“Slide In, My Dark One, Between the Crosstie and the Whistle”
In a shift from this series’ earlier focus on public figures, this time I highlight a hero from what Mexico’s Elena Poniatowski calls the silent voices of society. I do so by reviewing her above-mentioned short story, in which Pancho, a steam train engineer, copes with being displaced by the innovation of the diesel engine.
Poniatowski’s portrayal of this ordinary train engineer is elevated, first, by her sensuously written analogy of the love Pancho has for his wife Teresa and the love he also holds for his train engine La Prieta. “… when Teresa sat on top of him while they made love, … Pancho felt as satisfied then as he did before his engine’s control panel. A dense happiness slid through him.”
The story is also elevated by Poniatowski’s exquisite sensitivity to the psychology of loss. Pancho’s heartbreak is expressed with the resignation of the powerless and dispossessed, “Anyway, he’s used to it by now; he can put up with that and a lot more; he can put up with a helluva lot.”
Both of Pancho’s loves end up betraying him: Teresa, by leaving him for another man; and La Prieta, by being displaced by a diesel engine. Though the doubly heartbroken Pancho tries valiantly to fit into the new modern order, his now obsolete skills offer him no place there. He is further destabilized because Teresa’s absence left him bereft of a soft landing in the face of jarring professional loss.
For a while, Pancho runs the impersonal new diesels while continuing as a union leader. “…the older guys respect Pancho and the younger ones want to be noticed by him. The superintendent feels the same way.” In the end, though, Pancho acknowledges the permanency and enormity of his losses: his Teresa, his beloved Prieta, and his full value as a steam rail engineer.
Pancho then steals with impunity his old engine La Prieta and disappears into the countryside. After a while, “… a rumor is spreading of a runaway engine that makes ghost runs, and at night you can hear how the engineer opens the steam valve and then the mountain echoes with a long lament, like the cry of a wounded animal, a deep pained cry that cuts the mountains of Puebla in two.”
Elena Poniatowski was born in Paris to a Polish father and Mexican mother and has worked as a journalist. She published a novel, Hasta No Verte, Jesús Mío, about Mexican history from pre-Revolutionary days to more recent times. She has also written a testimonial narrative of the 1968 Tlatelco massacre, Massacre in Mexico. Again, melding history with social commentary, she has written a number of other short stories.
Fundamentally, this particular story, “Slide In, My Dark One …,” depicts how an individual, faced with deep loss and armed with limited resources, strives to maintain intact his personal dignity. Pancho’s is a quiet heroism, as is true of so many of the silent voices of society who live challenging lives without acclaim. Pancho made his final heroic stand by disappearing, perhaps in recognition of being powerless to change the new order; in the process, becoming a mythic figure. Dramatic technological, political, and socio-economic shifts are today an increasing reality for many. Let us hope they too can find their voices.
Source Anthology: Beyond the Border: A New Age in Latin American Women's Fiction
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William Joseph Seymour - A Son of Slaves Sparks an International Religious Revival
Gilgamesh – The Original Literary Hero