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Labyrinth of Memory : DAYS OF OBLIGATION: An Argument With My Mexican Father, <i> By Richard Rodriguez (Viking: $21; 230 pp.)</i>

<i> Lohrey is a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District</i>

The essay survives. With so much else in decline, America continues to produce essayists very close to the first rank. Practitioners as varied as Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag explore the dynamics of public expression. However, most critics, I suspect, would agree that this country since the Second World War has not produced a lyrical essayist who can match, say, Albert Camus for sheer talent. They may now have cause to revise their opinion. “Days of Obligation,” Richard Rodriguez’s major new collection, looks into America--north and south of the Rio Grande--as penetratingly and eloquently as Camus did when he compared the mental landscapes of France and Algiers. Whether Rodriguez is talking about his native California or the Mexico of his mother and father, his vision springs from a mind nurtured by the ambiguity of personal identity and sharpened by the willingness to forgive.

Readers of “Hunger of Memory,” the author’s autobiographical essay, will remember his rare talent for making controversial subjects personal. Few can ever forget reading those poignant memories of Rodriguez’s gradual estrangement from his immigrant parents made inevitable by the power of education to recast the human soul. The personal quality of his earlier work has not disappeared, yet we are implicated to a greater degree by Rodriguez’s talent for making his memories our memories. But what is perhaps most striking about these essays has to do with the author’s ability to engage the past without regret. Rodriguez possesses an uncanny ability to draw the reader into California’s golden years free of nostalgia and, thus, accomplishes something rare. He memorializes what otherwise would be lost.

“Days of Obligation” collects in one volume 10 essays that take as their theme the American dilemma of identity, the quest for fulfillment and the necessary betrayal of one’s heritage. Hence the volume’s subtitle: “An Argument With My Mexican Father.” Efforts to marginalize this work by placing it within the cubbyhole of ethnic studies strike this reader as both unfortunate and ridiculous. Unfortunate, because those warned off will miss essay writing at its best, filled with wit, humor and the sort of detail only a lover of life can find. Ridiculous, because the author’s subject is precisely the opposite of what ethnic studies suggest, namely, the process by which immigrants become American. His focus is always on the life of the mind: “I was born to America, to its Protestant faith in the future.”

Rodriguez succeeds at once in relating his own story and in telling the story of all Americans. It is the story of shallow roots. The author, like many of the historic figures he treats, straddles two worlds. But he seems at times to belong to neither, as his incisive perceptions betray any loyalties, save to honesty. If there is an ax to grind, it is double-edged. But he describes so well what we lose by taking up the American dream:

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“If I were to show you Mexico, I would take you home; with the greatest reluctance I would take you home, where family snapshots crowd upon the mantle. For the Mexican, the past is firmly held from within. While outside, a few miles away in the American city, there is only loosening, unraveling; generations living apart. Old ladies living out their lives in fiercely flowered housedresses. Their sons are divorced; wear shorts, ride bikes; are not men, really; not really. Their granddaughters are not fresh, are not lovely or keen, are not even nice.”

The argument between Richard Rodriguez and his father began the day he was born in San Francisco. It has to do with conflicting views of life, perhaps even irreconcilable differences. The debate stems from the cultural distance between Richard’s Mexican father, whose Catholicism placed him “under the very tree of Original Sin,” and Richard himself, whose Californian education initiated him into the American disdain for sad endings. Typically, Rodriguez remembers the Irish nuns at his Sacramento parochial school with a perfect blend of irony and affection:

“I think of those women now, towers, linen-draped silos, inclining this way and that, and only their faces showing; themselves country lasses, daughters of Ireland. They served as my link between Mexico and America, between my father’s dark Latin skepticism and the naive cherry tree of Protestant imagining.”

A tenuous link, surely. Yet it has served both to connect the author to his past and to function as an anchor, moral and intellectual. In the case of the following passage, the author reveals the point at which memories merge with learning to form a mature sensibility:

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“I have never looked for utopia on a map. Of course, I believe in human development. I believe in medicine, in astrophysics, in washing machines. But my compass takes its cardinal point from tragedy. If I respond to the metaphor of spring, I nevertheless learned, years ago, from my Mexican father, from my Irish nuns, to count on winter. The point of Eden for me, for us, is not approach but expulsion.”

But don’t let the author’s somber tone or his seemingly grave aspect put you off. He is in fact a disarmingly funny writer. Rodriguez finds humor in paradox and visual incident, whether his sights are trained on the attraction of homosexuals for Victorian architecture or the implications of multiculturalism for Catholic life. It is a humor born of compassion, without rancor. Yet it skewers. His comparison of Protestants and Catholics made me laugh out loud:

“Catholics have better architecture and sunnier plazas and an easier virtue and are warmer to the touch. At its best, Catholicism is forgiving.”

Thinking of converting? Wait.

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“Protestants run cleaner police departments and courts of law than Catholics. Protestant trains smell better than Catholic trains and they run on time.”

Here’s the clincher:

“Everyone knows that Catholics run better restaurants. . . “

Although Rodriguez is capable of the light touch, he is rarely lighthearted. As a resident still of his native city, the author mourns not so much for the individual victims of the AIDS pandemic--though certainly for them too--but rather, it seems, for the loss of joy which had accompanied the physical revitalization of San Francisco at the hands of affluent gays:

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“AIDS, it has been discovered, is a plague of absence. Absence opened in the blood. Absence condensed into the fluid of passing emotion. Absence shot through opalescent tugs of semen to deflower the city.”

But the author’s grief is not metaphorical:

“The phone rang. AIDS had tagged a friend. And then the phone rang again. And then the phone rang again. Michael has tested positive. Adrian, well, what he had assumed were shingles. . . . Paul was back in the hospital. And Cesar, dammit, Cesar, even Cesar, especially Cesar.”

The authority of the lyrical essayist, however, derives from a source beyond intellectual sophistication, beyond wit, style and humor, and is to be found in the realm of self-awareness. This is the source of Rodriguez’s own peculiar power as a writer. Like Camus, who electrified his contemporaries by his refusal to sanction terrorism as a means of driving the French out of his native Algiers, saying, “I love my mother more than justice,” Richard Rodriguez draws his morality from personal experience, preferring always the concrete to the abstract. As always, it is a war of words. Honesty is at stake. Rodriguez exposes the power of the sentimentalist to distort identity by the misguided search for authenticity. Here is how he fends off efforts to attribute Indian origins to his Mexican countenance:

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“I was a Mexican in California; I would no more have thought of myself as an Aztec in California than you might imagine yourself a Viking or a Bantu.”

When Rodriguez looks with clear eyes to Californian history, much that has been lost to recent polemics is recovered. The author, always free of cant, is able to find refreshing truths in historical events. The accomplishments of Father Junipero Serra, to take but one example, gain in Rodriguez’s reading:

“The postmodern judgment of Serra derives from our imagination of Indians as innocent. Serra did not approach naked Indians with the reverence we might feel for the angelic dolphins. . . Rome had decreed that Indians have souls, were therefore the spiritual equal of Europeans--equal, too, in their need for evangelization.”

No doubt people eager to be thought wise in their own generation will emerge to denounce Richard Rodriguez. Humanity these days is not a popular cause, decency not an acceptable stand. Hannah Arendt, after all, was never forgiven her coverage of Eichmann’s trial. V. S. Naipaul remains a traitor to the Third World. Cheerleaders, we’ve come to learn, only carry pom-poms to hide their knives. But discerning readers will celebrate this distinguished voice in American letters and hope he survives the onslaught. We’ll know they got him when he starts apologizing.

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