‘And of Clay Are We Created’ is part of the collection called The Stories of Eva Luna (1989). Eva Luna is the most famous character created by Isabel Allende, and although she is not named in this short story, Eva Luna is its narrator.
‘And of Clay Are We Created’ | Summary
‘And of Clay Are We Created’ opens with the striking image of a ‘girl’s head protruding from the mud pit, eyes wide open, calling soundlessly’. The girl, named Azucena, is stranded in the mud pit that happened following a volcanic eruption that led to the melting of the ice on the mountain slopes, eventually forming an avalanche. The avalanche has buried entire villages under a load of ‘clay, stones, and water’ and has killed more than twenty thousand people.
Rolf Carlé, a journalist by profession, is at the spot to report this event. He is usually a very calm and dispassionate reporter, able to do his job without getting too sentimental or overwhelmed by the events he reports. However, Azucena’s plight somehow gets to the core of Rolf and he wades into the mud pit himself in a bid to rescue Azucena. Rolf gets to the task immediately, tying a rope around the girl so the others could pull her out of the pit. But this fails as the girl screams out in pain. The others think that it could be the debris from the crushed house that has kept Azucena stuck in that spot but she insists it is the corpses of her brothers and sisters.
The narrator can feel all calmness slipping away from Rolf as he becomes desperate to find a way to get Azucena out of the pit. He tries everything he can, to no avail. Eventually, he decides that they must have a pump ‘to drain the water’. The request for a pump is made but it cannot be arranged anytime soon. The night is a test for Azucena; Rolf helps her drink some coffee to keep her body warm. The coffee works as she seems warmer, and to keep her calm, Rolf tells her of the various adventures he has had in his career as a journalist. Rolf even imagines optimistically how a helicopter will take Azucena to a hospital very soon and he will visit her there.
The narrator, Rolf’s wife, tries to contact some important people she knows in order to arrange for a pump to be sent to the spot immediately but she obtains ‘only vague promises’. This entire episode takes a toll on the narrator also and she can feel Rolf’s ‘frustration, his impotence’. The natural disaster has caused utter chaos in the places it has affected and the media has ‘appropriated Azucena, bestowing on her the pathetic responsibility of embodying the horror’ of what has happened. Ironically, none can arrange a pump in order to actually rescue her.
Azucena starts vomiting out food now. A doctor and a priest come to visit her. Meanwhile, Azucena has attracted wide media coverage. Night comes and Rolf sings old Austrian folk songs to help Azucena sleep. Both of them are exhausted. Rolf starts ruminating about his traumatic past, involving the Holocaust, an abusive father, and his sister Katharina, among other things. Both he and his sister were victims of their father’s abuse and Rolf starts thinking about his sister’s death.
The next day, the President of the country comes to visit Azucena. He says he will ensure that a pump is sent here at the earliest and yet, nothing happens. Meanwhile, the narrator can feel there is some change in Rolf, and both Rolf and Azucena have now abandoned all hopes of rescue. Rolf kisses the little girl’s forehead and prays that she dies quickly so that she does not have to suffer too much. The narrator ends by pondering how Rolf is no longer the same man but hopes that this wound too would heal in time and that they ‘shall again walk hand in hand, as before’.
‘And of Clay Are We Created’ | Analysis
The theme of humans versus nature is very prominent in the story. The story is set in a South American region devastated by an avalanche following a volcanic eruption. Through vivid imagery, the author brings out the immense power of nature and its sheer indifference to humans. The narrator reports how on a fateful Wednesday night, ‘a prolonged roar announced the end of the world, and walls of snow broke loose, rolling in an avalanche of clay, stones, and water that descended on the villages and buried them beneath unfathomable meters of telluric vomit’. Nature’s fierceness is coupled with the humans’ foolishness and callousness. The narrator tells us how the geologists actually predicted the calamity but their warnings went unheeded as the people dismissed them because they sounded like the ‘tales of frightened old women’. The scale of destruction caused is immense, and after the calamity, human beings, even with their best efforts, are unable to adequately tackle the situation.
Memories of the past, its repression, and its eventual awakening are themes that are effectively explored in this short story, sometimes literally and sometimes symbolically. At the end of the story, the reader understands that Rolf’s plunge into the mud pit in order to save Azucena is also a symbolic plunge into his own memories of his traumatic past. The narrator, for instance, says:
‘That night, imperceptibly, the unyielding floodgates that had contained Rolf Carlé’s past for so many years began to open, and the torrent of all that had lain hidden in the deepest and most secret layers of memory poured out, leveling before it the obstacles that had blocked his consciousness for so long.’
The mud entraps its victims in a net of memories, as it were. This symbolic function of the mud can be deduced from Azucena’s point of view as well: she is unable to come out holding the rope that is tied around her because she says she is ‘held by the bodies of her brothers and sisters clinging to her legs’. This clinging works on both literal and symbolic levels, for both Azucena and Rolf.
