Monday, February 21, 2011

On a Chessboard II: The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

(In which I was both an amateur chess player and an equally amateur detective.)


I am a slow reader. And that explains the small number of books in my book pile. Had it not been for my predilection for multitasking, I could have been leading an enjoyable, albeit sedentary, life dedicated to reading. But not only does the multitude of my tasks get in the way of my grabbing another book from my TBR, it is also the fact that I don’t read all kinds of books.
Before I have regained the momentum to read (or should I say gained the interest in reading novels) I just grab anything from tall book piles in Booksale as long as the title is catchy, the cover design is good and it’s not a fantasy novel. As I move on from one book to another, I have decided that I do not (for the moment, because I’ve learned that we’re not supposed to close all our doors, even to books) want to read paranormal romances, chick lit, family fiction, action, sci-fi, mystery and fantasy. But since there is an exception for every rule, I have read halfway through the Harry Potter series.

That actually left me with limited genres to explore. I have developed a penchant for historical and art fiction, though. The plot is predictable at times, but nonetheless inspiring. After reading Arabella Edge’s The God of Spring, which I loved by the way, I realized that it is hard to create a demarcation line between what I like and don’t like to read genre-wise since mystery, for instance, is more or less ubiquitous in history. So when I stumbled upon a book dealing with chess, art and a mystery of a series of murders, I knew better than to resist.

The Flanders Panel is a novel by the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte written in 1990 and was adapted into a British film in 1994 entitled Uncovered. The novel takes off at the discovery of a hidden inscription in The Game of Chess, a fifteenth-century work by the master Flemish painter Pieter Van Huys. The painting depicts two gentlemen engrossed in a complex game of chess – the Duke of Ostenburg and a French knight. Seated near them is the Duchess, clad in black velvet gown, reading. The inscription, which was written in Latin on the canvas and was painted over, states Quis necavit equitemWho killed the knight?

Julia, the art restorer who uncovers the inscription through an x-ray test done during the preliminary stages of restoration, is determined to solve the five hundred-year-old question, initially for the sake of making the price of the painting skyrocket on its auction day. With the help of her friends, she tracks the history of the painting, including the characters in it and hopes to find the answer to the enigma by relying on the pieces on the chess board. She believes that they could find out who killed the knight by studying the pieces on the board. They even go as far as employing the skill of the best chess player in Madrid. At first it is just about the painting and the auction. But as Julia’s friends get murdered one by one, she, together with he rest of her companions, needs to continue playing the game for their own survival.
The position of the chess pieces as shown in the painting by Van Huys.
To describe the novel as mind-boggling is an understatement. Anyone who has read The Flanders Panel would agree that Pérez-Reverte’s philosophical, artistic, literary and even musical references in this novel were successfully executed that it is easy to take the novel as a historical fiction, thus making it difficult for the fact that the painting doesn’t exist to sink in. His characters, who stretch from the sophisticated, hedonistic and decadent elites from the art world to the intellectual, objective people from the world of chess, provide a striking juxtaposition and towards the end, render a patiently built Venn diagram. As he moves on to textually depict a game within a game within a game, the surprising turns of events pull the readers from the engrossment to the fundamentals and intricacies of chess to the banalities and complexities of life, and back. And just as one thinks that the conclusion is rather becoming pointless, Pérez-Reverte saves one last revelation to turn things around, again.
It was, considering the limited reading experiences from which my description would emanate, is a whole new kind of thing. The book is artistic in its sheer definition, binding chess, visual arts, theatrical arts, literature, music and philosophy with mystery. Through this book, I was able to relive the fun of playing chess and enjoy the thrill of playing Sherlock Holmes. I’ll surely get another one like this some other time.

(For the full text of The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, click here)

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Photo Sources:Spring Moon

It’s Easier to Write Poems When You’re Sad

(In which I need not say more, do I?)


It’s easier to write poems when you’re sad
one quiet late night.
The streets are lightless and lifeless
save for the full moon
trying to illuminate the blackness
with the yellowness of gray.
It’s easier to write poems with a heavy heart,
when happiness is nowhere near
and you sit next to despair.

