The Mexican writer Juan Rulfo produced two books – a short story collection, The Plain in Flames, and a novel, Pedro Páramo. Both books are brilliant, but Pedro Páramo is an exquisitely singular work.
Rulfo preceded the magical realists and inspired them, but for me he is very different. Their work, while beautiful, seems to me often indulgent and chimerical. The world Rulfo opens up to us is undeniably heightened, but every word he uses is something of great substance – whether it’s of an earthly or an emotional reality. Because my first language is sign language, this physical way of addressing the world feels familiar to me.
Like the ancient Greek writers, Rulfo’s terrain is the unexplainable forces and their effect on frail humanity. The primordial energies that continually shift below the narrative in Pedro Páramo are not masked in any way. Mysteriously, Rulfo has found a natural-feeling way to make his characters move faithfully with these rhythms without ever attempting to explain what can’t truly be. His book works viscerally on the nervous system. It is a book that will be real no matter what ideologies are dominant at the time that it is read. Often, it is so immediate that it feels more like a work of visual art than a literary achievement. It makes sense that Rulfo moved on to photography and film after it was published.
I’ve read that Rulfo wrote the story of Juan Preciado and his hunt for his father, then deleted everything that could be. He wanted to inject as much silence as possible into the narrative, which works seamlessly with the particular way he chooses to express how he sees. That is true literary elegance to me – to reach beyond language into everything that lies beyond, rather than to use words in a way that is ultimately self-reflexive. It is a generous authorship, because Rulfo’s creation seems to exist without him at its centre.