In the past two decades, Richard Rodriguez has offered us a gamut of anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not always attuned to his own inner life. These anecdotes have taken the form of a trilogy that started in 1983 with the classic Hunger of Memory, continued in 1993 with Days of Obligation and concludes now with his new book Brown: The Last Discovery of America. This isn’t a trilogy about history. It isn’t about sociology or politics either, at least in their most primary senses. Instead, it is a sustained meditation on Latino life in the United States, filled with labyrinthine reflections on philosophy and morality.
Rodriguez embraces subjectivity wholeheartedly. His tool, his astonishing device, is the essay, and his model, I believe, is Montaigne, the father of the personal essay and a genius at taking even an insect tempted by a candle flame as an excuse to meditate on the meaning of life, death and everything in between. Not that Montaigne is Rodriguez’s only touchstone. In Brown he chants to Alexis de Tocqueville and James Baldwin as well. And in the previous installments of his trilogy, particularly owing to his subject matter, he has emerged as something of a successor to Octavio Paz.
The other trunk of this genealogical tree I’m shaping is V.S. Naipaul, or at least he appears that to me, a counterpoint, as I reread Rodriguez’s oeuvre. They have much in common: They explore a culture through its nuances and not, as it were, through its high-profile iconography; they are meticulous littérateurs, intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important, everywhere they go they retain, to their honor, the position of the outsider looking in. Rodriguez, in particular, has been a Mexican-American but not a Chicano–that is, he has rejected the invitation to be a full part of the community that shaped him. Instead, he uses himself as a looking glass to reflect, from the outside, on who Mexicans are, in and beyond politics. This, predictably, has helped fill large reservoirs of animosity against him. I don’t know of any other Latino author who generates so much anger. Chicanos love to hate him as much as they hate to love him.
Why this is so isn’t difficult to understand: He is customarily critical of programs and policies that are seen as benefactors to the community, for example, bilingual education and affirmative action, which, in his eyes, have only balkanized families, neighborhoods and cities. In Hunger of Memory he portrayed himself as a Scholarship Boy who benefited from racial profiling. He reached a succinct conclusion: Not race but individual talent should be considered in a person’s application for school or work–not one’s skin color, last name or country of origin, only aptitude. Naipaul too can play the devil: His journeys through India and the Arab world, even through the lands of El Dorado, are unsettling when one considers his rabid opinions on the “uncivilized” natives. But Naipaul delivers these opinions with admirable grace and, through that, makes his readers rethink the colonial galaxy, revisit old ideas. In that sense, Naipaul and Rodriguez are authors who force upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas. We read them, we agree and disagree with them, so as to fine-tune our own conception of who we are. They are of the kind of writer who first infuriates, then unsettles us. What they never do is leave the reader unchanged. For that alone, one ought to be grateful.