Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya

Abrán González always knew he was different. Called a coyote because of his fair skin, the kid from Barelas found escape through boxing and became one of the youngest Golden Gloves champions. But the arrival of a letter from a dying woman turns his entire life into a lie. The revelation that he was adopted makes him feel like an orphan and sends him on a quest to find his birth father.

With the help of his girlfriend, Lucinda, and Joe, a Vietnam veteran, Abrán begins a journey that hurls him from the barrio into a world of greed and political corruption spearheaded by Frank Dominic, a con artist running for mayor with visions of building El Dorado on the Rio Grande.

Rudolfo Anaya’s vibrant novel celebrates a land and a people struggling to preserve and reshape ancient tradition. Rich in spirituality and sense of place, Alburquerque cuts across class and ethnic lines to tell a story of hope and displacement, love and regret, and the age-old quest for roots, identity, and family.

Publisher's description

This is one of nine of Anaya's books republished as ebooks by Open Road Media. Anaya is best known for his novel Bless Me, Ultima, which I reviewed on this blog here. Open Road are to be applauded for bringing more books by this Chicano magic-realist author back into circulation and I welcome the opportunity to read and review his work again

The book's themes are familiar ones - a young man trying to find out who he is, corporate and political corruption and abuse of the environment, a love interest, the contrast between the old ways of local peoples and the new ways of the white population. These are all themes we have seen in other magic-realist books. I was reminded of Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko in particular, which also features a native American Vietnam veteran. 

Magic is definitely present, coming with a prescient traditional healer or curendara. The curendara at the beginning of the book gives Abran the answer to his question "tú eres tú" or you are you, but it takes him the length of a book to understand what she is saying. Ultima in Anaya's previous novel is also a curendara. This female archetype also appears in one of my favourite Chicano magic-realist novels The Hummingbird's Daughter.  The second form of magic realism in the book is the way the characters of the novelist Ben Chavez have a life of their own. Many writers will tell you that their characters talk to them, well in this case they really do. And the last element of magic realism is the appearance of the Coyote figure from indigenous American tribal mythology. All of these elements work well.

It is perhaps the realism I have a problem with. There are times where it feels unreal, too much in the mode of popular culture, particularly at the end  - the book climaxes with a boxing match a la Rocky Bilboa. The Hollywood treatment is popular but it is unrealistic.

I would have liked the characters to be less black and white, more complex and ambiguous. Looking back at my review of Bless Me, Ultima I realise it was an issue I had with that book too. The most important theme in the book to my mind is the importance of knowing one's roots. Does it matter? And where are your roots? Are they in the genes or are they learned? This question not only relates to Abran's relationship with his adoptive parents and his genetic ones, but also to the story's villain, Frank Dominic, who has reinvented himself. By making Frank Dominic a black-hat baddie, Anaya misses a chance to develop the theme. Neverthless it is a tribute to the book that I am thinking about the question.

I missed this book when it appeared and I am grateful to Open Media for contacting me about it. I received a free copy in return for a fair review.

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