by Juan Rulfo
This was a birthday gift from a Mexican friend of mine. She wrote on the first page that it is one of her favourite books. Of course one person's favourite book can be entirely meaningless to another person, and the other way round - but still, I was very curious to find out what would make this particular book my friend's favourite.
One thing is for sure: It is unlike any other book I have read.
The story, published in 1955 but set at the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), starts ordinarily enough: A young man visits the home village of his late mother. On her deathbed, he had to promise her that he would travel there and meet his father.
The young man arrives at the village alright, and meets several villagers, but soon it becomes apparent that some of the people he talks to may be ghosts of the past. All through the first half of the book, it is unclear who of the characters is still alive and who is dead. Life and death seem to be intervowen in this village more closely than elsewhere.
Then, the young man dies (does he really? and why, and how?), and the second half of the book is mainly narrated through conversations he holds with other dead people in the grave. They remember the past of the village, when the man's mother was still young; how she met his father, what sort of person he was, and so on.
It is all very surreal and bizarre, and yet the topics of conversations are very mundane: who owns the land, who married, who was whose girlfriend, who worked for whom, and so on. There is violence among the rich and the poor, and the priest does not live up to the Christian ideals he should be promoting.
It is a ghost story, yes, but not really - or not only. As I said, it is a most unusual book that left me a little "flat"; I would have liked the story to be "neater", especially the ending.
Tuesday night, I met the friend who gave me the book (she is part of my pub quiz team). She said she so loves the book because the author has managed very well to convey the atmosphere in a typical Mexican village of those times. Admittedly, that atmosphere has only made me glad that I did not live there and then. Life seemed hopelessly "stuck" and foreseeable, especially for women.
The author wrote only two books: this one and a collection of short stories. And yet, he is regarded as one of the most influential Latin-American writers of our time. According to wikipedia, Gabriel García Márquez said that he felt blocked as a novelist after writing his first four books and that it was only his life-changing discovery of "Pedro Páramo" that opened the way to the composition of his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude.