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pedro paramo

At times during Pedro Páramo it is difficult to know if the person to which Juan Preciado is speaking is alive or dead. Or at which point the story is being told from Preciado’s point of view, or from one of the many ghosts that still haunt the town of Comala. Or, whether the characters in this book know they are dead or alive, or that they still exist in the present, or if they are in some kind of  purgatory resigned to retell their tragic and mythical pasts.

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Published in 1955 Pedro Páramo is written by Mexican writer Juan Rulfo and remained his only true novel. Yet its impact and legacy on literature, particularly the magical realism movement often associated with Latin America, is clear to this day. Gabriel García Márquez, renown Colombian novelist (and author of one of my favourite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude) famously said of Pedro Páramo that he could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards. And in my copy of Pedro Páramo (1994, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) is a foreword by García Márquez, a sincere and adoring homage to Rulfo and his novel, in which he writes “That night I couldn’t sleep until I had read it twice. Not since Kafka’s Metamorphosis in a down-at-the-heels student boarding house in Bogotá – almost ten years earlier – had I been so overcome.” High praise indeed, even more so that he so openly admits that “my profound exploration of Juan Rulfo’s work was what finally showed me the way to continue with my writing”.

This town is filled with echoes. It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping in your footsteps. You hear rustling. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years. Sounds like that. But I think the day will come when those sounds fade away.

The premise is simple enough; to fulfil his mother’s dying wish, Juan Preciado sets off to Comala to meet his father, a certain Pedro Páramo, of whom he has never met. But upon arriving across the barren Mexican plains, Preciado discovers a ghost town ruined by the reign of his infamous father, hearing whispered tales of the past and present between the worlds of the living and the dead. In all honesty the novel did not seem to have a plot to me, or at least not in a traditional sense. Pedro Páramo is more a series of memories, experiences and streams of consciousness. On first read (at least I found so) it may be difficult to place who is speaking, and at what time, but once adjusted to the dream-like flow of Rulfo’s story-telling Pedro Páramo becomes a beautiful, mysterious nightmare. A short tale that will not take long to read but its haunting ideals will linger with you with its profound messages from the dead. A wonderful little book.

The sky was filled with fat stars, swollen from the long night. The moon had risen briefly and then slipped out of sight. It was one of those sad moons that no one looks at or pays attention to. It had hung there a while, misshapen, not shedding any light, and then gone to hide behind the hills.

100years

One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a great book and is worthy of its place on the ‘classics’ shelf. It shares a lot of similarities in style to the Bible; It can be a slog at times and while its language is not as verbose, the wealth of characters who share homes and names and lovers can confuse. I found myself constantly flicking back to the (heavily simplified) Buendía family tree at the start of the book, but even using that for reference it was difficult to avoid confusion. The writing is beautiful and the premise intriguing but I felt at times I was missing something. But following the lineage of the Buendías is fascinating and the setting of Macondo a metaphorical microcosm of Colombia and Latin America as it struggles to solidify an identity.

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Written in 1967 by the late Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years Of Solitude introduces us to the Buendía family, headed by José Arcadio Buendía, who founds the town of Macondo. Over the next hundred years Márquez details the successes and failures, the joys and the despairs, over six generations of the Buendía family. We are told about wars, massacres, murders, marriages, love affairs, good times and bad times, and lots of solitude.

“What does he say?’ he asked.
‘He’s very sad,’ Úrsula answered, ‘because he thinks that you’re going to die.’
‘Tell him,’ the colonel said, smiling, ‘that a person doesn’t die when he should but when he can.”

Peculiarity is rife in Macondo; a place of strangeness and bewilderment. Melquíades and his band of gypsies start the wonderment and stir a childlike awe in the family patriarch José Arcadio Buendía with their magical displays of magnetism and flying carpets and miraculous ice. With Melquíades’ help Buendía creates an alchemist’s lab in the house and devotes his time to the study of magic and chemistry and the research of the philosopher’s stone, often neglecting his children to chase wild fantasies, much to the despair of his devoted wife Úrsula. It is Melquíades and the volumes of mystical texts he writes and leaves with the Buendías that chronicles the predetermined fate of Macondo.

