In Isabel Allende’s short story And of Clay are we Created, inspired by the devastating 1985 mudslides precipitated by a volcanic eruption that wiped out entire villages, burying thousands of people alive, Rolf Carle is a television news reporter dispatched to cover the scene of this horrific disaster. The focal point of the story, with its clear Biblical overtones, is a young girl named Azucena, who is caught up to her head in the thick mud, soon to be sucked under to her death unless she can be rescued. Carle spends the next several days, until Azucena succumbs to her situation and dies, sitting with the girl to keep her company and comfort her in this desperate time of need. As Allende’s story progresses, however, Rolf’s efforts at sustaining a protracted conversation or monologue to keep the girl preoccupied evolves into a soul-searching recitation of his own life, during which his own demons are revealed. It is on the night of their second day together that Rolf begins to open the long-locked doors to his subconcience:
“That night, imperceptibly, the unyielding floodgates that had contained Rolf Carlé’s past for so many years began to open, and the torrent of all that had lain hidden in the deepest and most secret layers of memory poured out, leveling before it the obstacles that had blocked his consciousness for so long.”
As Allende’s narrative continues, the memories that have haunted Rolf throughout his life come spilling out – memories that have clearly been sublimated in a futile attempt at resuming some sense of normalcy. Those memories, however, are too painful, Rolf struggles with the limitations of his current milieu at the precise moment his soul is being purged. Rolf is a survivor of the Holocaust, the manmade destruction of millions of innocent people whose sole crime was their religious faith (or sexual orientation, or mental or physical infirmaties). These are not images that should or even can be shared with a young girl struggling to survive:
“How could he tell this dying child about ovens and gallows? Nor did he mention the night that he had seen his mother naked, shod in stiletto-heeled red boots, sobbing with humiliation. There was much he did not tell, but in those hours he relived for the first time all the things his mind had tried to erase. Azucena had surrendered her fear to him and so, without wishing it, had obliged Rolf to confront his own. There, beside that hellhole of mud, it was impossible for Rolf to flee from himself any longer, and the visceral13 terror he had lived as a boy suddenly invaded him.”
As Rolf’s emotional state succumbs to the pain of these repressed memories, the rescuer becomes the victim, and Azucena becomes the source of his strength:
“Don’t cry. I don’t hurt anymore. I’m fine,” Azucena said when dawn came.
“I’m not crying for you,” Rolf Carlé smiled. “I’m crying for myself. I hurt all over.”
Allende’s narrator, of course, is Rolf’s life-partner, his lover and emotional support, who has, along with the rest of the country, observed this entire episode on television. She is watching her partner exorcise his demons on live television, including Rolf’s inevitable inability to rescue this girl. Rolf is a tragic figure at the center of Allende’s story, and is overwhelmed by the situation into which he has been inserted by virtue of his profession. He has relieved himself of those painful memories, but he has lost the fight to save the little girl.