By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘And of Clay We Are Created’ is a short story by the Chilean writer Isabel Allende (born 1942), included in her 1989 collection The Stories of Eva Luna. In the story, a mountain avalanche causes a cataclysm which leads to thousands of deaths. The story follows the attempts of a newscaster who tries to save a thirteen-year-old girl who has become trapped in the mud.
Before we offer an analysis of ‘And of Clay We Are Created’, it might be worth recapping the plot of Allende’s story, which is concerned with death, human connection, and the nature of grief, among other themes.
‘And of Clay We Are Created’: plot summary
A volcanic eruption and the ensuing mountain avalanche cause vast damage to a village, killing thousands of people when it buries them beneath mud. One girl, named Azucena, clings on for life in a mudpit, and attracts the attention of television news reporters.
The first-person narrator of the story describes how her partner, Rolf Carlé, is dispatched to report on the avalanche, while the narrator watches her lover report from the scene, live on the television news.
Although he is known for his emotional detachment when reporting on the news, Carlé seeks to help the girl who is trapped in the quagmire, and aids in the attempt to pull her out of the mud using a rope and a life buoy fastened around her body. However, Azucena tells him that her lower body is trapped in the corpses beneath the mud: the corpses of her brothers and sisters, still clinging to her legs.
Carlé makes numerous attempts to free Azucena from the mud, but a pump is sent for which can drain the water. However, it won’t arrive until the following day, so Carlé, at the girl’s request, stays with her so she is not alone, and they talk. He learns she is thirteen years old and has never been outside of her village. He becomes optimistic that she will be all right as he entertains her with stories throughout the night.
The narrator, who had often accompanied Carlé to the TV studios where he works, goes there to watch him talking to the girl through the night. In the morning, Carlé learns that Azucena apparently has a fever, but they cannot treat her as the antibiotics are being saved for cases of gangrene. As the second night of Azucena’s imprisonment in the mud arrives, both she and Carlé are clearly exhausted from lack of sleep.
It is at this point that Carlé, who grew up in Austria, begins to recall his childhood in a concentration camp during the Second World War, and how his father used to beat him. He also recalls his sister, Katharina, who was born with learning difficulties and resented by their father. Carlé realises that his entire career as a reporter has been an unconscious attempt to keep all of these fears at bay, but now they come flooding back to him. He realises his is Azucena: trapped and fearful, just like her.
The next day, the President arrives and speaks to Azucena. Watching on the television, the narrator notices that something has changed in Carlé, and he has given in to grief. When Azucena tells him that she has never been loved by any boy, he tells her that he loves her more than he has loved anyone else, and prays that her death will be quick.
Although the pump is now on its way, Azucena dies before it arrives, her eyes locked with Carlé’s.
The story ends with the narrator addressing Carlé directly, revealing to us that he often watches the footage of Azucena again, looking for something he could have done to save her, but also searching, in some sense, for himself.
‘And of Clay We Are Created’: analysis
This story concludes The Stories of Eva Luna: an Arabian Nights-influenced collection in which Eva plays the Scheherazade storyteller figure from the original anthology of Middle-Eastern stories. ‘And of Clay We Are Created’ ends the collection on a downbeat note, following the death of the girl, Azucena, in the mudslide and the subsequent change that Rolf Carlé has undergone in response to the tragedy.
And yet in some respects, the story is a positive one. The tragic death of the young girl is marked by a moment of genuine and profound human connection between two unlikely companions: a teenage girl and the adult, male newscaster who had turned up to report on her plight. But in the end, Carlé finds that he is unable to maintain his usual emotional detachment and must seek to help her.
And although he is ultimately unsuccessful in saving the girl’s life, he is able to make her feel loved and cared for during her dying days. But ‘And of Clay We Are Created’ is as much a story about Azucena saving him as it is his attempts to save her. By inadvertently breaking down his emotional barriers – which he has artificially put up throughout all of his adult life as a kind of protective mechanism – she enables him to reconnect with his true self, and to feel emotions he has not felt in decades.
More than this, she makes it possible for him to grieve – not just for her, but for his sister, mistreated at the hands of their father, his mother, who was humiliated and robbed of her dignity, and perhaps even for all of humanity: here, the references to the Holocaust and concentration camps make Carlé’s grief both personal and universal at the same time.
Can we label Carlé’s emotional response to Azecuna’s plight an epiphany: that coming to consciousness, or realisation, which characters in modern short stories often experience? Perhaps. Epiphanies in modern fiction are often open to interpretation and analysis: ambiguous in their significance, they can be taken as heartfelt and permanent changes of perspective or (more cynically) as short-lived and even performative shifts in response to an immediate experience, with the implication being that once the immediacy of the experience is past, the character will forget its lessons and revert to their earlier attitudes.
In ‘And of Clay We Are Created’, we are convinced of the sincerity and profundity of Carlé’s emotional change, despite the fact that we, via his lover Eva, are witnessing the change from the outside. Indeed, Carlé is literally on the television, with Eva watching him via a television screen: ‘the other side of life’, as she puts it at one point. But even with the two of them separated by the glass of that screen, she can tell that ‘something fundamental had changed in him.’ Indeed, she sees a new side to him which he had never shared with her.
‘The other side of life’ is a key phrase in the story, and Allende does much here with the symbolism of the television screen and the news cameras. In the modern age, we are virtually all familiar with the experience of helplessly watching tragedy and disaster unfold on the rolling television news: separated by a screen, we are unable to do anything except watch in horror.
Indeed, perhaps the Holocaust was the first really harrowing example of such things being captured on film for the world, and posterity, to see. Allende’s story taps into this. And yet she elevates the details above the squalor and horror that surround them.
Although she appears to point the finger at the bureaucratic barriers which prevent help from reaching Azucena and potentially saving her life (note how that pump was meant to arrive on the second day, but it is delayed, held up by paperwork), she also emphasises the human solidarity and connection which the catastrophe forges between Carlé and Azucena.
Note how Allende tells us that the two of them ‘flew above the vast swamp of corruption and laments’ (the literal quagmire of mud which traps Azucena is not the only swamp which oppresses and imprisons us). Indeed, they were both ‘saved from despair’, because they had been reminded of the good, the kindness, that individual humans are capable of offering to each other.
If the mud and quagmire which traps Azucena is also, then, a symbol for the dirt and corruption which engulfs the whole country (and perhaps all of humankind), then Azucena – her ‘flower name’, which means ‘lily’ – is the ‘flower in the mud’, as Allende’s narrator tells us at the moment of the girl’s death. She is beautiful but also fragile and delicate.
The mud is too powerful. And yet all of us are derived from such clay or earth, in one way or another, as the story’s title reminds us. The question appears to be how to rise above it.