It’s easier to write poems when you hear the slightest noise
for around and within you there is silence.
Words flow freely
and thoughts wander aimlessly till they go back
to the root of their bitterness.
It’s easier to write poems when you think
not of sunny days but of windy nights,
not of the sunrise but of midnight
when nocturnal huddle over sodas
and a conversation with a stranger.

It’s easier to write poems when you’re sad.
The pen seems lighter and the images endless.
It’s even easier to write poems when you cry,
when your trembling moves the pen
and your tears magnify the words.

February 20, 2011
11:53 PM

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Teacher’s Musing: On Teacher Writing and Reading

(In which she has the remarkable bluntness to ask – which is. . . okay.)


I feel utterly guilty for suspending the draft of my research proposal in lieu of the freshest, newest teacher experience I have for today. Consider this a news flash in the middle of a peaceful lunch or merienda.

So I have a new student named Mileah. She’s cute and bubbly. But compared to the conversational competence of Gerald and Jack, she has a long way to travel. But nevertheless she’s using the same book that Gerald did – a reading and writing book. (You may want to click here and/or here to know a couple of things about the book . . . and Gerald.)

And today is our first testing day. The test includes identification, enumeration and event sequencing for the stories we have discussed involving colors and colorgenics, superstitions about numbers and the Hawaiian way of celebrating Thanksgiving. For the writing part, there were identification tasks wherein she’s expected to name what part of the essay or paragraph is being described. The last one involves three paragraphs and she’s supposed to encircle the main idea and underline the supporting details. Yes, I know that sounds elementary.

Towards the end of the first hour she seemed uneasy and started to mutter something. It turned out she was telling me that when she studied for the test, she didn’t expect that she should have memorized the stories. Memorize. That struck me as though I am a terror teacher who adheres completely to the absolute power of rote memorization when it comes to influencing test scores. Or the creation of tests itself. She strongly claimed, albeit in a very cute way, that those questions involving memorization do not actually improve any skill.

Wow. Not that I have never received such complaint. But to tell me it doesn’t improve any skill? And that was also ironic considering that it came from someone from a country where students are expected to memorize roughly a hundred words in at least a week for the sake of widening their vocabulary. No and I’m not even talking about vocabulary usage. Just plain memorization of the term and the definition and poof! That’s a test!

Now, that reminds me of Gerald. And honestly, I have to be thankful that I am now dealing with a considerably shy girl and not that obstinate lad. But nevertheless I still gave the speech that I guess would continue to be handy for as long as I work here – that the class is also a reading class and readings were not done to be kept in the dark corners of one’s memory. It has to be utilized and therefore understood. That memorizing doesn’t necessarily mean understanding. That the test doesn’t require them to write in verbatim. That we have discussed the stories a lot of times. That there is a reason why there are comprehension questions at the end of every article or essay in the book. That there is a reason behind the mere existence of an article or an essay in a textbook other than to fill space.

She said she understands. I hope so. Now how am I going to clarify the scope and limitation for my research proposal again? Ah . . .

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Analysis of The Bread of Salt by NVM Gonzalez

(In which irony had it once again.)


Arturo Pérez-Reverte, in his exhilarating novel The Flanders Panel wrote, “There’s nothing more misleading than an obvious fact.” (Pérez-Reverte, 1990. p. 76) It’s a philosophy to which most will disagree. How can the apparent truth be misleading if it’s utterly evident in the first place? The aforementioned line was taken from a fiction integrating art, history, chess and mystery, creating a web of complex thinking strategies and problem solving skills involving an equivocally complex way of decision making. Everything revolves around a puzzle to which one must separate the facts from the notions. It’s a struggle to delineate what is purely imaginative from what the actual reality is. This theme regarding the conflict between what exists in the mind and what physically or actually exists is also the same theme that governs NVM Gonzalez’ The Bread of Salt.

The short story, being a “coming of age” literature involves a young boy of fourteen as a protagonist. He’s a grandson of a deceased coconut plantation overseer. He’s a boy filled with dreams and aspirations and innocent yet intense adoration for a mestiza named Aida, the niece of the old Spaniard for whim his grandfather used to work. He dreams of her almost every time, even in his mundane task of getting up early every morning to purchase pan de sal (bread of salt) in the bakery for his family’s breakfast. It is apparent in the story that the tiresome duty of his is becoming a burden to him already, to which his only compensations are the daily revival of his childish curiosity and marvel as regards to the creation of the ubiquitous breakfast table item and a good look at the ocean, in which somewhere in the landscape, he catches a glimpse of the old Spanish house where his Dulcinea dwells.

