How many times do have to be recommended a book, or a writer, to read before you give in and do what you’re told? Well, if you’re a student, and the recommendation comes from your lecturer, once should be enough – right? On the other hand, it took me three people telling me to read Juan Rulfo’s incredible Mexican novel Pedro Páramo before I finally got around to it.
I can’t remember who the first recommender was. I’m not even sure how long the book has been in on my shelves – in a cool-looking edition by edgy British independent Serpent’s Tail in 1994, though it first appeared in 1955. It wasn’t a review copy, doesn’t look like a charity shop lucky dip, and I don’t think would have been something I’d have bought first-hand unless nudged towards it. I remember trying it, and putting it down, un-hooked, a few pages in, despite its arresting opening:
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. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him. I squeezed her hands as a sign I would do it.
The second nudge came from an unknown bookseller in Marfa, Texas, where my wife was attending a conference. She wanted a book to bring back for me and asked for something I’d not be likely to know. They suggested a different book by Rulfo, his earlier collection of short stories, The Plain in Flames. (The original Spanish title, El llano en llamas, is better – in fact it’s damn near perfect.) I read that book, and was pretty much pole-axed by it, for the violence and sparse beauty of its stories; afterwards, I tried Pedro Páramo again, and still couldn’t get on with it. Life’s too short, yeah?
Then just last week Juan, a Colombian second year student at St Mary’s, mentioned Rulfo’s name in conversation as a definite must-read of South American fiction. Okay, I told myself, third time lucky. This time I’ll definitely read it.
In truth, Pedro Páramo is a difficult book to read, especially considering it’s only 120 pages long. Partly this is down to the style – spare and indirect, and much of it told through dialogue – and partly it’s down to the structure, which jumps around all over the place. We don’t stay with that protagonist, who turns up in Comala, only to find that it’s a literal ghost town, with everyone in it dead. The novel also shifts back in time to Pedro Páramo’s childhood and adulthood, where we find out how he got the reputation he did. ‘“Do you know Pedro Páramo?”’ the narrator asks the man who guides him to the town. ‘”Who is he?”‘
‘“Living bile,” was his reply.’
Not much happens in the book’s 120 pages, but there are lots of stories of things happening, and most of those are bad: murder, rape, extortion. It’s a revenge story, a surreal Western bound up in the fevered religion of the region – if you’ve seen the weird Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter then you’re half way there. It’s so weird, in fact, that even on this final, successful reading attempt, I had to give up at page 60 and go back to the start. I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I got there in the end. I may even live to read it again.
Jonathan Gibbs is a Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s, Twickenham. He is always on the lookout for recommendations from students of books to read.