Monday, January 31, 2011

The Scent of Apples by Bienvenido Santos: An Analysis

(In which I am somehow nostalgic, too.)

In my recent lurking on websites that feature blog posts about writing and reading fiction, I have come across an article created by a freelance writer. In her post, she explained the manner in which she writes. At first I thought I was in for a very discombobulating read, considering that her writing style was actually not average and that her method may involve serious reference to classical didactic writers found on literature textbooks. But her style was surprisingly simple. She said that before she can write anything, she needs to come up with a single word from which all thoughts and ideas in the article would be derived.

The Scent of Apples by Bienvenido Santos reminds me of this writing style. Of course, that statement wasn’t intended to pose a comparison but was just an effect of a serious and curious rumination of an amateur reader – a sudden gush of ideas stemming from a glimpse of literary schema. Nostalgia, as it seems, is the word from which the entire short story emanates. What’s more wonderful about the literary work was that the author doesn’t have to be blunt to elucidate. In fact, the work is simple yet it can rival the literary audacities of other short stories.

It is an established rule in writing that one needs to carefully think of a title that makes a literary work worth reading. Santos’ choice of title is an effortless adherence to this rule for it runs from the literal to the metaphorical and back, suggesting that various interpretations of readers from all ranges of literary exposure are appropriate. The story itself is a display of artistic versatility - a confirmation that however one interprets the title, the story won’t lose its meaning. For this, The Scent of Apples is more than just a story of an immigrant Filipino.

The story opened with a brief introduction of where the narrator was. The imagery was vivid albeit the absence of several sentences teeming with adjectives, an introduction which writers like Sarah Dunant and J.R.R. Tolkien may consider a literary Scrooge.

When I arrived in Kalamazoo it was October and the war was still on. Gold and silver stars hung on pennants above silent windows of white and brick-red cottages . .
To compensate, however, the writer brings up a scene which everyone could relate to. And why would the physical environment matter when loneliness is already palpable in the mere look of a stranger’s face, enough to see and feel how longing creeps in their whole being.

. . . an old man burned leaves and twigs while a gray-haired woman sat on the porch, her red hands quiet on her lap, watching the smoke rising above the elms, both of them thinking the same thought perhaps, about a tall, grinning boy with his blue eyes and flying hair, who went out to war . . .

The historical period in which the literary work was written also contribute to the creation of an almost tangible environment despite the sparseness of descriptive text. One thing that unites humans into an unwritten bond of brotherhood is the war, along with the bitterness of living during its span and surviving its cruelty. Everything seems to be reminiscent of souls sent to a battle falsely thought of as great; for what is great in something when it takes lives, tears hearts and ends happiness?
. . . where could he be now this month when leaves were turning into gold and the fragrance of gathered apples was in the wind? . . . Under the lampposts the leaves shone like bronze. And they rolled on the pavements like the ghost feet of a thousand autumns long dead, long before the boys left for faraway lands without great icy winds and promise of winter early in the air, lands without apple trees, the singing and the gold!
Amidst the gloominess of the location, the narrator was expected to speak before an audience regarding the culture of the Philippines, which was now becoming a “lost country”. It is when a Filipino farmer, Celestino Fabia, asked about the difference between Filipinas then and now, to which the narrator responded that though their physical appearance changed, they remain the pure-hearted and nice women like their past counterparts. The farmer was pleased with the answer and he invited the narrator over to his house so he could meet his family.

