Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Exquisite prose and wondrous storytelling have helped make Rudolfo Anaya the father of Chicano literature in English. Indeed, Anaya's tales fairly shimmer with the haunting beauty and richness of his culture. The winner of the Pen Center West Award for Fiction for his unforgettable novel Alburquerque, Anaya is perhaps best loved for his classic bestseller, Bless Me, Ultima... Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima comes to stay with his family in New Mexico. She is a curandera, one who cures with herbs and magic. Under her wise wing, Tony will probe the family ties that bind and rend him, and he will discover himself in the magical secrets of the pagan past-a mythic legacy as palpable as the Catholicism of Latin America. And at each life turn there is Ultima, who delivered Tony into the world...and will nurture the birth of his soul.
Goodreads description

In this novel, as in The Hummingbird's Daughter, an elderly woman healer educates the young hero/ine spiritually. And as in that book the traditional healer character is a symbol of older traditions in a more modern world and she is also a symbol of the power of women in a man's world. I talked in my review of The Hummingbird's Daughter of the duality of the woman healer - regarded as a saint but also seen as a witch often by the same people. That duality is at the heart of this story.

In fact the issue of the conflict between different cultures is central to the book more generally. It is present in the boy's family. The Marez family of Antonio's father are descended from the Spanish conquistadors and so carry the restless blood of the sea. They are vaqueros (cowboys) and roam the llano. The Luna family of his mother are descended  from the Pueblo farmers who settle in one place and plant by the moonlight (Luna): “The sun was good. The men of the llano were men of the sun. The men of the farms along the river were men of the moon.”  Antonio wrestles to reconcile these two conflicting cultures and their demands. The struggle is also a spiritual one - between imported Catholicism and the indigenous pagan traditions, between the Christ and the Golden Carp. Although Ultima is a healer from the indigenous Pueblo tradition, she is able to help Antonio reconcile the conflict: Without the waters of the moon to replenish the oceans there would be no oceans. And the same salt waters of the oceans are drawn by the sun into the heavens, and in turn become again the waters of the moon. Without the sun there would be no water formed to slake the dark earth’s thirst. The waters are one. . . . You have been seeing only parts . . . and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all.

There is a third culture in the book - that of Protestant non-Spanish speaking America. It is that culture that pulls Antonio's brothers away from the way of life of the Marez and Luna families. Antonio is made to speak English at school and is laughed at when he produces a tortillas instead of sandwiches.

Antonio is a naturally spiritual child, and responds intuitively to the power in the old healer. Ultima practices magic - she is called upon to counter the witches' curse laid on Antonio's uncle. She takes Antonio with her as her helper when she does so. The question as to whether Ultima is a witch is unresolved in the book. Being magic realism Ultima's magic is accepted as normal. As a result of this acceptance of "witchcraft" the book has been criticized by fundamentalist Christians andeven being banned from schools in one area of the USA. It is as if the conflict in the book is being reflected in real life. 

The book has been hailed as a masterpiece and it certainly has an important place in Latin American literature and in particular Chicano culture. But I have to differ. The book is an enjoyable read, the themes are interesting and young Antonio is an attractive hero. But there are continuity issues with the book - most noticeably at one point where the subject matter jumps. The struggle is portrayed as very much a case of good versus bad. Ultima's arch-enemy is referred to as evil and his sisters as witches. It seems a simplistic interpretation. So much more could have been done with these characters, given the focus on duality. And lastly Antonio just doesn't sound or behave like a nine-year old boy to me.

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