Juan Rulfo’s grandfather was a wealthy provincial rancher, his hacienda so lavish the locals thought he’d made a pact with the devil. During the years of the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War, the family was forced to flee the countryside. They ultimately landed in Guadalajara, but there were no safe havens in those turbulent times. Rulfo’s father was killed when he was 7; his mother died when he was 10; and the child was deposited for some time in an orphanage. In 1932, at the age of 15, he entered the seminary, but he quit after two years, having failed Latin–a career-breaker for an aspiring cleric. In 1935 an influential uncle arranged a job for him in Mexico City as a government bureaucrat, but Rulfo, homesick, wangled a transfer back to Guadalajara six years later. There he flourished, forming close friendships with writer Juan José Arreola and scholar-critic Antonio Alatorre and publishing his first short stories in the literary journal they edited.
It was not long, however, before the magnetism of postwar Mexico City and its cornucopia of bookshops, cafes, salons and publishers drew his friends, and Rulfo himself, back to the metropolis. The capital was in the midst of a cultural renaissance, enriched by the influx of immigrants from Mexico’s provinces and stimulated by the wave of refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Intellectuals, writers, artists, academics and passionate leftists crowded the streets, and Rulfo found friends in the city’s wider literary world, including the poet Octavio Paz. Aided by two fellowships from the Centro Mexicano de Escritores, he collected his short stories in a slim volume, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain), in 1953. The next year, he completed the manuscript of Pedro Páramo.
One of the greatest novels in the Spanish language, and perhaps the greatest Mexican novel, Pedro Páramo initially attracted a lukewarm reception. But the book’s reputation grew and spread through the 1960s and ’70s, crossing national boundaries. Although he never published another novel or short story, Rulfo won prize after prize, including those most prestigious in the Spanish-speaking literary world. By 1986, when he died, an immense and adulatory literature had sprung up about his masterpiece. And the chorus of praise continues to swell–of the eighty-four books in the Library of Congress’s catalogue on Rulfo, forty-six have come out since 1987.
The novel tells the story of its title character, a man who, during the era of revolution and religious warfare, was a greedy land baron who ruthlessly expanded his hacienda holdings and a despotic cacique (political boss) who viciously exploited the adjacent town of Comala. The protagonist occupies an esteemed place in Spanish-language literature, second only to Don Quixote, with whom he bears comparison. Both are similarly disengaged from the gearshift of reality, one because of his hyper-whimsical (arguably demented) nature, the other because he’s no longer part of reality–he’s a ghost. Neither is naturalistic, yet neither is utterly fantastical. Quixote is a visionary who goes through life seeing what is not there; Pedro Páramo is profoundly practical.
Quixote went mad, Miguel de Cervantes tells us, from reading too many bad novels. Yet Juan Rulfo holds no one accountable for the evil in Pedro Páramo’s soul.
Rulfo’s novel opens with a young man–we suppose he’s young, though the author doesn’t tell us his age–traveling to Comala, an imaginary town that resembles many of those in Jalisco, the state where Rulfo was born. He intends to carry out his mother’s deathbed exhortation to visit his father, Pedro Páramo, and claim from him what “belongs to you.” The young man’s name is Juan Preciado (though he’s a legitimate son, he wasn’t given his father’s name). On the road, Juan finds a man who says that he, too, is a son of Pedro Páramo. The man informs Juan that their father is dead; he shows Juan the way to a woman’s house where he can stay.