THE OLD MAN’S LOVE STORY
By Rudolfo Anaya
University of Oklahoma Press
Reviewed by Luís R. Torres
Rudolfo Anaya’s Latest Book a Little Treasure.
Rudolfo Anaya’s latest book is a little treasure. Thoughtfully conceived and beautifully written, it is a roman a clef. “The Old Man’s Love Story” is compact novel, but the old man in the story is unmistakably Anaya himself, or at least a version of himself. In fact, Anaya’s wife of many years died three years ago and, understandably, it had a profound effect on him. Questions about life and death, consciousness and memory swirled around him and within him. That is evident in the book he wrote a couple of years ago after his wife’s death, “Randy Lopez Goes Home,” an intriguing meditation on what is real and what is imagined – and the perplexing intersection of the two.
The opening lines of “The Old Man’s Love Story” quickly reveal that the viejito has just lost the woman who was his wife and, more significantly, his genuine soul mate. “She died in his arms one night.” And that sets off the introspection, questioning and searching that consume the old man in the months ahead. Where did his wife “go”? Is she spirit? Are the old man and his wife somehow bound together forever? What is forever? Are spirits and that ethereal universe genuine or is that all just a jumble of longing and memory, serving to have human’s cope with such powerful loss? The viejo, then, finds himself plodding along on a journey, and we are with him every step of the way.
In that journey, that quest for understanding and a sort of internal reconciliation, Anaya has the old man struggling with quotidian tasks of paying bills, tending to a forlorn garden and having lunch with friends and relatives. All the while, the old man is haunted. He carries on long conversations with his wife, whom he imagines is responding to him from the beyond. “I must be going crazy,” he occasionally thinks to himself. He reassures friends and relatives “that he is fine.” He knows he is not being quite honest to them and to himself. Also, Anaya has the old man pondering the meaning of “the whole shebang” throughout this journey.
Anaya does a masterful job of drawing on traditions and myths about spirituality from the ancient Greeks to the Aztecs, to the indigenous people of what is now the American Southwest. They are all part of the complexity that is the old man. And Anaya, born and bred in his beloved nuevo méxico, paints glorious pictures of the landscapes and living, breathing naturaleza of the deserts and llanos and mountains of the southwest.
A typical passage in that vein: “A southern wind, this source of life wind, brought tropical air from Mexico and the gulf, a moisture-laden atmosphere. When these two winds met, they gave birth to huge cumulus clouds that filled the bowl, exploding with life-energy until the entire sky became a brimming of spirits.”
His elegant, economical prose is a delight. Anaya’s passages sometimes evoke haiku. They are sometimes reminiscent of the lyrical aphorisms of Emerson or Galeano. A pleasure to read and swirl around in your head, as you would swirl a memorable wine in your mouth.
“Everything becomes a memory,” the exasperated old man concedes. Maybe memories are more real than what we perceive as the tangible “reality” we struggle with every day. The old man grapples with the notion of the soul and the possible meaning of our very existence. And it is all tied to his undying love for the woman with whom he shared live and emotion for a lifetime. The tale is indeed a love story, but here is where Anaya triumphs. Without enough care and without the right mastery of the language and context and without the right touches of subtlety and nuance, the little novel could have veered into perilous purple waters of melodrama and cliché. No such worry in this book. Anaya is a skilled captain of his literary ship. He navigates adroitly around any possible shoals of schmaltz.
The result is a quiet beauty in the storytelling. The old man strives to make sense of things and strives to move on in the world, as we all must. For longtime readers of Anaya, who clearly is the prolific mero chignon of Chicano literature, there’s an added delight. The tale evokes passages and slightly camouflaged references to his many previous stories and novels, including the classic “Bless Me, Última.” And it wouldn’t be an Anaya novel without the seasoning of sly bits of humor. He can make your heart ache, and he can make your soul smile, as he does in this book. But even if – for some reasons that I can barely fathom—this is your first foray into the literary world of Rudolfo Anaya, you are in for a memorable treat.
Luis Torres, is a journalist and writer from
Pasadena, California. He is author of the
forthcoming “Dona Julia’s Children,” a
book that examines the 1968 East Los
Angeles high school student walkouts
and the work of educational reformer Vahac Mardirosian.