Rudolfo Anaya. The Old Man's Love Story. Norman: U Oklahoma Press, 2013.
The widower struggles with grief, memory, and life after death. This is Anaya’s own story--he pulls no punches--but elects to tell this deeply personal story from the safe distance enabled by a third person narrator.
The third person voice allows the mourning man to step outside himself to address an audience, organize the events and relate what happened to a character called “the old man” as he goes about resolving the consequences of life and death.
In this voice, Anaya crafts a barely-controlled narrative of his own roiling emotions, enriches the text with literary flourishes, allusions, motifs, and keen detail, ultimately presenting a meaningful look at death, grief, and living. Beyond its profundity, The Old Man’s Love Story is a scream of pain you need to hear.
It’s not a fun read. Some readers won’t be ready for The Old Man’s Love Story, especially younger people who see themselves invincible. Nor will those with a low tolerance for cultura “get” it. The book deals with issues those people haven’t dealt with, they have no skin in the game. So it goes.
Near death experience patients like me, readers in serious infirmity, and generally, gente aware of cucui and other spirits are ready for The Old Man’s Love Story. It won’t haunt you but starts a conversation that’s probably overdue. Carpe diem. The old man is not afraid of dying but frustrated at everything he’s going to miss.
The old man has spirits in his life and many moments of communion. New Mexico cultura informs the old man’s spiritual and metaphoric view with cloud formations, water, land, soul, various people’s gods. He views his own memory as thrusts from a hellenistic muse whom the old man names Memoria.
The old man's wife speaks to him, offers comfort, and urges him to go on living. He cannot summon her but with a sense of normalcy accepts her presence whenever she appears. “Magic realism” outsiders might term such moments in the narrative. For the old man, and Anaya, conversations with the wife are the most normal things a grieving man does.
Grief comes with memory. Random events and artifacts trigger memories of courtship, travels, life together, her personality, having sex. Each memory fills the old man with pain at her absence magnified by his understanding of the finality of this emptiness. Because grief and memory intertwine but are not the same, the widower finds himself unable to unravel the tangle. He cannot control memory and his grief is inconsolable.
As the old man’s suffering persists unabated, a reader begins to sense thoughts of suicide in the old man’s struggle, notes of surrender that would leave writer and reader deadened with depression. No one wants to read that. Yet, a fleeting thought, a word here, a conclusion there, Anaya sets the reader on edge, the outcome for the old man in no way assured.
As the book begins, with the old man’s bereavement finding its first expression, it comes with a sense of excitement for the dead wife’s next self:
Her journey into the world of spirits was a new adventure, but damn! He knew nothing of that world! He could only imagine it! Like imagining heaven. He worried. Was she okay? What if she lost the way? But she loved adventure. It was part of her nature. Now she had entered a country of spirits, from which no one returned.
Her spirit had lingered a while. Shortly after she died he had seen her walking down the hollyhock path. Dressed in a flowing Mexican skirt, the bright colors she loved, and a white blouse, stepping as lightly as an angel. She had turned and looked at him. 43
But the old man struggles with being separated. His wife’s disappearance from his garden, the hollyhock path, their time, has made his life chaotic, him irrational. At one manic point he surrounds himself with photographs, lies on the floor a shaman willing her back from death, Mictlán, the other side, wherever, just come back. Therapy doesn’t help.
He seeks refuge in reasoning and science. The old man learns about brain chemistry and the brain’s engrams, the loci of memory. He is not consoled that surgery or time will erase memories. Once the memories are gone, she is gone. The old man desperately needs the life memory sparks in him, memories don’t hurt all the time. He persists until he can answer ill-understood questions.
He questioned his own concept of the spirit world.
“It’s not out there,” he whispered. “It’s in me. The world of spirits is my memory—I am the world of spirits!”
Why was he surprised? He had searched for the meaning of life and death, the knowledge that was the bedrock of so many cultures, the truths written in esoteric gospels, a faith held in the human heart since the beginning of time.
He had known this all along. One of his characters, an old woman on her deathbed, had told a child, “I will live as long as you remember me. I live in your memory.” 130
Anaya arrives at this consolation for the old man via a stream-of-consciousness narrative that spills freely out of the writer. The loose style that flows from idea to idea looking for a logical connection can pose a challenge to inattentive readers. This is the way the man’s mind works, how a writer thinks. It’s best to pay attention.
The constrained rambling style of The Old Man’s Love Story stands in tribute to Anaya’s late wife, who was the writer’s editor. The writer is allowed free rein on this manuscript. Anaya seems to be telling his readers, this style is appropriate to this occasion so she’s letting me slide on some of my excesses and more abstract ruminations.
Students of Chicana Chicano Literature will find The Old Man’s Love Story illuminating for its insights into elements of the writer’s life and career. Readers curious about Sonny Baca’s heightened spirituality across the four novels of that series see its origins in the author’s lifelong relationship with spirits and spiritual practice. Anaya accepts that La Llorona frightened him as a boy, perhaps in the guise of grasping ramas in the bosque, but that was La Llorona pulling his hair in the darkness.
Writers will note Anaya’s sense that his characters spring sui generis from their own dimension. Just as spirits are, characters are.
And it’s true, that was his background but the more he wrote the more he felt the pull of the spirit world. The voice of the story was not completely his. He was moved to write the tragedies and comedies of those characters who came to visit him. 54
It’s that sense of spirits and literary characters that lets the grief-stricken mind lose itself in beauties of a garden path before a moment later seeing his dead wife pulling weeds. He’s comforted by their conversations, her advice about getting a girlfriend, helping him close doors and open others in efforts to define the old man’s loneliness and depression, and find a way onward.
Which he does. That is not a spoiler but a final reason to read The Old Man’s Love Story. The last handful of pages, when the issues have reached what resolution exists for one man, sparkle with vision. The old man finds his respite not in a particular spirit but the spirit of life itself, and with that final rainbow along the hollyhock path the old man understands.
His ancestors had come and stayed to raise crops in the land of the pueblos. We worked hard, the old ones said. Our backs broke and our hands were stained with blood. But one afternoon lived beneath this sky provides enough beauty to fill our souls for another day’s toil. The earth provided, the sky rewarded. 168
Order The Old Man’s Love Story from your independent bookseller or via the publisher's website.
NDE Addendum. Anaya's speculation about whether, and what the other side is like are right on. The other side is there. I saw it last July during emergency surgery. I returned with the ancestor's message on my lips, struggling to share it. "Sage" they said without speaking. "Burn sage" I finally said when I found voice. The old man's conversations with his wife don't surprise me but I envy them. Souls cross back and forth for important reasons. In early January I was certain an upcoming surgery--a consequence of July's--would kill me again, this time for sure. In December I was saying good-bye to people, cooking last meals, doing uncharacteristic things, walking on eggshells. One morning I smelled my dad's smell in bed next to me, felt him holding my hand--my dad never held my hand tenderly or otherwise--and in the instant felt assured I would live because he told me, again without speaking. A few days later I went through the operation easily and near painlessly.
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