Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Juan Rulfo: Pedro Paramo

Jim Lewis reviews Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo.
It's a very strange book; let me admit that at the outset. It's as primitive and uncanny as a folk tale, plain-spoken but infinitely complex, a neat little metaphysical machine—one of those small, perfect books that remake the world out of paradox, like Waiting for Godot, or Nadja.

When it was first published in Mexico City in 1955, it received a few tepid notices and sold poorly. Its author was 37 at the time, or 38. (No one seems to know for sure when he was born.) He was from Jalisco, near Guadalajara, and he'd published one mildly interesting collection of short stories a few years earlier. I suspect no one knew what to make of the new book, since it was entirely unlike—well—anything else. Perhaps the critics were astounded into silence; more likely, they were puzzled and a little bit blind. As for the author, he went silent and never wrote another book, though he lived on for more than 30 years, long enough to see himself credited with the invention of an entire movement, to see his only novel sell millions of copies, to receive mash notes from Nobel Prize winners.

In Latin America, he eventually came to be considered canonical, a master of modernism, but here in the United States, his reputation remains curiously split between those few who adore him and the many who have never heard of him. When I mention to people that I'm reading his book again (I've read it five or six times in the past few years), I invariably get one of two responses. A few will announce that it's one of their favorite books, but the majority will say, "Pedro …what? By Juan … who?" And to these latter I'll explain: Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo. A very great novel.
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