Isabel Allende’s ‘‘And of Clay Are We Created’’ is the last story in her only collection of short stories, The Stories of Eva Luna. All of the twenty-three stories in the collection are narrated by Eva Luna, who was also the title character of Allende’s third novel. Luna tells the stories while in bed with her lover, Rolf Carlé, drawing her inspiration from Scheherazade, who in the Arabian Nights saves her sister’s life and her own by telling stories for a thousand and one nights. Readers who come to ‘‘And of Clay Are We Created’’ having already read Eva Luna and the rest of the short stories will understand all of this before they begin. They will be familiar with the characters Luna and Carlé and the relationship between them, and they will know the value Luna places on stories and storytelling.
For readers who encounter the story away from the context of the collection, however, the reading experience is a very different one. These readers do not know the name of the narrator, or that she is a writer of television dramas, or that she is a person to whom Carlé said, ‘‘You think in words; for you, language is an inexhaustible thread you weave as if life were created as you tell it.’’ For these readers, it would be easy to ignore the narrator and to focus instead on the dramatic story of Azucena, the girl trapped in the mud, and the television reporter Rolf Carlé who tries to rescue her. The narrator’s narration, certainly, focuses on Carlé and the changes he undergoes through his experience with the girl. Any mentions by the narrator of her own reactions and emotions are intended to help her audience understand her lover’s ordeal.
Allende, however, has spoken frequently about her intentions for the story. For her, the story is about ‘‘the woman who is watching through a screen the man who holds the girl. This filter of the screen creates an artificial filter and terrible distance but also a terrible proximity because you see details that you would not see if you were actually there. And so, the story is about the change in the woman who watches the man holding the girl who is dying.’’ If this is true (and we must give Allende credit for insight into her own work), what is the change in the narrator throughout ‘‘And of Clay Are We Created,’’ as it can be observed by a reader of this story alone? If the story is meant to demonstrate what happens to a woman watching her lover from afar, what does it ultimately reveal?
When Carlé leaves to cover the story, neither he nor the narrator understands what is to come. The narrator reports that she ‘‘had no presentiments.’’ Carlé has often been the first on the scene, and has covered dramatic and dangerous stories before ‘‘with awesome tenacity.’’ The narrator has watched him on television many times, and admired the way nothing seems to touch him or frighten him. She has learned over the years that his reporter’s objectivity is really a protective mechanism that shields him from his own emotions. Knowing how unemotional he tries to hold himself, the narrator reacts strongly to the sound of his resolve slipping when he promises Azucena he will get her out: ‘‘I could hear his voice break, and I loved him more than ever.’’
Until Carlé’s objectivity starts to give way, the narrator feels herself to be a part of the large audience watching him. Twice she refers to herself as part of the ‘‘we’’...
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who see Carlé and the girl on the screen. But after he begins to change his stance, her own changes as well. Now she moves from her home to the television studio, to be ‘‘near his world,’’ and she refers to herself as his partner instead of as his audience. She has overheard his plea for a pump, and goes on radio and television ‘‘to see if there wasn’t someone who could help us.’’ Now the ‘‘us’’ she belongs to is Carlé and herself.
Ironically, the television screen both emphasizes the distance between the two and brings them closer together—at least, it brings the narrator close to Carlé, who is not thinking of her. It is a one-way closeness. Though the reporter surely knows that his lover will be watching on television for any sign he might send her, he has ‘‘completely forgotten the camera.’’ Yet she feels the child’s pain, and Carlé’s frustration, and believes that she is ‘‘there with him.’’ She tries the ‘‘frenzied and futile’’ gesture of sending him encouragement through mental telepathy. By the end of the first morning, she is reduced to tears and emotionally drained. On the second day the sensation is stronger: ‘‘I had the horrible sensation that Azucena and Rolf were by my side, separated from me by impenetrable glass.’’ She can see them, but they cannot see her. She feels what they feel, but they are unaware of her.
On the morning of the third day, the narrator can see that ‘‘something fundamental’’ has changed in Carlé. ‘‘The girl has touched a part of him that he himself had no access to, a part he had never shared with me.’’ The generous and loving part of the narrator is glad to see this change, but one wonders whether there is some jealousy when Carlé assures the girl that he loves her ‘‘more than all the women who had slept in his arms, more than he loved me, his life companion.’’ There is more than compasA sion in the narrator’s heart when she says that she ‘‘would have given anything to be trapped in that well in her place.’’
