BOOK REVIEW / Ghostly voices on an arid plain: 'Pedro Paramo' - Juan Rulfo Tr. Margaret Sayers Peden: Serpent's Tail, 7.99 pounds

A MEXICAN goes in search of his father. On her deathbed, his mother has told him to return to her native village in the south to search him out: 'Just as you pass the gate of los Colimotes, there's a beautiful view of a green plain tinged with the yellow of ripe corn. From there you can see Comala.' But when the man gets to Comala, he finds an arid plain and an empty village, with nothing except the voices of the dead to speak to him. It soon seems that he too is bound to die.

From these slender elements, the Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo weaves a story that relentlessly draws the reader in, and says more about life as well as death in rural Mexico than many longer and more elaborate works. Rulfo is a story-teller who is well aware that poetry comes from knowing what to leave out as much as what to leave in.

The narrative of Pedro Paramo - the name of the protagonist's father - consists of some 60 fragments. These fragments are the voices of the ghosts still present in the village of Comala, who between them gradually build up the jigsaw of his father's life and death. Pedro Paramo, we discover, was the local landowner, who accumulated his lands and power by treachery or by brutally arranged marriages, until at last he fell for a woman he found it impossible to win, as she retreated first into madness and then - inevitably in this novel - death.

The 100 or so pages of the novel are held together not only by the gradually unfolding story, but by repeated images and expressions that broaden out the impact of the local events and endow them with a more general resonance. The voices of the former inhabitants of Comala give a stark impression of life as something suffered rather than created. Pedro Paramo has a tone akin to some of the most haunting Scottish border ballads, like a Mexican Wife of Usher's Well, although more modern influences such as Faulkner are clearly important as well.

Pedro Paramo was originally published in Mexico in 1955, though this is the first translation in England. Despite the fact that Rulfo wrote only this novel and the short stories of The Burning Plain, he has been universally acknowledged as one of the masters of recent Mexican writing, both because of the sobriety and resonant understatement that he consistently achieves, and because of the way he uses these gifts to capture the emptiness and despair of rural Mexico. This is a Mexico which has been abandoned to suffering for centuries, but which still retains its capacity to burst into shocking life, as the recent indigenous revolt in the southern state of Chiapas - something straight out of the pages of this novel - has shown.

Susan Sontag provides an eloquent foreword to the novel. She is surely right to assert that: 'Pedro Paramo is a classic in the truest sense. It is a book that seems, in retrospect, as if it had to be written. It is a book that has profoundly influenced the making of literature, and continues to resonate in other books.'

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