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.

Juan follows the man’s instructions and the woman receives him, telling him that she’s been expecting him; his dead mother, he learns, has informed her of his impending arrival. He also learns that the man who guided him to Comala has been dead for years. Later on, Juan finds out that this woman is dead, too, as are all the others who inhabit Comala. Later still the reader realizes that Juan himself is among the dead souls. Ghosts they may be, but they nevertheless speak, feel, remember, interact and do all things that living people do, as they wander through the book.

A vast cast of Comalans is presented to the reader in a parade of short stories and snapshots, Rulfo’s fortes (he was a brilliant photographer as well). Each person’s tale is temporally fragmented, jumps back and forth in time, fades in and out of view, but taken together they provide a collective account of the ghostly town and its history. (As in so many modern novels, the town is itself a main protagonist.) The only story whose fragments can be assembled in chronological order is Pedro Páramo’s. We meet him as a child; learn of his adoration for Susana San Juan (and its nightmarish outcome); see him as a young man take the reins of his father’s hacienda, La Media Luna, and proceed to ruthlessly enhance its fortunes through guile, robbery and murder; watch him survive the Revolution by manipulating rebel campesinos; and follow the land baron’s fortunes and misfortunes on to his death.

But even this Ariadne’s thread doesn’t turn Pedro Páramo into a straightforward narrative of a cacique‘s life and times. Originally Rulfo planned to call the novel Los murmullos (The Murmurs)–appropriately enough, as much of the text consists of whispered bits of gossip, rumors and confessions. Rulfo’s whispers are masterpieces. They’re aural brush strokes, depicting the times with deft economy. A few scant sentences suffice to sum up classes and customs, characters and situations: He’s a verbal Velázquez. But unlike Velázquez, Rulfo never shows us the finished canvas. We get a part, and again a part, and again a part; the reader must complete the picture.

Like murmurs, the novel has an astonishing acoustic quality; its dialogues and interior monologues feel improvised, as if the author let the characters speak on their own, like actors in a Cassavetes movie. The text’s popular expressions, colloquialisms, idioms, sayings and proverbs give it an authentic lightness, a regional flavor, a very Mexican and picaresque salsita. (Unfortunately, neither of the English translations fully captures this taste and variety.)

Pedro Páramo may be provincial, but it is also profound, at once rural and cosmopolitan. Free of pretentious “literary” verbiage, it draws on its era’s Modernist currents, including the Surrealism of Octavio Paz and his group, while at the same time absorbing the approach of the European and Mexican folktale tellers Rulfo admired. (A voracious reader, he was especially fond of Knut Hamsun, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Selma Lagerlöf and Halldór Laxness, not to mention Americans like Melville, Twain, Hawthorne, Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell; he also may have been influenced by his work translating African-American spirituals.) Despite its mixed parentage–half Modernist, half folkish–and for all its gaps and jumps, his novel is a jewel of narrative fluidity.

Innumerable interpretations have been spun about Pedro Páramo. It has been said to represent, embody, allegorize or illuminate: the times of Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship, the social context of the Revolution, patriarchal rancher culture and the repression of women, the poetic qualities of rural speech, Mexico’s relationship with death, the lingering influence on Mexicans of Aztec cosmology, Mexican deruralization and the ghost towns it created, Mexican culture, Mexican history, Mexican modernity, universal myths and archetypes. All of these interpretations are right, except those asserting that they alone are right. For me, the novel is about the Novel: the wonders of storytelling, the power of the literary word that spins so fast it never lets the reader catch it.

Antonio Alatorre has suggested that his friend Rulfo “always had the habit of lying. I don’t know why he liked that, throwing everyone off track.” Arreola is, to be sure, an imaginative sort himself; he says of Rulfo that “sometimes, when I was carrying on a conversation with him, I had the impression that we were both lying, but that we both agreed to do so.”

Indeed, many stories about Rulfo’s life are in dispute. He changed the year and place of his birth; soft-pedaled his stay in the orphanage; said he never attended the seminary; denied ever having read Faulkner (annoyed by the claim, in the first thesis written about his book, that Faulkner had influenced him). And then there was the case of his grandfather’s thumbs. The author liked to tell friends and interviewers that his grandfather had been among those tortured by Pedro Zamora, a bandolero–more like a pseudo-revolutionary–who terrorized Jalisco, hanging the rich by their thumbs until they confessed where they’d hidden their money. Rulfo claimed that in this manner Zamora had relieved his grandfather of 50,000 pesos and two thumbs. But when the historian Federico Munguía Cárdenas asked Juan’s older brother, Severiano, about the incident, he replied that Juan’s tale of the tortured grandfather was “puro cuento” (mere lies).

The accounts of the birth of Pedro Páramo also vary. According to one version, Rulfo had typed out a pile of pages on his Remington Rand but then found himself unable to arrange the fragments into a sequential manuscript–to assemble the shards into a pot–and he asked Arreola to help him put the material in “order” (though order is not the word that springs to mind in characterizing the work). Arreola has written that Rulfo was so discouraged he had actually torn up some pages and tossed them in the garbage. But he reports, also, that the order proved easy to find, especially as Rulfo had been in no doubt about which material would constitute the ending. And while Antonio Alatorre, Rulfo’s other close friend from those days, confirms Arreola’s version, there are scholars and others who say it isn’t true. More to the point, Rulfo himself never acknowledged Arreola’s help.

The particulars of the author’s myriad misrepresentations–whether or not, as an obscure bureaucrat in the 1940s, he took charge of crew members captured from Italian and German oil tankers, when the enemy ships were in fact impounded on the other side of the country–are not of great moment; they may, however, provide some insight into his literary persona. Rulfo is not the kind of writer who proceeds in a journalistic or historical way. His always elusive prose is not given to calm observation, factual rendering or realistic description. (Even his name, Juan Rulfo, is invented: he was born Juan Nepomuceno Pérez Vizcaíno.) Hiding stories is how he reveals them; it’s his way of being forthcoming. He repeatedly crisscrosses the boundaries between memory and reality. It’s not that he embraces a literature of the fantastic: His characters don’t fly, it doesn’t rain upside down. But his pen is less a recording tool than a magic wand.

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.