Friday, March 18, 2016

Pedro Páramo and the other dead

This town is filled with echoes. It's like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone's behind you, stepping in your footsteps.
If the dead could speak, what would they say? To whom would they say it?

Pedro is Peter, the rock, the stone. Páramo is a moor, a wasteland. So the title character, the title of this novella, is something like "the stone in the wasteland." I get the impression that Rulfo is implying an inversion of St Peter, the rock upon which the church is built, for Pedro Páramo is the rock upon which the tale is told, and also the rock upon which the characters are dashed and destroyed. There are also historical forces at work, at the edges of the story, piercing the action toward the end in the form of revolutionary armies, but I lack the knowledge of Mexican history to know what those forces mean. I'm left looking at the humanity of the characters and the forms of expressions, the early stirrings of magical realism, that Rulfo puts into Pedro Páramo. Which is plenty enough to think about.
The sky was filled with fat stars, swollen from the long night. The moon had risen briefly and then slipped out of sight. It was one of those sad moons that no one looks at or pays attention to. It had hung there a while, misshapen, not shedding any light, and then gone to hide behind the hills.
The Páramo family is a dynasty of almost feudal landowners somewhere in rural Mexico, the family seat being a hacienda called Media Luna*, outside the town of Comala**. The Páramo patriarchs more or less own Comala and the surrounding ranches, taking what they want by intimidation, corrupt legal dealings, and murder. The Páramo men take whatever women they want, fathering who knows how many illegitimate children, ruining lives as if by instinct.

Rulfo lets the dead of Comala narrate their own stories, in short episodes that build a sort of branching viny picture of the dead town. The first speaker is Juan Preciado, who makes a promise to his dying mother to make a pilgrimage to Comala, to find Pedro Páramo. Páramo is Juan's father. Juan's mother claims to have been Páramo's legal wife before she left him forever. Juan makes the long journey to Comala to discover that everyone in the town has died, that it is populated now only by ghosts whose deaths have brought them neither peace nor rest. Juan learns, in fact, that he himself is one of the dead. Pedro Páramo is a book of the dead speaking to the dead. If you are reading the book, you too may be one of the dead.
I am lying in the same bed where my mother died so long ago; on the same mattress, beneath the same black wool coverlet she wrapped us in to sleep. I slept beside her, her little girl, in the special place she made for me in her arms. I think I can still feel the calm rhythm of her breathing; the palpitations and sighs that soothed my sleep... I think I feel the pain of her death... But that isn't true. Here I lie, flat on my back, hoping to forget my loneliness by remembering those times. Because I am not here just for a while. And I am not in my mother's bed but in a black box like the ones for burying the dead. Because I am dead. I sense where I am, but I can think...
This is all clearly metaphorical speech on the part of Rulfo, maybe a claim that Mexico--or at least parts of rural Mexico--have died due to the violence and greed of someone, I don't know who. I can sense the power behind all of this surrealism, the anger and sadness of Rulfo, but I can't really understand the center of it. Which is fine, because we can all understand the anger and sadness of the world's losers, right? My inability to know the subtleties of Rulfo's argument don't necessarily blind me to either his artistic strengths or his portrayal of suffering.

This is after all a book about suffering. It's Lent as I write this, so I am allowing myself to think about how my people believe that suffering can lead to grace. In Rulfo's ghost town of Comala, suffering leads to nothing but an awareness of one's pain, pain beyond endurance, eternal despair that can never be forgotten. The dry stone in the middle of the wasteland.

* "half moon" (but which half?)

** My Spanish fails me with comala, and the best I can figure is that it's a portmanteau of coma and mala. Someone help me with that one.

