are dead you no longer have to follow the rules of logic: you are no longer anywhere, you are no longer anchored to a particular time and you may no longer be yourself.
Pedro Páramo starts with Juan Preciado deciding to return to the village of Comala after his mother’s death because she wanted him to go back and find his father Pedro Páramo and “Make him pay for the way he forgot us.” A couple of pages later Juan meets a burro driver named Abundio who claims also to be Páramo’s son and tells him their father is dead. Juan reaches Comala, which, as everyone he meets agrees, looks dead. And the villagers he encounters demonstrate preternatural qualities to an alarming degree. They vanish, or talk to the dead (several seem to have a direct line to his deceased mother), or hear and see events to which Juan himself is not privy.
Growing alarmed and depressed, Juan seeks refuge with a couple who are in bed naked together and turn out to be brother and sister. He sleeps with the sister, the room they inhabit becomes more and more tomb-like, and finally Juan undergoes some sort of crisis which may or may not be his own death or the realization that he is dead. For the rest of the novel, when he appears, he is in the grave talking to Dorotea and listening to voices from other graves.
Between the snippets Juan overhears in the cemetery and the fragmentary third-person point of view scenes which make up the bulk of the text, the reader manages to piece together the story of what has happened in Comala, the epic tale of the rise and fall of the eponymous Pedro Páramo, murderous haciendado, wealthy landowner, corrupt and predatory. Páramo’s story begins with scenes from his childhood, his landowner father’s murder, the moment when the young Pedro takes over the reins of his father’s flagging empire (like Michael Corleone in The Godfather), the rise of his fortunes through a cynical marriage (to Juan Preciado’s mother), murder, coercion, bribery and political manipulations.
Ruthless, sociopathic Páramo lacks for only one thing, his childhood friend Susana. Thirty years after she left Comala, she returns with her father (another incestuous something-or-other seems implied). Páramo arranges the father’s murder, marries Susana and then watches her slip into insanity and death. Shortly after he buries her, he is knifed to death by one of his own illegitimate offspring, the burro driver Abundio from the novel’s opening (at the opening, he is already dead but still walking around and talking).
This event, unlike the rest of the novel, is datable from internal evidence—Dorotea tells Juan (in their grave) that “not long before he died the Cristero’s revolted”; the Cristero Rebellion lasted from 1926 to 1929 and the diplomatic rapprochement at the end of that conflict ushered in the political system that has governed Mexico ever since. Though Pedro Páramo is about death, and all its characters are ghosts, the novel is less interested in the fact of death and its relationship to self, less metaphysical, as it were, than it is in the existential relationship of heirarchy and control in historical Mexico.
In telling Pedro Páramo’s story—and this is key to the novel’s amazing reputation—Rulfo is also telling the story of modern Mexico. Pedro Páramo is a metonym for the semi-feudal landowning class which has bedeviled Mexican politics and development from colonial times. Adept at supporting the winning side, even when the winning side set out to redistribute the land and end the haciendado system, men like Páramo managed to turn the great peasant rebellions of 1910 to 1920 to their advantage, crushing the peasants and sucking the lifeblood out of rural Mexico. The novel is then a metaphor for Mexican history.
But Pedro Páramo is also a love story, albeit a love story nailed to the grid of power relations; Pedro Páramo’s lifelong desire for Susana animates the final sequence of actions in his story, which is good because after walking to town and finding himself in a graveyard Juan Preciado, himself, fails to accomplish much. (Pedro Páramo also contains a third strong plot—amidst a range of lesser plots—which involves the priest Father Renteria whose moral struggle with his own acquiescence to Pedro Páramo’s corruption is one of the more fascinating and dramatic elements of the book.)
The dead are everywhere in Mexico just as they are in Rulfo’s novel. I googled the Cristero Rebellion out of curiosity and found archives of photographs of firing squad executions, lopped heads, telephone poles marching into the distance, bodies dangling from the cross-bars. In Mexico they have the Day of the Dead and waxy, skeletal, dead Christs in the sanctuaries of their churches, and the daily newspapers parade the daily dead in contorted, bloody splendour on their front pages. Drug cartels have replaced the warlords and caciques, Pedro Páramo redivivus, not a single man but a resilient and self-re-inventing social structure that dates back to Cortez and his ruthless captains (“ruthless” is of course a feeble epithet, their taste for gold and blood was revolting and uncanny).
