The Desert and the Seed: Three Stories by Rudolfo Anaya
Materassi, Mario, Journal of the Southwest
Conceivably, Rudolfo Anaya's accomplishment as a master craftsman has been somewhat overshadowed by his steadfast example as an author deeply imbued with his native Chicano culture, and by an oeuvre rich in absorbing mythopoeic value. While I by no means intend to underplay these essential aspects of Anaya's work, in the present paper I will further the argument previously put forth in this journal and focus on the writer's welding of various cultural heritages into one composite--one that makes use of different aesthetic languages, as in his recent Seraphina's Stories, which superimposes The Thousand and One Nights model onto colonial Santa Fe, grafting local onto universal themes and creating a new, complex world of the imagination. (1) To this end, I will discuss three stories--"Absalom," "In Search of Epifano," and "Children of the Desert"--concentrating on Anaya's manipulation of literary conventions and his subtle transformation of some of their established semantic functions.
These three short stories share a number of common traits. They all take place in the desert. In all three, the function of nature is consistently atypical vis-a-vis certain literary and ideological conventions. Two have a woman as the main actor, while in the third, although the protagonist is a man, a woman is once again the positive pole in the gender opposition. Thematically, all three tales develop from or around an unfortunate love story. Moreover, the endings of "Absalom" and of "Children of the Desert" are almost mirror images: in each, the couple quarrels, after which the man in the first story drives recklessly away, has an accident, and dies, while the man in the second story drives recklessly back toward the woman, has an accident, and dies. The old woman who is the protagonist of "In Search of Epifano" also drives away into the desert and dies, although not as a consequence of an accident. All these correspondences, as well as several others, suggest that these stories may have been conceived as a triptych--a hypothesis that the rather close dates of publication (1985, 1987, and 1990) perhaps corroborates.
Whether or not this hypothesis is correct, the three stories, independently of each other and with no loss of the individual sense each produces, display a singular consistency of means, all pointing to a remarkable consistency in the organization of meaning. In each component of this admittedly limited medioscopic sample of texts, meaning is not dependent on their aggregation. Once identified, however, this overall consistency allows us to delve deeper into the workings of each text, thus revealing further levels of sense in Anaya's only apparently linear stories.
"Absalom," published in 1985, concerns an unfulfilled woman who, after her divorce, moves from New York to the desert south of Be'er Sheva. While visiting the tomb of Absalom, she meets a North African whom she names Absalom. The two become intimate. The woman, whom the narrator names Tamar, is initially fulfilled by her new lover. Then, after a quarrel caused by basic differences over their respective gender roles, the man leaves in anger and dies in his car. Every day, on her way to work, the woman "sees the mangled wreck" left to rust in the desert." (2)
Several structural elements are compounded in this story: namely, a series of references to the Second Book of Samuel, the paradigmatic oppositions of culture versus nature and man versus woman, and the historical opposition of Arabs versus Jews. The title clearly refers to the Bible, but only midway through the narrative do we find the first passage relating to Samuel. This is a reference to the tomb of Absalom in the Valley of Qidron, where the two lovers meet; the woman's naming the man "Absalom" is consequential to the circumstances of their encounter. Then comes the naming of the woman: "we might as well say her name is Tamar, a seductive, intriguing biblical name" (161). …