Great Read You May Have Missed: “Pedro Páramo” by Juan Rulfo

In his 1994 book, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages [1], the American literary critic Harold Bloom makes an impassioned case for the reading of what he promotes as the canonical works of Western literature. As a response to the criticism that the canon is simply a collection of “dead white men” and reflects a biased, patriarchal, and euro-centric viewpoint that fails to include the “real” world. Bloom basically says “poppycock” and sets out to explain why the canon [2] is important for everyone.

Cover for Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon"

Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon”

Specifically, he focuses on the works of 26 writers [3] who he sees as being core to the canon, and whose works are well-worth the time spent reading. Shakespeare is the central figure of the canon, but even Willy was influenced by what had gone before him and so it’s hard to find a single person to epitomize the canon [4].

So what makes a work “canonical?” How does Bloom decide what should be included? Here’s a critical paragraph:

I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. Walter Pater defined Romanticism as adding strangeness to beauty…when you read a canonical work for the first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectation. (What they) have in common (is) their uncanniness, their ability to make you feel strange at home. (p. 3.)

 Missing from the list is a small treasure of Mexican literature call Pedro Páramo by the author Juan Rulfo. What makes it also remarkable is that it is Rulfo’s only novel, with his only other work being a collection of short stories El Llano en llamas, or The Burning Plain and Other Stories as it is translated for the English market.

Cover for Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo

Juan Rulfo’s “Pedro Paramo”

The book certainly fulfils the criteria of having “an uncanny startlement.” The story shifts in a dreamlike fashion from narrator-to-narrator, and from past to present, with little or no help along the way to let the reader know. Although it is often cited by critics as belonging to that strand of fiction known as “magical realism,” it strays much more into simply surrealism and seems to be a work on its own, making it difficult to say something along the lines of “well, it’s sort of like…” [5]

The story starts with one of the characters, Juan Preciado, promising his dying mother that he will go back to the town of his birth, Comela, to find his father, Pedro Paramo. What follows is an Orphic descent into not so much the underworld as a purgatory. But unlike Orpheus, he is not seeking the love of a Eurydice but the truth about his long-lost father, who turns out to be less than saintly. [6]

The book is short – probably better labeled a novella than a novel – but intense. It isn’t an easy read but that’s not a bad thing. It demands your time and concentration, for which you will be rewarded. The shifts in person, tense, and time can be daunting yet if you keep your wits about you, you’ll find yourself caught up in a world filled with ghosts and memories.

Ultimately it’s a tale of love – lost and unrequited. It’s also a story of folly, decay, and cruelty set in rural Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century. In short, it’s human – even if the characters are spectres. The book is strange, powerful atmospheric, and destined to become one of your favorites if you’ve never come across it before.

Sadly for those folks who are tied to the world of technology and eBooks, it isn’t yet available in any electronic format. So you will need to get it in what’s called “book” format – a bound collection of pieces of paper with words printed on them. But if you can make it to a local bookstore, there’s a fair chance you can pick a copy up (Barnes & Noble always seem to have one on a shelf) or order it from your favorite online distributor.

[1] Bloom, H. (1994). The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
[2] The word canon originally meant “A rule, law, or decree of the Church; esp. a rule laid down by an ecclesiastical Council” but by extension came to refer to “(t)he collection or list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired. Also transf., any set of sacred books; also, those writings of a secular author accepted as authentic.” The word derives fron the Latin canon meaning “rule,” and before that from the Greek kanon (κανών), also meaning “rule.”
[3] For the curious, here’s the list of the authors. Cervantes, Dickens, Chaucer, Dante, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, Franz Kafka, Freud, George Eliot, Goethe, Henrik Ibsen, James Joyce, Jane Austen, John Milton, Jorge Luis Borges, Molière, Montaigne, Pablo Neruda, Proust, Samuel Beckett, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman,  and Wordsworth. These are not the entire canon but the 26 that Bloom uses as exemplars. Here is a link to his full canon.
[4] I am unapologetic in asserting that I believe Ovid to have had a singularly huge impact on Western literature, and I’d recommend to everyone that if you had to decide which book to take with you to a desert island, go for Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. Yes, above the Bible (which is really not a book but many books) and Shakespeare, who was clearly influenced by Ovid. Hey, Romeo and Juliet is just a modern version of Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and the essential themes of human experience such as sex, death, love, sacrifice, and so on as explored in Shakespeare are there in spades in The Metamorphoses.
[5] Nevertheless, I will take a stab by saying that Rulfo is something like Jorge Luis Borges, with whom he is a contemporary. Reading Pedro Paramo is also a little like reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler in that this, too, has a narrative that plays fast and lose with time.
[6] The other literary comparison that has been made with Pedro Paramo is Dante’s Inferno, where Dante travels through Hell to find his love, Beatrice. His guide is the Roman poet, Virgil. However, Juan Preciado’s descent into Comala is taken alone, not with a guide, so although the story certainly follows the mythic trope of a journey of discovery, there are differences, with the lack of a “psychopomp” as a distinctive one.

3 responses to “Great Read You May Have Missed: “Pedro Páramo” by Juan Rulfo

  1. This book looks like a good read. I like Surrealism and magical realism, so if it transitions between the two, that’s no problem! Thanks for recommendation!

  2. Pingback: Reading List 2012: Only Just Made it! | The Speech Dudes

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