The latest release from Arion Press is Pedro Paramo, the great Mexican novel of the twentieth century written by Juan Rulfo (1917-1986). Arion sums up the novel as being about a man named Juan Preciado who travels to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, Comala, to find his father, “only to come across a literal ghost town─populated, that is, by spectral figures.” In an aptly named article by Jim Lewis in Slate, ‘The Perfect Novel You’ve Never Heard Of‘ the style of Rulfo’s work is brilliantly captured:
Peculiar things start to happen on the page, things I’ve never seen in a book. The tenses switch back and forth, past to present and back again, sometime in the space of a single paragraph, until time itself becomes senseless. The stories begin to refract, shatter, and rebuild; pronouns multiply—I, he, she, you, stumbling over each other. Dialogue and thoughts are left unattributed. The perspectives shift from internal to external and back again, from Preciado to Paramo to Paramo’s childhood love, Susana San Juan. “This town is full of echoes,” one character says. “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 rustlings. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years.” And why? Because—the reader realizes this about the same time Preciado does—all these people are dead.
Soon enough (very soon, for the entire novel is only 122 pages in the English translation) Preciado is dead as well—from grief, it seems, or fright—but the book just keeps going, sustained by the babble of ghosts. They speak in unattributed dialogue, interrupting one another, overlapping, addressing one another; and every so often the fog of voices lifts, and a third-person narrator, clear as a 19th-century novelist, steps in—though in context his voice is every bit as disorienting as the others. Out of this babble emerge tales of love, of cruelty, of poverty and misfortune, of the revolution and the succeeding Cristero Revolt; and then Pedro Paramo is killed by one of his many bastard sons—Abundio, the burro driver from the beginning—and, just like that, the book is done.
As stated in a review in the Independent, “there is no clear plot-line, no hooks, no character development arcs, no climax, no epilogue, and one is left with an existential sense of dislocation and uncertainty.” In other words, while an experimentally interesting approach to writing a novel, exactly the type of thing I normally do not like (art for art’s sake)! None-the-less, I did enjoy it, quite a bit actually! It is thought-provoking, interesting and meaningful. The story components, while disparate, are somehow cohesive and paint a thorough and deep picture of early twentieth century rural Mexico and suffering therein. Hope abounds and motivates, but despair triumphs. The setting in Comala is presented as living and, at the same time, as dead. What an intriguing paradox: all of the living are dead and yet all the dead are still living (to somewhat paraphrase Jim Lewis’s article mentioned above)!
A few snippets from the story gives you a sample of the direct and concise style of Juan Rulfo’s writing. Juan Preciado, one of the narrators of the book, goes to Comala in order to find his father:
I had expected to see the town of my mother’s memories, of her nostalgia–nostalgia laced with sighs. She had lived her lifetime sighing about Comala, about going back. But she never had. Now I had come in her place. I was seeing things through her eyes, as she had seen them. She had given me her eyes to see.
Preciado describes the setting on his way to Comala:
Up and downhill we went, but always descending. We had left the hot wind behind and were sinking into pure, airless heat. The stillness seemed to be waiting for something.
As for Comala itself:
That town sits on the coals of the earth, at the very mouth of hell. They say that when people from there die and go to hell, they come back for a blanket.
Eduviges Dyada, who had been a good friend on Juan’s mother Dolores Preciado, tells Juan (she herself has been dead for years):
Well, you can be sure I’ll catch up with her. No one knows better than I do how far heaven is, but I also know all the shortcuts. The secret is to die, God willing, when you want to, and not when he proposes. Or else force Him to take you before your time.
Damiana Cisneros, who had been the cook at the Media Luna and was murdered by Abundio Martínez (who, we later learn, also killed Pedro), expresses to Juan some wisdom about living a stale and lifeless life, full of regret, unhappy due t0 remorse:
Every sigh is like a drop of your life being swallowed up.
A character known only as Donis’s wife/sister (one of the last living people in town), paints a picture of despair to Juan:
Nights around here are filled with ghosts. You should see all the spirits walking through the streets. As soon as it’s dark they begin to come out. No one likes to see them. There’s so many of them and so few of us that we don’t even make the effort to pray for them anymore, to help them out of their purgatory. We don’t have enough prayers to go around. Maybe a few words of the Lord’s Prayer for each one. But that’s not going to do them any good. Then there are our sins on top of theirs. None of us still living is in God’s grace. We can’t lift up our eyes, because they’re filled with shame.
Dorotea, who is the second narrator in the book, further explores the theme of the obliteration on hope:
After so many years of never lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done? The sky is so high and my eyes so clouded that I was happy just knowing where the ground was. Besides, I lost all interest after Padre Renteria told me I would never know glory. Or even see it from a distance….It was because of my sins, but he didn’t have to tell me that. Life is hard enough as it is. The only thing that keeps you going is the hope that when you die you’ll be lifted off this mortal coil; but when they close one door to you and the only one left open is the door to Hell, you’re better off not being born.