Although there is hardly enough evidence in this brief story to lead to an informed opinion about two human hearts, the relationship between the narrator and Rolf Carlé (she nearly always refers to him by his first and last name) seems unbalanced, as though the woman has no other purpose in her life other than to make things easier for the man—as though she is always watching him through a screen while he is unaware of her. When he is called away before dawn to cover the story of the mudslide, the narrator gets up to fix coffee while he packs, and they say goodbye as they always do. Once he is gone, she seems to be lost, a woman with nothing else to do even for one day: ‘‘I sat in the kitchen, sipping my coffee and planning the long hours without him, sure that he would be back the next day.’’
Of course, he is not back the next day, nor the day after that. The narrator, with no children to attend to, or friends to worry with, spends the time at the National Television studio because she cannot ‘‘bear the wait at home.’’ She has ‘‘often spent entire nights’’ with her lover there, helping him with his work. At the end of the story, when Carlé has returned to her, she seems to have no responsibilities or desires other than to accompany him to the station to watch the videos again and again, and to stay beside him waiting as he sits ‘‘long hours before the window, staring at the mountains.’’
Carlé has passed through hell and back and is, the narrator believes, in the process of becoming more open and mature emotionally. The narrator sees this, telling him, ‘‘You are back with me, but you are not the same man.’’ Are there ways in which the narrator is not the same woman as she was before? The changes are, at best, subtle, hard to see. Although clearly she has experienced a range of strong emotions throughout the ordeal, she does not seem to have taken much away from her experience of seeing her relationship reflected in the glass of the television screen. If Carlé has expanded his own vision of how he might live his life, the narrator seems to be satisfied with the status quo. Her wish in the final line is the rather bleak hope that ‘‘we shall again walk hand in hand, as before’’ (italics mine).
Critic Suzanne Ruta, commenting on the full collection of The Stories of Eva Luna, explains that through the telling of her stories to Carlé, Luna is ‘‘trying to help him break free of the cool, distant persona he’s made for himself.’’ The framework of ‘‘a troubled man and his helpful lover’’ gives structure to the collection, and leads naturally to ‘‘And of Clay Are We Created,’’ in which ‘‘Scheherazade falls silent, acknowledging the limits of her power.’’ For readers of this one story alone, there is no hint that the narrator’s stories are intended to help Carlé, or that she feels herself to have a strength he does not have. Rather than presenting a woman who under extraordinary circumstances reaches the limits of her power, the story seems to present a woman with no power of her own.
Source: Cynthia Bily, in an essay for Short Stories for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
The short story ‘‘And of Clay Are We Created’’ by Isabel Allende is written from the perspective of a woman whose ‘‘life companion,’’ Rolf Carlé, a TV news journalist, has been sent on an assignment to a South American country to cover a catastrophic avalanche which has just taken place. The story is told from the first-person point of view of the narrator, as she learns only from television news coverage of Rolf Carlé’s experiences at the site of the catastrophe. While there, he comes to the aid of a thirteen-year-old girl, Azucena, whose body is trapped up to her neck in mud. Rolf Carlé quickly drops his journalistic duties to attempt to rescue and to console the girl over a period of three days, until she dies, still trapped in the mud. In the process, the tragic situation of Azucena, and the compassion of the reporter who stays by her side, becomes an international media event. The narrator is thus able to learn of her lover’s experience only through television broadcasts of the event. In the following essay, I discuss the relationship between the narrator and her far-away companion, Rolf Carlé, as experienced from her limited perspective on his life-changing experience, which occurs thousands of miles away from her.
