In Pedro Páramo, Juan Rulfo delves, as no Mexican writer of fiction had done before, into the complex, atavistic, desolate, and fatalistic world of the Indians of Mexico. Pedro Páramo is a book of voices—voices of people, voices of nature, and voices of circumstance, morality, and passion. All of its characters are dead; they are only voices, murmurs, who live in a town, Comala, a village of echoes. All of these dead people, souls in pain, are presented as if they were living in another world, in a strange limbo of memory.
A mixture of fantasy and reality, Pedro Páramo contains thematic threads that express Rulfo’s pessimistic vision of life. Each inhabitant of Comala relives a single moment of pain or guilt over and over again, but the experience never brings any increased self-awareness, any insight into the causes of behavior, or any suggestion of possible remedies for dilemmas. The characters are symbolic figures; they stand for the individual as a powerless victim of both external and internal forces. Rulfo’s men and women are helpless in the face both of outside circumstances and of their own psychic problems. Comala is a microcosm in a state of irremediable chaos and inescapable disintegration. The despair of this situation is conveyed powerfully through the author’s style, which is based on the basic rhythms of common speech.
Pedro Páramo stands as a landmark work in the evolution of the twentieth century Spanish American novel in that it represents, for many critics and other readers, the first example of the Spanish American New Novel. After the 1920’s and 1930’s, in which Spanish American fiction sought to paint realistic and detailed pictures of external Spanish American (and often national or even regional) realities, in which description often ruled over action, environment over character, types over the individual, and social message over artistic subtlety, and in which the understanding of the story required little attention on the part of the reader, the nature of Spanish American fiction began to change radically.
In the 1940’s, as a result of internal and external influences (chiefly of Argentine short story writer Jorge Luis Borges and of American writer William Faulkner, respectively), Spanish American fiction developed a new narrative that, unlike its predecessor, treated the fictional world as just that—fiction. This new narrative presented various, and often alternative, versions of reality, entered the inner worlds of its characters, and expressed universal as well as regional and national themes. In doing so, it broke with tradition. The new Latin American narrative also was unafraid of unconventional modes of telling the story, of subtle presentation of theme, and of requiring the reader’s participation at all levels of the narration. Though numerous Spanish American novels of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s possessed characteristics of Spanish America’s new narrative, Pedro Páramo can be considered Spanish America’s first New Novel.
The world the novel depicts, for example, is anything but the realistic world presented in the Spanish American novel of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The characters in the book are dead, and their stories come from voices from the grave. Juan Preciado, for example, the character whose narration opens the book, is dead as he narrates, and his narratee is not the reader, but the woman (Dorotea) with whom he shares his tomb. Likewise, the narration of other stories floats from the tombs of other characters, and the living, what few there are in the story’s present, communicate freely with the dead; the dead themselves communicate with one another (as is the case with Preciado and Dorotea). Even beyond the specter of the dead,...
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the story seems to be pervaded by an otherworldliness, all of which together placesPedro Páramo well outside the parameters of what anyone might consider realistic fiction.
Rulfo’s novel paints a vivid realistic picture, however, of the relationship between the local despot (cacique) and those in his influence. The novel departs from tradition by not making this picture the novel’s explicit moral message. Rather, the novel explores the inner workings of its characters, all of whom suffer from frustration, guilt, and obsessive desires. These misfortunes of the human condition are universal concerns and not at all limited to the Indians of the Jalisco region of Mexico.
While the novel’s many departures from tradition help place Pedro Páramo within the rubric of the Spanish American New Novel, the aspect of Rulfo’s work that most earns it classification as a New Novel and that which has inspired the most critical commentary and acclaim, as well as reader frustration, is the novel’s unconventional presentation of its story. The relatively short novel is told in sixty-eight (or sixty-four, depending on the edition) sections that frequently shift in narrative voice and narrative focus. Different sections initiate, resume, and drop story lines and subplots with virtually no predictability. The sections present new characters with no introduction or context, and seem to be arranged in no logical order. So confusing is Pedro Páramo to first-time readers, and particularly to its first readers in 1955, that many might agree with one of the novel’s first critics, who accused Rulfo of writing the novel in chronological order and then cutting it into pieces and rearranging it at random. A close reading of the text reveals, however, that Rulfo could not have first written the novel in chronological order. Even reconstructed into chronological order, the novel has numerous gaps in the story, and the story and its many subplots are like, in chronological order or not, snapshots taken over many years and many lives. Furthermore, the novel’s structure is not nearly so chaotic as it may first appear. Rereading reveals its associative construction.
The unconventional presentation of the story in Pedro Páramo, therefore, characterizes the Spanish American New Novel. The New Novel demands an active, participatory reader, who not only must read the novel carefully but also must strive to make connections, work to identify changing narrative voices, seek to establish who is who, and attempt to assess the significance of the events, with little or no help from the author. That the reader may have to read and reread to understand what he or she is reading is a major and defining characteristic of the Spanish American New Novel in general and of Pedro Páramo in particular.
One final common characteristic of the New Novel, which is found in Rulfo’s work, is that because the presentation of the story is so challenging, the presentation itself may overshadow the story, and the reader may be more concerned with how the story is told than with the story itself. The New Novel may actually be of more interest for how it tells what it tells than for what it actually tells.
The timing of Rulfo’s novel made it a landmark novel in Spanish American literature. Its haunting story and its challenging presentation have won it enduring fame with its many readers. Few novels, in any literature, present the reader with so compelling a reading experience as that found in Pedro Páramo.