Pedro Páramo, watching the love of his life, Susana San Juan, suffering, thinks to himself:
Nothing can last forever; there is no memory, however intense, that does not fade.
Yet the novel is not so clear on that — even death does not end the torment, as Purgatory is filled with repetition of the same things that haunt us in life. Rulfo is pretty clear on how lifelessness, caused by the despair of hope and love being unfilled along with the near constant burden grief and sin, results in the living mostly just living life in a futile manner just waiting for death. These same things continue to haunt to dead characters in Pedro Páramo. It is quite a grim picture.
The novel was not well received, critically or by the public, when first published in 1955, selling only two thousand copies during the first four years. Not long after, however, the book became highly acclaimed. It has now been translated into more than 30 different languages and the English version has sold more than a million copies in the United States. Nobel prize winner Gabriel García Márquez said that he “could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards,” and credits Pedro Páramo as his inspiration to complete his own masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Arion Press mentions that Marquez noted that all of Rulfo’s published writing, put together, “add up to no more than 300 pages; but that is almost as many and I believe they are as durable, as the pages that have come down to us from Sophocles.” Jorge Luis Borges also was a huge fan as he considered Pedro Páramo to be one of the greatest texts written in any language.
I am thankful that Arion Press decided to publish Pedro Páramo as I would not have been exposed to it otherwise. It is an important and influential work that I sheepishly admit to not having heard of prior to Arion announcing their intent t0 publish it. When I received my copy last week my thankfulness evolved to being thrilled, as the edition is fantastic. The first thing I noticed was the eye-catching binding. It is smyth-sewn with handsewn silk endbands, with a three-piece cloth cover, green on the sides and blue on the spine, foil stamped on the sides with roundels designed by painter, printmaker, and Professor of Art at Stanford University Enrique Chagoya and stamped on the spine with titling. As you will see below, it grabs your attention, and the roundels are very apropos to the story.
When one initially flips through the book, the illustrations immediately shine. There are ten two-color, two-sided prints by Mr. Chagoya (whose work on the marvelous Yolla Bolly Bread of Days was reviewed here). Chagoya wrote in his artist statement for the book, “The drawings are not an illustration of Pedro Páramo because the story does not need illustrations. It is more like a visual duet, and instrument playing a counterpoint parallel to the novel.” While the illustrations are not narrative-based, they somehow manage to eerily parallel the story. As Arion Press mentions, they are highly unusual in that they are printed on both sides of thin, translucent Japanese handmade Arokaji koso washi paper of a tan-brown color. On the front (recto) are portraits of Mexicans from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, printed in a dark blue, with background imagery printed in green on the other side. The paper with illustrations is then inserted into a sheet folded at the fore-edge, with die-cut windows and a folded tab to tip into the sewing section.
The paper for the text is also very nice, it being Italian mouldmade Magnani Ingres laid. It is strong while being somewhat thin, with a slightly off white eggshell color and semi-soft texture. The type, printed by letterpress, is Kennerley Old Style designed by Frederic W. Goudy, composed and cast in Monotype, with handset type for display. The book is large octavo in format, 12 by 8-1/4 inches, with 152 numbered pages. The translation is that from award-winning American translator and professor emerita of Spanish at the University of Missouri Margaret Sayers Peden. There is an informative new introduction by Professor of Spanish at Columbia Alfred MacAdam. The edition is limited to 300 copies for sale and runs $850 (with a subscriber price is $595). This is an excellent production and is highly recommended.
About the Edition
- Translation by Margaret Sayers Peden
- A new introduction by Alfred Mac Adam
- Ten two-color, two-sided prints by Enrique Chagoya (his website here)
- The paper is Italian mouldmade Magnani Ingres laid
- Illustrations presented in a sheet folded at the fore-edge, with die-cut windows and a folded tab to tip into the sewing section with Chagoya’s illustrations printed on an inserted sheet of Japanese handmade Arokaji koso washi paper
- The type, printed by letterpress, is Kennerley Old Style designed by Frederic W. Goudy, composed and cast in Monotype, with handset type for display
- The binding is Smyth-sewn with handsewn silk endbands, with a three-piece cloth cover, green on the sides and blue on the spine, foil stamped on the sides with roundels designed by Enrique Chagoya and stamped on the spine with titling
- The book is large octavo in format, 12 by 8-1/4 inches, 152 numbered pages (by coincidence the same number of pages as the first edition) for the text and ten unnumbered signatures for the prints
- The edition is limited to 300 numbered copies for sale (plus twenty-seven Roman numeral copies for complimentary distribution), each signed by the artist
- The non-subscriber price is $850 (subscriber price is $595)
- An extra print entitled “Nahvi Olin”, the name of the Mexican painter and poet whose head is depicted in the print is also available in an edition of 30; It is a nine-color relief print, printed from photopolymer plates in black, blue, green, and white inks on handmade Japanese Yamekoozo Hadaura paper; The image size is 20-1/2 by 14 inches; the sheet size is 24 by 18 inches; Each print is signed by the artist. Sold with the book, $2,350.
Pictures of the Edition
(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)