On a certain level (when speaking of great novels it is always necessary to specify levels), Pedro Páramo is utterly realistic, its fractured structure merely reflecting a culture in which life is always being interrupted by death, where the originary personal consciousness is constantly canceled by the bullet (where poor souls are sealed in drums of acid or buried in mass graves to erase their memories). Pedro Páramo is an historical novel written out of a country absent a strong central government, without a core of structural continuity, where a kind of demonic violence trumps the personal and the national, a country continually restarting itself and betraying itself.
Only an anti-novel could emerge from such spiritual miasma. There is no history and no novel, just the endless retrospective present of the grave and a structure that reflects Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of aesthetic strangeness (content contorted in the artificial symmetries of form) and Freud’s concept of the uncanny (the dread-haunted familiar). The form of Pedro Páramo is stressed or forced, unconventional in the modernist mode, but not modernist in inspiration, as I say, completely original and realistic on a certain level, that is from the point of view of the dead (and Mexican culture), and uncanny in the sense that characters seem alive when they are not, they walk and talk and even make love but are dead.
The structure of death, the thematic forcing of diction and repetition, is evident from the beginning. On the first short page of Pedro Páramo, we have “dying,” “died” and “dead.” Moving forward, the town of Comala looks “dead”, it’s deserted, the air is “dead” and Juan Preciado describes it as a “dead village.” Juan’s mother is dead on the first page, his father Pedro Páramo is dead, it turns out that Abundio, the burro driver he talked to on his way to the village, is dead. A woman disappears then suddenly appears and crosses the street in front of him, he hears voices. “Especially voices. And here where the air was so dead, they sounded even louder.”
The word “dream” also recurs, as do “voices” and “murmurs”—apparently Rulfo thought, for a while, of calling the novel Murmurs. “It was the voices that killed me,” Juan says, when he finally realizes he’s dead. “The voices killed me.”
And those murmurs seemed to come from the walls, to seep out of the cracks and broken spots. They were the peoples’ voices but they weren’t clear, they were almost secret, as if they were whispering something to me as I passed. . . .
All of Rulfo’s characters react with deadpan (sorry) acceptance, passive in the face of their own morbidity. The effect is uncanny, zombie-like, they are the living dead, strange mirror images of the living. But an immediate consequence of relentless repetition, verbal and structural, is the creation of a fictionally plausible Land of the Dead, a graveyard faux epic composed of whispers and gossip.
Note how skillfully Rulfo leads the reader by degrees into a metaphysical complacency. At the start of Pedro Páramo, Juan Preciado, like the reader, depends for an explanation of the premises of the new world of the novel on the characters he meets along the way. (This is true of all novels but particularly so in a novel that outs its fictional nature from the first words.) From a distance the town looks dead and deserted; Abundio, the burro driver, tells him, “That isn’t how it looks. It is. Nobody lives there anymore.” This a pun. There are people in the town, but they are dead.
The first person Juan sees in the village disappears “as if she didn’t even exist.” Trying to find a room for the night, he hunts up a woman named Dona Eduviges who seems to be expecting him. It turns out she is somehow in touch with Juan’s mother. When he tells her his mother is dead, Dona Eduviges’ only reaction is to say, “. . . then that’s why her voice sounded so weak.”
A few pages later, he tells her about meeting Abundio and his burros on the way to the village. Dona Eduviges says, “. . . Abundio’s dead. I’m sure he must be dead. Didn’t he tell you?” Death is reduced to the level of an everyday fact in the tone of her words. Juan Preciado observes: “I thought the woman must be crazy. Then I didn’t think anything at all, except that I must be in some other world. My body seemed to be floating . . .”. At which point, the reader thinks: Uh-oh! Other world, other rules.
And a few pages after that, Juan, beginning to know the new world, asks a woman who has befriended him, “Are you alive, Damiana? Tell me, Damiana?” Suddenly, she vanishes. And still a few more pages along, given shelter by a couple, he asks outright, “Are you dead?” At this point, he has learned to ask the right questions. Soon he realizes he’s dead himself and a few pages after that Damiana explains how she was buried in his grave with his arms around her and how the voices he hears come from nearby graves. Thus, by easy but clearly defined steps or stages, Rulfo has told us we’re in another world (Land of the Dead) and the basic mechanisms of that world.
