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

November 15, 1992|David Lohrey | Lohrey is a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District

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:

"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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