Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Jemez Spring Anaya's Latest Sonny Baca Tale

Jemez Spring. Rudolfo Anaya. Alburquerque: UNM Press, 2005.
isbn 0-8263-3684-1

Michael Sedano

One day in the life of Sonny Baca makes for a harrowing tale that mixes the stark raving fear of post-9/11 nuclear terror, a murdered governor cooking slowly in a hot spring, the detective dangling out of an airborne helicopter—among other adventures-- with Sonny’s obsessive bereavement over Rita’s unborn, who were killed in the third Baca - Raven mystery, Shaman Winter.

Jemez Spring brings the Sonny Baca epic full circle, from Sonny’s introduction in Alburquerque, through the four seasons tetralogy that begins in Zia Summer and continues to Rio Grande Fall. Novelist Rudolfo Anaya brings his Sonny character ever deeper into spiritism as Sonny stumbles through the Evil that swirls around Sonny and his dog, Chica. Watching Sonny grow across the series from the good samaritan who patches up a writer in a bar to a powerful hero of the Spirit world has been rewarding. That history makes Jemez Spring a rewarding novel worth a close reading. Yet, the novel is as well suited to a puro fun summer read.

Anaya reaches deep into a vast storehouse of literary tradition, as if he realized in writing an obvious capstone piece, the writer could tie up loose ends, have some fun, and leave a reader wanting another chapter in the life of this Chicano detective and would-be high school teacher, his Penelope, Rita, Chica the dog, and Don Eliseo, the cucuy who connects Sonny’s dream world to the dangers of the wakeful world.

Do dogs dream? The story opens on this silly question, which initially seems merely a touch of local color inserted to liven up a slow buildup. A few guys in a bar take up the question in a bar-friendly way. The discussion takes on life of its own, sweeping out of the barrio into the city in waves of controversy that leads to fist fights, grudges, and university conferences. Without giving away anything, the answer, yes, dogs dream, figures in the story’s fateful moment of crisis in a haunted bosque of the Rio Grande.

Readers should be on the lookout for gems like Anaya’s disquisition on dreaming dogs on page 94:
Taylor interrupted. “But dreaming dogs don’t appear in contemporary Chicano literature. Why? Because it’s a recent story. I believe dreaming dogs are related to the Chupacabra mystery. Upon the deconstruction of the Chupacabra, that is, on the deconstruction of a folkloric creature with roots in the archetypal imagination whose only raison d’etre was the collective shadow, i.e., fear of the lumpen, fear of the Anglo-American hegemony, and as those shadow fears imploded, they lost their hold over the collective memory and entered the Anglo world, i.e., the Chicano’s desire to become more like his Anglo counterpart. Thus the appearance of the dog dream argument, a transference—“

Wacha! The silly paragraph hides a dramatic irony, an allusion to Raven’s power and a tool Sonny leverages in the climactic final battle. Anaya’s text sparkles with allusion after allusion that keep a reader busy organizing clues and delving into personal resources from world culture, history, religion, myth, and epic. Polyphemus’ eye morphs into the Zia symbol. Zia represents the four corners of the map, the symbol forms a mystic quincunx, which is mirrored in Don Eliseo’s powerful God’s Eye whose magic swallowed Raven to save Sonny’s life last winter.

If the novel has an Achilles heel, it would be the author’s tendency to go overboard in his mystic musings. This meandering through empty territory is one of the complaints that relegates Anaya’s Jalamanta: A Message From the Desert to low readership. Jemez Spring has too much going for it to allow the occasional authorial excess to keep from turning the page. Not that the writer isn’t aware of the potential for aspersion. As Sonny’s winding up his incredibly bad incredibly good day, he starts organizing lessons learned, arriving at a conclusion that may strike a reader as an authorial pre-emptive strike:

Ah, so many questions left unanswered in one day’s story. Many would be disappointed, perhaps want their money back, for a private investigator was supposed to solve hard-core crimes, answer all the questions, not indulge in speculation of life’s journey. Such questions are for philosophers, or the idle, or the inocentes of the world. Had one day in the life of a PI been twisted too far? Was this for simpler minds, therefore, unacceptable? Who, out in that wide flat world that stretched only as far as his front yard, would be satisfied?
Sonny thought. Yes, the fifth season might prove even more phantasmagorical than today’s adventure. Best leave it at that. 282

Will Anaya leave the Sonny Odyssey at that? Spring, being a time of regeneration, fulfills its promise with things of the past put in order, and a warm sense of the future:

They would name the cabroncitos after the food they ate. Girls would be Maize and Natillas, boys would be Menudo and Carnitas. The strong boy would be Tortillon, the gay child Sopaipilla.
Happiness is what mattered. (283)

Might be a raison d’etre for reading all five Sonny Baca novels as a summer project, que no? As a final note, Jemez Spring is the most “Chicano” of the Sonny books, with dozens of references to Sonny and other neighbors being Chicanas and Chicanos. But it’s also a New Mexican book. What the heck is a “natilla”?



Manuel Ramos said...

Here's one answer, from http://www.recipegoldmine.com/swdess/swdess55.html

Some call it vanilla pudding, but the Southwest version is Natilla.

3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, separated
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Ground cinnamon

Combine sugar, flour and salt. Beat the egg yolks and 2 tablespoons of the milk together. Add to the sugar mixture and beat until well combined.

Bring the remaining milk to just below boiling. Add the egg yolks and sugar mixture, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly, until it becomes the consistency of a thick custard sauce. Remove from the heat; allow to cool, then stir in the vanilla extract.

Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold the custard mixture into the beaten egg whites. Sprinkle with cinnamon and let sit for 30 minutes.

Natillas can be served warm or cold. Keep refrigerated if not serving immediately.

msedano said...

i never ate that. pudding.

cajeta, yes. membrillo, yum. i'm hoping for a good quince crop this year to make membrillo.

i make a mean flan in a bain marie, i'll think abou the natilla. pudding.

are you reading / have you read jemez spring?


Manuel Ramos said...

I haven't got to Jemez Spring, yet. I saw Mr. Anaya earlier this year in Boulder - he looked great, excited about his children's books but we didn't get a chance to talk about Jemez Spring. He and his wife were on their way to a short vacation in Mexico somewhere. I hope he did some writing.