Rulfo packs his little novel with action, but every plot leads to death or through death. The images of death are shatteringly present and macabre but strangely hollowed out; they produce horror and anxiety (the uncanny) without emotional release. First, of course, there is the necessary death scene of the dead hero, or at least Juan Preciado’s realization (anagnorisis) of his own death, a moment that is figurative and dream-like, an absolutely uncanny reversal (peripeteia) in which the zombie realizes it’s a zombie—and the reader feels like a sweater turning itself inside out.
The moment arrives in two discrete segments, the one subjective (Juan) and the other an objective report (Dorotea). This is how Juan Preciado experiences his death:
. . . I got up, but the woman went on sleeping. Her mouth was open and a bubbling sound came out of it, like the death-rattle.And this is Dorotea’s report of the same event.
I went out into the street for a little air, but the heat followed me out and wouldn’t go away. There wasn’t any air. Only the silent, stupefied night, scorched by the August dog days.
There wasn’t any air. I had to swallow the same air I breathed out, holding it back with my hands so it wouldn’t escape. I could feel it coming and going, and each time it was less and less, until it got so thin it slipped through my fingers forever.
I remember seeing something like a cloud of foam, and washing myself in the foam, and losing myself in the cloud. That was the last thing I saw.
“. . . I found you in the plaza, a long way from Donis’s house, and he was right there with me, telling me you were dying. We dragged you into the shadow of the arcade, and you were having convulsions, the way people die of fright. If there wasn’t any air on the night you talk about, how did we have the strength to bring you out here and bury you? And you can see that we buried you.”
The two versions conflict. Juan Preciado thinks he died of suffocation. Dorotea thinks he died of fright. Subsequently, Juan agrees that it was the voices that killed him, the voices of the dead. The effect is to evoke denial and assimilation by degrees—the anagnorisis itself mimes the slow-motion consciousness of the living dead.
Rulfo is especially good at metonymic detail. Rather than supply the reader with full-on clinical realism, Rulfo implicates the act of dying in a series of carefully selected images (thus saving himself a lot of space—the novel is written like a telegram). Locked in a bare bedroom the first night by Dona Eduviges, Juan Preciado hears someone shout, “The hell with life anyway!” and then again, “Let me kick! You can hang me, but let me kick!” And then we learn that this is where Páramo’s henchman hanged the farmer Toribio Aldrete and the death screams conjure the horrid images of the hanging body and its spasmodic death throes.
Dona Eduviges’ death sneaks up on the reader, replicating Juan Preciado’s own staggered realizations and the uncanny quality of the book as a whole. An early description has her “so pale, you would think there wasn’t any blood in her body.” A little later we find out she committed suicide. “That’s how she died, with the blood choking her. I can still see her expressions. They were the most pitiful expressions a human being ever made.”
Juan Preciado’s friend-lover-grave partner Dorotea dies by simply giving up. “I opened my mouth so it [her soul] could leave, and it left. I felt something fall into my hands. It was a little thread of blood that had tied it to my heart.” Juan Preciado’s mother dies of sorrow. Don Fulgor Sedano, Páramo’s fat foreman, is slaughtered by rebels, forced to run while they shoot him down “with one foot on the ground and one foot in the air.”
Some of the deaths are elided. We never see Pedro Páramo’s son Miguel die, tossed from his horse going over a jump. But Dona Eduviges hears the horse’s hooves on the road (over and over, as I say, Rulfo seeks to pin a specific concrete metonymic image to a death) and when Miguel comes to the door, confused because he can’t find the village he was riding towards, she tells him, “You’re not crazy, Miguel. You’re dead.”
Pedro Páramo orders Susana’s father Don Bartolome murdered at a mine far from town. We never see the murder, but some ghostly presence appears to Susana that night (and she dreams or seems to dream about a cat that gets into her room and curls up between her legs, some eerie sexual reference).
“Your father’s dead, Susana. He died the night before last, and they came here today to tell us they’ve already buried him. They couldn’t bring him here because it’s too far. You’re all alone now, Susana.”