During their trip to Celestino’s house the next day, the narrator discovered what his life in the Philippines was. And when he met his family, he was struck by their simplicity and contentedness. Celestino’s life stories hit him with the realization that women, or people, regardless of whatever culture, possess a charitable and kind heart. That hospitality is not a racial trademark but an innate human quality.
Ruth got busy with the drinks. She kept coming in and out of a rear room that must have been the kitchen and soon the table was heavy with food, fried chicken legs and rice, and green peas and corn on the ear. Even as we ate, Ruth kept standing, and going to the kitchen for more food. Roger ate like a little gentleman.
Along with this, the farmer’s relationship with his wife manifested that theirs was a relationship beyond the notion that companionship is a commodity. They stayed with each other through thick and thin. Women, even miles beyond the Pacific, are loving, loyal and warm-hearted – the same characteristics Celestino used to describe Filipinas he was acquainted with. His wife Ruth, at some extent, went way beyond the adjectives.
Ruth stayed in the hospital with Fabia. She slept in a corridor outside the patients' ward and in the day time helped in scrubbing the floor and washing the dishes and cleaning the men's things. They didn't have enough money and Ruth was willing to work like a slave.
Celestino’s life seemed to hit a sensitive cord within the narrator for he offered to send news to his family back home. But the farmer declined. This scene creates the peak of the climactic revelations of the life of an immigrant Filipino in times of war. No matter how strong the nostalgia is, or dire the desire to be home, an exile can’t leave the place to where he was banished. It may be because of fear of being long forgotten, or the consolation one gets from people who tried to complete them no matter if the attempt can only get them somewhere still far from nirvana. Whatever that is, the pain of an individual whose heart stretches to both ends of the world has no measure. And Bienvenido Santos clearly, albeit succinctly, showed all those truths. Thus, The Scent of Apples was an expected masterpiece. Besides, who else can understand things “peculiar to the exile” other than an exile himself?

Currently Reading:
Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale with an Introduction by Marya Zaturenska*

*The link was directed to the introduction in the collection.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Summary: Scent of Apples by Bienvenido Santos

(In which I display my mediocrity.)


A writer was asked to speak before an audience in Kalamazoo, MI one October when the war was still on. On the same night he met another Filipino – Celestino Fabia, a farmer. The writer was surprised to see a man who travelled really long just to hear him talk. In the course of the discussion, the man asked, in sporadically incorrect English, how the Filipino women of today were different from the stereotype he was familiar with. The writer replied that although they differ in the exterior, both women of different eras bear the heart and soul of a modest Filipina. Mr. Fabia was pleased.

After the lecture, Mr. Fabia told the writer about his farm and his family and invited him over to his house, repeatedly saying that his wife, Ruth, will be pleased to meet “a first class Filipino”. He also told him about his son, Roger, with pride. Mr. Fabia picked the writer up the next day and during the course of what seemed to be an endless journey to the distant farm, the writer became aware of Mr. Fabia’s life in the Philippines. He was a spoiled brat and the black sheep of the family. He lived in an old Visayan town where there are no apples. But there are coconut trees and roosters cooing early in the morning, and there was his family.

They finally arrived in the farm, the fragrance of apples diffusing all over the place. The writer noticed how Ruth’s hospitality and kind-heartedness was almost Filipino and how adorable Roger really was. In their humble home, he also found a picture of an anonymous Filipina wearing a traditional costume – another manifestation of how dire Mr. Fabia’s nostalgia is. He bade farewell to the family and Mr. Fabia took him back to the hotel. He offered to send news to his family when he got back to the Philippines but Mr. Fabia refused, saying that they might have already forgotten him. They shook each other’s hand and said goodbye.

Currently reading:

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Photo SourceThe Flanders Panel

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Alfredo Salazar from Paz Marquez-Benitez’ "Dead Stars": A Character Analysis

(In which I pose another attempt toward reactivation.)


Paz Marquez-Benitez, in her masterpiece Dead Stars, did not only write about a love story. Most importantly, her writing reflects the time in which the literary work was written along with the language, the norms and the way people think. It serves as a literary time machine for readers as it enables them to understand how courtship, marriage and fidelity were viewed through the early 1900 standards. It renders a sound comparison between the past and the present, the existing modern culture and the fading, almost obsolete tradition. Although the comparison and contrast provides a good critical foundation, another highly significant aspect of this short story involves the main character, Alfredo Salazar, which, always applies to whatever era, hence the focus of this paper. His confusion, weakness and unreasonableness are innate flaws of humans. Perhaps one of the many reasons why this work is timeless is that readers never fail to see a part of them in Alfredo Salazar’s character, making the short story a rich source of serious ruminations on society, love and humanity.

