does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Hero’s Journey – Pancho Valverde and the Silent Voices of Society

“Slide In, My Dark One, Between the Crosstie and the Whistle”
Elena Poniatowski

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

Other Hero’s Journey Posts:

Nelson Mandela

William Joseph Seymour - A Son of Slaves Sparks an International Religious Revival

Mercedes Sosa

Gilgamesh – The Original Literary Hero


Sun Singer said...

The steam whistle's lament sounds like a very nice touch; so many people who are in the protagonist's shoes in most professions are silent. They become displaced, but nobody knows it: they have no way to speak.

A Cuban In London said...

I was completely unaware of this literary gem. Your review is timely as I watched recently a Mexican film called 'El Violin'. The paralells you describe in Poniatowski's tale are fascinating and I will be seeking out this short story. Many thanks for such a fine review.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Malcolm: I too was quite taken with the steam whistle. It really gave voice to Pancho's lament.

Cuban, I'm blown away that I have introduced you to a new Latin American voice. Made my day.

Thank you both for sharing your thoughts.

Nevine said...

Judy, like Cuban, I had never heard of this short story, nor had I heard of Elena Poniatowski. Your analysis of the story is very compelling, especially as it concerns the characters, and most importantly Pancho. It seems there is a wealth of psychological insight to be gained from Pancho's experience. I especially enjoyed the excerpt you shared in the second paragraph, in which Pancho's love for his wife is compared to his love for his engine. What a dynamic analogy! This is the kind of writing that makes reading fun for people like me. What a pleasure to plunge into the minds created by the mind of another.

An awesome post, Judy. And thank you for introducing me to yet another writer I was not familiar with...


Judith Mercado said...

Nevine, I am so glad others can share my joy at discovering this author. Her story and style stood out among her fellow anthology authors. Originally, I had planned to review the anthology but kept coming back to this story, and the result is this post. Thanks for sharing my journey of exploration.