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Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo

The short but daunting Pedro Paramo does share some things with The Obscene Bird of Night: a wealthy landowner and his horrific son, a madonna/whore figure, and a very whacked narrative structure. But Rulfo’s book is not about the creative process at all, and deals with a fixed, if endlessly refracted, set of circumstances.

Juan Preciado returns to the town of Comala, which his mother had left when he was just a baby. His father is Pedro Paramo, the landowner, enforcer, and tyrant of the entire town. Comala is literally a ghost town; Juan is taken in by a series of maternal spirits that guide him through the history of the town and its death, brought on by Paramo.

Paramo owns all the land, and with the willing assistance of the church, most of the town is dragged into corruption, philandering, and decay along with him. As landowner, Paramo comes to infect the land, and violence suffuses the entire town. This is personified by Paramo’s son Miguel, who is a serial rapist and eventually comes to an end when he’s killed by his horse, before he can be killed by another man planning Miguel’s death. Rulfo is clear that all the chaos and evil is arising from Paramo’s hands, similar to the second part of Goethe’s Faust, as when the old woman Dorotea, who has lost her son, makes a deal with Paramo to round up women for Miguel. When Paramo’s unattainable love, the insane figure of redemption Susana, dies, Paramo shuts the entire town down, mandating that the farmland become dead and funding revolutionaries. He is eventually killed by another bastard son of his, leaving the town to the ghosts of its past inhabitants.

Those are the basics. There is a great UT essay that delves more deeply into the background. What makes the book difficult is the hopscotch narration, which jumps between Juan’s dealings with the residential ghosts of the town, his channeling of the non-ghost souls those departed who exist in a mental limbo, and non-linear retelling or straight narration of the past. It’s not as chaotic as it initially seems once the basic rhythms are established. Juan hears more and more levels of the story, and at the height of it, communicates with Susana, who is lost in the reliving of Paramo’s attentions, which she ignores, and her escapes to swim in the ocean, which constitutes her escape from Paramo. The structure is loosely a spiral, and by the end of the story Juan has completely disappeared, absorbed into the weave of fragments and voices.

The issue is what effect the treatment has on more or less classical, realistic material. Rulfo intends to have Paramo have acted in such a way as to create a purgatory, his shutdown crippling the progression of time and of souls. Body/soul dualism is very prominent here, and Rulfo has a bizarre version of it, since bodies go on as sentient ghosts without souls. And clearly, no salvation is at hand. To the extent that a clear end to the story would function as that anyway, the book does read as having an entrance but no exit. It trails off shortly after Paramo’s death, but the revelations of what have been going on are sequenced so that no real conclusion exists. Paramo’s death is known from the start, and the circumstances of his life and of the town’s life don’t end with his death as much as with the death of Susana. The discovery that it’s another of his sons who kills him is fitting, but it is so in line with what has gone before that it is not revelatory. Still, the material itself is intact. Rulfo’s elaboration through the after-the-fact ghosts and souls does not fundamentally alter the plot, which is traditionally tragic. It instead attempts to offer a version of how the events are perceived by those who experience them rather than by a reader. Mostly, there is infinity instead of closure and claustrophobia instead of perspective.

Despite the narrative shuffling, I believe that Rulfo was going for this simple effect of exploring tragedy as experienced rather than as viewed. It’s a selfless approach, and of all his admitted fans who adopted and modified his approach with considerably greater levels of complexity, mythology, and confusion, only Gabriel Garcia Marquez used it in a similar manner to move away from literary artifice. (I might also admit Guillermo Cabrera Infante, but honestly, the jury’s still out.) In comparison, Julio Cortazar in Hopscotch deploys the shuffling chiefly as a tool of abstraction away from experience. The problem is that while Rulfo’s strategy may be more noble, it likely makes writing nearly impossible.

Death in Rome, Wolfgang Koeppen

There’s a huge drop-off in big novels of ideas in the Germanic areas post-World War II. Mann, Broch, Musil, Schnitzler, Doblin, Stefan Zweig, and Joseph Roth all oriented themselves around fairly articulable ideologies, some more complex than others. Post-war, there are phantasmagorias like Gunter Grass’s and overwrought character studies like Boll’s, but very little that compares to something like The Magic Mountain. Even Doctor Faustus seems like it’s avoiding the issue.

Wolfgang Koeppen, at least in Death in Rome, sounds the death-knell for the old guard. The ideas are as good as Broch on an off-day, and are better than than Zweig. Koeppen just doesn’t spend as much time on his ideas. The three main characters–a larger-than-life evil Nazi bastard named Judejahn, his son Adolf, who is a priest-in-training, and his nephew, a modern composer–all only have one remotely validated emotion, which is disgust. After making a point about local politics, modern composition, the priesthood, schooling, or any other relevant topic, Koeppen immediately buries it under negative images and recriminations. Koeppen takes pains to paint the three’s only moments of virtue as ones of total inaction.

While they and their fellow Germans aren’t doing anything, for three-quarters of the book, Koeppen’s lyricism sustains a sublime, frozen-in-amber quality, as they all walk through historical Rome. Koeppen is expert at displaying the unmoored thoughts of the most morally culpable people imaginable, Judejahn for being a monster like something out of The Night Porter, and his scions for having anything to do with his legacy. It’s when something does happen that the book falls apart, since no plot can live up to the transcendent monstrousness that Koeppen deals in.

The ideas, very negative ones, do come through, but are dispatched far more quickly than usual, since the characters are so terminal. That isn’t to say that tje ideas are so different than what went before. Like Broch circa The Sleepwalkers, Death in Rome has a vaguely conservative bent. Aside from the characters, its hatred is directed to Nietzsche and Hegel, who removed simple morality/religion/ethics and replaced it with high-minded, poisonous ideas. But Broch had no problem writing a verbose treatise about the breakdown of decency. Koeppen seems to say that the rationalistic style of Broch, Mann, and the rest is an abscess spawned by amoral philosophers, and that it must be dispatched.

This makes Death in Rome intentionally self-defeating, its message being that the big rational style must go underground in German literature. And so it has. But it also suggests that there is still a continuity of content: the rational arguments live on in disguised and more chaotic form in Grass, Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, and many others. So instead of there being such a clean break of content, it’s more a change of style. Koeppen would never write something like this, from near the end of The Sleepwalkers:

Of course the question is not whether Hegel’s interpetation of history has been overthrown by the World War; that had been done already by the stars in their courses; for a reality that had grown autonomous through a development extending over four hundred years would have ceased in any circumstances to be capable of submitting any longer to a deductive system.

The Sleepwalkers, Broch, pp. 559-560.

But Koeppen would agree with the main point, which is that theories of the end of history lead to amoral chaos.

If Koeppen is acknowledging that the change is in style rather than substance, he’s far more pessimistic and nihilistic than he appears. He is condemning any future German culture without knowing what it is. He anticipates and transcends many of Grass’s more particular arguments about German memory decades later.

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