I am preparing myself for a journey to Sayula. My imagination – the spirit – is already on the way there. Given what I have recently learned, it now seems especially fitting that the journey to the world of Pedro Páramo must be undertaken in parts.
After all, Pedro Páramo is about a journey, and the meeting of a man with a village of lost souls.
This morning a copy of the book – today of all days, this day – found me. Translated into English by Margaret Sayers Peden, on page four an introduction is given of sorts to both the character and the place:
“It’s hot here,” I said.
“You might say but this is nothing.” my companion replied. “Try to take it easy. You’ll feel it even more when we get to Comala. 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.”
“Do you know Pedro Páramo?” I asked.
I felt I could ask because I had seen a glimmer of goodwill in his eyes.
“Who is he?” I pressed him.
“Living bile,” was his reply.
I have been thinking about Sayula for months. It all started with seeing a cleaver on a cooking channel. For a person who neither needs or wants anything I found myself coveting this blade. I began looking for one. I asked my friends who told me the best Mexican knives came from Sayula. Then two weeks later I found one. It was the exact shape of my desire, stamped Sayula on the blade; found in such an unlikely shop, where they didn’t even know they had one.
It was suspiciously serendipitous.
A week later I found another one. But this one was old, forged and hand-beaten. In the two weeks it took to restore the cleaver to its former glory, I knew I had to go to Sayula. It was if the place were calling to me.
I told my good literary friend and neighbor, Max about my plans and desire to see the place and he asked me if I had read Pedro Páramo. And that was the first time I heard the name, Juan Rulfo.
The mentioning of Sayula triggered Juan Rulfo because Sayula considers Juan Rulfo to be their native son. He was born nearby and Comala – the setting for the story – is a village to the northwest.
Susan Sontag, in her foreword to this book, calls Pedro Páramo ‘one of the masterpieces of 20th-century world literature’. But I, who have been following world literature for a lifetime and Latin American writers for some thirty years, had neither heard of the book nor its author. Why is it that a book translated into more than 30 different languages and whose influences includes greats like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges had never once crossed my path? As I sit here writing, all this – finding the blade, the proverbial first crumb – remains a profound mystery to me.
Borges considered Pedro Páramo to be one of the greatest texts written in any language. Gabriel Garcia Marquez had said that when he felt blocked as a novelist after writing his first four books and it was only his life-changing discovery of Pedro Páramo in 1961 that opened his way to the composition of his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
And it was a month or two later that I began to see the even bigger picture. I learned about los animas – the spirits, the wandering souls of the departed dead.
Mexico contains layer upon layer of complexity. There were the centuries buildup of pre-Cortesian rites and gods. Which were in turn only superficially plowed under by a most brutal catholic conquest. Quite interestingly it was the combination of the two that spawned an incredibly dense mythology of death.
There is so much more to the modern Mexican mythos of death than just the syncretistic Day of the Dead fiesta. To begin with there are the lesser known death cultish practices like the worship of Santa Muerte (Holy Death), as well as the grim followings of Jesús Malverde (the patron saint of drug dealers), and/or San Judas Tadeo (the patron saint of lost causes).
Even the language and literature carries a preoccupation with the subject of violence and death. The Spanish verb, Chingar is masculine and although it has many different meanings across Latin American, only here in Mexico does its underlying essence speaks to violation – always an act of aggression: to hurt or to wound; as in the violation that came from the conquest. And the Mexican remains always the lonely hijo de la Chingada, the offspring of the violated one.
There is the further mythology of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), the long suffering mother who wanders weeping aimlessly. She interestingly enough is yet another syncretistic vestige from pre-conquest times who was known then as the earth goddess, Cihuacoatl.
As you can see there are a baffling number of death related cross products that result from the incredible depth of Mexican culture. For the twentieth century Mexican poet, Jose Gorostiza, life is viewed as a “death without end”. While his contemporary, Xavier Villaurrutia opined life to be no more than a “nostalgia for death”.
Next week I will leave for Sayula. While the puebla is almost directly east of me, the road mockingly strays an equal distance south.
Sayula is close to nothing and lies forgotten in the middle of a road leading to nowhere. Yet it has managed to charm me. First it beguiled the little boy in me with a knife. Then it whispered to me the name of a great unknown literary work. Finally the ghosts – los animas – themselves beckon me, or so it seems.
I do not believe in coincidence. There is a pile of evidence here that corroborates the convergence of multiple events. Witness Pedro Páramo itself which was published in the year of my birth (1955). Which ironically today is my 62nd birthday. And this year – 2017 – is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Juan Rulfo.
Do you believe as I do my friend that there are mysteries, written not just in the stars, but in our day to day lives?
Embrace it. It surrounds us.
PS – Juan Rulfo used beautiful language that bordered on poetry in Pedro Páramo. What sublime imagery lives in the phrase ‘the echo of shadows’.