In the opening passages of Pedro Páramo, Juan Rulfo’s only novel, Juan Preciado, one of the main character’s illegitimate sons, asks his newly met half-brother if he knows anything about their father. “He is living rancor,” responds the fellow traveler, who like Preciado is heading towards Comala, their shared birthplace. When they get there, however, they are confronted with a ghost town. “No one lives here,” Preciado’s companion explains, before adding, “Pedro Páramo died many years ago.” Rulfo spends the subsequent 120 pages unraveling the apparent contradiction in this exchange, revealing in the process a mysterious universe of supernatural interaction that is both spine-chilling and absolutely addictive.
Rulfo was born in 1917—100 years ago—in the province of Jalisco, in the middle of Mexico’s long and tortuous civil war (1910–20). Both sides of his family were landowners whose fortunes were dramatically affected by the armed conflicts of the 1910s and 1920s in the country. As a child he was confronted with the violence that for far longer than a century has shaped ordinary life in Mexico, particularly in rural areas, when his father was killed—executed, really, by a bullet to the neck—in 1923. He would lose his mother too just four years later, after she succumbed to a heart attack.
Under the care of his paternal grandmother, Juan Rulfo completed his secondary school at an orphanage in Guadalajara but he was unable to join the city’s university as a strike dragged for the best part of two years. Rulfo applied to the National University in the capital instead but Mexico was a particularly fragmented place at the time, and his qualifications in Guadalajara were not enough to earn him a place, forcing him to sit in as auditor at the faculty of literature and philosophy for two years. The city was never his thing, though, and Rulfo returned to Guadalajara in 1937, joining the provincial civil service as a migration officer, a modest position he kept until well into the 1940s.
By then he had met the woman of his life, Clarita Aparicio, with whom he moved back to Mexico City in 1946 before marrying the following year. He took an underpaid job as a traveling salesman for the tire company Goodrich-Euzkadi and combined his travels with his passion for photography and literature. Rulfo’s first published short stories appeared in the magazine America in the late ’40s, as did his first photographs. Then, in 1952, already the father of three, he quit his job, was granted the first of two consecutive grants by the Writers Center of Mexico (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation) and he turned to literature. It was a decision that to this day sends ripples down the Latin American cultural establishment, as it resulted in two of the most powerful, compact and accomplished works ever produced in Spanish language.
In 1953 Rulfo published the collection of short stories El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain), a dark yet beautiful compilation of 17 brief narratives of his beloved countryside. The Burning Plain is articulated around the hardship and the violence that as a child and later through the travels entailed by his employment Juan Rulfo was able to identify as the defining characteristic of life in Mexico’s enormous periphery. From the very first story (“They Gave Us the Land”), the collection engages with the utter desperation of a destitute people who, after backing the land reform proposals of president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40), are forced to walk for days (and drop like flies) to reach an arid valley they all know in advance is unsuitable to grow anything of note. The same sort of hardship is at the center of “We’re Very Poor,” which breaks down the helplessness of a peasant family who have lost their only cow, essentially sentencing the family’s only daughter to turn to prostitution.
Government, however, isn’t the only one to come out badly in a group of stories that explores the basest and most selfish human instincts: in “The Hill of the Comadres” a remorseless man recounts how he killed his friend and employer whose brother he had been accused of murdering for 14 dollars. “I won’t say we haven’t ever killed people,” the aggrieved brother says, “but never for so little,” he adds before the man stabs him—allegedly in self-defense—just above the navel.
Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of The Burning Plain is the complexity with which mischief and evil deeds are distributed among a wide array of characters, all of whom suffer in one way or another. For instance in “At Daybreak” a rancher is killed by a cattle farmer when the latter sees his calf tangled in the barbed-wire fence the former had recently erected to prevent cattle from entering his property. The murdered rancher, well within his rights in this instance, turns out, however, to be an incestuous pervert who regularly sleeps with his maimed sister’s daughter, who all live in the same manor. To further complicate things, when the young girl hears of the rancher’s death she breaks down in grief at the thought of her one true love no longer being there for her.
The list goes on, as revolutionaries and counter revolutionaries prove as selfish as they are fickle, lovers turn out to be unfaithful even after contriving to get rid of the man who had once stood between them, and even the landscape, severe, unforgiving, treacherous, seems to conspire against the people living there. If one of the stories stands out—and all 17 are striking in their own way—it’s “Tell Them Not to Kill Me!” which revolves around an old man on death row, awaiting his execution the following morning. The old man entreats his son to go to the sheriff and ask for clemency for his father yet the son has learned that this is not a matter of justice but of vengeance, as his father—the sentenced man—killed the sheriff’s father decades earlier. The son fears for his own life, should the sheriff discover his identity, and therefore refuses to plead for his father’s life, carrying his dead body—unrecognizable from all the bullet wounds—back to his hometown for burial instead.
