Rudolfo Anaya Anaya, Rudolfo A(lfonso) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rudolfo A(lfonso) Anaya 1937–

Chicano novelist, short story writer, playwright, and scriptwriter.

Anaya entered the literary scene in 1972 with his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, and critics acclaimed his skillful use of metaphor and narrative technique. Ultima and his succeeding novels, Heart of Aztlán and Tortuga, comprise a trilogy about growing up in New Mexico.

Anaya finds a fantastic, rich storehouse in the cuentos (stories) of the Mexican-Indian people of the Southwest. He enriches his work with religion (specifically the conflict between modern European-Catholic culture and ancient paganism), dreams, and Spanish-American legends and folklore. However, critics praise Anaya for transcending the limited attitudes and scope of some ethnic art. They have recognized him as an author with wide appeal to American readers.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)

Scott Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The mainstream American novel has consistently revealed at least one common truth about life in this country: it is filled with contradictions and extreme ranges of experience which cannot be reconciled. (p. 72)

Bless Me, Ultima is a unique American novel. Living apart from the mainstream, a young New Mexican Chicano has offered in this, his first novel, a rich and powerful synthesis for some of life's sharpest oppositions. Perhaps Rudolfo Anaya would object to my calling his novel "American," even though it is the story of a young boy growing up in New Mexico during and immediately after World War II, a war in which his three older brothers fight. Despite Anaya's reflections on the effect of the war on American communities, the alienation of sons and their flight to the city, deeper themes are at the book's heart. (pp. 72-3)

In the course of the novel, throughout three years of spiritual genesis, the boy [Antonio] is torn between maternal forces: the earth, Catholic ritual, family ties; and the opposing powers: the flowing river, the golden carp (its god), the dream of nomadic liberation. His mother would have him be a priest. She is a Luna, a descendant of the Spanish priest who settled the farming valley. But Antonio has the blood of the Marez, of the changing and inconstant sea. His father's primitive roots are Antonio's connection to older myths; he cannot embrace the Catholic faith without struggle and...

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Daniel Testa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bless me, Ultima can be taken first of all as a good action novel, a work in which intense and dramatic happenings make up a considerable part. There are violent fights and deaths. The technique and calculated effects of certain scenes seem deliberately to have been drawn from popular literature and movies that reflect a legendary "wild" west, replete with stock situations and characters. One difference we note is that all, or almost all, the heroes, victims, and villains are members of the Hispanic, Indian, or mestizo communities. Some of the stereotyped elements used in the work are a Longhorn saloon, a poolroom, a bawdy house, a wise old Indian who lives in a cave, settlers and sheepherders, farmers and cowboys. But Anaya also moves beyond that borrowed type of scenario by giving symbolic value to places and objects. Thus, we have the house on the hill that is a place of refuge, the bridge that connects to the larger world, the river that becomes such a dominant presence in the lives of several of the characters, the open prairies, the closed valleys, the unproductive terrain that must be worked inch-by-inch, among others.

Anaya adds to the texture of his narrative by tapping other sources of folklore, legends, mythologies, and cosmologies. He shows great skill in narrative acceleration at certain intervals in the work. These dramatic episodes give the novel a dimension of intensity that is worthy of the dramatist or the short story writer. Such set-pieces vary in content, tone, and dramatic impact…. Perhaps the most dramatic episode of the whole work is the carefully prepared and executed ceremony of the lifting of the curse that had been placed on one of Antonio's uncles. The boy himself is drawn into a secret, shadowy world because of his innocence and blood connection to the victim and it is this unspecified, mysterious participation of the boy that contributes naturally in intensifying the action that slowly unfolds before his eyes and ours. What also adds to the suspenseful procedure that has the primary function of saving a man's life is the spiritual conflict sharply felt by Antonio over the efficacy of Ultima's curative power…. (p. 71)

There are many other examples of narrative intensification, and many of these are normal in the typical novel of any length. What seems to be quite extraordinary, however, is the variety of materials in Anaya's work. He intersperses the legendary, folkloric, stylized, or allegorized material with the detailed descriptions that help to create a density of realistic portrayal. Several violent encounters that end in death work up to a crescendo and create an excitement that contrasts with the beauty and idyllic quality of the surrounding countryside. As with the exorcisms, what dramatizes the action is the gradual and careful preparation of details and the tension generated in the young boy's mind, through which the story is narrated. In this same category of realistic description we should include those set-scenes in which Antonio mixes with a group of boys who become his friends. Human vignettes in dialogue form, the language reflects the youngsters' spontaneity, restlessness, frankness, and sometimes coarse and vulgar behavior. (p. 72)

