Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1845
The stories in this collection by Rudolfo Anaya represent his short fiction over the span of his writing career. The themes, symbols, and images in these stories characterize his larger body of work. They depict, as do his novels, the landscape, culture, and values of the people of the southwestern United States, and these stories contribute to the significant position Anaya has secured in American literature, especially in the literature of writers describing the influence of a specific culture and heritage.
In the preface to his stories, Anaya asserts that he thinks and experiences events in terms of stories. He apprehends images that present themselves as landscapes, dreams, smells, or characters. He explains that stories are about people and the things they do, but that images express the heart of the stories.
As a Chicano writer nurtured in the diverse cultural environment of New Mexico, Anaya draws on the heritage of three groups: the Mexicans, whose spirits are shaped both by the indigenous people of Mexico and the Spaniards, the indigenous native people of the Southwest, and the Anglos. Most of Anaya’s stories refer to these cultures. The exceptions share with the other stories their descriptions of longing and loneliness, two themes generally associated with the isolated landscape of the desert. Most of the stories develop characters whose actions are based on attitudes learned or felt through cultural connections or attitudes and responses shaped by the environment.
The stories reflect Anaya’s perceptions of people and place and his awareness of his craft and the process of writing. Some explore the nature of storytelling itself, presenting the fiction writer as a searcher of meaning. Some stories emphasize the intersection of reality and fiction and their interrelationship. These tales explore the line between the real and the envisioned.
Sometimes the narrator of the story is a writer or storyteller, conscious of his search for an idea, aware of the importance of compelling events. In “A Story,” the narrator, suffering from a New Year’s Eve hangover, wants to begin the new year with a new story. To cure his hangover, he goes with his wife to their neighbor’s house for menudo, the traditional tripe and hominy soup cure. There, various revelers from the previous night tell stories, each hoping his tale will be the one the narrator writes down. Storytellers put on their best “border” accents for the slightly inebriated writer, who assumes an artistic distance, taking it all in, filing it all away, happy, finally, to break for the simple reality of food.
Another writer searching for a story lead, in “B. Traven Is Alive and Well in Cuernavaca,” is struck by the reverence in Mexico for B. Traven, writer of the story that John Huston adapted into his famous film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). The narrator considers accompanying Justino, an adventurous gardener, who has a plan for finding lost treasure. Before the writer actually undertakes this inauspicious trip, he meets the ghost of B. Traven at a party. B. Traven advises him always to follow the trail of adventure, asserting, with the confidence of the dead, that pursing an action results in more stories than does chatting with writers and ghosts at cocktail parties.
B. Traven’s appearance as a ghost is not unusual in a story by Anaya. His characters are haunted by uncanny connections with others. In “The Man Who Found a Pistol,” another narrator, talking to the bartender at a cantina (one of the best places for Anaya’s fictional writers to find stories), connects, with deeply felt sympathy, with a man who found a pistol. This listener, too, had found somethinga double-bladed ax submerged in a stream. He felt tempted to take it but wisely left it there. The man who found a pistol, however, took the gun, kept it, and in doing so, sealed his destiny. His life ended violently, so the story went, by a ghost in his own image, who came to the door and shot him with the pistol. As the strange and sad story evolved over several trips to the bar, the narrator came to feel for the man as if he were a brother.
The ghost of her beloved father haunts a woman in “The Road to Platero” as she tells her five-year-old son of his grandfather, who was murdered by her husband. Jealous and resentful of the man who so prized his only child and daughter, the husband killed the woman’s father. The man, in the story’s present, is haunted by images of the dead man and abuses his wife. In revenge and anger, she stabs him with a kitchen knife while he slashes her with his spurs, leaving the two of them dead on the kitchen floor.
Many characters are left empty and troubled by some such painful loss. Sometimes loss motivates them toward self-destructive behavior. In “Children of the Desert,” a man living a lonely life in the windy, barren land of south Texas, meets a woman at a truck stop outside El Paso. She immediately wants to marry him and link her life to his. She eases his loneliness and delights in their love. Seeing her so enjoy their love, he suspects some perverse secret. He hurts her, then hurts himself, only to find himself damaged, dying, and alone.
Rafael, in “The Silence of the Llano,” seems headed for a similar fate. After losing his parents in a blizzard at a young age and living a lonely life on the llanos, the desolate plains of New Mexico, Rafael marries a woman, for which he rejoices. When his wife dies while giving birth to their daughter, he turns from the child in bitterness and grief. Not until violence visits the girl sixteen years later does her father feel able to connect with her. Seeing his daughter as if for the first time, when she is hurt and vulnerable, he recognizes her loveliness and acts to show that he has changed his way of thinking and behaving.
