Review: Rudolfo Anaya. The Sorrows of Young Alfonso. Norman: UofOklahoma Press, 2016.
ISBN: 9780806152264 0806152265
There are stories within stories within stories in Rudolfo Anaya’s newest novel, The Sorrows of Young Alfonso. There’s the story of Alfonso the author, the title character. There’s the story of Agapita and the llano. There’s the story of the letter-writer in this epistolary novel. But more than any of those there’s the story of how one writer’s mind works, and because that writer is his generation’s most acclaimed author, The Sorrows of Young Alfonso takes its place as Rudolfo Anaya’s most rewarding work.
As with any novel, there’s the overlying story of the reader and the book. For readers, The Sorrows of Young Alfonso spills out in a stream-of-consciousness that requires attention, and perhaps, patience. The latter reflects the underlying story of the workings of a keen mind pulling together disparate memories of a literary life, revisiting ideas, memories, crafting a character’s soul while addressing the nature of memory and the writer’s own soul.
The story of Alfonso, the author, takes the form of an epistolary recounting. An unidentified voice addresses the similarly unidentified “K”. Whether K is an admirer, a relative, a scion, remains unspecified. Only that K is someone who deserves the letter-writer’s promise to relate Alfonso’s story. It’s a story told as if Alfonso is somehow absent from K’s world, perhaps dead, perhaps simply retired and out of touch.
The persona of the letter-writer offers a story in itself. Alfonso’s life-long companion who speaks authoritatively about Alfonso’s birth, whose memories contain Alfonso’s youth on the llano, high school, and university years. A voice who knows the sorrows of the title so intimately that the voice and Alfonso meld into the same person.
“K, my mother was like Alfonso’s mother, Catholic to the core. I identify with Alfonso; we had the same upbringing. As I write these letters, I become Alfonso. I am Alfonso.” 63
There remains a mystery around whether such intimate knowledge developed from experience or was gleaned in long hours sitting around in a bar or college dorm, good friends philosophizing their way out of dogma only to find themselves in a welter of challenging ideas.
At one point, the narrator identifies “Dennis” as Alfonso’s best friend. The writer raises Dennis’ name, then drops the person entirely from the narrative. Still, “Dennis, his best friend,” lingers in the reader’s mind; is the letter-writer this Dennis? Only four people would know what pleasures the college men enjoyed with the pizza shop girls, the women--whose names escape memory--and Alfonso and Dennis. Only Dennis would know that Alfonso’s greatest sorrow—losing his faith—would have developed during those late-night philosophical discussions. The letter writer, it turns out, is not Dennis. In the final letters, Anaya finally discloses the identity of the correspondent.
The story of Alfonso the author is very much the story of Anaya, the author. The narrator reveals how Alfonso wrote a book called Ultima, that it won El Premio Quinto Sol. The heart of Alfonso’s story is his second mother, the old woman of the llano, Agapita. Ultima and Agapita are two different people, though they share a thirst for nurturing boys in mind and spirit to ground them in the llano and the stories of their gente.
Agapita’s immense role gives this novel standing as Anaya’s literary autobiography. As when the letter-writer begins telling K about Agapita, it is as if time folds back upon itself so that Ultima and Agapita must exist simultaneously but distinctly:
“Who was Agapita? Was she just another name from those blessed names of long ago? Was she just another curandera? . . . . You know Ultima’s story. Fonso’s little book became quite well known. So I’m just trying to fill out the story, give it flesh as they say.” 61
Agapita and Ultima occupy the same mythic and literary space in the life of Anaya’s characters. Not as if Anaya feels driven to revisit his most successful character—or that the character insists on resurrection in this autobiography-like book. The Sorrows of Young Alfonso illustrate the workings of this writer’s mind, dealing with unfinished business, obligated to create, to write, at liberty to pass from idea to inspiration to focus and dissolution, and ultimately big ideas and profound thoughts.
Anaya unfolds the story in a spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment structure, alluding to incidents then divagating into some historical or cultural dissertation that seems to wander afar. Sometimes it does, but then the incident comes roaring into attention as the reader finally sees the connections that exist within the moments of memory.
