Magic, mystery and a devilish tale

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

“She could spin a story the way a spider spins a well-crafted web,” admits the Spanish colonial governor who finds himself not merely beguiled but bewitched by a beautiful young woman in “Serafina’s Stories,” a novel made up of a series of tales told by its title character. “The story had penetrated the Governor’s heart, his soul, the seat of his imagination.” The same can be said of its author, Rudolfo Anaya, a storyteller of real and sometimes eerie power.

Anaya’s considerable reputation began with the 1972 publication of “Bless Me, Ultima,” and he has come to be regarded as one of the founders of modern Chicano literature. His work includes folk tales of the kind we find in “Serafina’s Stories,” as well as a series of mystery novels featuring the Albuquerque-based private detective Sonny Baca, whose latest outing is titled “Jemez Spring.”

“Serafina’s Stories” is set in 1680, when the governor of New Mexico encounters a 15-year-old girl among the rebellious Pueblo Indians arrested by his soldiers on charges of insurrection. Serafina turns out to be a Native American Scheherazade, and the book consists of the cuentos that she tells to her captor on a wager -- if he likes one of her stories, he must release one of the prisoners.

Her stories are simple but vivid, populated with fools and tricksters, talking horses and singing trees, powerful kings and humble bakers, beauties and beasts. Like many folk tales in their original and authentic form, they include moments of both comic violence and real horror; “The Adventures of Pedro de Ordimales,” for example, begins with a young goatherd who accidentally kills his mother by feeding her a portion of breakfast gruel rather too enthusiastically.


There is magic and mystery too, as when a well-meaning father innocently recruits the Devil to act as godfather to his newborn son in “The Devil’s Godchild.” The son grows up to be blessed and damned, a bonded servant to his diabolical godfather, but he is saved in the end by the miraculous intervention of a white horse that turns out to be the incarnated soul of his father. “The world cannot last long without the Devil,” the young man learns. “He takes many forms and returns when you least expect him.”

“Jemez Spring” is set in contemporary New Mexico, the final title in a quartet featuring Baca. Yet here, too, Anaya practices a kind of sorcery. The investigator is a brujo, a kind of shaman who possesses the power to enter another person’s dreams. His skills prove crucial when he is called to assist the state police with a high-profile murder -- the governor has been drowned -- and an apparent terrorist plot involving a radioactive bomb. This villain also is a shape-shifting demon.

If Raymond Chandler’s mysteries can be described as hard-boiled, then Anaya’s must be called phantasmagorical. The black feathers left at the scene of the murder, for example, are a sure sign that the culprit is Baca’s arch-nemesis, a spectral figure he calls Raven. “Raven lived in the hot compost of the unconscious,” explains Anaya, “because Raven’s world was mythic, levels and circles deeper than Dante’s inferno, dark epicycles where he composed his stories, images with which he tortured the unwary.”

Baca’s weaponry includes not only a Colt .45 but also a shamanistic device called a dream catcher, and his allies include the state police and the unseen spirit of his now-deceased master, a brujo called Don Eliseo. To kill Raven, for example, Baca seeks out a gunsmith to fashion a special bullet out of the waste of an atomic bomb test. "[T]o kill a shadow,” he says, “you need lead melted from the bowels of hell.”

Raven may be demonic, but he is also meant to be real. The authorities suspect him of stealing plutonium from the laboratories at Los Alamos and selling it to Al Qaeda, and Baca blames him for causing the miscarriage of Baca’s child. And for that reason, he is driven by his own rage and terror to pursue Raven. The final encounter between these two men plays out less like that between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty than as a duel of sorcerers, one good and one evil.

“I’m tired of sharing time and space with you,” says Raven to Baca. “Don’t you know, it’s time for the final Apocalypse, the end of the world, the dream of Vishnu, God’s experiment, call it what you want, this is my time.”

“Jemez Spring” is meant to appeal to readers of conventional mystery novels, but there is nothing conventional about it. Like “Serafina’s Stories,” it taps into primal and universal fears and longings but plays them out in a uniquely New Mexican setting. And the master tells his tales with words and images so rich and strange that it is almost as if he had invented a language of his own. *