As Valenzuela’s ‘‘The Censors’’ opens, the narrator relates that Juan, the main character, has recently received the address of a woman, Mariana, with whom Juan appears to have had a relationship. Mariana now lives in Paris, France, and Juan is certain, having been given Mariana’s address from ‘‘a confidential source,’’ that Mariana still cares for him. He immediately writes her a letter, one that soon begins to torment him, as he tries to recall what, precisely, he has written and sent off to Mariana. Although he seems certain that the letter he has written is completely benign, Juan begins to second-guess himself. He reflects on how the people employed at the censorship offices examine and smell and handle each letter as they attempt to ‘‘read between the lines.’’ Juan understands the extent to which each letter is circulated throughout the enormous bureaucracy, and he doubts that many of the letters actually make it to their intended recipients. Months and even years can pass before the letters are sent on their way. During the examination process, Juan believes, the liberties enjoyed by both the letter’s sender and its intended receiver may be jeopardized. He fears their lives may even be in danger while the contents of the letter are being investigated by the censors. Juan begins to worry that harm may befall Mariana as a result of his attempting to reach her through his letter. He believes that Mariana, who probably now thinks she is safe in Paris, could be kidnapped by the secret operatives of the censorship office.
Compelled by his desire to protect Mariana, Juan devises a plan to get a job at the censorship office and attempt to intercept his own letter. Juan is hired immediately; he observes that no one bothers to check references, because so many censors are needed. The reader is informed that the censorship offices would not overlook ‘‘ulterior motives,’’ of individuals who apply for censorship jobs only to protect their own interests. However, they are lenient when hiring, as the new censors are likely to identify many suspicious pieces of mail in the process of intercepting their own. In short, the narrator suggests to the reader that Juan is not fooling the censorship office, but he is hired nonetheless.
Gradually, Juan settles into his work for the post office division of the censorship office, and he is happy to know he is doing everything he can to find his letter to Mariana. After Juan is transferred to the division where envelopes are screened for evidence of explosives, a fellow worker is injured by an explosion. One worker attempts to organize a strike in order to force the management into paying higher wages for such risky work. Not only does Juan not join the strike, he reports the organizer and is subsequently promoted to the division where envelopes are examined for evidence of poisons. Eventually, he is promoted to a division in which he reads the letters and analyzes their content. He still holds out the hope of finding his letter to Mariana. As Juan becomes increasingly absorbed in his work, however, his goal of finding his own letter begins to fade from his mind. Juan is surprised by the various methods people employ to send covert messages within their personal correspondence. In apparently innocuous messages, Juan sees evidence of people conniving to organize a rebellion against the government.
Juan is so attentive to possible threats against the government encoded in private letters that he is again promoted. The narrator observes that it is unclear whether this promotion makes Juan happy. He no longer reviews many letters, as so few make it through to this level. He reads and studies them diligently, returning home by the end of the day exhausted but pleased to have ‘‘done his duty.’’ His mother frets over him, telling him that young women have called looking for him. She sometimes leaves him wine, which he refuses to drink, as he does not wish to impair his senses in any way. He now views his work as ‘‘patriotic’’ and accepts the sacrifices that are necessary on his part in order to perform his job properly. Just as he feels he has discovered his true purpose in the censorship division, his letter to Mariana reaches him for censorship. He censors it as vigorously as he has many other letters. He is executed the next morning. The reasons for his execution are not explicitly stated, although the narrator describes Juan as ‘‘one more victim of his devotion to his work.’’ This suggests that Juan is executed because, as a censor, he has identified subversive material in his own letter. Although he knows he had no ill intentions toward his government when he wrote the letter, Juan treats his own letter with as much suspicion as any other. Therefore, after he has censored it and hands it off to his superiors, he is found to be guilty of having dangerous intentions and is subsequently executed.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Luisa Valenzuela, Published by Gale Group, 2001.