Readers will find this on every page, informing every incident tiny or major. One of Alfonso’s seven sorrows, a crippling accident, comes as an aside on page 21, amid an allegory of a wheel of fortune, and the anti-randomness of el destino. “Martin, Alfonso’s father, believed that Fonso’s accident was the working of destiny.” Readers haven't learned of an accident yet, only now learning that one is coming.
Next a discussion of destiny and God’s will leads to a narrative concerning snakes, passing trains and the people inside them. There's Agapita’s magic, Ash Wednesday, La Llorona, a boy who breaks his neck diving into a water tank. These wrap into a connection between La Llorona, Medea, and video games.
The next letter talks about the boy who died in the watertank—water for the steam engines—then leads into a train-chasing game the boys play. The letter outlines how Alfonso’s hand gets caught on a speeding car and in the moment a hand and foot are mangled and the boy becomes a cripple. Other memories intercede until twenty pages on, the story of the accident is fleshed out.
Agnes’ story is another sorrow that works itself slowly into being. This is likely Alfonso’s greatest sorrow, despite the narrator’s claim that his loss of faith was that. One’s first love holds a permanent space in memory, its absence an even bigger hole.
As the story of the injured boy’s recuperation develops, a fleeting mention of Agnes piques a reader’s curiosity. The familia has moved into a pueblo where Martin can find work and the boy improved schooling. The atomic bomb shakes schoolchildren's world. K’s correspondent says their names:
“June of the blue eyes. Agnes, who drowned. Mary Lou. Lydia, his cousin. Sadie he had kissed in the supply closet. Lloyd he always beat at marbles. Horse and Bones who were always so rough with him. Kiko, his fishing buddy. Bobby, Tony, Manuel, Chris, Abel, Red, Ernie, Ramon…” 80
The bomb, playground sports with a crippled hand and foot, then romance blossoms. Agnes reappears. She takes his crippled hand—no one but Agapita had touched it—and they walk to her home. Later they will swim in isolated places, lie naked in the warming sun. “Agnes was a creature of nature, as he was, a blessing.” The letter-writer adds, “Their days together make my story worthwhile.” Here is unparalleled joy, its loss unparalleled pain.
The narrative delivers an account of the river, of the pueblo Santa Rosa de Lima, how its name alludes to a miraculous curing of cripples, Alfonso sees the golden carp, Alfonso dives into shallow water and breaks his neck, watches himself drowning in an out-of-body experience.
The account fast-forwards to university days, ponders the formation of one’s soul, the power of curses and the presence of evil. Agapita cures Raphaelita from curse. The book’s most significant question builds from a bowl of menudo, and fond memories:
“Is soul memory? If soul is eternal, so is memory. . . . Are we merely repeating a life that has been lived before in other forms? In other places?” 107
Forty pages after first reading Agnes’ name, interrupted by the river, the soul, the fateful dive, Agnes is swept away by the river, her body found six days later, taken by La Llorona, the Coco Man, el Cucuy. “Now Agnes had become a spirit, a mermaid, a Persephone of the historic Pecos River that flowed past Santa Rosa de Lima.” Agnes has taken a big piece of Alfonso’s soul with her.
Moments likes these flow like a river out of disjointed time and the letter-writer's memory. The swift current floats huge questions, sustaining dramatic conclusions that will challenge and tempt attentive readers to discuss with friends, to thirst for more information.
The Sorrows of Young Alfonso offers a richness that Anaya has not crafted before, not like this. The Old Man’s Love Story and Randy Lopez Go Home, masterpieces in their own right, make a deeply satisfying trilogy with Young Alfonso. Readers should complete all three as a set.
A story told in a book is finished only because a book has a first page and a last page. Alfonso's story, however, is continuous, it existed before page one, and continues after the final. Reading the trilogy is a way of linking the story emotionally and an avenue to greater understanding of this capstone work of Anaya’s art.
The Sorrows of Young Alfonso is a book that isn’t finished, still in the process of unfolding and spilling off the author’s hands. But a publisher is an unyielding power, pages have to fit between covers to reach booksellers and eventually, a reader’s hands. This is what we have for now, a capstone work, until Rudolfo A. Anaya’s duende and ever-renewing soul leads his pen to gift us with the continuation of young, and old, Alfonso’s sorrows. By the way, Rudolfo Anaya’s middle name is Alfonso.