People oftentimes give high regard to the society in which they belong. They try to adhere to the norms, traditions and culture of their society, though sometimes the conformity would require them to sacrifice a part of themselves – an opinion, an emotion or a decision. However, there are cases wherein the established norms and rules of society are the ones which should prevail. In Dead Stars, the main character, Alfredo Salazar, was torn between making two important decisions – to marry or not to marry. But just like other dilemmas, the crossroad in which he found himself in was not to be solved without harming anyone. He was engaged to Esperanza, his fiancée of four years. Theirs was undoubtedly a love that was true. But for some reasons, apparently on Alfredo’s part, a change of heart has taken place. He has fallen for Julia Salas, the sister-in-law of the judge whom his father had a meeting with. After spending several afternoons and conversations, he found himself slowly getting attached to her that he started losing concern for Esperanza. In the end, however, he married his fiancée and though their marriage was not an unhappy one, he still could not take the possibilities of a future with Julia off his mind. Until one day, their paths crossed again and he realized one painful truth that led him to liberation at last.

Human emotions are very intricate and delicate both at its lowest and highest. And so is love. When Alfredo was still passionately attached to Esperanza, he was overwhelmed. Taking the conversation of Alfredo’s sister, Carmen, and his father, Don Julian into consideration, readers can deliberately conclude that he was indeed in love.
. . . “Papa, do you remember how much in love he was?”

“In love? With whom?”

“With Esperanza of course. He has not had another love affair that I know of,” she said with good-natured contempt. “What I mean is that in the beginning he was enthusiastic – flowers, serenades, notes and things like that.’
The excerpt was a good manifestation of how change in men occurs. But since change is men’s “wine and bread” according to Angela Manalang-Gloria, it is as essential as living itself, and therefore the most important things to be considered after the transition are the causes, the way one deals with change and the consequences. Alfredo was aware of the cause of his change as what is shown in the following paragraph:

Why would men so mismanage their lives? Greed, he thought, was what ruined so many. Greed – the desire to crowd into a moment all the enjoyment it will hold, to squeeze from the hour all the emotions it will yield. Men commit themselves when but half-meaning to do so, sacrificing possible future fullness of ecstasy to the craving for immediate excitement. . .
Another significant reason as to his emotional wanderings could be the length of time n which he was engaged o Esperanza. As what Don Julian had philosophize, couples who were engaged for so long become too comfortable and familiar with each other that the spark of love that was felt at the time the romance was just starting to blossom would expectantly cool down – that it “argues a certain placidity of temperament – or of affection – on the part of either, or both”.

Another factor to be considered was the contrast of Alfredo and Julia’s personalities. Alfredo was “calm and placid” while Julia was lively and full of vitality. The difference between them must have excited him as he saw in her the things he lacked.

However, though aware he was of the possible reasons why he, as well as men, or even humans in general, succumb to acts or thoughts of subtle infidelity, his attitude towards what is moral and not becomes shadowed in the attempts to justify his own behavior. Stances about the argument he had with Esperanza regarding the latter’s anger toward Calixta’s cohabitation with the man she’s not married to, may vary. But again, one’s act was expected to adhere with what is the established morality in a certain society. Because of what seemed as a liberal notion, Alfredo was trapped in a situation where he has to defend himself and in the process, what was manifested was his greed.

“One tries to be fair – according to his lights – but it is hard. One would like to be fair to one’s self first.”
But the wedding materialized; He chose not to break his word probably in order to save himself, Esperanza and Julia from social ridicule. He felt that his moral and social obligations were already fulfilled upon choosing not to cause humiliation to them all. The way in which he chose to deal with his internal change was to consider the way in which the society will view the people involved. But perhaps he felt that in doing so he has deprived himself of fairness. So he became distant and unreachable to Esperanza although he stayed with her and treated her gently. He has developed the skill in being unaffected and somehow mastered the art of being detached.