Rulfo’s treatment of the tough living conditions in Mexico makes it impossible to submit the characters in his tales to ordinary moral judgment and puts the reader in a state of constant expectation but what really makes The Burning Plain exceptional is the author’s masterful control of language. Perfectly acquainted with the cadence of northern Mexico, Rulfo adopts a wide range of narrative voices, most of them corresponding to the illiterate characters at the heart of his stories. By making the protagonists speak their tales to an imaginary interlocutor Rulfo places the reader right on the threshold of the narration, not quite in the thick of them (most of the events have already taken place and are being recounted) but nor far removed from them either (they are being recounted in first person by the protagonists). The oral dimension of the language used lends it proximity, and yet the perspective provides sufficient distance for the reader—a voyeur of sorts in all these sordid anecdotes—to feel perfectly safe. The result is that The Burning Plain is a page-turner of a unique kind, a book that hooks you not through cliffhangers and tension, not even through beauty and charm, but rather through morbid curiosity.
Rulfo followed the success of The Burning Plain with another remarkable work, Pedro Páramo, which he wrote thanks to a second consecutive grant by the Writers Center of Mexico in 1954. Published the following year, this short novel explores the boundary between the realm of the dead and the realm of the living by conjuring up a sphere of mutual interrelation. Juan Preicado’s search for his estranged father takes the reader into a web of interconnected stories that piece together the Páramo family saga through three generations at their Media Luna (Half Moon) estate.
Pedro’s father, Lucas, had overseen the decline of the family’s fortunes, willing things to remain in place by virtue of his conciliatory nature but upon his death the foregone conclusion is that the Páramos would lose everything. Enter the Shakespearean Pedro, a Harry Bolingbroke figure of sorts, who up to that point had had worked extra hard to earn a solid reputation as a good-for-nothing but whose ascent to the head of the Half Moon estate sees him transform himself not so much into a King Henry IV but rather into a tropical version of Don Corleone.
Indeed, if one thing resonates with modern readers of Juan Rulfo it’s how lightly life and death are taken by his characters, how prevalent violence is in his world, and how the ruthless rule of a local tyrant can keep an entire community in his tight grip for decades. Through a quick succession of cunning and at times heartless moves, Don Pedro marries his greatest creditor, extends essential credit lines for the operation of the estate, settles (or rather dismisses) land ownership issues, and even manages to buy the favor of the local priest for a handful of gold coins. In other words, long before Narcos there was Pedro Páramo. Life, however, remains the great leveler in Rulfo’s work, and mighty as he is Pedro Páramo is unable to safe his wayward son Miguel from his own ways. It signals the emotional decline of a man who up to that point had seemed vulnerable to nothing.
Pedro Páramo is as succinct as any novel out there—not even 130 pages—yet condensed in the dozens of discrete fragments that compose the book is an idiosyncratic conception of the spiritual world and an aesthetic sensibility that combine seamlessly to produce a perfect work of art. In all likelihood Juan Rulfo was aware of this, but he was also deeply affected by the personal journey entailed in the creation of such violent, painful, hopeless stories. Despite the fact that Pedro Páramo was relatively well received he would write little and publish nothing for the next two and a half decades. Instead he turned to photography, and occasionally worked on movie scripts though he never liked the format.
Although by 1958 Rulfo had finished a second novel, The Golden Cockerel, which was not published until 1980, he turned his attention from the creation of an imaginary world to chronicling the real one. Between 1954 and 1957 he worked at the committee for the development of the Papaloapan River basin, before joining the National Institute of Indigenous People (today the Committee for the Development of Indigenous People), where he would work as editor until the 1980s and compile the most fascinating photo library of Mexico’s countryside and indigenous lifestyle.
Rulfo’s fiction is indelibly influenced by the traumatic experiences that littered his childhood with death and sorrow, poverty and hardship. Brilliant as they are, his literary works would have forced Rulfo to revisit his troubled past. Rather than perpetuating that cycle of destruction, he used literature as the perfect therapy to channel his pain and leave it behind. Luckily he also left a legacy of colossal magnitude, which eventually was also recognized the National Literary Prize in 1970, and the Prince of Asturias Prize in 1983. By then, however, Rulfo had long completed his transition from Mexico’s greatest writer to its most devout anthropologist.
An abridged version of this piece was published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday December 30, 2017.