The bread of salt! How did it get that name? From where did its flavor come, through what secret action of flour and yeast? At the risk of being jostled from the counter by early buyers, I would push my way into the shop so that I might watch the men who, stripped to the waist, worked their long flat wooden spades in and out of the glowing maw of the oven. Why did the bread come nut-brown and the size of my little fist? And why did it have a pair of lips convulsed into a painful frown? . . .

. . . For my reward, I had only to look in the direction of the sea wall and the fifty yards or so of riverbed beyond it, where an old Spaniard's house stood.

In one of his sporadic yet usual daydreaming, he imagines himself as the destined one for Aida. He even thought that the latter also holds romantic interests in him, albeit hidden. And that he claims to have known it all along no matter how much she tries to be discreet.

I often wondered whether I was being depended upon to spend the years ahead in the service of this great house. One day I learned that Aida. . . was the old Spaniard's niece. All my doubts disappeared. . . If now I kept true to the virtues, she would step out of her bedroom ostensibly to say Good Morning to her uncle. Her real purpose, I knew, was to reveal thus her assent to my desire.

On quiet mornings I imagined the patter of her shoes upon the wooden veranda floor as a further sign, and I would hurry off to school, taking the route she had fixed for me past the post office, the town plaza and the church, the health center east of the plaza, and at last the school grounds. I asked myself whether I would try to walk with her and decided it would be the height of rudeness. Enough that in her blue skirt and white middy she would be half a block ahead and, from that distance, perhaps throw a glance in my direction, to bestow upon my heart a deserved and abundant blessing. I believed it was but right that, in some such way as this, her mission in my life was disguised.
The intensity of his love for the young girl, however, also instilled in him an initiative to improve. He made himself stronger and more capable in the field of sports, music and academics. The problem, nonetheless, lies in the fact that he does this along with the notions that he was doing Aida a favor by becoming the most chivalric and dashing knight he can be. Not only does he dream of becoming a knight to his lady but a poet and a virtuoso musician as well. His mind, in fact, has already wandered as far as Europe in the joyous relish of the fame and fortune that extremely talented artists are bound to receive. All these untold aspirations seemed true to him. Only that in reality, he hasn’t even bought the lovely stationery on which to pour out all the unuttered emotions he has towards Aida and the brooch he suddenly planned to offer her.

The school orchestra conductor, however, was not at all oblivious to his painstaking diligence regarding his violin lessons. Neither were his band mates. Soon he was invited to join Pete Saez’ band. He took this as the opportunity to earn money for the much-awaited proposal with the stationery and the brooch. And as if his luck hasn’t manifested itself enough yet, he was no longer assigned with the task of “taking the money to the baker’s for rolls and pan de sal” since the tiresome task was already given to the “poor girl” whom his aunt employed as a maidservant.

Then Paez’ band was invited to play at the party to be thrown by the Buenavista Women’s Club for the two Buenavista sisters who will be arriving from Manila. He felt proud and important to be part of an event as momentous and as high class as such. It was in their extreme excitement that, to make sure they won’t be late for the party, they discouraged the other members of the band from eating dinner. When finally they were told to have their meal, the young protagonist got overwhelmed with confusion because of the dishes of beautifully presented food, most of which he doesn’t recognize. And out of comfort, or ignorance, or a sudden lapse of ethics, he put some sweets which “appeared like whole egg yolks that had been dipped in honey and peppermint” in several sheets of napkin paper and slipped them in the packet under his shirt. To his utmost surprise and embarrassment, Aida approached him and asked if he has eaten, offering him a big package if he waited until the party’s over and the guests have gone home.