‘‘And of Clay Are We Created’’ is published in Allende’s collection entitled The Stories of Eva Luna. Although it is a book of short stories, each one is based on the fictional character of Eva Luna, who appeared in Allende’s novel Eva Luna. Thus, although the narrator of this short story is not named, the collection as a whole indicates that she is Eva Luna. A ‘‘Prologue’’ to the collection is written by the fictional character Rolf Carlé, Eva Luna’s lover and ‘‘life companion.’’ This ‘‘Prologue’’ is written from the second-person point of view, meaning that the narrator, Rolf Carlé, addresses his narrative to ‘‘you’’—in this case, Eva Luna. Rolf Carlé describes a scene of passionate lovemaking between himself and Eva Luna. He represents the experience as one of intense emotional closeness that also allows for the experience of temporary emotional distance. He says that ‘‘We were too close to see one another, each absorbed in our urgent rite, enveloped in our shared warmth and scent.’’ The idea that the lovers are ‘‘too close to see one another,’’ implies that such intense intimacy involves a loss of perspective. He goes on to describe the experience of their lovemaking as one in which the lovers are so close that they experience solitude and distance from one another, which leads them back into a state of physical and emotional intimacy: ‘‘In the final instant we glimpsed absolute solitude, each lost in a blazing chasm, but soon we returned from the far side of that fire to find ourselves embraced amid a riot of pillows beneath white mosquito netting.’’ This description portrays a relationship in which moments of emotional distance—‘‘each lost in a blazing chasm’’—are an integral element of the experience of emotional intimacy—‘‘too close to see one another.’’ He goes on to compare his experience of their relationship to that of a spectator looking at a photograph or painting of two lovers. He says that, ‘‘From an indefinite distance I am looking at the picture, which includes me.’’ This continues the theme that their relationship is one characterized by both intimacy and distance, the distance reinforcing the experience of intimacy, and the intimacy allowing each the freedom to embark on their own solitary emotional ‘‘voyage.’’ He continues that ‘‘I am spectator and protagonist’’; As ‘‘protagonist’’ he experiences the painting, or the relationship, intimately, while as ‘‘spectator,’’ he experiences the painting or relationship with a certain degree of distance. He goes on to describe the experience as one in which he simultaneously feels bonded with his lover, and alone, both close and distant: ‘‘I am there with you but also here, alone, in a different frame of consciousness.’’
The theme of a relationship built on the simultaneous experience of intimacy and distance, union and solitude, at the emotional, psychological, and physical level, as put forth in the ‘‘Prologue,’’ sheds light on a parallel theme in the final short story of the collection, ‘‘And of Clay Are We Created.’’ Throughout the story, the narrator, Eva Luna, bridges the temporary physical distance between herself and Rolf Carlé through drawing on the ongoing emotional and psychological bond between the two of them.
The narrator describes her experience of Rolf Carlé’s preparations for leaving on the assignment in terms which indicate that the two routinely experience brief geographical separations throughout a relationship, which is otherwise characterized by togetherness. She explains that ‘‘When the station called before dawn, Rolf Carlé and I were together.’’ Once he has prepared to leave, ‘‘we said goodbye, as we had so many times before.’’ She is both used to these routine and brief separations, and used to his subsequent returns; after he leaves for the assignment, she ‘‘sat in the kitchen, sipping my coffee and planning the long hours without him, sure that he would be back the next day.’’
A third-person, objective, journalistic, sometimes scientific, point-of-view is utilized by the narrator in reporting the factual events surrounding the avalanche. This creates a feeling of great distance between the narrator and the faraway catastrophe, as if reading of it in the newspaper: ‘‘Geologists had set up their seismographs weeks before and knew that the mountain had awakened again. For some time they had predicted that the heat of the eruption could detach the eternal ice from the slopes of the volcano, but no one heeded their warnings. . . . The towns in the valley went about their daily life, deaf to the moaning of the earth, until that fateful Wednesday night in November when a prolonged roar announced the end of the world, and walls of snow broke loose, rolling in an avalanche of clay, stones, and water that descended on the villages and buried them beneath unfathomable meters of telluric vomit.’’ She goes on to report that the assessment of the ‘‘magnitude of the cataclysm’’ included the calculation that ‘‘beneath the mud lay more than twenty thousand human beings and an indefinite number of animals,’’ dead and decaying. Furthermore, ‘‘Forests and rivers had also been swept away, and there was nothing to be seen but an immense desert of mire.’’
Because all of the information the narrator receives about her lover’s experience is gained through watching national television broadcasts of the disaster, she describes much of her experience of this reportage in the first person plural. Thus, although she is observing the experience of someone with whom she is personally intimate, she aligns her own perspective with that of the mass audience of TV news spectators, describing the experience as that of a collective ‘‘we.’’ She explains that ‘‘We watched on our screens the footage captured by his assistant’s camera, in which he was up to his knees in muck, a microphone in his hand, in the midst of a bedlam of lost children, wounded survivors, corpses, and devastation. The story came to us in his calm voice.’’ However, even while watching him on TV, the narrator experiences the national broadcasts from the perspective of her intimate knowledge of Rolf Carlé: ‘‘He smiled at [the girl trapped in the mud] with that smile that crinkles his eyes and makes him look like a little boy.’’ Even via poor television transmission, broadcast from thousands of miles away, the narrator notices intimate details of Rolf Carlé’s emotional state, and experiences increased love and intimacy with him: ‘‘‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here,’ Rolf promised. Despite the quality of the transmission, I could hear his voice break, and I loved him more than ever.’’