Texas Teen Book Fest: Letters of Appreciation.
In a delighting change of policy, the organizers of the Texas Teen Book Festival reversed course, invited the founder of Barrio Writers to a parley and meeting of minds. As a result, several authors have been invited to the festival, and TTBF scheduled a workshop for young writers, to be organized by Sarah Rafael Garcia, founder of Barrio Writers.
The Texas Teen Book Fest deserves recognition for opening its doors and reaffirming principles of openness, diversity, and inclusion. Several letter-writers do just that.
Sarah Rafael García
In a time when our society is divided by racial politics and a complex presidential race, it’s important to find a way to exchange dialogue, critical-thinking and build common ground for our youth and community. It’s also important to know the difference between establishing equity versus portraying diversity. I’m grateful to have such a conversation with the Texas Teen Book Festival (TTBF) organizers. Although the TTBF is a small event in comparison to the national headlines, I feel the dialogue we established will help build common ground in Austin, Texas. There is still a lot of work to be done and I’m excited Barrio Writers will be a part of it. Now some of the responsibility also lies on me, I hope to engage more folks, especially people of color, to join us, attend the TTBF, and promote more diverse books. With all of this in mind, the TTBF has the opportunity to influence young minds to think critically and beyond their own race and culture—with the addition of Mexican American authors to this year’s TTBF line up more young readers can open a book, find themselves in it and see their role models on and off the page.
—Sarah Rafael García
First Generation Graduate, Author, and Barrio Writers Founder
Santa Ana, California
Dear Texas Teen Book Festival Organizing Committee,
I want to commend you on the new partnerships with Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, Barrio Writers, and Red Salmon Arts for the Texas Teen Book Festival. As a first generation Mexican American graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, I am pleased to see authors such as Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Joe Jiménez, Rene S. Perez II, and Isabel Quintero on the 2016 line-up. I am also pleased and excited to see that Barrio Writers will provide a writing workshop. Thank you for providing space for Mexican American authors, community organizations, and for demonstrating that indeed the Texas Teen Book Festival supports diversity.
Manuel Guadalupe Galaviz
Department of Anthropology
University of Texas at Austin
In 1971, I was ten years old, and Island of the Blue Dolphins was my favorite book. It was the only book I knew of with a protagonist who was a little brown girl, like me. Although I read other good novels as I was growing up, I often returned to Island because visiting Karana was like coming home. Until my adulthood, it remained the only book I could find with a character that reflected me.
Fortunately, today, young people of color have many books to choose from with protagonists that reflect them--and by authors of color! Now, because of the additions to the Texas Teen Book Festival 2016, teens of color can learn about these books and see some of the authors speak. This, and the opportunity to participate in the Barrio Writers workshop, will be a valuable experience for them. For some, it will be life changing.
These additions will benefit everyone attending the festival, for we learn about people who are different from us through books.
Thank you for having your festival reflect the population in the great state of Texas. Your festival will be more inclusive and magnificent!
Writer and Educator
I am so thankful that there is more diversity. More Latinos means more fun. People just need more diversity, and when they bring it together, it makes a fun loving place. Also, I forgot to mention that I am proud that Barrio Writers is partnered with Texas Teen Book Festival. It brightens my day because I am a Barrio Writer. Thank you so much!
—Cristian Dominguez, 13 year-old Barrio Writer in Austin, Tejas
Latino Family Book Fair Coming to Los Angeles
The festival site is adjacent to La Placita and Olvera Street, one of the founding commercial centros of historic Los Angeles. Only a short walk from Union Station, public transportation makes sense for families attending the festival and discussions.
Vendor applications are open and available at this link.
The National Hispanic Cultural Center has begun a renewal process with new staff leadership and a host of attractive programs. Visit NHCC's website for details of the August 7 reception for its new exhibition "The Art of Acquisition: New New Mexican Works at the NHCC", as well as tours of the Art Museum's collections.