The Sorrows of Young Alfonso

by María Teresa Huerta Velásquez on May 3, 2017 - no comments


THE SORROWS OF YOUNG ALFONSO  (Rudolfo Anaya)

María Teresa Huerta Velásquez

March 2017

      In The Sorrows of Young Alfonso, Rudolfo Anaya writes his remembrance of things past, reveals the power of imagination and celebrates the worth of storytelling. He introduces Alfonso, a writer, and an unnamed narrator who recounts Alfonso’s reminiscences of his life. The narrator’s portrayal of Alfonso, his childhood friend, illuminates strong autobiographical characteristics of Anaya.

Alfonso’s biography captures his life in a small rural village in northern New Mexico in the years during and after the Second World War (WWII). When Alfonso and his family move to the urban center of Albuquerque, he faces challenges both in his beliefs and former way of life. Over time, Alfonso becomes a leading writer and philosopher in contemporary literature and thought.

Alfonso’s story is a perceptive narrative that explores his social, personal, and professional experiences in a series of letters. The narrator writes the letters in response to K, an unknown character, asking for information about Alfonso’s life. Incidentally, Franz Kafka also has a mysterious K in his novel The Castle, a character—likewise—seeking information.

The narrator reveals what he knows of Alfonso’s life history, disclosing key events and facts. However, he cautions K to read his letters with some skepticism. He admits that time marks his hazy memory, clouding his recollections. As a result of his declining years he experiences difficulties remembering details. The narrator concludes that “The passage of time haunts us all, and all that is left in the wake of time are vague memories” (20). Shakespeare too, according to Sue Stuart-Smith, expressed concern with Time, the “Devourer,” and “with the relationship of individual passions, ambitions and weaknesses to the passing of time” (218). Memory, the narrator tells K, is a major theme in Alfonso’s last books. Memory and time, “The Devourer”, run through the narrator’s letters.

Despite time and age filtering his memories, the narrator speaks with the appearance of truth. His close bond with Alfonso gives him a sense of authenticity. Alfonso does not refute the narrator’s recollections, instead he underscores the uncertainty of the narrative. In his view, “Everything is fiction . . . Everything that’s ever been written is fiction” (14). Alfonso’s philosophy is that “whatever one writes is filtered through the personal, and therefore . . . is a world composed by self, a fiction” (14). He also wonders if a cause of sorrow in life is the realization that everything ever written is fictitious. He asks, “Can we live in a world composed of fictions?”(14). Alfonso’s perceptions of fiction coincide with Simone Weill’s viewpoint on this theme. The French philosopher believed that imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life. In addition, Alfonso maintains that writing fiction and telling stories open the soul, free life from the shackles of daily struggles and routines. He thinks that, ultimately, “Imagination trumps reality” (114).

Alfonso’s stories, based on the reality of sorrow and pain he suffers, create the power for self-knowledge and the truth of his being. At the time of his birth, Agapita—a curandera—delivers him into the world and whispers to him: “The world is full of sorrow” (3). Agapita sees reality with all its flaws. While her weathered hands know both love and sorrow, it is sorrow that she passes to Alfonso with her touch. She blesses him and warns of the difficult life he will experience. Eventually, young Alfonso learns more from the curandera. She speaks of the dead. Agapita tells him: “The dead grieve for the living. They mourn for us. The dead are always with us” (8). Alfonso has heard their voices blowing in the winds of the llano. He accepts her truths and establishes a psychological bond with her. Her words foretell Alfonso’s fate, the crippling accident that changes his life will be key in his bristling world.

Agapita is knowledgeable in the ways of nature. She knows the wild healing herbs that flourish in the llano. She uses that knowledge when Alfonso’s family calls for help. Moreover, Agapita helps the women of the llano when they are about to give birth. The villagers believe Agapita is as ancient as the llano; that she has lived by herself for generations. Except for the visits from Alfonso—he takes her the rabbits he kills—no one visits. Agapita’s character is a portrayal of respect and affection.

The narrator weaves in the geography of the llano. Alfonso, he explains, walks in this landscape observing the sights, smells, and sounds of life on the ground and in the sky. He connects with nature, the scrubby grasses, river canyons, trees, mesquite, yucca and cacti. The narrator wonders if the raucous sounds of the owls, coyotes and the other animal life Alfonso sees and hears in the llano become his poetic inspirations. And if the night skies, brilliant with falling stars, help create Alfonso’s essence and spiritual attributes. The harshness and beauty of the llano help shape Alfonso’s early life and, like Agapita, exerts significant influence. The dramatic llano runs deep in his blood, plays a memorable role throughout his life, and encourages a sense of hope.

The narrator is a historian. He tells K the ancient llano begins with the adventurous and dauntless Clovis people traversing the land in pursuit of beasts to kill with their makeshift, but effective weapons. In modern times, these prehistoric tools are unearthed and identified near Clovis, New Mexico. In the sixteenth century, he explains, the Spanish explorers come in search of gold, driving stakes into the dense llano to mark their routes in the immense landscape. The llano becomes “El Llano Estacado”. More explorers come in subsequent expeditions, and Spanish settlers follow.

Aware of his culture and identity, the narrator takes pride in “la gente,” the descendants of the early settlers who eventually lose their lands. He describes his people’s loss of land and culture in their struggles against powerful forces. New settlers come to the llano introducing a different language and culture. Using laws codified in English, they successfully claim la gente’s Spanish land grants. The new language and laws undermine an established way of life, inflict pain and sorrows, and cause a clash of cultures. Alfonso—the narrator claims—also knows that his ancestral heritage derives from the Spanish early settlers. The narrator integrates a history that is both regional and universal.

In his letters to K, the narrator takes the opportunity to share his own experiences. As an informant, he continues to project a sense of unreliability between him and his sort of alter ego, Alfonso. For instance, he states he has known sorrow and even claims to be Alfonso. Furthermore, he reveals to K, that he, too, is a writer, but his work is not comparable to Alfonso’s (19). The narrator also notes their mothers were devoted Catholics. Alfonso’s mother, he recalls, held steadfast religious beliefs influencing his early views of the world. The narrator reveals there are no outstanding differences between he and Alfonso.

Alfonso has not written his life’s story nor has he kept a journal. But Alfonso states that his work is autobiographical and self-revealing. The narrator affirms that Alfonso writes his own life history in the stories that reveal “the plot of his life, a trajectory from childhood to the old philosopher…” (113). In his first novel, Alfonso writes about his childhood, family, and friends. He seeks the truth of his life despite the tragic accident that leaves him in pain forever.

Alfonso—instead of the narrator—writes the last letter to K. It seems K is disappointed his story has no expected resolution. He explains his stories come from imagination and a greater power. Because he considers himself subject to the universal law that holds everything eventually breaks, his letters are without resolution.

In The Sorrows of Young Alfonso, Rudolfo Anaya provides an insightful journey into the imagination and reality of his world as a writer and philosopher.

 Sources

Anaya, Rudolfo. The Sorrows of Young Alfonso. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2016.

Stuart-Smith, Sue. “Time in Literature.” Group Analysis 36.2 (2003): 218-222.

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