Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pedro Paramo

I read this novel a couple of months back but somehow I missed blogging about it. This is the kind of the book which is very hard to summarize and to pin it down to its plot or sundry "themes" feels like betraying the spirit of the work. I won't let myself be deterred by that however. I will also recommend this essay to those who are interested which goes into a lot of background detail and also offers some interpretations in the context of socio-political history of modern Mexico.

The novel begins with a young man named Juan arriving in a remote village called Comala in search of his father Pedro Paramo. He has come there because his mother entreated him before dying to visit her husband to "make him pay, for all those years he put us out of his mind" and claim what "belongs to you". While on his way, he meets a man who says that he is a son of Pedro Paramo too and that their father is dead! He shows Juan the way to a woman's house where he can stay. When he meets the woman she tells him that she already knew of his arrival because his mother told her so! She also expresses her regrets because she couldn't keep the promise that she has made with his mother, the promise that "we'd die together" and "That we would go hand in hand, to lend each other courage on our last journey - in case we had need for something, or ran into trouble."

After these first few pages the narrative becomes much more bewildering and complex. Juan learns that Comala is actually a ghost town and all the human figures that he comes across are spirits who only have "voices". What makes it specially strange is that all those voices that we hear in the story are never grounded in conventional realistic descriptions of the appearance. As Susan Sontag in her short introduction to the book, rather startlingly, says, "Being dead, they have nothing to express except their essence." I think this is the key to understanding how the novel works and how we should see the ghostly figures. These people are dead (or in fact some have left the village and migrated which in effect is the same) but their memories, dreams, sorrow and suffering continue to remain there in order to haunt the landscape of Comala. It is actually hard to figure out everything from a single reading but from their fragmented voices a picture does start to emerge of a place made desolate by outside forces and also of the main character of Pedro Paramo himself who turns out to be one of those tragically macho characters that latin american novels are so full of (including quite a few who are political dictators).

Rulfo initially wanted to call it "The Whispers" which would have been a perfect title because it accurately captures the experience of reading all those voices and fragmented monologues. I think Susan Sontag's comment also captures what makes it so different from a realistic novel. In general novels which have fantastic elements are still bound a realistic form and mode of language - a language which tries to capture the surface details accurately and in detail, trying to give it an illusion of the real. This novel also feels real despite its fantastic elements but not because Rulfo wants to create an illusion of the real. His style is extremely spare and minimalistic (free of all the pseudo-literary verbiage that vitiates so much of mainstream contemporary novels) and I think that's what makes it so special and that's why it succeeds.

This is another essay in The Nation which I found very helpful. It also lists various possible interpretations of the story which again goes to show how important is it to read it with enough context:

"Innumerable interpretations have been spun about Pedro Páramo. It has been said to represent, embody, allegorize or illuminate: the times of Porfirio Díaz's dictatorship, the social context of the Revolution, patriarchal rancher culture and the repression of women, the poetic qualities of rural speech, Mexico's relationship with death, the lingering influence on Mexicans of Aztec cosmology, Mexican deruralization and the ghost towns it created, Mexican culture, Mexican history, Mexican modernity, universal myths and archetypes. All of these interpretations are right, except those asserting that they alone are right. For me, the novel is about the Novel: the wonders of storytelling, the power of the literary word that spins so fast it never lets the reader catch it."

Complete Review also has a review and gathers some links to other reviews and essays.

Not surprisingly it has been adapted into a film too. There are stage versions as well. Youtube seems to have the film in its entirety but unfortunately there are no subtitles. I did however see the first half hour or so of the film because it follows quite closely to the story in the book. It is actually quite impressive. There are also talks of another version which is coming out in which Gael Garcia Bernal is involved. I wonder whether he plays father or the son.


Madhuri said...

I tried hard to write my thoughts about the book, but could not come up with anything. To analyze this work seemed like a violation, it is so poetic and mesmerizing. I read it twice in a space of 15 days, and found myself haunted by that continuous torrent of faceless whispers. I think the Utexas essay also seems too clinical, though informative. I liked what Kubla Khan wrote about it - that he was moved by the book is plainly visible in his post.

Alok said...

yes, what makes it hard to pin down is that same exact thing - those voices are "faceless". Describing it is like grinding them down which then loses what they are in the original. Only the first 20-30 pages can be summarized I think... rest of the book is almost an abstract fairy tale, very dreamy. I don't think too much of contextual information is needed to understand but it helps to see it as a response to the aftermath of violent revolutions which has depopulated an entire region. People have gone but their "essence" has remained there haunting the landscape.

Kubla Khan said...

Alok, your last sentences in the comment above ring true.

this novel cannot be read on its own, we need a priori map of this landscape. the action is inside the heads as much as ouside. the distinction between life and death is lost. to count the living is as farcical as it is to know who is dead. people are passing in and out of life, memories, existences.

the load of murders and atrocities, injustices in both personal and public lives has take such a toll that only a ghostly existence can have some substance.

the method of his style, the subtlety of his tone, the constrained hum of his emotions is very fragile. the words match the landscape match the ghosts match the people. any loud noises will upset the milieu of this place. it is hauting as well as haunted.

the link you pasted is quite good and i have noted it too. Sontag's preface is really nice and i must say again, as i did in my post, that this is a true masterpiece, not one that becomes famous and great beacuse the others say so.

Alok said...

Hi Kubla, that was very nicely put and your original post was quite good and perceptive too.

I also liked that aspect of the story - the use of ghostly voices is not just another trick or a gimmick. Rulfo didn't set out to write a ghost story but what he wanted to say couldn't be said in any other way.