- The Sorrows of Young Alfonso by Rudolfo Anaya
Rudolfo Anaya's The Sorrows of Young Alfonso presents biographical recollections about a writer named Alfonso, through a series of letters, to a recipient known only as "K." Anaya's novel alludes to Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther and meditates on the function of art in utilitarian society and the trauma of loss. Anaya's book opens with the blunt pronouncement that "the world is full of sorrow," and the varied sorrows Alfonso experiences reinforce this claim [End Page 121] (3). Goethe and Anaya create protagonists who struggle against societal conventions that privilege compensatory labor over artistic expression. Anaya portrays, for instance, poverty's debilitating scars on Alfonso's psyche, the "shame [that] never goes away. It's like grief: a person can move on, but the memory remains" (100). An accident leaves Alfonso unable to share in the physical labor performed by his father and brothers, and Alfonso's creativity is crippled in a governmentally mandated bookkeeping job designed to make him "useful" to society. Anaya's Alfonso contemplates the dangers of being crippled by sorrow and circumstance so that one forgets that "every man must create a revolution" for himself and that sorrow is the root of all revolution, all learning, and all growth (26).
Alfonso's revolution begins with the stories of his childhood on the llano and mythopoetic fiction, "with each story the making of soul" (96). Alfonso references the liberatory power of Dickens's Pip and Somerset Maugham's Philip Carey to remind us that "books can cure a broken heart, lift up the depressed, point a confused reader on the right path, fill the soul with knowledge" (216). For Alfonso, literature is deeply experiential: "'I entered God's grandeur,' Fonso wrote, 'and blended into a greater world, not a spectator'" (161). These sentiments reinforce Anaya's romantic perception that art attaches soul to the immortality of "universal memory" (220).
In The Sorrows of Young Alfonso, Anaya conducts a metafictional interrogation of artistic purpose, intertextuality, and contradictory genre conventions for autobiography and fiction, arguing that memory "filtered through the writer . . . thus becomes an approximation, a fiction" (211). Anaya considers fiction "history's umbilical cord" but worries that our digital age divorces us from the organic relationship between literary production and reception: "Remember, the observer of any artistic work changes the work, and in turn is changed by it" (101, 220). Through Alfonso, Anaya articulates his indebtedness to past storytelling traditions, demonstrated by his exploration of sorrow in dialogue with Goethe. The sorrow of Goethe's Werther is unrequited love, a solipsistic fiction that ends in suicide. Alfonso's sorrow is death, outliving love, for which fiction is a consolation that "stop[s] the flow of time" to keep alive created worlds he has known (135). Goethe wrote with the intensity of unfulfilled youth. Anaya's prose has a valedictory quality that [End Page 122] recognizes the lost propensities of youth while celebrating the fulfillment of a storied career. Through Alfonso's literary odyssey, Anaya invites readers to share his vision of universality by reminding us that "Life must be fully lived to overcome the inherent sorrow in living" (33).