Juan Rulfo (REWL-foh) has been recognized as one of the greatest modern Mexican novelists, one of the forerunners of the “boom” in Latin American fiction of the 1960’s, and one of the initiators of Magical Realism. He was born to a landowner family impoverished by the Mexican Revolution. Both his parents died in his early childhood; his father and various other relatives were assassinated. The brutality of the countryside Cristeros uprising of 1926 to 1929 persisted in his memory. Rulfo was raised both in an orphanage and by relatives. He studied law in Guadalajara, but he soon moved to Mexico City to pursue his literary ambitions. He scraped a bare living working as an immigration officer, a salesman for a tire company, a movie scriptwriter and television producer, and, after 1962, as the director of the editorial department of the National Institute of Indian Affairs. As adviser to the Mexican Center of Writers, he helped to educate generations of Mexican literati. In 1970 Rulfo received the National Prize for Literature; in 1980 he became a member of the Mexican Academy of Language; and in 1985 he was awarded the prestigious Cervantes Prize in Spain.
Rulfo’s fame rests on two slim volumes, the collection of short stories The Burning Plain, and Other Stories and, especially, the novel Pedro Páramo, in which he distilled his stark vision of the Mexican countryside ravaged by the revolution, poverty, and violence. Páramo can be translated as “wasteland.” His photographs in Inframundo are a powerful companion to his vision of Mexican barren landscapes. Although he began to write earlier, Rulfo found his characteristic voice in the mid-1940’s when he began to craft, one by one, his masterpiece stories. Behind the deceptively simple facade of his rustic characters and their discourse stripped to “bare bones” hides a stunning virtuosity of narrative technique. Each story is narrated in a different way, yet the experiment is not showcased for the sake of experiment itself but blends with the other elements to convey the author’s bleak view of modern, revolutionary, and postrevolutionary Mexico.
“Luvina,” one of his best stories, adds a magic–almost fantastic–dimension, and through myth, modern and provincial Mexico stands for the universal condition of modern humankind.
Pedro Páramo appeared at a time when Mexico was consolidating its postrevolution and wartime gains and dreamed of participating, although belatedly, at the banquet of modernity. In his novel, Rulfo magnificently tied together the different threads from his stories and mixed them together in an anguished parable of the modern and yet ageless Mexico, violently torn between history and myth.
What makes Pedro Páramo a unique achievement is its masterful blend of the stark realities evoked, in which murder, death, rape, and incest destroy life; of modern experimental techniques, which turn the apparent chaos of fleeting narrative fragments into an artistic structure executed with a clockwork precision; and of Mexican folklore and traditional culture, which put familiar faces on any absurdity. As if in homage to the Day of the Dead (celebrated in Mexico on November 2), all the characters of the novel are long dead; their “souls in pain” cannot rest in peace; the monsoon rains resuscitate them, and the skeletons begin to remember and to replay their squalid lives. Black humor, absurdity of situations and dialogue, and an overall dreamlike character all bring the novel close to surrealism, a connection borne out in Rulfo’s later film scripts.
Rulfo continued to work on the text of his novel for the next quarter of a century, sometimes augmenting, sometimes deleting. Thus in each edition, the textual sequence is broken up into different narrative fragments. In the 1980 edition, he strengthened the graphic markers and established seventy segments. With hindsight, it is relatively easy to identify the nuclear narratives; the hard part comes when the reader attempts to relate them to the historical chronology. Yet the degree to which the historical background can be reconstructed is surprising. What is even more interesting is that Rulfo, who had up to a point striven to establish the historical, chronological, and geographical points of reference for the story, started to demolish them with vengeance. In Pedro Páramo, realism and its conventions become but a pretext for their own subversion and parody.
Readers have recognized from early on that behind the father-son relation in the novel hides the Oedipus myth. Allegorical readings have sprung up based on everything from classical and Aztec myths to psychoanalysis. Yet the mythical layer of the novel relies more on the haunting Mexican realities than on the Greek, modern West European, or pre-Columbian myths. Pedro Páramo closes the cycle of Mexican postrevolutionary rural novel and has become a part of the Mexican national myth, one of the Mexico’s founding fictions.