FL 380: An Archaeology of the "Boom": Modern Latin American Prose Fiction

Some Ideas on Octavio Paz, Death, Myth, and Pedro Páramo

Death as a nostalgia for speech.
     - Carlos Fuentes

Between pain and nothingness, I choose pain
     - William Faulkner

Octavio Paz (1914- ), a leading contemporary Mexican poet and essayist, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990 wrote The Labyrinth of Solitude, a collection of essays, in 1950 as an attempt to interpret the nature of México and the Mexican people. Among other things, he examines how Mexicans relate to phenomena such as death and religious celebrations, or fiestas. For Paz, death is the foundational reality of early modern Mexican culture. Death is at the origin of the Mexican self on account of the country's peculiar history and cultural baggage. The conquest of México in 1521 was based on the destruction of its previous indigenous civilization, the Aztec Empire. This civilization, remnants of which survive to this day in the huge Indian population of the country, lived according to myths that placed a tremendous importance on death. For native Mexicans death was a cyclical phenomenon. Their universe died and was born again in cycles. The gods sacrificed themselves so that humans could live on earth and in many cases human sacrifices were necessary in order to further the continuation of the universe and prevent its demise. The syncretic combination of these beliefs with Catholic ideas about salvation through the celebration of the gory death of a god, Christ's passion, coalesced in a cultural framework that relates to death, not as a catastrophic and fearful event but as a natural and, occasionally, even enticing proposition.

According to Paz: "The Mexican . . . is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away (. . .) Death [in the poetry of Gorostiza and Villaurrutia can be seen] as nostalgia, rather than as the fruition or end of life, [it] is death as origin. The ancient, original source is the grave, not a womb". 58/62

Religious festivals, celebrations of patron saints, virgins, and, first and foremost Holy Week, highlight the importance of death and offer Mexicans their own version of Carnival.

According to Paz: "The fiesta is by nature sacred, literally or figuratively, and above all it is the advent of the unusual. It is governed by its own special rules, that set it even apart from other
days . . . It all occurs in an enchanted world: time is transformed to a mythical past or a total present (. . .) everything takes place as if it were not so, as if it were a dream. (. . .) By means of the fiesta society frees itself from the norms it has established. It ridicules its gods, its principles, and its laws: it denies its own self". (50-51)

However it is in the fiesta that Mexicans relate best to each other:
"Thanks to the fiesta the Mexican opens out, participates, communes with his fellows and with the values that give meaning to his religious or political existence". (52)

Pedro Páramo can be read bearing in mind Paz's ideas about Mexican culture. Like Odysseus son, Telemachus, in Homer's Odyssey (9th C. B.C.), Juan Preciado leaves his mother in order to search for his father, Pedro Páramo. This is a search for his origins but also a pursuit of the father as lord or king. Differences abound, though, Pedro Páramo is no hero in the sense that Odysseus was. Juan Preciado's quest takes him to the origin of his people, death. On his way there he meets the burro driver, Abundio, who like the mythical Charon, whose work it was to ferry the dead across the river Styx to the afterlife, escorts him down the road to the hottest place on earth, Comala, the veritable kingdom of the dead. It is Abundio who attempts to prepare Juan Preciado, for what he is to encounter there by telling him important information about Pedro Páramo, Comala, and its inhabitants. He also alerts him to the fiesta that awaits him there:
"Bonita fiesta le va a armar (. . .) Se pondrá contento de ver a alguien después de tantos años que nadie viene por aquí. (. . .) Sea usted quien sea, se alegrará de verlo". (8)

["You're going to get some welcome (. . .) They'll be happy to see someone after all the years no one's come this way. (. . .) Whoever you are, they'll be glad to see you". (4-5)]

This fiesta of voices, murmurs, and visitations ultimately reaches a high point in Juan Preciado's death thus allowing his communion with the values that give meaning to his existence and that of his people, in this world and the next. In this way, Juan Preciado's death is valuable; it is the price he pays in order that this momentous story be told, so that we -thorough him- be allowed to overhear the bloody and ultimately tragic epic of Pedro Páramo.

Some Possible Readings of Pedro Páramo:
A story of Mexican caciquismo (the rule of rural lords) with Pedro Páramo as cacique
A mythical story: Juan Preciado in search of his origins
A study of the cultural dimension of death in México
A love story: Pedro Páramo and Susana San Juan
A distant chronicle of the Mexican Revolution
A readerly labyrinth: our descent into the Realm of the Dead