“So it was my father.” She smiled. “He came here to say good-bye to me,” she said, and smiled.
One image of death that is not physical but moral develops out of the Catholicism represented by the character named Father Renteria. Called to Susana’s bedside to get her to repent and receive communion, the priest is taken for her dead lover Florencio. Renteria cruelly sows her addled brain with horrific death images to persuade her to take the sacrament, forcing her to repeat his words, his macabre litany of death.
“I swallow the froth of my saliva. I eat clods of earth. They are crawling with worms. They choke my throat and rasp against my palate . . . My lips loosen, grimacing, and my teeth rend and devour them. My face dissolves, my eyes melt to slime, my hair goes up in flames . . .”.
This lovely man is actually, so far as I can tell, the only one in the book to get out alive. He runs off to the mountains to join the revolution, probably the Cristero movement mentioned above. But before that he pronounces himself dead, spiritually dead. “I died. I’m the corpse.”
Rulfo distributes the structures of time distortion throughout his novel, as I have said, forcing the thematics of death conceptually onto the fragmented narrative. He uses abrupt narrative breaks and leaps to distort the reader’s experience of time. Meanwhile he avoids most conventional time-switch devices, the sort of bread-and-butter narrative guides that tell the reader when events occur relative to other events.
For example, right at the beginning of the novel he uses a distinctive shadowing technique in which he gives scene and scene set-up in reversed order. On the second page, we find this fragment of dialogue inserted without preamble or context. Rulfo doesn’t even give the usual dialogue attributions to let the reader know who is talking.
“What’s the name of that village down there?”
“You’re sure it’s Comala?”
“Why does it look so dead?”
This dialogue is between Juan Preciado and Abundio, the burro driver, although the reader doesn’t figure this out until later. The scene continues for about a page at which point Juan mentions that his father is Pedro Páramo. His companion (Abundio) gasps and then, abruptly, we get the introduction to the scene oddly inserted at the climactic moment of the scene itself (my italics for clarity).
But the way he said it, it was almost like a gasp. I said, “At least that’s what they told me his name was.”
I heard him say, “Oh,” again.
I met him in Los Encuentros, where three or four roads come together. I was just waiting there, and finally he came by with his burros.
“Where are you going?” I asked him.
“That way, senor,” he said, pointing.
“Do you know where Comala is?”
“That’s where I’m going.”
So I followed him. I walked along behind, keeping up with his steps, until he understood I was following him and slowed down a little. After that we walked side by side, almost touching shoulders.
He said, “Pedro Páramo is my father too.”
Note how Rulfo, when he inserts the set-back in time, deliberately avoids the grammatically correct tense change. “I had met him in Los Encuentro . . .”. Note also how he elides any transition back into the scene in progress. It’s as if he simply lifted the beginning of the sequence with Abundio and stuck it in somewhere else to create this dreamy, disjointed effect. Lest the reader think he made a mistake, Rulfo nails his authorial intention by repeating the technique a couple of pages later—another instance of thematic encoding or forcing at the structural level.
Rulfo also employs a kind of narrative syncopation: he mentions or alludes to an incident without expanding on it, then fills in the whole scene later in the text. For example, Dorotea mentions to Juan Preciado that Father Renteria told her she would never get to Heaven for her sins; fourteen pages later Rulfo gives us the full scene—Dorotea coming to confession and Renteria’s cruel refusal. On another occasion, Dorotea tells Juan how, after Susana’s death, Pedro Páramo “spent the rest of his life hunched over in a chair, looking at the road where they took her out to bury her.” Then 38 pages later we are given the more or less continuous narrative of Susana’s death, Páramo’s grief and his murder in the chair by the side of the road.
And sometimes Rulfo uses a rather lovely temporal weaving. Near the middle of the novel there is a sequence that begins with a group of local Indians coming to Comala to market their goods, staying most of the day, then packing and leaving in the rain.
The Indians packed up their wares at dusk, and stepped out into the rain with their heavy bundles on their shoulders. They went into the church to pray to the Virgin, and left her a bunch of thyme as an offering. Then they set out for Apango.
Without a line break, the narrative shifts to a scene between Susana and her nurse-caretaker Justina.
Justina Diaz went into Susana San Juan’s bedroom and put a bunch of rosemary on the wall bracket.
