Juan Rulfo’s celebrated ‘Pedro Paramo’ is a book of memories. It starts with a lady, Dolores, on her deathbed, asking her son, Juan, to go to the town of Comala and meet his father, Pedro Paramo. Juan undertakes the journey and arrives at a deserted town. He learns about his father through the memories of various people, both living and dead.
Before we examine the major issues this novel talks about, it is pertinent to talk about its style. Rulfo is supposed to have been one of the major writers who influenced the development of magical realism. He uses this style in an outstanding fashion in this book. The whole story of the man called Pedro Paramo is told in bits and pieces and in a haphazard chronology. It is as if we are in a dark and a wall in the room has a beautiful painting. One window opens and a shaft of light illuminates a part of the painting. The window closes and another opens to reveal a different part of the painting. Slowly the complete picture starts emerging in the viewers’ mind’s eye. That is how Rulfo opens the windows for us, one at a time, illustrating one incident in Comala and slowly and steadily painting the portrayal both of Pedro Paramo and the town of Comala. The style is magical: dumb people speak, the dead interact with the living, ghosts visit their lovers, people buried talk to each other and hear voices from other graves. Nothing is as it seems and nothing is impossible in this book. Through a combination of magical and haunting atmosphere, Rulfo tells us the story of Pedro Paramo.
Pedro Paramo is a typical despot: a ruthless manipulator with lots of charisma. He uses his charisma to charm a lot of ladies and those who don’t fall prey to his charms are forcibly taken. The ruthless streak in him enables him to kill his enemies and establish himself as the most powerful person in Comala. The study of Pedro Paramo is study about evil: its attraction and repulsions. Rulfo details how a ruthless person like Pedro Paramo slowly takes control of the town getting his enemies killed and manipulating everyone around him. Rulfo also details how some are attracted towards powerful people, some are repulsed by the power and how many are helpless in such a situation. How someone can come to rule over a lot of people is still a mystery and this is a puzzle which many writers try their best to unravel.
An important portion of the book concerns the struggle of Church against Evil. It is always felt that religion has the necessary moral authority to stand against evil and guard common people against it. While it may be true from a theoretical point of view, history teaches us otherwise. Religion has not always acted as a bulwark against evil. Religion has sometimes confronted power and many a times colluded with power. In case of Comala, religion neither confronts nor colludes. It is just ineffective because the person upholding the values of Church is ineffective.
Father Renteria is the priest of the church in Comala and he is unable to confront Pedro Paramo even though his close family members are affected by Pedro’s actions. He is torn between the need to take money from Pedro to keep the church going and at the same time is angry with himself for taking money from Pedro. This is the main reason why religious institutions cannot be too independent of the state and in many cases religious institutions are fairly close to the ruling members. In this case Renteria unable to withstand his internal conflict seeks solace from a priest in the neighboring town. That priest refuses to absolve Renteria saying that Renteria is not doing his job correctly. Unable to come to terms with what is happening in Comala and his own ineffectiveness is upholding the moral superiority of the church, Father Renteria joins the revolution. It shows that fighting a moral battle is far tougher than fighting a physical one. The moral superiority of religion depends a lot on the people who are officially given the task of upholding the religion.
While the book does talk about power and religion, as I said earlier, this is a book of memories. Pedro, the great manipulator, who saves himself from bankruptcy by charming and marrying a rich girl, who manipulates his henchmen to get people killed and is even able to manipulate the revolutionaries who kill his right hand man and who come to kill him, is unable to manipulate the memories of the one girl he truly loves. He cannot forget the memory of his childhood spent with Susana and when she comes back to town he wants to get her for himself. He arranges for her father to be killed so that he can take Susana under his care. He wants to relive the memory of his childhood again: a memory which has never left him, the memory of Susana for whom he still pines.
It is Susana’s memory that finally defeats Pedro. Susana is unable to forget the man she loved and who gave her pleasure. She still dreams of his and his body and the physical pleasure she felt when she was with him. That memory of her man is burnt deep into her and makes her go mad. Pedro waits to see if her memory for him will be rekindled. He waits patiently with hope that her memory for her man will be erased. She dies without thinking about Pedro but all the while thinking about the man she lost. Her death and her clinging to the memory of her man is what defeats Pedro Paramo. He dies, metaphorically, long before his physical death. (Memory is also the subject of one of the greatest short stories, (or is it a short novel?), ever written: ‘Dead’ by James Joyce. Great masters that they were, Joyce and Rulfo, they knew that inerasable memory is what kills many a man.)
Pedro Paramo is said to be one of the most influential books in South American history. It is said that Rulfo is one of the chief proponents of magical realism. Rulfo’s writing glows and it is indeed magical in many places. Marquez was supposed to have so taken in by the book that he knew the whole book by heart. Borges has remarked that ‘Pedro Paramo’ is one of the greatest novels he has read. This book deserves every bit of praise that it gets. You will rarely read a book of this quality.