“Nothing can last forever; there is no memory, however intense, that does not fade.”
One of the most enjoyable things about experiencing a great work of art is discovering something you had never known before. Usually these discoveries are personal when you learn something about yourself, but sometimes you learn about things that actually existed you had been previously unaware of. And Juan Rulfo’s almost seems to know before you’ve ever picked it up that what is inside will be unknown to you, that the events for which the book is allegorical of will have been largely forgotten or unknown to the reader. In a way, Pedro Páramo is a book about Mexico for people who know nothing about Mexico or have forgotten so much about their own country that it’s like a foreign land.
The first thing I learned about, and most importantly, was the Cristero War, an aftermath to the Mexican Revolution fought in the late 1920’s in western Mexico (where the book takes place) and involving revolutionaries who were angry with the government’s constitution of limiting the role of the Catholic Church’s power in the country and their persecution (mass killings even) of Catholics. Before picking up the novel I had only been vaguely aware of the Mexican Revolution as taught to me in school and largely focusing on Pancho Villa and his cat and mouse game with General Pershing – a thoroughly American-centric point of view. The Cristero War, then, was absolutely unknown to me.
Yet this lack of knowledge on my part actually seemed to be part of the plan for the novel. I kept thinking that if I had a better understanding of early 20th century Mexican politics that I would in some way be missing out on the greater point Juan Rulfo is trying to make: memory. Everything about Pedro Páramo is based on memory – memory of the past, of being alive, of who we are, even of what the land we live on is. And so while the novel is a allegory for the Mexican Revolution and the modernization of Mexico from old superstition to 20th century secular society, Pedro Páramo is also about remembering and what happens when we begin to forget or forget completely.
One of the most famous images in the novel is when Pedro Páramo crosses his arms at the end of the novel thus turning his back on the land to let it die. His choosing to forget Comala causes the town to literally die and all the ghosts who still live their because they have been forgotten, even by God, either wander about unaware of each other or ever faintly murmuring underground in their graves so that even their grave neighbors can barely hear them anymore. And when Juan comes to the town everything is all a mystery, he doesn’t even realize the people there are all long since dead, he has no idea who his father is, or what happened in the years since him mother told him of stories of how beautiful the town had once been. Nearly everything has been lost.
And so what does this forgetting mean? What does it say about us, about our lives, about our wars and revolutions and our sacrifices? Is Juan Rulfo saying that in the end all will be forgotten but not forgiven? The novel does not feel pessimistic, despite its underlying morbidity, yet there is a feeling of futility in everything, a futility to tame the land, to even tame ourselves and our vices – alcohol is a reoccurring image in the novel and plays a major role in the finale. In fact alcohol is even confused with milk when he mentions Pulque.
Yet this forgetting also explores something deeper about humanity: our imagination.
There’s a wonderful image where Susana San Juan sees “a blurred image” where a “diffuse light burns in the place of its heart” and then just a few sentences later we learn that “blurred image” is actually Father Renteria and he’s holding a candle in front of him with cupped hands. This mixing and blending of images, of the real and fantastic, of time distorting continually through the story, of sentences that read “The rusty gears of the earth are almost audible: the vibration of this ancient earth overturns darkness.” are followed a little later with “A humming like wings sounded above her. And the creaking of the pulley in the well. The sound of people waking up” that gives us a magical image of the sun slowly rising in the sky, a sun controlled by both the laws of nature and science but also by unknown supernatural forces.
And that is what human understanding is all about, too. We spend our time in darkness until we learn just enough to light the room but then everything we knew and feared and loved in the dark goes away forever. We forget the dark, the pain and misery – the pain and misery of a war, for example, is lost to us because we now live on the other side of the dark / light boundary. The dead can barely speak to us anymore and we can hardly hear them.
That leads me to something I else I learned about, the poem by Edgar Lee Masters titled ‘Spoon River Anthology’. Like Pedro Páramo the dead in Spoon River Anthology also speak and through them we learn the secrets of their lives and of the town. It’s a wonderful story but here the truth is laid bare because the dead no longer have any reason to hide and so unlike the novel which is filled with magic and mystery, these dead will not let us forget their lives and events that happened to them. It’s an interesting juxtaposition because where Spoon River Anthology is matter-of-fact and does not indulge in mysticism, just over the border in Mexico and entirely different way of looking at life and death is present. Over just one border lies such an incredibly different world.
I’m not one to mark up my books very much; I might underline a passage here and there, but in only two books have I ever so defaced the book with pencil: Ulysses and now Pedro Páramo. And unlike Ulysses, I didn’t even have a book for Pedro Páramo, I found a .pdf of the novel and secretly printed it out at work on regular office paper, three-holed punched it, and read it from a three-ring binder I keep some old drawings in. This was I was able to underline passages, take notes, look up Spanish, draw lines to connect text, and scribble down by impressions and thoughts. For me this was the perfect way to experience the novel – to become engrossed in it and fully explore it – like being lowered down into the Andromeda mine with a rope and lantern and slowly pull up each skeleton at a time into the light to observe them all one by one.
As a work of art, Pedro Páramo is a masterpiece. This is an achingly beautiful novel and I can see how this inspired Gabriel García Márquez. The world is a richer place because of Juan Rulfo; let’s never forget him.