restricted access Unfinished Transitions: The Dialectics of Rural Modernization in Latin American Fiction
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Unfinished Transitions:
The Dialectics of Rural Modernization in Latin American Fiction

To begin, a bit of laconic wisdom from the great landowner of Jalisco, Pedro Páramo, the title character of Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novel. Meeting with his lawyer, who has decided to leave town in the wake of the Mexican revolution, Pedro Páramo states: “Ustedes los abogados tienen esa ventaja: pueden llevarse su patrimonio a todas partes, mientras no les rompan el hocico.”1 (You lawyers have that advantage: you can take your patrimony everywhere, so long as you don’t get your face smashed in).2 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.

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 is 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 Marx writes in the Grundrisse, “carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket.”3 Hence we are faced with a paradox: the lawyer—the carrier of mobile wealth according to the landowner—appeals to a system of favor, while, as Jean Franco has pointed out, the landowner appeals to bourgeois values that would free him from favor altogether.4 At this point in the narrative we already know that his large land holdings had been amassed precisely through [End Page 813] the system of personal favor 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.

But the landowner’s cynicism aside, there is a deeper truth lodged within his identification of the inherent advantages and disadvantages of land as a conduit for the circulation and accumulation of capital. On the one hand, as noted, land is fixed and non-reproducible. But as the geographer George Henderson notes regarding agriculture, “capital needs blockages; it invests in them so that it has access to something corporeal through which to circulate. This is partly what lies behind Marx’s quip that ‘The true barrier to capitalist production is capital itself.’”5

Pedro Páramo, in accordance with his own observations, seems to be unable to overcome the rootedness of his “patrimony” in land. He doesn’t 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.6 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. In strictly narrative terms, the death of the landowner marks not the end but the starting point of the novel, framed as the present in which the murmurs of the dead can still be heard. The Comala of the present is a town of the damned, poised...