Rarely has a literary reputation been so securely based on one slim novel as that of Tomás Rivera (rih-VAYR-ah). Though he was also highly regarded as a college administrator and educator—becoming, in 1979, the first Chicano to be named a chancellor in the University of California system—and though he published a small collection of poems (Always, and Other Poems) in 1973 and scattered poems, essays, and short stories afterward, it is on his striking episodic novel, . . . and the earth did not part, that his literary reputation rests.
Born on December 22, 1935, the son of migrant workers Florencio and Josefa Hernández Rivera, Tomás Rivera himself did migrant work until 1957. He received a bachelor’s degree in education in 1958 and a master’s degree in educational administration in 1964 from Southwest Texas State University; he subsequently studied at the University of Oklahoma, from which he earned a doctorate in Romance languages and literature in 1969. His novel . . . and the earth did not part was first published in 1971, in an edition that printed both the original Spanish and its translation into English; it won the Quinto Sol National Chicano Literary Award. In 1978 he married Concepción Garza, and in 1979 he became chancellor of the University of California at Riverside.
Not a conventional novel, . . . and the earth did not part may appear to some at first reading to be a collection of loosely connected short stories and sketches. While the separate chapters are written and can be read as individual stories, critics agree that the deeper structure of the work as a whole demands that it be read as a novel.
The book begins with a chapter entitled “The Lost Year,” which introduces the theme of lost time that will continue through the novel. When the narrator describes a recurring dream in which the unnamed protagonist “would suddenly awaken and then realize that he was really asleep,” the reader may be put in mind of the beginning of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), in which the narrator wakes with the candle extinguished and cannot remember whether he has slept. As Rivera’s book continues, the reader understands that the period the narrator is describing as a year is actually several years, which have blended together into a single year. The fragmentation of the chapters that follow highlights less the memory loss of the protagonist than the slow regaining of memory he is experiencing.
The novel follows the effects of migrant living and working not only on the main character but...
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