Indeed, the memories of Rolf’s traumatic past get a vent on the third night due to various reasons. One of them is the role that Azucena perhaps unwittingly plays. From the time Rolf decides to help Azucena himself, there are setbacks. The narrator says, ‘The girl could not move, she barely could breathe, but she did not seem desperate, as if an ancestral resignation allowed her to accept her fate. The reporter, on the other hand, was determined to snatch her from death’. Here we see a switch of roles: the reporter who is otherwise so calm is intensely desperate here while the victim has resigned herself to fate. This calm attitude of Azucena to her ill-boding future is what perhaps enables Rolf to try and come to terms with his past. The shift between Rolf’s past and present attitudes towards his buried memories can be understood by observing a part of the free indirect discourse that appears towards the end of the story:
‘There, beside that hellhole of mud, it was impossible for Rolf to flee from himself any longer, and the visceral terror he had lived as a boy suddenly invaded him. He reverted to the years when he was the age of Azucena, and younger, and, like her, found himself trapped in a pit without escape, buried in life, his head barely above ground; he saw before his eyes the boots and legs of his father, who had removed his belt and was whipping it in the air with the never-forgotten hiss of a viper coiled to strike … He understood then that all his exploits as a reporter, the feats that had won him such recognition and fame, were merely an attempt to keep his most ancient fears at bay, a stratagem for taking refuge behind a lens to test whether reality was more tolerable from that perspective. … But he had come face to face with the moment of truth; he could not continue to escape his past. He was Azucena; he was buried in the clayey mud…’
Rolf’s exploits as a reporter, the reader now learns, have been a defence mechanism throughout. The reader also sees how Rolf now identifies with Azucena completely, both trapped, one literally and one symbolically, in the mud.
The general apathy among people is another theme of the story. The author employs ample instances of irony to show how the world is comfortable with banishing Azucena to the status of a mere symbol, and heaving sympathies upon her, while the actual body of Azucena is dying. Neither the news media nor the state machinery escapes Allende’s sharp critique. Let us take two examples. The first one shows the perverse act on the news media’s part to try to ‘sell’ Azucena to millions of people while doing nothing to actually help her:
‘Reporters returned to photograph Azucena and ask her the same questions, which she no longer tried to answer. In the meanwhile, more television and movie teams arrived with spools of cable, tapes, film, videos, precision lenses, recorders, sound consoles, lights, reflecting screens, auxiliary motors, cartons of supplies, electricians, sound technicians, and cameramen: Azucena’s face was beamed to millions of screens around the world. And all the while Rolf Carlé kept pleading for a pump.’
In the second instance, even such a figure as the President of the country emerges as indifference personified:
‘Then he asked to be taken to see Azucena, the little girl the whole world had seen. He waved to her with a limp statesman’s hand, and microphones recorded his emotional voice and paternal tone as he told her that her courage had served as an example to the nation. Rolf Carlé interrupted to ask for a pump, and the President assured him that he personally would attend to the matter.’
The help, of course, never comes. The sheer incompetence, apathy and insensitivity of various institutions are brought forth in the story. The various parties are only willing to cast a voyeuristic gaze at Azucena’s misfortunes instead of arranging help for her. This sheds some light on one of the many ironies at the heart of civilization perhaps; humanity has the technology through which millions of people can see Azucena but somehow, people very close to her are unable to help her. The narrator uses the phrase ‘vague promises’ twice in the story to say how her own efforts at arranging a pump to be sent to the spot are met only with hollow assurances from officials.
The job of news reporting is closely depicted and commented on in the story. Reporting news can create a ‘fictive distance’ between the reporter and the events, whereby the reporter has the luxury of reporting the event objectively, without having to participate in the event. Rolf has been adept at this job so far. But Azucena’s misery shatters the protective shield that journalism can afford. This causes Rolf to at last stand face to face with his own traumas.
Imageries are effectively used in the story. In the opening passage of the story, the narrator describes Azucena’s head as ‘budding like a black squash from the clay’. The avalanche is described as ‘unfathomable meters of telluric vomit’. Also, the President is described as waving to Azucena with a ‘limp statesman’s hand’. The imageries, hence, create not only vivid pictures in the minds of the readers but also contribute to the story thematically.
Foreshadowing is another device used in the story. In the opening passage of the story, the character-arc of Rolf is indicated when the reader is told how Rolf went to work on that particular event ‘never suspecting that he would find a fragment of his past, lost thirty years before’. Similarly, Azucena’s tragic fate is hinted at early on in the story thus: ‘The mud was like quicksand around her, and anyone attempting to reach her was in danger of sinking’.
The use of symbolism in the story has already been noted.
NARRATIVE STYLE AND TECHNIQUES
The story is narrated in the first person by Rolf’s wife who is unnamed in this particular story. The story is narrated as a recollection, and it itself often takes the form of journalism. However, though the narration might resemble journalism in parts due to its reporting of a highly emotionally charged event, its tone is rarely bald and objective. Rather, various emotions pertaining to the characters are beautifully brought out through a simple yet sympathetic narration.’
The closing passage of the story marks a shift in the narration as the narrator now addresses Rolf, her husband, directly. This shift lends an air of authenticity to the narrator’s sentiments, and also shows the psychological struggles of Rolf and the narrator’s intense wishes for his betterment from a very personal viewpoint.
TITLE OF THE STORY
Clay in the story stands for predicament, burden, and most importantly, entanglement. Taken as a whole, clay symbolizes the past and its various unpleasant memories that suck people downward. The title of the story seems to suggest that all human beings have some miserable past memories or other buried inside them. It is perhaps a universal human condition. However, the last lines of the story are fused with optimism, a tool that can act as a counter-force to the suction of the mud and clay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Isabel Allende was born on August 2, 1942. She lived in several countries as a child before leaving Chile soon after the assassination of her uncle Salvador Allende, the then President. She worked as a journalist. Allende mainly wrote novels and is most famous as the creator of the character called Eva Luna who, incidentally, is the narrator of this short story.