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 author 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 author 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 author 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 author over to his house so he could meet his family.

During their trip to Celestino’s house the next day, the author 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 author 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.