In Search Of Juan Rulfo
By Harriet Hart
One of Mexico’s most famous authors, the man who invented magic realism and inspired such literary luminaries as Gabriel Garcia Marquez is from Jalisco. Juan Rulfo was born in Sayula in 1917 and set his only novel, Pedro Paramo, in the village of San Gabriel where he grew up, renaming it Comala in the book for reasons unknown.
The book is a tale of love, loss and revenge told by both the living and the wandering spirits of the dead. Susan Sontag calls Pedro Paramo one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century. Gabriel Garcia Marquez read it so often he had it committed to memory.
Juan Rulfo was born to a father whose family had lost their land holdings during the Mexican Revolution. His father was assassinated when Juan was six, his mother died only four years later. He was raised by his grandmother in the village of San Gabriel, placed in an orphanage and attended just seven years of elementary school. Later he moved to Mexico City where he found employment first as a file clerk and for a time, as a tire salesman.
He married Clara Apericio in Guadalajara at the age of 30, fathered two children, and published his first book of short stories Llano en Llamas (The Burning Plain) when he was 40. His second book, Pedro Paramo, was published two years later. He died of lung cancer in 1986.
His work was so highly regarded that he won Mexico’s National Prize for literature in 1970 and was elected to the Mexican Academy of Language in 1980. In 1985 he received Spain’s Cervantes Prize in recognition of his accomplishments.
I must confess I had never heard of the author or his novel until my book club chose it for October’s selection. We didn’t know that Pedro Paramo would send us all on an adventure outside its pages.
“Let’s make a literary pilgrimage into Rulfo country. We can hunt for the hacienda that figures so largely in the novel and check out some of the places of his childhood,” someone suggested. We made hotel reservations in Tapalpa and started reading.
On October 8th we left Lakeside under sunny skies: nine women, two vans, an ice chest full of treats and two walkie-talkies. We first reached Sayula, which is Rulfo’s birthplace of record, even though many scholars insist that he was born in a nearby village and that his birth was only recorded in Sayula. After a stroll around the town’s shady plaza, we checked out the church and small archeological museum and found a plaque on a wall and a bust of the author.We were off to a promising start. Lunch was in the charming restaurant inside La Casa de los Patios Hotel and Spa where there is a wall of photos dedicated to our man. Stomachs full and spirits high, we headed for Tapalpa.
Soon the sun disappeared, the mists rolled in and our mood changed. What was happening up ahead? We passed a black truck that had rolled over in the ditch and something else…a body had been flung from the vehicle and lay there, lifeless. The police weren’t on the scene yet but several vehicles were already stopped. Our driver passed on by, obviously rattled. I touched M’s arm.
“His face wore a grimace. That man’s dead,” she said.
We rode on in silence, rain falling, windshield wipers moaning like a ghost in Pedro Paramo. The dead had come to greet us.
Our hotel, La Casa de Maty, was a foreboding place in the heavy rain with its adobe walls, heavy beams, stone walkways and darkened courtyard.
“It’s lovely when the sun shines,” said D.
The kindly desk clerk lit a fire in the lounge while we sipped hot coffee and settled in to discuss the book. Nine women were determined to forget the accident scene behind us and make sense of the disturbing novel before us.
The story is simple: Juan Preciado promises his dying mother that he will return to her home town to find his father, Pedro Paramo, a wealthy landowner who imposes his will from the Hacienda Media Luna. When Juan arrives in Comala, he discovers a nearly deserted town populated by ghosts who appear, tell their tales and then vanish. Juan himself eventually dies of fright and is buried with a madwoman named Dorotea. The two continue to converse in their mutual grave.
Pedro Paramo is challenging; it doesn’t have a traditional structure with a beginning, middle and end, nor is there character development. It switches back and forth in time and the narrators are constantly changing.
On my first reading I found Rulfo’s style inaccessible, but on the second I fell under its spell. Suddenly I wanted to find out who these phantoms were and what had happened to them during their lives.
Like Juan Preciado, I had to know who Pedro Paramo really was and could not rest until I did. I learned that he was a ruthless land baron who stole, raped and murdered and whose emotional life was confined to loving two people: childhood sweetheart Susana San Juan and Miguel Paramo, one of his many illegitimate sons who at 17 has already committed a murder.
