Pedro Páramo, a short novel written by Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, was published in Mexico by Fondo de Cultura Económica in 1955. Years later, famed Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, progenitor of the Latin American Boom and Magical Realism, claimed that Pedro Páramo was one of the greatest texts written in any language. In a foreword to the 1980 edition of the novel, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez confessed that when he fell into creative paralysis after his first five books, it was his discovery of Pedro Páramo in 1961 that inspired him to write again and compose his masterpiece, A Hundred Years of Solitude. Rulfo’s work, Márquez declared, would endure like Sophocles. More than half a century after it was first published, Pedro Páramo has been translated into over 30 languages and has sold over a million copies in the U.S. alone. But what is Pedro Páramo? What is all the fuss about, and why has no one ever heard of this book?
Well. Pedro Páramo is a 139-page novel that only sold about 2,000 copies in its first four years, partly due to critics’ bafflement and venom upon its release. But people who did read it talked about it, and wrote about it, and shared it with their friends. Slowly, the slim text passed itself around the world. Juan Rulfo, the novel’s author, was born in Apulco, Mexico in 1917, to a family of wealthy landowners; but both of Rulfo’s parents died by the time he was ten, and his family’s fortunes were ruined in the Mexican Revolution. He bounced around the country between different schools but never attended university, only auditing classes; he worked to support himself, though he dreamed of school, and he moved from one menial job to another until he received a fellowship from the Rockefeller Institute, which allowed him to write his first book, a collection of realistic stories. Pedro Páramo was his follow-up novel.
The book begins with urgency – the narrator has promised his mother on her death bed that he would visit his estranged father. But the narrator soon warns the reader that his “head began to swim with dreams and my imagination took flight.” What then started as a quiet, pastoral journey soon begins to ooze with dread, despair, and ghastly visions. The characters the narrator meets on his journey are dead, ghosts, everyone is dead, and the town he has arrived in is haunted by souls forever reliving their sorrows, griefs, and disappointments in an eternal doldrums. Like most metaphysics, Rulfo’s characters’ afterlives are inspired by the routines and minutiae of their mortal lives, and these ghosts forget that they are dead, and sometimes forget they were ever alive.
I want to say one more thing about Pedro Páramo. While critical to the development of Latin American magical realism, the novel itself cannot be classified as magical realism. There is no mixture of whimsy and fancy into the concrete realities of life. There is no wonder and bittersweet magic. Pedro Páramo is instead a catalog of bloodless horrors, more Inferno than Ficciones or Like Water for Chocolate; and its brevity is the greatest terror of all – for Rulfo, the nothingness awaiting the living needs little explanation.