(Note the elegant anadiplosis—“bunch of thyme” “bunch of rosemary”—which links the two distinct passages.)
What follows is a strange, eerie scene, a mix of ghosts and madness, heralding the murder of Susana’s father far away. There’s a scream, he seems to appear as a ghost and tries to send Justina away, a cat sleeps between Susana’s legs (a delicate sexual innuendo, unsettling, bizarre). After a line break, Rulfo inserts a mysterious flashback scene in which Susana’s father lowers her into an abandoned mineshaft into a heap of human bones. Flickering in and out, the rain repeats.
The rain was turning to hail, muffling all sounds except its own.
The rain pattered on the banana leaves. It sounded as if the raindrops were boiling in the water that stood on the earth.
The sheets were cold and damp. The drains gushed and foamed, working all day, all night, all day. The water ran and ran, hissing with a million bubbles.
And again at the close of the sequence.
It was still raining. The Indians had gone. It was Monday, and the Comala valley was still drowned in rain.
In Pedro Páramo the way to the Land of the Dead is through a fissure (like Dante’s cave) in the text—“the gap I had come through,” recalls Juan Preciado, “like an open wound in the blackness of the mountains.” I am reminded of the opening of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”—Aschenbach walking to the North Cemetery, “the neighborhood quite empty” and the stonemason’s yard opposite creating “a supernumerary and untenanted graveyard opposite the real one” and the mortuary chapel with its portico and staircase guarded by “two apocalyptic beasts” and the motto “They are entering into the House of the Lord.” Equally, I am reminded of the opening of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and a similar entryway into the phantasmal universe: Marlow travels to Brussels to secure an appointment, the Company offices are situated in a house “as still as a house in the city of the dead.” He walks through an outer room past two enigmatic women knitting (Norns, Fates), “guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a pall.”
I cite these parallels in part to show that Rulfo is fairly in line with traditional literary motifs, that there is a kind of conventionality to his unconventionality (not to diminish his originality, but to recognize the existence of traditions within traditions). It is a convention that heroes go off the path, squeeze through gates, pass through magic doors, fall asleep, or travel to the Land of the Dead—anything to get them metaphorically out of the ordinary and into a place of meaning (secrets, Being, the Unconscious, the ineffable and unknowable). Getting beyond (whatever beyond is), motivates insight (anagnorisis) but it also motivates formal variation (intensity, riot, verbal play).
In the ancient epics, the Land of the Dead really was the home of the shades whereas modern writers tend to make it a metaphor, an allegory, or a device of rhetorical context. Rulfo’s fantastic structural and technical pyrotechnics are doubly or triply motivated. First, there is a political and cultural focus—Mexico’s obsession with the dead, its horrific past, its failure to create a political identity against the centrifugal forces of demonic violence. No ordinary language can paint this picture; conventional structure would force a conventional narrative arc and a false totality on what remains a dark mystery.
Form reflects ideology. There is a common sense way of speaking that eventuates, more or less, in the conventional realistic novel, which is (really) just as formally committed as a modernist experiment but pretends to a comforting verisimilitude that amounts to a spiritual complacency. I am who I think I am, the world is intelligible, my adventures have a predictable arc of development. Another sort of novel reflects a more complicated vision of existence and a different history (or version of history). Just as in German-speaking countries where the language itself became suspect after the atrocities of the Second World War, Mexican authors like Rulfo attempt to incorporate in the language of their texts their country’s horrendous history of genocide and constant revolution. In Pedro Páramo the dead have a voice; in fact, only the dead get to speak; every word is uttered in the Land of the Dead.To go one step further, a novel like Pedro Páramo subverts the entire Enlightenment project, the belief in an autonomous thinking subject, in reason, and in human progress (perhaps America is now the only country in the world that still pays lip service to that bit of 18th century flim-flam). By projecting an uncanny, cracked mirror image of the quotidian onto the pages of his book, Rulfo lets loose the demons and ghosts that haunt all our histories. He escapes the anaesthetic faux humanism of contemporary market-driven fiction and establishes his work of art as something close to an eruption of the thing we cannot talk about but which insists on its presence nonetheless. He brings it close, close enough to touch, and the novel smells of the fresh-dug soil of the grave.