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Rudolfo Anaya’s latest is part autobiographical and part exploration of imagined lives

New Mexico author Rudolfo Anaya in his home writing studio. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico author Rudolfo Anaya in his home writing studio. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Rudolfo Anaya’s new book, “The Sorrows of Young Alfonso,” is intriguing in its content and its form.

“It’s a fictional memoir,” Anaya said.

As a memoir, it can stand as biography of the Albuquerque-based author, the dean of Chicano literature.

The book could also be read as a thought-provoking companion to his most famous work, the classic 1972 coming-of-age novel “Bless Me, Ultima.”

The new book has characters with parallel lives to some of those in “Ultima.”

The central character in both books is a young man. In “Ultima,” his name is Antonio; in “Sorrows,” he is Alfonso. Both learn about the hardships of growing up on the llanos (plains) of eastern New Mexico.

“Sorrows” has its own curandera, Agapita, who figures prominently in Alfonso’s life. Curanderas were New Mexico’s first spiritual feminists. Besides being a folk healer, Agapita is a midwife, storyteller and counselor who cautions Alfonso about the sorrows he will face. At the same time, she urges him to “go live in the world.” Agapita is a liberating force.

Bks_j26June_Anaya2_CMYK“Sorrows” casts a wide net in the exploration of the human condition through a tapestry of intertwining issues and characters. Among those issues are the strength of family, the insistence of religious observance, the power of the supernatural and of mythology, the wonders of nature, the loss of Hispanic cultural values, the impact of history, the weight of rural poverty and the understanding of the inevitable sorrows in life.

Alfonso escapes from the trap of poverty through education. He is a reader. But if knowledge opens his mind, it also casts doubts about his Catholic upbringing. “Those despairing times were to be his greatest sorrow,” the book states.

Anaya acknowledged that he borrowed his book’s title and epistolary form from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” Published in 1774, Goethe’s story is about a 24-year-old man enchanted by the ways of a village and enamored of a young woman he knows is engaged to someone else.

Goethe’s book was part of a romantic literary/artistic movement that involving emotional extremes.

Anaya read Goethe as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico and, more recently, before writing his own “Sorrows.”

Both Goethe’s and Anaya’s books tell stories through letters. The similarities end there.

Anaya’s narrator is an unnamed friend of Alfonso’s who is writing letters to a person known only as K.

Writing the book, Anaya said, “was strenuous, mentally and physically. At 78, with the back problem that I have, a novel is very difficult to write.”

He’s persuaded himself to kick back, look at trees and birds, eat well and read books. He is, however, working on a few shorter book projects.

One is a children’s story that’s at the publisher. Another children’s story, “Owl in a Hat,” is for a summer reading program sponsored by Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Christopher Montalvo Memorial. It’s for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade in northern New Mexico.

“The theme of the (Owl in a Hat) story is if you can’t read, you can get into a lot of trouble,” Anaya said.