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Juan Rulfo: Pedro Páramo (Pedro Paramo: A Novel of Mexico)

There is definitely a case for declaring this the greatest Latin American novel. If it isn’t, it is up there with a few others. Not only is it a great novel, it was incredibly influential on a host of Latin American writers, particularly those who were part of the Boom. Considering that it was Rulfo’s only novel, it is quite an achievement. The story, of course, concerns Pedro Páramo, a farmer who has built up a farming empire in Comala, a fictitious town in Rulfo’s home state of Jalisco but based on San Gabriel, where Rulfo grew up. Initially, Pedro’s father has run up debts. Pedro himself has fallen in love with Susana but she and her father move away. When Pedro’s father dies, he marries Dolores Preciado, whose father was his father’s major creditor. Using her wealth, he builds up his empire, pushing Dolores aside. Dolores has a son, Juan, but he keeps his mother’s maiden name, while Pedro’s illegitimate son – whom he favours – dies. Susana returns but she dies. Pedro is eventually killed by a third son.

However, the story of Pedro Páramo, told in the third person, is mixed in with story of Juan Preciado, Pedro’s legitimate and surviving son. Indeed, the book starts with Juan riding to Comala. His dying mother had urged him to return there to claim”what is his”. On the way, he meets a man claiming to be his brother, who informs him that their father is dead. He takes him to stay with a woman who was expecting him, having been informed of his impending arrival by Juan’s mother. He later learns that these two, as well as the other inhabitants of Comala, are long since dead. He meets the other inhabitants of Comala, all ghosts. The two stories – Juan’s journey to Comala and his stay there, told in the first person, and the story of Pedro Páramo, told in the third person – are cleverly mixed and we only gradually become aware of what is going in.

Rulfo is such a fine writer that his story is both very moving as well as very effectively told. The pervasive image of death permeates the whole novel, not least because many of the characters are already dead at the beginning of the story. The use of magic realism, prefiguring many later and more successful Latin American novels, is particularly effective as is the poetic imagery he uses to enhance the idea of death. In short, this is one of the great Latin American novels.

Publishing history

First published by Fondo de Cultura Económica in 1955
First published in English in 1959 by Grove Press