Published in 1955 and initially dismissed by critics and audiences, Pedro Páramo has since established itself as the precursor to a new phase of Latin American writing, as well as a superlative example of modernism in contemporary literature.
The novel, written when Rulfo was in his late 30s, is the second of only two literary works that he published in his lifetime. It's not surprising that the book initially confounded its audience, considering the prominence of social realism in Mexican writing at the time. Following decades of revolutions and social change, works that explored relevant issues through grounded, realistic stories set in specific geographical settings were en vogue. Pedro Páramo, on the other hand, is a book of shadows, ghosts, and memory, full of split perspectives and labyrinthine storytelling. It is often discussed in the context of magical realism, though this moniker does not quite capture its style, since there is little sense in the work that the "magic" of ghosts is strange or different from the world around it.
What most defines the novel is its complicated, fragmentary perspective. Though Rulfo's prose is generally straightforward and simple, a first time reader is apt to be confounded by the work required in gleaning the narrative. The story begins with a first-person narrator who returns to his mother's hometown to reunite with his estranged father, but it quickly grows more complicated. A third-person narrator removes the reader to the past, and voices of other characters frequently interrupt to tell their own stories. When the main narrator dies halfway through the novel but continues to speak, the reader knows she is experiencing something utterly original. The novel has little dramatic thrust – we know that Pedro Páramo is dead from the beginning, so his death that ends the novel is no surprise – but instead requires the reader's participation in filling in the many silences and missing story beats. Rulfo, who initially wanted to call the work "The Whispers" in deference to its multiplicity of voices, wrote much longer early drafts, but finally found its proper shape when he began omitting large sections of story.
Interestingly, Rulfo was reacting to the same forces that engendered the social realist movement. Though Pedro Páramo's themes are universal, its basic thrust is best understood in the context of a rural Mexico that had disappeared within the author's lifetime. In the wake of social change, mass exodus from the country to the city left legions of ghost towns amidst empty landscapes. Rulfo, who had grown up in such a landscape, writes not from a place of social anger but from a sense of conflicted nostalgia. The novel does not provide a simple or naive perspective on the loss of Mexcio's rural past – Comala is oppressed by a tyrannical economic system even in its glory days – but it does immerse itself in the pain of remembering what has passed.
Pedro Páramo ultimately became a famous work even within Rulfo's lifetime. Though he never published another piece of prose, the work was championed by and compared to the writings of Jean Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and scholars continue to trace its influence through Latin American styles and genres. As the novel's reputation continues to blossom, it may well prove to have a lasting impact on literature throughout the world, as there are still very few books quite like it.