Thursday, April 07, 2005

Pedro Páramo

"Sometimes when I get into a space that is too small I weep", says that annoying designer in the Ford Focus ads.

Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo is a small book and it does get a bit cramped in there. It's 120 pages are not at all an easy read, and yet it was probably one of the most influential Latin American novels of the last century. Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias singled it out as the novel he himself would have most liked to have written, and fellow Nobel prize-winner Garcia Márquez transcribed a sentence from it in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The novel starts in the first person and you are led to believe that the story will revolve around this narrator's quest for his father back in the town where he was conceived. But very quickly this starting premise is entirely overrun by the backstory, and the narrative centre crumbles into a multiplicity of different perspectives, dreams and memories. This disconcerting decay of plot order is more or less the opposite of what happens in that later Mexican fiction 21 Grams.

It's said that when the early pioneers of film discovered that their new toys had the potential to undermine the central position of the single observer in the Western artistic convention of perspective, they began to set up their mechanical eyes with viewpoints that no squidgy human lens yet experienced. In so doing they demonstrated that motion pictures could drop the pretence of the lone pair of eyes tracking every piece of action. Perhaps Rulfo was trying to bring the same techniques across into literature. He doesn't just present us with different viewpoints though, we also get different states of consciousness. Personally, I find that it all gets a bit tiresome by the end. One trick I did like though was signalling one character's interior commentary in italics as an aside during anm otherwise verbalsied exchange.

Rulfo's sensual, almost audio-visual metaphors are often highly arresting:

  • "Rain hissing like the murmur of crickets",
  • "He heard the whirring of their wings in blossom-heavy jasmine" (Hummingbirds)
And he describes how one character is beset with memories "as if a bulging sack of grain had burst and he was trying to keep the kernels from spilling out".

Most of the events described take place in Comala, a mythic urban space seemingly entombed in purgatory, its adobe dwellings crumbling in the airless heat; a treeless place which is nonetheless full of drifting leaves, "a town that smelled like spilled honey...the smell of misfortune". "They say that when people from there die and go to hell they come back for a blanket", the narrator is informed on arrival.

Comala is full of Mexican archetypes such the cynical patrón, his loyal capataz (fix-it man) and the local priest who admits to being "afraid to offend the people who provide for me". (See also The Crime of Father Amaro) . There's also a supporting cast of sombrero'd revolutionaries and deranged women.

One such tells the priest that when she lay down to die "My soul prayed for me to get up and get on with life as if it still expected some miracle to cleanse me of my sins". These involved arranging for young girls to be violated by the patrón, Pedro Páramo. His parting words to his conquests would typically be "you should be thankful that you'll be having a fair-skinned baby".

When the revolution arrives outside Comala, Pedro tells his henchmen "We have to be on the side of whoever's winning". Part of the problem with Latin American politics is that this view is widely shared.

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