[The dreams or visions are] as different from the realistic scenes as the latter are from the episodes in which the occult plays a part. The ten dreams are indicated in the text in italics and are placed at intervals throughout the novel. The basic function of the sometimes hallucinatory visions is to create and sustain a non-realistic view of reality, and in that sense they contribute to one of the larger themes of the work. In the dreams, there is often a direct relationship to the events that have happened in Antonio's recent life. An event will enter the dream and will lose the context it had in life and become fused, distorted, and transformed…. The elements of reality and the elements of his fantasy world, legends, stories, etc., appear obsessively and dynamically charged and join to make new combinations that surprise, frighten, and shock. (pp. 72-3)

The visionary mode, with its confusions, chaos, and conflicts, leaves us with a sense of fear and mystery about life and the cosmos. From one point of view, the dreams may be seen as dramatic representations of the conflict between levels of the self, each vying for dominance. Equally important, however, is the wealth of cosmological material that Anaya has brought into the dreams. By using mythic or archetypal constructs, it is evident that Anaya has tapped the deep structures of the collective mind. At any rate, we should note the contrast between the unrestrained flow of the dreams and the other parts of the book, between the condensation and obsessiveness of certain horrorific patterns and the stability and relative security of Antonio's "real" world. The dramatic intensity of the dream experiences is so great that they sometimes seem to have their own esthetic thrust and autonomy. Perhaps their value is precisely that they refuse to be subsumed or incorporated into the outer frame, although they have obvious connections to it.

Bless me, Ultima may also be seen as a Chicano bildungsroman, and in spite of the fact that Antonio, the boy-hero of the story, is only eight years old at the end of the novel, we are convinced that his character has been formed in a radically profound way. The novel is structured ostensibly by the chronological span of about two years, something which might be called the plot time. The action of the work begins when Ultima comes into Antonio's life and ends when she dies, so that it is the intimate relationship between teacher and pupil that gives internal coherence to the boy's life. As important as that cycle of time may be, what is much more significant is the extensive dimensionality of time given through the intrusion of the past into the present. Through Antonio's parents and the conflict of the two blood lines, the Lunas and the Márez, the...

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Carter Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bless Me, Ultima deserves to be described outside of the implicit claims that it is The Chicano Novel, a category as fishy and as detrimental to any clear thinking about our expectations for fiction as The American Novel category has become. Among other things, the millions of chicanos in the U.S. may feel a unity of ancestry and a community in their oppression, but their experience of life is in no other way unified…. The people of the book themselves, small-scale farmers and cowboys, some possessing more than three centuries of history with their removed corner of the world, would not recognize themselves as "chicanos" at all. "Hispano" is what they were first called; "Mexican" is the name most of them call...

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Charles R. Larson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Land is the unifying image in Heart of Aztlan], as it was in [Anaya's] first novel, Bless Me, Ultima (1972)…. One of the strengths of Bless Me, Ultima was its mythological layerings paralleling the story's surface narrative, an aspect also true of Heart of Aztlan, though not as successfully employed here. Still there is much to admire in Anaya's recent work.

The story begins with the sale of Clemente Chavez's three-acre farm in the small agrarian community of Guadalupe, New Mexico. The land is depleted—no longer capable of sustaining the lives of the people who have worked it for generations…. [Urban] life in Albuquerque (after the Korean war) offers few compensations for Chavez, his wife and their four teen-age children…. [Anaya's] novel depicts the systematic destruction of the family unit once the rootedness to the land has been severed….

As in his earlier novel, Anaya draws upon the spiritual heritage of Chicano people in conflict with the Catholic church, often presenting this clash satirically. Though the resolution of Heart of Aztlan is a little forced, I admire Anaya's use of cultural materials—often innovatively mixed with more typical Western literary allusions (such as Wallace Stevens's poetry). Anaya's novels provide us with a vivid sense of Chicano life since World War II. (p. 246)

Charles R. Larson, "Books in English from the Third World," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 245-47.∗

Ron Arias

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya tells a good story, one concerning a boy's passage from childlike innocence to a deeper, brooding awareness of the death and life around him. Aside from the boy, the other central figure of the novel is Ultima—an aging, compassionate, ultimately mysterious, folkhealer who works her magic among a scattered group of New Mexico rural dwellers. As a sensitively drawn character, she can be compared favorably to Castañeda's Don Juan, the current favorite wiseman whose blessings are ancient, indigenous skills and knowledge. In fact, in some ways we are pulled closer to Ultima—or the solitary Indian visionary in Leslie Silko's novel, Ceremony. This is probably because our sympathies with the young central character, through whom we see such old practitioners of the ancient touch, are deeper, more natural than the sympathy we may hold for Don Juan's eager student.