After several years, he was sent by his profession in search for the elusive Brigida Samuy and into the hometown of Julia Salas. Upon seeing her and finding out that she never married, he started to notice that she lost something, even doubted if the loss was his. As he tried to find the answer, a great realization dawned on him.

Gently – was it experimentally? – he pressed her hand at parting; but his remained undisturbed and emotionless. Did she still care? The answer to the question hardly interested him.
. . . So all these years – since when? – he had seen the light of dead stars, long extinguished, yet seemingly still in their appointed places in the heavens.

Therefore, the love he thought he felt for her during the short summer they shared was not the love that was enough to break an engagement. Nor was it love in its strictest definition. Instead, it was desire that sprung from the coldness that slowly crept in his relationship with Esperanza due to their long-time familiarity with each other. It was excitement that was ignited by boredom and “the last spurt of hot blood.”

Alfredo symbolizes the greed and indecisiveness of men when it comes to dealing with the matters of the emotion. He had entertained the pull of an anonymous feeling. Anonymous since he never really ventured to understand it but he clung to it anyway. And in the process he lost a part of himself and deprived that part to Esperanza as well.

Had it not been for chasing the lights of an illusive love that was long dead, or worse, never was, would Alfredo be happier in his marriage? Is it fair to say that he has wasted the milestones of a blissful marriage with a woman he loved first all for the sake of an impossible whim? Considering the disappointment he manifested upon realizing what he lost, the answer, is yes.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Summary: Dead Stars by Paz Marquez-Benitez

(In which I transferred and extended.)


Oh what a shame! I haven’t posted anything for a long time. Though I did not want to blame it to the fact that I was recently buried in a terrible work load and a painful school schedule made more complicated by tasks and deadlines, I just can’t. But come to think of it, it won’t hurt if I post the summaries and reviews that hinder me from reading and blogging, will it? Besides, they’re still literature!

Dead Stars by Paz Marquez-Benitez

Alfredo Salazar was betrothed to Esperanza, his girlfriend for four years. The start of their relationship was relatively “warm”, with Alfredo wooing Esperanza like a man in dire lovesickness. But as the years went by, the warm love’s fire slowly flickered. And it was because of Julia Salas.

She was charming and gleeful. He shared moments of light but sometimes deep conversations with her when the lawyer Alfredo visited Julia’s brother-in-law, who was a judge. He always went there with his father and since it was his father who needed to talk to the judge, he was always left to Julia’s company. He never told her he was engaged. At first he didn’t notice that a change in his heart was taking form. But then he started keeping details of his activities to his fiancée and then the guilty feeling crept in. When he found out that Julia was about to head back to her distant hometown, he felt blue and frightened.

He met her in church after the Holy Thursday procession, although he knew that Esperanza was already waiting for him. He approached her and she conversed with him with an expression that told him she finally knew. She congratulated him and said she will be at his wedding. Then they parted.

When he visited Esperanza in her house, he overheard her talking to another woman about infidelity and immorality, to which he reasoned in favor of the condemned. The statement caused an intense fury to Esperanza and she told him that she knew. She dared Alfredo to abandon her, along with morality and reason and her dignity as a woman as well as her image before the society all for the sake of his “being fair to himself”.

Eventually the wedding took place. And after several years, Alfredo was sent to a distant village due to a legal assignment. It bothered him so much because it was near Julia’s hometown. But he still found himself making his way to her house despite of himself. And he found her there, just as how and where he expected her to be. She never married. And he wondered how life would be if he ended up with her. But all was too late and he could never bring things back. He also noticed that Julia lost something, albeit the fact that he didn’t know what that is – youth, love, luster? And when he looked at her he doubted if she ever cared for him, if he has mistaken the past light in her eyes as manifestations of a possible romance. But now they’re all gone. And so it was indeed all done.