Many of Anaya’s characters are seeking fulfillment of some emotional or spiritual longing. Sometimes it is satisfied; sometimes it is not; sometimes the seeking results in a strange outcome. Iliana of “Iliana of the Pleasure Dreams” looks to the material world for the fulfillment of the sexual joy she experiences in dreams. Ironically, this joy becomes accessible to her and her shy new husband, somewhat workman-like in his approach to her, when they do not experience the miracle on the wall in the church as others in their village do. The painted wall instead creates a little miracle for their relationship. The formerly intimidated lover and the beautiful bride come together to find love and satisfaction in each other.
A Jewish woman in “Absalom” shuns her successful husband and New York City lifestyle, seeking the emotional fulfillment she thinks will come in the heat of the desert of Israel. For a while, she finds it there. A young boy in “The Apple Orchard” sees in his lovely teacher the mystery of womanhood. In “In Search of Epifano,” an old woman meets her great-grandfather after she sets off on a road trip to Mexico, where she finds her family’s abandoned Chihuahua homestead. It is the transcendent experience for which she has searched her whole life. In dream or reality, she connects spiritually with her long-gone soul mate. In “The Village That the Gods Painted Yellow,” a man seeking a replacement for his lost faith finds himself instead assuming the spiritual leadership of an ancient Inca rite.
In these stories magic abounds, and legends shape lives. People like Don Volvo, in “The Man Who Could Fly,” have lived to attest to magic. The legendary La Llorona, who wanders the streets of the city crying for the children she drowned after her husband left her, gives a young girl the courage and stamina to follow her dreams and her mother’s hopes in “Dead End.” “Jerónimo’s Journey” shows a young man who has chosen well. A goat herder, he lived in a dusty village in Mexico where his animals were all eaten by coyotes. He leaves and moves to the beautiful Cuernavaca. There, instead of facing dust and burial of the dead, he makes magical gardens bloom. In “Devil Deer,” a hunter pursues what seems to be a powerful deer. After he kills it, he sees the deer has been poisoned and deformed by a sort of black magic, the radiation of the Los Alamos labs. The deceptively beautiful landscape has been poisoned as well, and now perhaps the life of the hunter is threatened, too.
At his best and in most uniquely his own styleas in “Iliana of the Pleasure Dreams,” “The Silence of the Llano,” “In Search of Epifano,” and “Jerónimo’s Journey”Anaya combines all of the elements that make his stories so expressive of a landscape, a culture, and an image. These stories are shaped by place. The landscape influences character, and character then becomes symbolic of the landscape. Characters embody the isolation, loneliness, and longing in these desert people, often separated from human contact and affected by the wailing wind, the blinding dust, and the heat of these border towns. Often, the people of the desert both love and hate their homes. Depressed and dispirited by the wind and the blowing tumbleweeds and dust, they, nevertheless, recognize a need to embrace or return to their roots, as do Rafael in “The Silence of the Llano,” the woman in “In Search of Epifano,” Jerónimo in “Jerónimo’s Journey,” and Iliana in “Iliana of the Pleasure Dreams.” In their homes or in their ancestral home, they can regain the spiritual and physical connections that formerly existed in them as only emotional voids.
This longing, and the fulfillment of it, brings together the various groups inhabiting the Southwest and combines the culture of the indigenous peoples with that of the Spaniards. The stories are drawn from Incan and Mayan myths, legends, beliefs, and symbols as well as Catholic stories, rituals, beliefs, and traditions. Anaya was among the first writers to explore and explain a layered culture; he opened the eyes of readers to the richness and diversity of a particular group of Americans. This groundwork has made possible stories by other Latino writers and other ethnic American writers as well. Anaya’s stories have introduced readers to not only the special culture of Chicanos but also the culture of Mexicans and the peoples living there before the Spanish conquest.
Hailed as the founder of Chicano literature and lauded by Latino and Anglo readers and critics for his depiction of the spirit of place and of the intermingling of cultures, Anaya has shaped a unique fiction. Drawing on legends, myths, superstitions, and religious beliefs as they come to bear on a people and a place, Anaya’s writing reflects the longing and sense of misplacement that many assimilated people feel. He shows that many layered histories shape lives, as do landscapes of the desert.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22
Booklist 102, no. 14 (March 15, 2006): 26.
Library Journal 131, no. 9 (May 15, 2006): 94.
Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2006, p. E6.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 5 (January 30, 2006): 41-42.
World Literature Today 79 (September-December, 2005): 88.
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