And as to how much help he received or did not receive in the final birthing of his difficult progeny, the larger truth is that Pedro Páramo was the work of an astonishingly gifted writer who was himself part of an exceptional generation of writers. Rulfo, Arreola, Alatorre, Paz and their comrades were members of a nurturing (as well as cantankerous) community: They shared ideas, talk, books; they read and commented on one another's work and, in general, were mutually supportive. Above all, they shared a common experience, that of growing up, and writing, in the shadow of the Mexican Revolution, an experience that distinguished their work from that of all those who came before them.
Most of the writers and artists who had lived through the Revolution and the Cristero War as adults grappled with those conflicts directly, praising the heroism, counting the tragic costs, depicting the force of the violence. And most--whether artists like muralist Diego Rivera, born in 1886, or writers like Mariano Azuela, born in 1873, whose Los de abajo (The Underdogs) of 1915 was one of the great novels of the Revolution--confronted the history in a realistic mode. But for Rulfo, Paz and Arreola, the Revolution had been the hand that rocked their cradle; its impact on them was completely different, as was their fictional response to it. That the world of their childhood had been one in which the border keeping death at bay was seriously smudged becomes obvious when one reads some of Paz's essays and Arreola's writings. The Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska recalls Arreola telling her two stories: "One is from Argentina. I dedicated it to Borges while I was there with him. It went like this: 'The last time that we met, Jorge Luis Borges and I were dead. To distract ourselves, Borges started talking about eternity.' Imagine the joke. And the last story went like this: 'We'll see each other in hell,' she said before pulling the trigger. 'And here I am still waiting.' Do you get it? They're horror stories." So, in its own way, is Pedro Páramo.
I was born the year Rulfo handed in his masterpiece, and like most Mexicans, I read Pedro Páramo as a teenager. It's part of the curriculum: You can't avoid it, like it or not. Luckily for me, I liked it. I read it again in college. But I was even more thrilled by Pedro Páramo as I discovered the wider literary world of which Rulfo had been a part, a world that included Borges, Donoso, Cortázar, Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry. For the budding writers of my '70s generation, Juan Rulfo was a king. Better yet, he was alive, a classic author who was still accessible.
I met him when I attended the Centro Mexicano de Escritores, where he, the former fellow, was now a tutor. All young Mexican writers applied to go to the Centro, partly for the monthly stipend but mostly to connect with peers and meet the masters. It was an initiation rite. The Centro was the place, as Mexican novelist José Agustín put it, where you got your visa for entry into the literary world.
I also ran into Rulfo at El Ágora, the then-trendy bookstore. As both of us lived two blocks away from it, we each went there frequently. I began following him around as he browsed the shelves and issued constant sotto voce asides--assessing texts, recalling anecdotes, extolling authors he liked and excoriating those he found boring. He was particularly persuasive on poets, scintillating about Rilke.
Gossip had it that he was drinking, that he had done so for most of his life, that he kept a tequila bottle hidden in the water box atop the toilet, but I never saw him drunk, nor imbibe more than a whiskey or two at receptions (though Pedro Páramo could perhaps be profitably explored--yet another interpretation--as a novel about the alcoholic experience; certainly it recounts the worst night of sweaty intoxication imaginable and also describes the mother of all hangovers).
What I mainly remember about Rulfo was that he spoke as he wrote. His verbal tempo varied wildly: Now he emitted short staccato phrases, now he held forth at languorous length. His voice was low, a bit broken. I thought he tried to give the impression of always being sad, but it seemed more a strategy than a condition: Set against a dark background, his puns and witticisms shone more brilliantly. He dressed correctly, like a man who worked in an institutional office. He wore his hair short. He was a caballero, much closer to a Quixote than to a Pedro Páramo in manners. He was always generous and kind with me; his comments on what would become my first novel were extremely reassuring and helpful. I'll always be grateful.
The frequency of our encounters eventually tapered off. My one-year fellowship ended. I moved to another neighborhood. The trendy bookstore stopped being so, and I didn't much enjoy its successor. But I've never been able to forget, each time I reread his astonishing book, its author's tone of voice, his commentaries about this or that book or writer, his peculiar mix of the provincial and the cosmopolitan. He was simple, he was enigmatic. And he had written Pedro Páramo.