Fernando Sdrigotti

And Then There Was Pedro Páramo

Pedro Páramo
, Juan Rulfo (trans. Douglas J. Weatherford), Serpent’s Tail, 2023, pp. 156, £9.99.


“And then there was Pedro Páramo”.

There isn’t a Holy Bible of Latin American contemporary literature, but if there were one its Book of Genesis would contain this sentence. I doubt there’s a literary work that has proven more influential than this slender novel by Juan Rulfo (1917-1986). The same can be argued about its author: how many writers have managed such a long-lasting influence with such a modest oeuvre? One collection of short stories, El llano en llamas (1953), and two novels, Pedro Páramo (1955) and El gallo de oro (1980), were enough for Rulfo to leave a legacy that stretches to the present day. The Latin American Boom of the ‘60s wouldn’t have taken place without Rulfo. So-called “Magical Realism” wouldn’t have happened without Pedro Páramo (with the unfavourable implications this might entail). And I’d argue that many current Latin American writers — Luiselli, Herrera, Schweblin, Enriquez, Ampuero, among many others — wouldn’t be here without the taciturn Mexican arriving first. That this book continues to be translated into English and other languages should surprise no one. And here’s a new translation by Douglas J. Weatherford, published by Serpent’s Tail, to reaffirm the enduring relevance of this literary masterpiece.

Writing about Pedro Páramo always presents a problem: how to write about it without falling for the sin of dropping a massive spoiler? The whole premise of the novel depends on an unexpected twist several pages in, and I don’t want to embrace the academic tradition of ruining this book for you. Perhaps it should suffice to say that this is a novel in which the dead speak, much like a Greek choir. And these voices, the polyphony of these voices, all talking at the same time and over one other, is one of its stylistic triumphs. This might make for some obscure initial moments — Rulfo writes for an attentive and patient reader — but this is a book of delayed gratification; and eventually the anagnorisis unfolds and the patience pays off. The novel’s second triumph is understanding that this intensive attention can only be sustained for a limited duration. A needlessly long Pedro Páramo would have lost its effectiveness. If only more writers understood that brevity is often a virtue.

If Pedro Páramo is formally demanding, plot-wise it is rather simple. The novel is set in the fictional town of Comala. The central character, Juan Preciado, travels to this town to fulfil his mother’s dying wish: to find his father, Pedro Páramo, and demand what is rightfully theirs (“exígele lo nuestro”, or “demand what is ours”, she commands him). When Juan arrives in Comala he encounters a barren land, inhabited only by ghost-like characters. His journey is disconcerting and at times suffocating (quite literally); his search is rather fruitless, as should be expected of a search that takes place among spectres. Then, threaded around Juan’s story we find the story of Pedro and a number of dramatis personae that reveal themselves slowly and stridently. Eventually this cacophony delivers the tragic story of Pedro Páramo, Comala, and Juan Preciado. Around this simple plot, the novel explores themes of power, love, death, and the passage of time. It weaves together past and present, blurring the lines between reality and the supernatural, not only to recount the fate of its characters but to delineate a history of revolutionary and post-revolutionary Mexico. To sum up, Pedro Páramo is a plurivocal novel that allows for a plurality of readings.

This is the third time Pedro Páramo has been translated into English. The first translation, by Lysander Kemp, was published by Grove Press in 1959 and has been long out of print. The second translation, by Margaret Sayers Peden, was also published by Grove Press, in 1995, and was later released by Serpent’s Tail, in 2014. Several generations of Anglophone readers became acquainted with Rulfo’s masterpiece through these very decent editions. And this merits the question: did we need a new translation? At a first glance, it would appear we didn’t, and the cynic in me can’t help observing that new translations of classics are one of the publishing industry’s preferred ways to earn a quick buck. That said, Weatherford’s Pedro Páramo is a welcomed addition to the Rulfo canon.

For one, Weatherford’s has resisted the temptation to tame Rulfo’s grammar, whilst Sayers Peden for example, didn’t show the same restraint. This is evident from the opening sentence of the novel. Rulfo writes “Vine a Comala porque me dijeron que acá vivía mi padre, un tal Pedro Páramo,” favouring the simple past and eschewing the more correct use of the pluperfect, I’d say to privilege pace. Sayers Peden translates this as “I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there,” deploying the grammatically correct but stylistically un-Rulfian pluperfect. Weatherford, on the other hand translates this most important of opening lines more accurately as “I came to Comala because I was told my father lived here, a man called Pedro Páramo,” respecting Rulfo’s use of tenses and his staccato rhythm. I won’t bore the reader with more pedantic examples of faithfulness to Rulfo’s idiosyncratic prose, but there are many, take my word for it, and I can only celebrate that someone has tried so hard to preserve the author’s unique voice. And yet this is a minor detail when compared to what makes Weatherford’s translation truly special: its punctuation. As clearly explained by the translator in his closing note, “Rulfo employed a variety of options to indicate dialogue: dashes (—), double (“ ”) and single (‘ ’) quotation marks, guillemets or French quotation marks (« »), as well as italics.” Now, em dashes are the standard way to indicate dialogue in Spanish, but the other punctuation marks are far from standard, particularly when occurring all together, and yet they aren’t used whimsically by Rulfo. It is precisely these different punctuation marks that help the reader figure out who’s talking in this polyphonic novel. This differentiation was missing in previous English translations, an omission that further complicated a complex book. New Anglophone readers of Pedro Páramo won’t have to face this added challenge, thanks to Weatherford’s simple but insightful choice.

That Serpent’s Tail decided to go with García Márquez’s introduction — the same used in their 2014 edition — might make sense from a commercial point of view but I can’t avoid feeling this was a wasted opportunity. This introduction dates from 1980, and is well-known in Spanish and English. But there are now innumerable contemporary scholars writing about Rulfo, and there are innumerable writers who would gladly acknowledge his influence, and jump at the invitation to write a foreword for this most influential and loved of books. What better way to celebrate Rulfo’s everlasting legacy than commissioning one of them to write the foreword in 2023? Or a foreword, since it isn’t a matter of defenestrating Gabo either.

This small caveat aside, this is an outstanding edition and a game-changing translation. I can only celebrate the prospect of new readers being introduced to Rulfo’s work, guided by Weatherford’s attentive hand. May many walk into Comala with Juan Preciado, and feel goosebumps when they hear him say “It’s true, Dorotea. It was the murmuring…”

And I’ll stop there.

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, translator, and cultural critic. He teaches Spanish language and Latin American film and literature at Birkbeck, University of London. His latest publication is We Are But Nothing / No somos nada, a bilingual pamphlet out with Rough Trade Books. Substack: https://theleftovers.substack.com.

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