Without knowing the context within which ‘‘The Censors’’ was written, it would be easy to view Juan’s actions and perceptions in the story as paranoid. However, many of his fears, when considered within the framework of the repressive Argentine government that Valenzuela lived through in the 1970s and into the 1980s, may have been justified. Immediately after sending his letter, Juan begins to rethink everything he has written, wondering what might be misinterpreted by the censors. He knows how thoroughly they examine each letter, studying it as a physical object (Juan talks about how they smell and feel each letter) and as a message with questionable content. Anything out of place, such as a stain, and even the punctuation the letter writer used, Juan observes, is investigated. The result of such examinations, Juan concludes, is that both the sender of the letter and the person to whom it is addressed are in jeopardy and may remain so for years, as it may take that long for a letter to be thoroughly scrutinized by all levels of the censorship office. Even when one has a general grasp of the historical Argentine political situation, it seems hard for modern readers in a free country to comprehend that a misplaced comma could be seen as evidence of a plot to undermine the government and could lead to the execution of anyone associated with the letter containing the offending punctuation mark. This, however, appears to be what Juan is suggesting. Moved by this intense fear of the harm that might befall Mariana, himself, or both of them, Juan seeks to intercept the letter by getting a job in the censorship office. In this way, Valenzuela demonstrates the ways in which the fears inspired by the censors create a sense of paranoia in Juan. He is moved by his fear to take actions most people would consider extreme; he essentially enters enemy territory in order to protect himself and Mariana.
When Juan takes the job of censor, he becomes the likely source of paranoia for anyone who has recently sent a letter. He is now investigating those stains and commas himself. Juan begins to suspect most of the letters he encounters as having evidence of subversive intentions. In innocent, harmless comments that letter writers make about the weather or the cost of products, Juan finds evidence of rebellion. As Juan becomes what he has feared, his own paranoia is redirected. Rather than fearing that everything he wrote would be suspected by the government of being seditious (that is, something that incites people to rebel against the government), he now suspects that everything anyone writes in a letter poses a threat to the government. So blinded is Juan by his paranoia as a censor, he is even suspicious of himself. He censors his own letter, an act that leads to his execution.
In ‘‘The Censors,’’ Valenzuela is exploring this relationship between paranoia and censorship. She shows how the genuine fears that government censorship inspires in people lead those people to be suspicious of everything and everyone.
Valenzuela’s treatment of the theme of love in ‘‘The Censors’’ is subtle. The word itself does not appear in the story, yet it is a powerful force. Love is the source of Juan’s happiness when the story opens—he has just found out Mariana’s address. He seems thrilled to learn that Mariana has not forgotten about him since she moved to Paris. Out of love for Mariana, Juan eagerly writes a letter, and because he loves her, Juan feels driven to protect her by getting a job at the censorship office. Juan feels compelled to intercept the letter, fearing he might have inadvertently caused Mariana harm by sending it. Motivated by love, Juan turns to deception to protect Mariana. He secures a job with the censorship office under false pretenses; he intends to intercept his letter to Mariana in order to save her from harm. He decides to ‘‘sabotage the machinery.’’ In the end, Juan is transformed by the machinery—by the bureaucracy that is the censorship office—and saves no one.
Valenzuela offers us another portrait of love in ‘‘The Censors’’ through the character of Juan’s mother. Juan’s mother is extremely concerned about her son. The narrator informs us, too, that she tells Juan that a young woman (Lola) has called for him and is waiting for him at the bar with her friends. Significantly, the narrator points out that what Juan’s mother tells him is not always the truth. Juan’s mother lies in order to try and save him, to ‘‘get him back on the right track.’’ Valenzuela presents us with two characters, Juan and his mother, who lie with good intentions. They deceive for the sake of love.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Luisa Valenzuela, Published by Gale Group, 2001.