What happens and to whom is not as important as the book’s subject, Mexico itself, during a period in her history when villages were abandoned and people flocked to urban centers like Guadalajara and Mexico City. “The haunting effect of Pedro Paramo derives from the fitful story of Mexican modernity…the novel explores Mexican social history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The decadent remnants of a quasi-feudal social order, violent revolutions; and a dramatic exodus from the countryside to the city all gave rise to ghost towns across Mexico.” (Prof Danny J. Anderson, University of Texas)
If Pedro Paramo and his ranch symbolize the feudal system, Father Renteria represents the role of the church. He is depicted as the village priest who refuses to absolve his parishioners of their sins and who in turn is refused absolution of his own.
The various female characters reveal the role of women in Mexican society at the time. Susana San Juan is powerless against a patriarchal system and a church that offers her no comfort or redemption; she is forced to take refuge in madness.
Dolores Preciado, Juan’s mother, was robbed of her land and abandoned by her husband. Dorotea, the woman who pimps for Miguel Paramo in exchange for food, carries around an imaginary child in her rebozo saying that God has “given me a mother’s heart but the womb of a whore.”
Juan Rulfo portrays bloodshed, revolution, treachery, rape, incest and death and depicts lost souls haunting the deserted village of Comala, barred from Heaven and condemned to relive their past misdeeds for eternity.
Our moderator brought a stack of articles from the internet to get the discussion started. Was the theme passion? Loss? Was it a novel about revenge or was the heart of the novel its symbolism: Catholicism, the plight of women and the modernization of Mexico? We had no answers, only impressions.
“It’s written like a dream.”
“Pedro Paramo is a mood piece…impressionistic…emotional.”
“There is a veil between this life and the next. Rulfo tries to lift the veil.”
Pedro Paramo remained elusive.
Juan Rulfo had visited San Gabriel in the 1950s and found it abandoned. He said: “It’s one of those big towns with shops measured by the number of street-front doors, there were shops with eight doors, with ten doors–and when I arrived the houses were padlocked. The people had left, just left.”
The following morning our book group headed for San Gabriel. We passed lush meadows filled with wildflowers as if they had been painted by Monet, made wrong turns, asked directions from crones in rebozos and youths carrying backpacks, and finally found the ruins of Hacienda Media Luna. Here was the inspiration for Pedro Paramo itself.
I expected a deserted ruin on a windswept dusty plain. Instead there were signs of life: coke bottles, smoke from a small fire, a radio playing just off the station. Jalisco is funding the renovation of the Media Luna with its promise of literary tourism. The crew boss gave us an impromptu tour as the workmen gazed with interest at nine gringas. A toothless old lady (who could easily have been Damina Cisneros there to fetch Juan Preciado) told us that the virgin was visiting tomorrow; the church was decorated and ready. A trinket salesman tried to sell us souvenirs, amazed by this sighting of pilgrims 24 hours ahead of schedule.
We continued on to San Gabriel. Real people now walk the streets; they sell underwear and tennis shoes in the plaza, run taco stands and drink beer. There is a bright green house near the centre with a plaque indicating this is where the orphaned author spent his formative years. Apparently, the current owner sometimes gives tours but she was busy when we rang the bell and sent us packing. After a quick lunch in a soft rain we began our homeward journey.
Had our trip brought us any closer to Juan Rulfo and his novel? It was hard to picture Pedro Paramo greeting revolutionaries at the Media Luna, feeding them chocolate, tortillas and beans when today the descendants of these men are whistling, swigging coca cola, and restoring the hacienda. It was difficult standing on the street outside Rulfo’s home in San Gabriel, imagining a sensitive boy whose father had been murdered and whose memories were permanently scarred by the Cristeros rebellion, when today it is inhabited by a woman trying to eat her lunch in peace.
Before I drifted off to sleep that night, I thought: how would I feel if I returned to my home town and it was closed for business? What if Murray’s General Store and Wilson’s Grill were boarded up, if all the people had moved away and the streets were empty? Would I visit the cemetery and talk to the graves? Would those beneath my feet come to life? I drifted off to sleep wondering what Juan Rulfo would think of Jalisco today.