And of Clay Are We Created by Isabel Allende, 1994

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by Isabel Allende, 1994

Because of space limitations 24 of Isabel Allende's stories, including "And of Clay Are We Created" "De barro estanos hechos"), that were originally intended for inclusion in Eva Luna were later published separately in The Stories of Eva Luna (Cuentos de Eva Luna). The two books complement each other as narratives of a Scheherazade character whose storytelling saves and sustains herself and others. Eva Luna, the narrator, is a chronicler of her life and times, as in many respects Allende herself has been.

A native of Chile born in Peru in 1942, Allende became a popular journalist and broadcaster. During a military coup against the socialist government in 1973, her uncle, President Salvador Allende Gossens, was assassinated. The ensuing violence threatened her family, and they fled to Venezuela. This was a dividing line in Allende's life, and for two years she wrote nothing. But when her grandfather fell dangerously ill in Chile, she began to gather together both personal and political memories, and in 1981 she began to write fiction. Since 1988 she has lived in the United States.

Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna are set in a country that is unidentified but unmistakably located in Latin American. Taken together, the two books reward the reader with correspondences between characters and events that are presented in fictional form but that are clearly related to patterns of Latin America's contemporary political and social history. The narrator constructs her stories for her newscaster lover Rolf Carlé as temporary protection against and distraction from the realities he must report daily. The threads that connect the protagonists of the stories are their vulnerability to social pressures and their ability to survive, always with love or resistance to misconstrued love, ingenuity, and generosity as the sources of their strength.

"And of Clay Are We Created" combines simplicity and great complexity in the account of a volcanic eruption during which a village and its possessions, some 2, 000 inhabitants, and uncounted animals are buried under ice and snow, mud, and other debris. The horrific scene, which is reality in the extreme, is described from multiple points of view: that of Rolf Carlé, the newscaster assigned to cover the eruption; the narrator Eva Luna, who is miles away and, like everyone else at a distance, able to share his experience only vicariously through television; and the anonymous officials and rescue workers on the scene, who seem impersonal and ineffective in relation to the 13-year-old girl caught in a mud pit as tenacious as quicksand and who "obstinately clinging to life became the symbol of the tragedy." The girl cannot move because of the dangerous viscosity of the clayey mud, and she cannot be pulled out because something, the rubble of her house perhaps, has trapped her beneath the surface. Only her head shows above the surface, "eyes wide open, calling soundlessly." The girl's name is Azucena (Lily), and she brings to mind the Hindu symbolism of the pond lily, its roots in mud and darkness but its white blossom opening to air and light, the essence of purity. Whether this Lily will survive to enjoy pure air and light is the crux of the story, and her effect on Rolf Carlé is its point.

Carlé's great strength, Eva Luna explains, is that, although he does not think of himself at all as a brave man, he seems to report fearlessly from scenes of utmost danger. She says, "I believe that the lens of the camera had a strange effect on him; it was as if it transported him to a different time from which he could watch events without actually participating in them." A psychological space preserves him, while a creeping deprivation of literal space threatens the girl.

The girl Azucena becomes the whole of Carlé's story. Although a multitude of tragedies unfolds on every side, he is "determined to snatch her from her fate." He first films others who try to reach her by throwing her a rope, but her feeble efforts to pull on it only threaten to sink her deeper. He wades in, up to his waist in the muck, and ties the rope under her arms. When the rescuers pull on the rope, she screams and says that "it was not just rubble, that she was also held by the bodies of her brothers and sisters clinging to her legs." The living and the dead therefore must be rescued together.

Azucena becomes Carlé's challenge. He tries everything he can devise, including a plank to enable him to stay close to her and a rubber tire that he places under her arms like a buoy. A pump would draw off the water and make it possible to clear the rubble underneath, but there is no pump. The story becomes a narrative of those who pass by on the other side, all with the most plausible pressing business elsewhere. A radio request for a pump brings the reply that no transport is available. An army doctor examines Azucena and decides that she can survive the night if she does not get too cold and then goes on his way. A priest hangs a medal around her neck. In the distant city Eva Luna can get only vague promises—from senators, army commanders, an ambassador from a North American country, the national oil company president—for a pump. She tries to communicate mentally with Carlé in order to share in the horror and the hope.

Carlé stays with Azucena and continues to plead for a pump. During the first night they exchange stories of themselves. She tells about "her small life" in the village she has never left in all of her 13 years; he tells about his travels. On the second day she teaches him to pray, and he tells stories that Eva Luna has told him. During the second night it is Carlé's protective shell that breaks open: "Azucena had surrendered her fear to him and so, without wishing it, had obliged Rolf to confront his own." He pours out memories of a warped Austrian childhood, a sadistic father, a mistreated mother, and a retarded sister who was neglected, and he explains that his mother had sent him alone to South America after the war. On the third day Azucena begs him not to weep, for she does not hurt anymore. He replies that he is the one who hurts, and he cries for himself. "Rolf had wanted to console her," Eva Luna writes, "but it was Azucena who had given him consolation."

On the fourth day the president of the country finally appears, declares the destroyed valley to be holy ground, and is taken to see Azucena. He waves limply, speaks paternally and condescendingly, promises a pump, and goes away. By then Eva Luna has located a pump, but the general who promises it cannot ship it until the fifth day, which Azucena will not see. In full glare of the international spotlight, she gives up at last, and Rolf Carlé must let her go. "She sank slowly, a flower in the mud," a reversal of India's metaphorical lily.

As a genre the modern short story was perfected by the French and Russian masters of the nineteenth century. At its best the short story makes a single point and makes it obliquely and often ironically. It asks a question but does not provide an answer, which the reader must find for himself. The crucial development takes place after the story closes. Allende's story uses irony to dissect the failure of modern technology to cope with a natural catastrophe, as, even with its sophisticated communications, a country whose economy thrives on oil cannot find one pump to save a small girl.

Eva Luna says, "You are back with me, but you are not the same man…. Your cameras lie forgotten in a closet, you do not write or sing…. Beside you, I wait for you to complete the voyage into yourself, for the old wounds to heal." Eva has faith that Rolf Carlé will return as the man she knew, but the question whether repayment is possible for so great a debt of self-recovery remains. When the cameras come out of the closet, will they photograph the future in the light of the past?

—Mary Lago