I brought a handkerchief to my mouth. I might have honored her solicitude adequately and even relieved myself of any embarrassment; I could not quite believe that she had seen me, and yet I was sure that she knew what I had done, and I felt all ardor for her gone from me entirely.
And so that’s how the young protagonist realizes how far his world is from Aida’s. Her remark might have been due to genuine charity and concern, but nevertheless, it made clear to the young man that his lack of finesse, probably due to his social orientation, was the setback which makes the materialization of his dreams almost, if not already, impossible.

The Bread of Salt by NVM Gonzalez is Filipino to its very core. One only needs to look at the apparent elements of the short story to see that it was written by a Filipino for Filipinos. The tradition, the thinking and other cultural elements of the story reflect the way people live in a particular period. The pan de sal being one of the staple food of the masses and the title of the story is one of the many manifestations of the story’s local color. The story opened and ended with it; the life of the protagonist daily revolved around the task of buying it and with his own money he decided to purchase some, though this time it was only for himself. One will also notice how art, and in this case, music, was viewed by the majority then. Musicians were regarded not as talented individuals but as employees and a low class one at that. According the young boy’s aunt, musicians eat last in parties. The protagonist cannot be therefore blamed if he dreams of becoming an honored artist in Europe, where art and artists are regarded in a rather more dignified standard.

One of the most stunning, yet true things about the short story is the Filipinos’ pride in almost everything especially in the way they make their class known in parties usually, where one always tries to exceed whatever others can display. Not that it’s horribly negative in its entirety nor is it a racial brand. Some of the attitudes presented in the story also exist in other cultures. However, a Filipino can understand how things or attitudes like these take place in the environment in which they exist. And the writer, whose ingenuity is remarkable, was able to depict the sad facets of the tradition of his people with the aim of providing a reason to contemplate.

Just like other “coming of age” literature, The Bread of Salt shows how society or situations open the gate of realization to a young soul whose innocence was guarded by purity and naïveté. Hard as it may seem, life, in its purest and most significant form should be regarded as an experience of waking up from one’s untold, internal realities to face what lies ahead – what really lies ahead. Social, intellectual, and physical differences may be bitter setbacks against an individual’s ambition or dreams yet reality has always been this harsh.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Summary of The Bread of Salt by NVM Gonzales

(In which there's always a gap.)


It was his assigned duty to be up early in the morning and be on his way to the baker’s to buy rolls and pan de sal for the breakfast table. He was fourteen and he has already got used to his task. On his way he thought of the bread of salt – pan de sal – and wondered how it was made, what gives its flavor and shape. He looked around the landscape at daybreak and once again remembered how much he adored Aida, the niece of the old Spaniard whom he thought he was destined to serve, just like his late Grandfather. At times he thought it was his duty to stay in the house in the service of the young maiden. He even dreamed that she likewise keeps an intense emotion for him, which she will only dare manifest in the right time.

He was a diligent student and violinist. It didn’t take long before he was transferred from second to first violin and before long, he was invited to join Pete Saez’ band and perform in one engagement after another. He was happy to earn money through his own skill, although it was with utter bitterness that he had to endure rehearsals despite the outward disapproval of his aunt against his chosen field. She thought musicians are no better than dogs scurrying to get their mouths on food scraps in trash bins. But he didn’t mind, thinking that the money he’ll earn from playing the violin will allow him the capacity to buy a brooch and beautiful stationery for his ardent love letters to Aida.

Then he was invited, together with Saez’ band, to the asalto for Don Esteban's daughters who were arriving from Manila. He was honored to be in a sophisticated gathering and get a magnified look at Aida’s stunning beauty. He was beside himself with immeasurable joy and pride but will later on be displaced by an equally immeasurable embarrassment at the buffet table after Aida caught him sneaking some sweets into the packet under his shirt. She nonetheless offered him a big package of food after the party but due to his intense shame, he lost the composure to react, along with the entire ardor he used to shower the maiden with. After the party they led the guests home with their music. Then with Paez, he went to the bakery to buy pan de sal with his own money. But the bread wasn’t ready yet so they waited.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Gerald’s Audacity and the Definition of a Poem

(In which Carl Sandburg reminded me.)


And so, I have recently written a poem about an innocent, anonymous individual, which, by the way, may sound creepy otherwise you’re informed of the darkness surrounding the verse. But provided you were informed, it will only sound creepier if not utterly crazy. Not that that was supposed to be cryptic or something like Pérez-Reverte. But that’s something ought to be left to the benevolence of time and pizza to be completely healed.