The same can be said for Anaya's portrayal of many other characters in the novel: the boy's devout mother, a disillusioned father, two older brothers facing World War II, and a score of delightfully, often hilariously, depicted kids of the llano, New Mexico's eastern plains country. The book has some funny scenes and one oddly funny character named the "Vitamin Kid," a compulsive runner who appears throughout as some sort of harbinger of forebodings unmentioned. And just as Anaya skillfully uses a naive narrative focus to heighten humor, especially among kids, he also convincingly depicts mystery, violence and terror through innocent eyes. Dreams, folk myths, exorcism, murder and human disfigurement—actually quite a storytelling feast, and it all blends, builds toward the graphically brutal, cathartic final scenes.

As entertainment, the novel moves; as a work written for reflection, it provokes…. Moreover, despite a penchant for overly done descriptive and explanatory passages, I believe part of the novel's attraction is its "feeling" of authenticity, of trueness: it sounds right. And I'm not referring only to language, even though Anaya uses some Spanish and regional expressions. I mean that the fictional world of Las Pasturas and El Puerto de los Lunas, New Mexico, is convincingly alive, changing, complex.

Ron Arias, "'Bless Me, Ultima'," in The American Book Review (© 1979 by The American Book Review), Vol. 1, No. 6, March-April, 1979, p. 8.

Angelo Restivo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title of Rudolfo Anaya's new novel [Tortuga] refers, first, to the "magic mountain" (with a nod here to Thomas Mann) that towers over the hospital for paralytic children, the setting for this Bildungsroman; and second, to the nickname of the hero, whose upper torso through half the novel is encased in the hard cast of the "turtle." It also provides the novel with its central metaphor: the movement from dependence to autonomy, and all that entails.

Anaya builds his story with recurring patterns of imagery: water, sun, fire; desert, mountain, sky; the cycle of seasons. The imagery is developed in complex and unexpected ways. For example, early on the water is associated with a maternal healing power; but gradually the metaphor deepens, presents the more ominous possibility of a suffocating reliance. The resolution of this conflict is certainly one of the novel's high points, as the character Tortuga, dumped into the water by accomplices in his suicide attempt, "sheds his shell" and achieves a spiritual rebirth.

Like the Latin American "magic realists," Anaya works at the level of myth, dreams, and fantasy. Indeed, the principal strategy of the novel is to infuse every incident with myth; to expand and combine and deepen the elements of the myths until they become palpable and living.

The strategy is admirable and many times it works. It seems, however, that Anaya tries to include too much, and some of his motifs aren't developed. Also, he sometimes loses control of his narrative voice. Chapter three opens: "The daughter of the sun awoke to weave her blanket with pastel threads. Her soft, coral fingers worked swiftly…." The Homeric rumblings here are confusing; but what is more troubling is the voice of the author entering so obtrusively in the narration.

At bottom, Anaya seems reluctant to let his remarkable images guide the reader, and so he tries to explain precisely what can't be explained, what doesn't need explaining. Stylistically, there are a few rough spots in the novel, but the reader who stays with it will find there are many rewards. (pp. 283-84)

Angelo Restivo, "Rudolfo A. Anaya, 'Tortuga'," in fiction international (copyright © 1980 by Joe David Bellamy), No. 12, 1980, pp. 283-84.

Marvin A. Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a follow up to Bless Me, Ultima, Heart of Aztlán lacks the depth of the earlier work. Anaya is not able to reconcile literarily all of his thematic concerns. On the surface, the outcome is a shallow, romantic, adolescent novel which nearly overshadows the treatment of adult problems. The novel does have redeeming qualities, however, in its treatment of the urban experience and the problems inherent therein, as well as in its attempt to define the mythic dimension of the Chicano experience.

Externally, Heart of Aztlán's plot structure develops in three ways: the adolescent trials of Jason and Benjie, the urban experience and its impact upon the Chávez family, and Aztlán and its...

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