Eva Luna also describes Rolf Carlé’s thoughts during his three days spent by the side of the little girl. The narrator could only have obtained this information from Rolf Carlé himself, having told her about his own experience of the event, once he had returned home: ‘‘Rolf Carlé, buoyed by a premature optimism, was convinced that everything would end well . . . Azucena would be transported by helicopter to a hospital where she would recover rapidly and where he could visit her and bring her gifts. He thought, She’s already too old for dolls, and I don’t know what would please her; maybe a dress. I don’t know much about women, he concluded, amused, reflecting that although he had known many women in his lifetime, none had taught him these details.’’
Eva Luna experiences her relationship with Rolf Carlé as both geographically distant, and emotionally intimate. Her only contact with her lover is via the impersonal and public avenue of the television broadcast: ‘‘Many miles away, I watched Rolf Carlé and the girl on a television screen.’’ However, even at this level of remove, she gets as close to him as possible by watching him on the TV screen from the station where he works: ‘‘I could not bear to wait at home, so I went to National Television, where I often spent entire nights with Rolf editing programs.’’ This allows her to more intimately experience his feelings, although she has no direct contact with him: ‘‘There, I was near his world, and I could at least get a feeling of what he lived through during those three decisive days.’’ Although her only contact with him is via the TV screen, she is able to bridge the geographical distance between them through their ongoing emotional intimacy with one another, and live through his experience at this emotional level: ‘‘The screen reduced the disaster to a single plane and accentuated the tremendous distance that separated me from Rolf Carlé; nonetheless, I was there with him. The child’s every suffering hurt me as it did him; I felt his frustration, his impotence.’’ She attempts to further bridge the distance between herself and her lover via some form of mental telepathy: ‘‘Faced with the impossibility of communicating with him, the fantastic idea came to me that if I tried, I could reach him by force of mind and in that way give him encouragement. I concentrated until I was dizzy—a frenzied and futile activity.’’ She is able to maintain her emotional empathy for Rolf Carlé’s experience, to the degree that she ‘‘would be overcome with compassion and burst out crying.’’ Yet she cannot completely overcome the tremendous distance which remains between what Rolf Carlé is experiencing at the site of the disaster and what she experiences from watching it on TV thousands of miles away: ‘‘at other times, I was so drained I felt as if I were staring through a telescope at the light of a star dead for a million years.’’ At this point, she experiences the distance at an exaggerated level: he seems to her to be not just on another continent, but on another star far out in the universe. This exaggeration causes her to feel removed from him by time, as well as by distance, looking at ‘‘the light of a star dead for a million years.’’ These exaggerated feelings include the image of her lover, like the star, as long dead, and therefore much less accessible to her. Nonetheless, ‘‘even from that enormous distance,’’ she can ‘‘sense’’ his private emotional state based on what she sees via national TV broadcast: ‘‘Rolf Carlé had a growth of beard, and dark circles beneath his eyes; he looked near exhaustion. Even from that enormous distance I could sense the quality of his weariness, so different from the fatigue of other adventures.’’
When equipment is brought in to produce ‘‘sharper pictures and clearer sound’’ on the television broadcasts, Eva Luna is brought into that much more intimate contact with her lover’s experience: ‘‘the distance seemed suddenly compressed.’’ Yet, while brought that much closer to the event via TV broadcast, she maintains the feeling of ‘‘impenetrable’’ separation from Rolf Carlé: ‘‘I had the horrible sensation that Azucena and Rolf were by my side, separated from me by impenetrable glass.’’ With this increased quality in the broadcasting, she is at least able to experience more fully Rolf Carlé’s actions throughout the incident: ‘‘I was able to follow events hour by hour; I knew everything my love did to wrest the girl from her prison and help her endure her suffering.’’ Hearing only ‘‘fragments’’ of his conversation with the girl, Eva Luna knows him well enough to ‘‘guess the rest’’ of what he has said to her.
