Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo stands at the forefront of Latin American works employing the techniques of modernism and Magical Realism. The novel begins in a straightforward fashion with a traveller, Juan Preciado, returning to the village of his mother’s birth, Comala. At a fateful crossroads meeting, he encounters his half brother, Abundio Martínez, who serves as his guide as he descends into the village.
As Juan Preciado arrives in Comala, he finds a town totally at odds with his mother’s recollections. Instead of the verdant, fertile town of her youth, he finds a deserted and rundown ghost town, whose scarce inhabitants lurk in the shadows and mumble mysterious comments. The novel rapidly becomes much more complex, introducing a series of plotlines in rapid, abruptly introduced vignettes that travel in and out of the minds of such characters as Pedro Páramo, Susana San Juan, Dorotea, Damiana, the village priest Father Rentéria, and Abundio Martínez, and back and forth across time.
The chronology of the story follows events in Comala from approximately 1880 to the Mexican Revolution in 1910 to the Cristero Revolt of 1926. The earliest events in the narrative describe the childhood and adolescence of Pedro Páramo, Juan Preciado’s father, and his love for Susana San Juan. Pedro Páramo grows up in a prominent landowning family in Comala, which has fallen on hard times as a result of the murder of Luis Páramo, Pedro’s father. Pedro grows up to take control of the family through ruthless behavior, violence, and murder, restoring the fortunes and power of his family at the expense of the people of Comala. He routinely preys sexually upon the young women of the town and eventually marries Juan Preciado’s mother, Dolores, as a means of seizing her land and wiping out the debt he owes her family. At the same time, however, he yearns for his lost love, Susana San Juan, who has moved away from Comala with her father and who has eventually married another man.
The narrative then follows the wild exploits of Miguel Páramo, the only one of his sons whom Pedro Páramo has ever acknowledged. Miguel sleeps with all of the virgins and young women of the town and roams the countryside at night on his chestnut stallion. One night the stallion returns home without him, and Miguel is found dead at the side of the road, having fallen from the horse.
The widowed Susana San Juan returns to Comala, where she marries Pedro Páramo. Susana declines into ill health and madness and dies, haunted by the memories of her life with her father and by her continuing love for her former husband. Shortly thereafter, a despondent Pedro Páramo and his housekeeper are murdered by Abundio Martínez. The town declines, along with the fortunes of the Páramo family, and lies deserted as Juan Preciado comes to search for his father.
This narrative chronology of Pedro Páramo, however, fails to capture the striking method by which these various plotlines unfold. Rulfo’s brief novel begins simply and then rapidly disrupts both time and space. Bits and pieces of each story emerge through scenes that go back to Pedro’s childhood and then forward to Juan Preciado’s search. The voices of the primary characters blend with the multiple voices of the townspeople, the servants, and the local priest to build a story that forces a reconsideration of what is past and present, who is alive or dead, and where and when the events occur.
The most startling discovery of the novel is that all of the characters are dead, including the narrator Juan Preciado. Midway...
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through the story readers learn that he is speaking from the depths of the grave, eavesdropping on the memories of the sleeping dead around him. Comala emerges as a liminal space between life and death, a kind of purgatory, where the rain awakens the dead and stirs their memories. They bemoan their past sins, try to justify the lives they lived, and futilely try to atone for their pasts. Life and death, sanity and madness, good and evil, innocence and oppression, reality and fantasy all play out in Rulfo’s story of the generations of the Páramo family in the ghost town of Comala.