I first came upon Juan Rulfo’s name in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s obituary. Márquez was quoted as saying that Rulfo was his favorite writer, one who had most influenced his own work. That got my attention, especially when Márquez went on to say that he had memorized, in its entirety, Rulfo’s only novel, Pedro Páramo. I immediately bought the book, read it in two sittings, then read it again, and could not believe I had not encountered the author years before. I began asking friends, other writers, if they had read Pedro Páramo, or Rulfo’s other book, a short story collection, The Burning Plain, and none of them had. Like me, these were American writers who read widely in international fiction of all sorts and were familiar with the work of Llosa, Vallejo, Donoso, Cortázar, Amado, and other Latin American authors. How could we be so familiar with the work of Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, yet know nothing about another of Mexico’s preeminent writers? I have no idea if it was due to the vagaries of the publishing/translation business, or the fact that, unlike those other authors, Rulfo’s output was quantitatively (not qualitatively) modest. Or if it was just our own collective ignorance. After all, two decades earlier, in 1994, Susan Sontag wrote a foreword to the definitive American edition of Pedro Páramo in which she hailed the book as one of the “masterpieces of twentieth-century world literature.” Still, it reminded me of a time, years before, when I read through all the work of Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist. I was introduced to Davies by my wife, Constance Christopher, a writer who is Canadian by birth. Davies produced a huge body of work, including three massive, masterly trilogies. But when I asked well-read friends, including colleagues at Columbia, I again got blank looks. We share a continent with Mexico and Canada, our sole neighbors, yet two of their greatest writers are little known in the United States. Perhaps, hopefully, that has changed with both these writers, who now seem to be attracting larger readerships in this country.
Rulfo is a unique writer. Kafka comes to mind, and Céline, and the turn-of-the-eighteenth-century surrealist, Jan Potocki, but I know of no one quite like Rulfo. His influence on Márquez is evident: the shifting time frames, startling imagery, deep symbolic undertow, shattering of barriers between the real and the fantastical. For all those reasons and more, Pedro Páramo reminded me of Marquez’s pitch-perfect novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Yet they are distinctly different novelists. Marquez’s tableaux are expansive and lush while Rulfo’s novel and stories are, at first glance, compressed and spare. But the compression is deceptive; one enters the world of Pedro Páramo in a straightforward, almost disarming, way: “I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me.” After that, all bets are off. The village to which our narrator travels is a place where the dead and the living intermingle—where, perhaps, everyone is dead even while relating the story of his or her death. Stories that overlap, counterpoint, or contradict one another, then merge into a seemingly comprehensible whole—only to fly apart again with great centrifugal force. Like Márquez, Rulfo is an architect of labyrinths. The difference is that the labyrinth of Pedro Páramo is set in a barren plain, a wasteland, which, of course, is the meaning of “páramo” in Spanish. Such a rich narrative in so arid a setting is one of the countless disjunctive elements that gives the novel its power. It is both terrifying and exhilarating when one realizes that all the inhabitants of Comala are deceased, that memory has become both supremely important and meaningless in such a place, that the narrator’s purported search for his father (an archetypal fable of the first order) is in fact the entrance to a wormhole that will carry us to a realm where time and space require constant redefinition.
Pedro Páramo is one of those books that demands rereading because, quite simply, it becomes richer each time around. Rulfo said that he held the book inside him for many years and wrote hundreds of pages that he promptly cut before the manuscript took shape. The novel feels like a long poem in which not a single word could be added or subtracted.
Even when he was a famous author, Juan Rulfo made his living in a variety of occupations unconnected to literature, including tire salesman. He was also a brilliant photographer, whose black-and-white portraits and landscapes, taken throughout Mexico, have been collected in a beautiful coffee-table book entitled Juan Rulfo’s World. When Rulfo was asked why he had “only” written two books, he replied matter-of-factly that in those two books he had said all he had to say. That is how they read. What an enormous achievement that is for any writer.
NICHOLAS CHRISTOPHER is the author of seventeen books: seven novels, including Veronica and A Trip to the Stars; nine books of poetry, most recently Crossing the Equator: New & Selected Poems and On Jupiter Place; and a nonfiction book, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City. His work has been widely translated and published abroad. He lives in New York City.