Try as he might, Rolf Carlé is unable to rescue the girl from the mud, and in the end can only console her. Eva Luna’s emotional connection to him is so strong that, just based on what she sees him doing via TV broadcast, she intuits an almost magical knowledge of the consequences of this experience for Rolf Carlé’s emotional life: ‘‘I, glued to the screen like a fortune-teller to her crystal ball, could tell that something fundamental had changed in him. I knew somehow that during the night his defenses had crumbled and he had given in to grief; finally he was vulnerable. The girl had touched a part of him that he himself had no access to, a part he had never shared with me. Rolf had wanted to console her, but it was Azucena who had given him consolation.’’ From this great geographical distance, Eva Luna ‘‘recognized the precise moment at which Rolf gave up the fight and surrendered to the torture of watching the girl die.’’ In spite of the distance, Eva Luna experiences herself as having bridged the gap between herself and her lover, feeling herself to be fully experiencing what he and the girl are experiencing together. She says ‘‘I was with them, three days and two nights, spying on them from the other side of life.’’
However, when Rolf Carlé returns home from this life-changing experience, the geographical distance between the two lovers is finally bridged, but an emotional distance has developed. Eva Luna, addressing Rolf Carlé directly through second-person narrative address, tells him, ‘‘You are back with me, but you are not the same man.’’ The experience has caused him to emotionally withdraw from his lover, embarking on a ‘‘voyage’’ deep within himself. Eva Luna remains physically close to him, ‘‘beside you,’’ waiting for his emotional ‘‘return’’ to their former intimacy, ‘‘walking hand in hand.’’ In the final words of the story, she tells him, ‘‘Beside you, I wait for you to complete the voyage into yourself, for the old wounds to heal. I know that when you return from your nightmares, we shall again walk hand in hand, as before.’’ As in the ‘‘Prologue,’’ the second-person narrative address to ‘‘you’’ reaffirms the long-term intimacy between the two lovers, despite this temporary emotional distance.
‘‘And of Clay Are We Created’’ is characterized by a shifting narrative point-of-view and address, which captures the experience of simultaneous intimacy and distance experienced throughout the relationship of the two lovers. The ‘‘Prologue’’ to the story collection describes a pair of lovers who are so physically and emotionally intimate that their lovemaking allows them the freedom to ‘‘glimpse absolute solitude, each lost in a blazing chasm,’’ and yet ‘‘soon return to the far side of that fire,’’ and find themselves in an intimate lovers’ embrace. The use of second-person address in the prologue—Rolf Carlé addressing his lover directly as ‘‘you’’— increases the feeling of intimacy between them, as if inviting the reader into the fold of their relationship. The narration of the story ‘‘And of Clay Are We Created’’ describes the experience of emotional intimacy between the two lovers, despite great geographical distance and contact limited to that of a national television broadcast. The final paragraph describes the lover, returned home from this lifechanging experience, to find himself emotionally distant from his ‘‘life companion,’’ despite their physical proximity. The relationship, however, is one that thrives on such fluctuations between intimacy and distance, be it geographical or emotional, and always maintains the promise of renewed closeness, the assurance that, whatever the current distance between them, ‘‘we shall again walk hand in hand, as before.’’
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Short Stories for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
‘‘And of Clay Are We Created’’ was inspired by the 1985 avalanche in Colombia that buried a village in mud. Among those trapped was Omaira Sánchez, a thirteen-year-old girl who became the focus of attention of news-hungry photographers, journalists and television cameras that fixed their curious and helpless eyes on the girl who kept her faith in life as she bravely met her death. In that horrid audience of onlookers, there was one man, a reporter, who made the decision to stop observing Omaira from the lens of his camera and lay down in the mud to offer her what comfort he could as her heart and lungs collapsed. Allende, who was obsessed by ‘‘the torment of that poor child buried alive,’’ wrote her story from the perspective of a woman—and she was that woman—‘‘who watches the televised struggle of the man holding the girl.’’
Allende assumed that once the story was published (in The Stories of Eva Luna), Omaira would disappear from her life. But Omaira she discovers, is a dogged angel who will not let me forget her. When Paula fell into a coma and became a prisoner in her bed, inert, dying slowly before the helpless gaze of all around her, I remembered the face of Omaira Sánchez. My daughter was trapped in her body, as the girl had been trapped in mud. Only then did I understand why I had thought about her all those years, and finally could decipher the message in those intense black eyes: patience, courage, resignation, dignity in the face of death.
She reaches a paradoxical conclusion: ‘‘If I write something, I fear it will happen, and if I love too much, I fear I will lose that person; nevertheless, I cannot stop writing or loving. . . . ’’
Like the reporter who joins the girl in the mud, Allende, too, relinquishes the detached observer position. For her, this means exiling herself from the territory of fiction, which in the past has allowed her to invent the destinies of her characters and so removed reality to a safe and controllable distance.
Source: Ruth Behar, ‘‘In the House of the Spirits,’’ in The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 2, November, 1995, p. 8.