[Of Melquíades] He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude.

Much of the suffering experienced by the Buendías is self-inflicted, and solitude, as you might expect, is inherent throughout. The Buendía family has a tendency toward incest. José Arcadio Buendía is the first of many Buendías to intermarry (which can be viewed as the original sin, as he is certainly not the last), after he marries his first cousin Úrsula Iguarán. Úrsula is forever haunted by the fear that a child of theirs will be born with the tail of a pig as punishment. And while the Buendía descendents never inherent anything quite as monstrous as a pig’s tail (until poor Aureliano III, one hundred years later), they all have their own personal struggles and defects from which they are unable to escape. Aureliano Segundo suffers from tremendous and spontaneous greed, at one point becoming so affluent that he drinks champagne for weeks and wallpapers the entire house in peso bills. Amaranta, the daughter of José Arcadio Buendía Úrsula, is insanely jealous of her adopted sister Rebeca’s relationship with the Italian Pietro Crespi, and does everything in her power to delay for several years their proposed marriage. When she moves on, Amaranta later rejects Pietro out of a fear of men and he later commits suicide. This fear prevents her from ever acting upon her impulses and so she dies of old age as an bitter and lonely virgin. And Colonel Aureliano Buendía, a great leader who fights in the incessant wars and returns a hero and an icon, only to realise that he is incapable of love and affection.

Then he made one last effort to search in his heart for the place where his affection had rotted away, and he could not find it.

The repetition and cyclical nature of time is painfully evident to the reader, with the Buendías destined to suffer the same fate as their ancestors over and over again. Ghosts tend to visit Macondo, walking through the houses and streets as agents of the past. There are many allusions to the Bible, none more so than when Remedios the Beauty ascends into heaven one afternoon at 4pm, while folding sheets in the garden. The foretold scripts written by Melquíades add an element of fatalism, and the dreamlike state of Macondo asks a lot of existential questions too, as one priest tells Aureliano Babilonia towards the end of the novel, “It’s enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment.”

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An example of the repetition of time are the twin brothers José Arcadio Segundo and Aureliano Segundo. Úrsula is convinced the two were switched at birth, as José Arcadio is quiet, thoughtful and reflective like the Aurelianos of the family, whereas Aureliano is spirited and impulsive, associated more with the José Arcadios of the family. They live very different lives and die at the exact same second as one another. At the funeral there is some confusion and the bodies switched with each being buried in the other’s grave.

He [Aureliano Segundo] asked Úrsula if all that was true and she answered him that it was, that many years ago the gypsies had bought magic lamps and flying mats to Macondo.
“What’s happening,” she sighed, “is that the world is slowly coming to an end and those things don’t come here any more.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude is regularly cited and described as a piece of magical realism, a style of writing which incorporates the supernatural and surreal happenings of Macondo with the mundanity of regular family life. But as well as this, magical realism works and is so utterly captivating due to the historic feeling Márquez breathes into the story. The town and the characters are fictional, mythical almost, but there are elements that are vividly real, echoing real history and real events from Colombia and Latin America, such as never-ending, pointless civil wars, the ever-encroaching arrival of technology in daily life and the introduction of the American Fruit Company, with outsiders both domestic and foreign exploiting the poor folk which leads to the banana massacre of the striking workers.

“Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”
“What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”
“You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”
“That’s bad,” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez said.
Colonel Aureliano Buendia was amused at his alarm. “Naturally,” he said. “But in any case, it’s better than not knowing why you’re fighting.” He looked him in the eyes and added with a smile:
“Or fighting, like you, for something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone.”

Márquez writes with an effortless imagery. Flowing sentences never wasting words or the reader’s time, detailing all we need to know about everyday life for the suffering Buendías and the inhabitants of Macondo. The ending sees Aureliano III, alone and in despair after finally finding purpose and love (and ending the solitude of his ancestors over the past 100 years), translating Melquíades’ scripts where all Buendías men before him had failed, just as a great wind destroys Macondo and everyone there. For me, it’s an ending of relief and hope.