- The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya
“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” (3). With this fable-like start Rudolfo Anaya opens his novella about an old man trying to cope with his wife’s death. As simple as this premise seems, the old man’s grief and loneliness take him—and by association the reader—into explorations of not only death and love but also the very truth of existence. The result is a beautiful little novel that sticks with you like a lingering, lovely scent.
The old man had been a writer in his earlier life, and so he makes for a writerly narrator, the kind that readerly types will appreciate. But as a writer he always believed in the potency of stories, the realness of stories, and that assurance begins to break down along with the rest of the things he’s believed throughout his life. He thinks of writing fiction as being a shaman, a storyteller and healer of souls. But the old man wonders, “What good was being a shaman if he couldn’t contact his Beloved?” (56). [End Page 131]
The old man converses with his wife, and she answers, but her responses, too, fall under scrutiny: Is she a spirit? A manifestation of his grieving brain? A truth but also, like one of his characters, a mere shadow of reality? In his conversations with his wife the old man admits the depths of his loneliness, which he keeps hidden from everyone else, and so finds perfect understanding. In her death his wife knows everything about him, yet he cannot touch her.
The old man lives his end-of-life fable in the modern world. He emigrated from Mexico, became a writer. He married an Anglo, a teacher who already had children, his soulmate. Together they traveled the world, absorbing the stories of multiple cultures and creating their own. So when it comes to this loss, the old man has a crisis of multiple faiths. He looks to the Catholicism of his childhood, the mysticism of his ancestors, the psychology of modernity, the individualism of his life: “Fractal geometry could measure the clouds, but could math measure the spirit within? The last poets on earth were struggling with the spirit of a restless god. A god so terrible he gave these moments of beauty to the old man, and let children in Somalia starve” (167). Sometimes he finds fragments of solace or truth, but these dissipate to be replaced by doubt and loss. This is postmodern grief, and the old man refuses the comfort of easy answers.
In the end do I wish the whole were less heteronormative? Do I wish that it relied less on overused seasonal tropes of death and renewal? In sum do I wish that the old man didn’t seem so, well, old? Absolutely. But even with these complaints and questions the book does what the best books do: it uses its contained space to expand the world. It may not be a perfect book, but it is a very smart and lovely one.