The poem, anyway, was visible in two separate sites and received a little more attention than most of the posts I dare publish online. One comment was of theological inferences and the other, structural and/or formalistic. I just love it when my readers dare or ask me. Besides, that is the threshold of communication – you ask, then I answer, or the other way around, and then we already have a conversation.

Coincidentally, my lesson with Gerald was about Carl Sandburg’s poem “Languages”. Yesterday, I read it aloud, with the enthusiasm and (pseudo) passion highly reserved for speech and drama class rather than ours, which recently consisted of his “knight in dire lovesickness” syndrome – he lurking on their national chat room and sighing every now and then.

By Carl Sandburg

There are no handles upon a language
Whereby men take hold of it
And mark it with signs for its remembrance.
It is a river, this language,
Once in a thousand years
Breaking a new course
Changing its way to the ocean.
It is mountain effluvia
Moving to valleys
And from nation to nation
Crossing borders and mixing.
Languages die like rivers.
Words wrapped round your tongue today
And broken to shape of thought
Between your teeth and lips speaking
Now and today
Shall be faded hieroglyphics
Ten thousand years from now.
Sing--and singing--remember
Your song dies and changes
And is not here to-morrow
Any more than the wind
Blowing ten thousand years ago.

And the ubiquitous comprehension questions were asked, this time about style analysis.

“What tells you it’s a poem?” I asked, reading from the textbook and avoiding looking at his downcast eyes, the ones that tell you their owner doesn’t give a damn about a letter on the book, let alone anything to do with poems.

“I don’t think this is a poem. But I have to believe because it’s in the book,” he answered rather robotically.

“What”? I asked, perplexed.

“This,” he stressed, “is not a poem. I think he just pretends it is.”

He! And he’s referring to Carl Sandburg as a poet whose theme song for the moment, as Gerald claimed it, was something from The Platters! Alright. My blog readers can comment anytime with a question meant to target my writing style, i.e., whether what I wrote was a poem or not. But to actually tell me “Languages” by Carl Sandburg wasn’t a poem and he just pretends it to be one, is a crime against literature!

“Okay, Gerald.” I started explaining, “There are two kinds of literature – prose and poetry. It’s prose if it’s written in paragraph form. If it’s written otherwise, like using lines or verses, it’s poetry. In fact, poetry can come in the form of an apple or the letter S. So that,” I pointed out to the poem on the book, “is a poem.”

And then I remembered something I wrote almost four years ago. Yes, it’s a poem, too.

What a Poem is to Me

To me a poem is beyond words that rhyme
and measured lines.
It has a body like that of a man,
That sees loveliness in simple things,
Hears the songs of birds in fields of gold,
Smells the fragrance of roses upon one’s nose,
Tastes the sweetness and bitterness of tears,
And feels the softness of the breeze upon one’s skin.

A poem has a heart
that knows the hidden beauty and darkness
of humanity –
and a soul
that lives within the body;
gives life to the words and
essence to the thoughts.

A poem may be a prayer,
a phantasm,
a song
or a hymn.
A poem’s grace is far beyond word’s that rhyme
and measured lines.
It is beauty.
It is life.
Once it is written, it never dies.
Its beauty lives on
from eternity unto eternity.

March 16, 2007
11:35 PM

Thursday, February 3, 2011

To Anonymous

(In which I let it slip.)


Can you feel the urgency pulsing within me
reaching through time

past and present and future –
and back?

Are you aware of the fear surging through my veins
as if we’d soon run out of air?

Do you hear me calling out to you at night,
or at daybreak or sunset or just as you were placidly doing whatever?


Do you know that behind the façade of my childish laughter
I keep the secret of you and me
that has now become only mine and his?


Do you know that an inquiry from you has recently brought me
from heaven to purgatory to hell and back
in seconds?


Are you aware of my desperation dire enough for sanity to break loose?



But I’m not expecting a yes.
For we are both unknown variables in an equally unknown game.
We’re equally unknown.
For you don’t know me, and I
no longer know you.
You are more inconsistent and I,
more volatile.

More volatile.