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Book Review: Rudolfo Anaya's The Man Who Could Fly and Other Stories

By Sergio Troncoso

In the title story of Rudolfo Anaya’s new collection, “The Man Who Could Fly,” Don Volo, the storyteller of the story within a story, proclaims he was there, “at that moment of magic,” when the impossible became possible.  The revelation of Don Volo’s identity at once bolsters the belief in the impossible and ushers in the moral of the story: storytelling can clarify the most important human questions; storytelling can possess a moral purpose.

In The Man Who Could Fly and Other Stories (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman), Anaya, the father of Chicano literature, brings us back to this point in story after story.  The purpose of storytelling is not primarily to entertain the reader.  Nor is it to seek “fame and notoriety” for the writer.  The best stories probe difficult, enduring issues, like relationships between men and women, the oppression of loneliness and the llano, moral responsibility and character.  These stories may even end in mystery, the question left unanswered, or only vaguely articulated, the reader entranced, yet perplexed by the meaning of the stories.  But what matters is that these stories have seeped into the reader’s consciousness, have prompted serious questions, and have allowed the reader who cares to keep pursuing these questions on his own.  The best stories can change your life, and how you look at the world.

In “The Silence of the Llano,” Rafael is an orphan, and is surrounded by a bleak, inscrutable landscape of silence.  A young woman, not initially named, seeks him out, and finally delivers him from his oppression.  But during childbirth, the woman dies, and Rafael returns to his silence and neglects his new daughter.  Soon the man’s self-obsession and self-enervation prompt him to abandon his daughter when she most needs him.  Rafael returns, but only when he has forsaken the silence that was so much a part of him.

Again, in “The Road to Platero,” Anaya’s target is the destructiveness of man’s machismo.  But this time the story also focuses on a mother’s warped hero-worship of her abusive father, which only encouraged his machismo, and on the mutual manipulation between a mother and a father who both hide a terrible secret from the son.  In contrast, the story “Iliana of the Pleasure Dreams” depicts Iliana as the source of dreams and mysteries and a redemptive sexuality, while the man, Onofre, is simple, abrupt, and silent.  Between the couple is a chasm, until they find a way to share their dreams.

Other stories delve into the magical and spiritual world of the Mayas and the Incas.  Rosario, in “The Village That the Gods Painted Yellow,” is a modern skeptic about Mayan magic until he is lead by the guide Gonzalo, a dwarf, into the heart of Uxmal.  In “Message from the Inca,” Cuzco is under attack, and the last runner sprints through dreams and time to Machu Pichu and the virgins of Vilcampa, for help, to announce the end of Inca time, to reach anybody, even a tourist, with a message from the Inca.  In these stories, Anaya is storyteller, and guide, and link in the chain of the belief and history and heritage of today’s readers.

Two stories focus on the elements and magic of storytelling itself.  Characters plead to be included in the story of "A Story," as the writer wrestles with characters he can hardly control.  And in "B. Traven is Alive and Well in Cuernavaca," references to the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (made into a classic movie with Humphrey Bogart) unexpectedly pop up, as the writer follows Justino, gardener qua rogue, because Justino and those like him (i.e. workers, campesinos, adventurers) have stories to tell.  A writer who separates himself from la gente loses the great sources of his creativity.

Rudolfo Anaya's stories remain essential for readers and writers because they remind us of what we have forsaken in our modern world, what will always be philosophical questions at the heart of our humanity, and why storytelling should have a moral purpose.  Not to pontificate.  Not for nostalgia.  But stories should have a moral purpose to illuminate the magic of life: the eternal links to heritage and history, and the human desire to hope and to create in a world otherwise desolate and silent.

This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on April 2, 2006.