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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.

pedro paramo2

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.

 

chichen itza

A photo I took on a visit to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, Mexico, earlier this year.

Distant drums shake the ancient earth and a faint chorus of chanting grows stronger in the heat.  A pained father in a stained fabric loincloth watches on, his arms arranged in prayer to some deity in honour of which the ballgame below is being played. Several young men with plaited hair or shaved heads and decorative paint on their dark skins run on the dirt below, sweating bodies glistening. At this distance and under the haze of the midday sun they take on the forms of upright ocelots, chasing the sphere from one end of the court to the other. All the while they yell and screech, to themselves, to one another, to what lies above, but their shouts are swallowed by the noise of a thousand spectators who watch on with fevered intensity. Clapping and shouting and hooting their lips moist with spittle, the crowd like myxomatosed hares. Without any perceptible change in the atmosphere the game is over. Ceremonies start and finish. Sand and soil is stained with blood and down white limestone steps streams of sacrificed crimson escapes to become one with the soil. To feed the worms, the underworld below appeased. The sky is red and shadows grow stronger, emancipated from the trees and temples. The crowd disperses into the evening, drained from the passions of the day. The endless cycles of victories and defeats. Civilisations built and broken and rebuilt and reborn.

1,450 years pass and still the sun burns hot and people gather in the ball court. Less bloodshed, on these soils at least, but admiration and passion from travellers across the continent and beyond the seas. A culture lost but not forgotten. The architecture is outstanding and the acoustics are incredible. A handclap propels itself off the weathered surfaces. Noise refracting through these spaces as it always has done but unable to replicate past events. The visceral history and a wholeness that can only be imagined. Still images preserved on electronic devices, to be shared. Locals of mayan descent sell their goods; carved trinkets and wooden ornaments that imitate the catcalls of jaguars which scare the tourists.  

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016.