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Unfinished Transitions: Rural Modernisation in Latin America

by Ericka Beckman on March 27, 2017

In Juan Rulfo’s pathbreaking 1955 novel Pedro Páramo, the eponymous great landowner states to his lawyers in the shadow of the Mexican revolution: “You lawyers have that advantage: you can take your patrimony everywhere, so long as you don’t get your face smashed in.” A law degree, the landowner reasons, is a mobile form of wealth, in implicit contrast with land, which as classical political economists like David Ricardo had long noted, is fixed and non-reproducible.

As I argue in a recent journal article in Modernism/modernity, these words gesture toward the opportunistically hybrid character of the Mexican landlord, as simultaneously feudal and bourgeois. If we were to take Pedro Páramo’s words at face value, we might say that he would like to free himself of the shackles of land, to carry his patrimony everywhere. But this interpretation is not entirely correct, for there is no small degree of cynicism in the landowner’s words. The reason the lawyer had come to Don Pedro in the first place was in the hope of being awarded a tip after so many years of dedicated service. The landowner—who fully understands this expectation—responds not as feudal lord but as a bourgeois individual, who as Karl Marx writes in the Grundrisse, “carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket.” We are faced with a paradox: the lawyer—the carrier of mobile wealth according to the landowner—appeals to a system of favour, while the landowner appeals to bourgeois values that would free him from favour altogether. At this point in the narrative we already know that his large land holdings had been begotten precisely through the system of personal favour and violence to which his lawyer now appeals. Hence the relevance of the last words of the sentence spoken to the lawyer: “you can take your patrimony with you, so long as you don’t get your face smashed in.” Even when bourgeois values are announced, and the impersonal relations of the cash nexus revealed, violence is never far behind.

Pedro Páramo, in accordance with his own observations, seems to be unable to overcome the rootedness of his “patrimony” in land. He does not grow in influence in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910; rather, following the townspeople’s refusal to mourn his great love Susana San Juan, he dictates the town’s death. As a result, the once fertile lands surrounding the town of Comala become dry and desiccated. Following the landowner’s own death at the hands of his illegitimate son Abundio, the townspeople themselves turn into living dead, the murmullos (murmurs) encountered by Pedro Páramo’s estranged son, Juan Preciado, at the beginning of the novel. These events are not presented in a linear manner. The great stylistic innovation of Pedro Páramo is that it oscillates between two narrative strands, located in two different temporal frames: one focused on the rise and fall of the landowner, and a second, located in the present, in which everyone—including Juan Preciado himself, is dead. The Comala of the present is a town of the damned, poised, as Abundio puts it, “on the coals of the earth, at the very mouth of hell”.

Critics have been apt to characterise this hell as emerging from the social world of feudalism and its attendant belief systems, but this is only half the story. For the hellish character of Comala hails precisely from the uneven and combined modernity of the place, where the cash nexus exists alongside personalistic control, and inhabitants suffer moments of violent appropriation followed by social abandonment.

Mid-twentieth century Latin American literature is heavily rural in setting and themes. But when critics have addressed the matter, it has usually been to say that writers brought cosmopolitan or modernist literary techniques to ‘traditional’ societies, resulting in techniques such as magical realism (of which Pedro Páramo is considered a precursor). My argument is that rural settings such as those in Juan Rulfo’s fiction are already modern and, second, that modernist innovation springs precisely from that modernity. Rural modernism in Latin America, a corpus that includes works by Rulfo, along with ones by Miguel Ángel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and João Guimaraes Rosa, among others—might be interpreted as part of what the Warwick research collective has called “the literature of the capitalist world-system.” For indeed, rural spaces like Comala emerge from within what Fredric Jameson has called “a singular modernity,” uneven yet global in scope. It is important to mention in this regard that the narrative of Pedro Páramo moves back and forth between two key moments of accumulation in modern Mexico: one at the turn of the twentieth century, in which Pedro Páramo rises to power as a landowner; and another, in the decades following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, in which a dry, desiccated, and abandoned countryside is imagined as being inhabited only by the living dead.

As a landowner, Pedro Páramo is the unique creation of the regime of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1910), the period of Mexican history immediately preceding the Revolution that witnessed an unprecedented opening of the country to foreign capital, and with it, the vast enclosure of previously common lands. By the end of this period—which sparked the Mexican Revolution—nearly 90 percent of the population held no land, making the Porfiriato arguably the most intense round of primitive accumulation since the Spanish Conquest. As a landowner, Pedro Páramo accumulates land not because he is a remnant of a feudal order, but a harbinger of an emergent one. His family, relatively new to the area, already owned a ranch; but it is Pedro Páramo who, first through marriage, then through intimidation and violence, amasses vast landholdings.

Primitive accumulation is itself experienced as a kind of hell: as an example, one character, Dorotea, the soul with whom Juan Preciado shares a grave in the novel’s present, lived a life of such misery that her only solace was a baby she never actually had. “Now that I’m dead I’ve had time to think and understand. God never gave me so much as a nest to shelter my baby in. Only an endless lifetime of dragging myself from pillar to post, sad eyes casting sidelong glances”. Speaking from her grave, the metaphorical hell of primitive accumulation is literalised in the afterlife.

Comala becomes a literal hell after the death of Pedro Páramo (and the fall of the Porfirio Díaz regime), in the wake of the triumph of the Mexican Revolution. Notably, the liberatory aspects of the Revolution, especially land reform, are nowhere to be found in Pedro Páramo. Moreover, the landowner’s downfall does not result from the Revolution (in fact he is able to pay off the revolutionaries to stay in power), but rather from a personal decision to condemn the town to hunger and death.

On the one hand, this eventuality can be interpreted as marking the figurative death of great nineteenth-century Porfirian haciendas with the arrival of the Mexican Revolution. And yet, on the other hand, Rulfo’s depiction of a “dead” countryside emptied of people and food in some respects resembles a new chapter of accumulation in post-revolutionary Mexican history. In Mexico, but also in other parts of Latin America after the 1930s, the countryside increasingly came to occupy the role of provider of labour and cheap food to industrialising cities. Food prices were kept low to keep wages in the city low and resulting crises in the countryside pushed peasants to find work in urban centres like Guadalajara or Mexico City. The ejido system—the form of small landownership that emerged from insurgent peasant demands after the Revolution—facilitated the proletarianisation of peasants at the same time as it preserved the non-capitalist sector as a kind of shock absorber, a process Roger Bartra in Agrarian Structure and Political Power in Mexico has called “permanent primitive accumulation.”

Part of the unsurpassed brilliance of Pedro Páramo is that it gives literary form to permanent or unending primitive accumulation, a process that oscillates between past and present, and between moments of active dispossession and neglect. Within the novel’s complex formal organisation, these oscillations are never finished; instead, they continue to happen, over and over again. While this movement might be seen as circular and mythical rather than dialectical, the novel allows us to locate the coordinates of Comala’s hellishness in history. When Juan Preciado, upon descending into Comala for the first time comments on the town’s sadness, his guide Abundio remarks: “Son los tiempos, señor”. (It’s the times, señor).

This hellish present is experienced as unending, but contemporary nonetheless.

Ericka Beckman
Ericka Beckman is Associate Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America's Export Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and is currently writing a book on capitalism and rural societies in 20th-century Latin American literature.

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