"Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came, the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes. ... Time stood still, and it shared with me all that had been, and all that was to come...." (Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya, 1972)
"There was an old man who dwelt in the land of New Mexico, and he lost his wife. She died in his arms one night." (The Old Man's Love Story, Rudolfo Anaya, 2013)
Anaya's early novel, and his latest novella, more than 40 years later, shimmer with a similar voice and a similar, uncommon spirit.
The work of New Mexico writer Rudolfo Anaya includes children's stories, plays, essays, and novels (Bless Me, Ultima; Heart of Aztlan; Tortuga; Alburquerque; Randy Lopez Goes Home, among others). They're set in New Mexico and celebrate aspects of Chicano history, legend, and life. In many of them, the physical, spiritual and mythical commingle; for some of them, their purpose seems to be to sustain culture.
In The Old Man's Love Story, the unnamed narrator ("the old man")—a teacher and writer—is struggling to deal with the death of his wife. As the old man considered them soul mates in life, he cannot accept spiritual separation in death. She's depicted through memories and the old man's images, but she also enters the story with her own voice and point of view.
As a sort of narrative meditation on love and grieving, not much actually happens in this book. The old man tries to hang on to his wife; he tries to make it through daily activities as she "guides" him; and he thinks ... about the nature of loss, love, God, place, the imagination, creativity, the soul, the brain, time, the universe. Meanwhile, the old man works at avoiding crying jags in public. He embarrasses himself on the street by mistaking a woman dressed similarly to his wife for his wife. And he engages in more than a little magical thinking—including trying to contact her by surrounding himself with her photographs, and seeing her reincarnated as a dove. Eventually, he begins to think about dissipating his loneliness by starting a new relationship. And she encourages him to do so.
What action does occur is at times, if not repetitive, at least recursive: the old man makes a decision (often prompted by his ongoing "conversations" with his wife), sort of acts on it, slips back, then makes another, similar decision. Feelings of loss, loneliness and love come to him in waves; much, you recognize, as grief must be experienced. Anaya draws us into the old man's grief, but not in a pathetic, pitiful manner. He draws us into his speculations about death and grief, and he buries action under speculation.
Some of the appealing qualities of Bless Me, Ultima—not always apparent in some other intervening works—reappear in this book. One is the diaphanous, fluid division between "worlds"—spiritual and physical; mythological and natural. In his musings about where and what his wife's spirit is, the old man thinks about the shamanlike role he thought he'd played as a writer. "He thought," Anaya writes, "he had the ability to communicate with the spirit world. Not just communicate, he could go there. He had entered that world many times, like Odysseus had entered Hades, like Jesus had walked in hell." The writer's job, the old man thinks, is "to enter that world and return." The writer-hero has shamanic powers. But, with his wife's death, the old man fears he was misled ... until she reaches out to him.
Stylistically, The Old Man's Love Story is fablelike. The language is simple, the characters abstracted, without names. Other fables and legends grow naturally out of the action. In one chapter, the old man explains death. It grew out of a deal, he writes, struck between God and the Angel of Death (as this was early in the Creation, the Angel of Death didn't yet have a job). "If you allow humans to experience death and grief," he says to God, "I will give them two other gifts." And God agrees.
Anaya has acknowledged that some of his early work—Ultima and Tortuga, for example—had strong autobiographical elements. In the preface to The Old Man's Love Story, he thanks friends and family who have supported him since his wife's death; in an interview about the book, he says he wrote it in appreciation for their support since she died in 2010.
This is not a book for everyone—its lyrical, thoughtful, spiritual and religious qualities won't appeal to all. But for anyone who loved Tony and Ultima, and Anaya's New Mexico, and who wondered what became of that young boy with the dreams and the spirit, The Old Man's Love Story is their affecting, affirming answer. Bendito sea, Old Man.