10 comments:

  1. when i visited colima about ten years ago(to see a friend, a french horn player who worked there) we walked around comala and went inside the catholic church there; i forgot to take my hat off and was quickly remonstrated with by a passing votary. it's a nice little town and the church, as usual in Mexico, was grandiose and gayly decorated. it's renowned for its coffee and little ceramic doggies. it gets flooded sometimes by the offrun from the very large volcano just to the north; well, colima does too; year after i was there, a bunch of people were drowned in a large outwash. i was there for two weeks. i walked around a lot. to the south, on top of about a thousand foot mountain was a huge statue of some saint or other that overlooked the whole city. i was in better shape then and i walked to it and climbed up to take a look. it was kind of trashed, with garbage all over and graffitti and minor forms of vandalism, but it sure was big. i got too hot walking back and had to stop and rest in the shade of one of the few trees to be found(round trip of about 12 miles). interesting experience it was, yes. pedro paramo sounds familiar, and i must have seen it in a book shop there or somewhere... tx for the post. now i know a bit of what it's about... "coma" means a state of death; i thought the "ala" was some sort of descriptor, maybe used as a condition... anyway, Mexico is where the usa is headed with a very rich 1% and very very poor 99%. as one can tell by the news, there's lots of crookedness and graft and drugs are a big problem, especially in the south... i"d think twice about going there nowadays.

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    1. When I was reading the novel, I didn't stop to think that Comala was a real town; I assumed it was fictional. Wikipedia makes it look like a pretty place.

      A good friend of mine lived in Mexico for a while, right across the border from San Diego. I've heard all sorts of conflicting things about Mexico. Some day I'll have to visit.

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  2. I don't know if this will help with the Comala question, but in Mexican Spanish a comal is the griddle used to warm tortillas, sear jalapeño peppers and etc. Maybe another possible reference to "the dry stone in the middle of the wasteland."

    Since you touch on early magical realism and surrealism here, I'm curious if you've read Alejo Carpentier's 1949 The Kingdom of This World. If not, I recommend it both for its storytelling and its significance regarding the introduction of magical realism into a specifically (Latin) American context. I should reread it myself, but you make me want to revisit Pedro Páramo as well.

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    1. I don't know the Carpentier; thanks for the recommendation. The more Latin American fiction I read, the more interesting it all becomes, though.

      After poking around some on the interwebs, I begin to think that the "comal" etymology of the town's name is the right one. Apparently it's the birthplace of the modern tortilla griddle. What we want is one of those steel tortilla presses. I digress. There's a lot about food in Pedro Páramo.

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  3. Mexican (Latin American) cultures have such a seductive relationship with the dead (which sounds like a peculiar declaration); I remember being blown away and disoriented when I read _Pedro Paramo_ back in the 90s, and your posting reminds me that it might be high time for another reading. Thanks for reminding me about death. Yeah. Babriel Garcia Marquez is another writer for whom death seems to be always part of living. Maybe it's something in the water for Latin Americans.

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    1. Yeah, I think that the elder Latin American cultures were more interested in the souls of the dead than many European cultures, and when that grafted onto Catholicism, you ended up with a very interesting mix. I like that Latin America seems far less afraid of/hung up about death than North America.

      But I might observe that death is found in almost every great Western novel, too. Like Shelley said, "Death is here, death is there, death is busy everywhere."

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  4. I recently read The Burning Plain and have been thinking of rereading Pedro Paramo. It is such a great book. I don't remember being aware of the possible readings of the names. Just revisited my own post- hard to believe five years have passed since I read it. Many books I've read since don't seem so fresh. http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2011/04/pedro-paramo.html

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    1. That's a good post. I like "a vertiginous chorus," especially. It would've been helpful when I read it to think in terms of the Greek tragedies. It's got that same scope, that same dramatic movement and weirdness.

      How is Burning Plain?

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    2. Burning Plain is like scenes from Sergio Leone scripted by a Mexican Sophocles. After a little resistance I found the stories fascinating and I will certainly be returning to it.

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  5. This is a terribly late response, since I read your post when you put it up (and just after I'd finished reading Rulfo's novel myself), but that does not mean I wasn't enthused. Your "inversion" theory about Peter and the rock is terrific, as is the "comal" bit (I may never look at a tortilla the same way again).

    Though I'd heard about Pedro Páramo for decades, I found it completely surprising and absorbing, disorienting even, and certainly a book I feel I'll need to return to again. I don't know Mexican literature, or Mexico either other than via a few brief visits, but the novel struck me as just quintessentially Mexican in its close and dark focus on death. Séamus mentioned Pedro Páramo last year in connection with Irish writer Mairtin O'Cadhain's The Dirty Dust, and if ever there was a contrast between how two literatures can approach the same subject, there it is, blaring bright.

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