For our latest readings in Philippine literature, particularly old short stories by Filipino writers Mel U of The Reading Life and I have decided to read together and invite others to join us, our featured author is Francisco Arcellana (Sept. 6, 1916-Aug. 1, 2002), who was honored as National Artist in Literature in the Philippines in 1990.
Arcellana’s complete name is Zacarias Eugene Francisco Quino Arcellana. He comes from a big family, being the fourth of 18 children. He himself went on to have a big family with six children, one of whom, Juaniyo, is also an essayist, poet, and fictionist. As a writer, Arcellana credited American authors Erskine Caldwell and Whit Burnett as his influences.
Understandably, a large brood is the cast in two of Arcellana’s short stories I have read--"The Mats” and “The Flowers of May”. And they are no separate set. It seems that The Mats is a sequel to The Flowers of May (and it is a fortunate thing I was able to read the latter first).
The Flowers of May (8 pages, 1951) is told from the perspective of Paking, one of the 14 children who tried to explain to the grief caused by the death of a child (the dead Victoria) who lived long enough to form an attachment with her parents. For the record, I am not sure if Paking is a boy or a girl, but from the scenes in the story, he could very well be a boy since the girls are “out in the rain”. Sixteen-year old Victoria, a singing flower girl for nine years, is not the only one who died in the family.
“Victoria is Father’s first real, and as it turns out, only loss. Josefine who died before her died in early infancy and Concepcion who died after her was stillborn. Victoria died and we buried her and Father has not said her name once or even spoken of her.”
Paking is describing two types of regular scenes--one is what happens in the house every May and the second is what happens in the house everyday and makes a bit of comparison between prior to Victoria’s death and thereafter. He subtly makes a comparison as well as to how his parents separately cope with her demise--his mother trying to make things appear normal and his father acting abnormally. In the end, the sight of flowers, especially lilies, brought by his sisters undid their father and makes him admit his grief.
In not so many words, Arcellana clearly describes how grief affects us all. In his story, the climax is the end.
“It is as terrible as the naked terror stark in Mother’s eyes and deep as the new knowledge and first and final and only wisdom that we have just now begun to share. So this is death. So this is what is means to die. And for the first time since she died and we buried her, we learn to accept the fact of Victoria’s death finally, we know at least that Victoria is dead--really and truly dead.”
You can read The Flowers of May here.
The second story, The Mats (5 pages, 1938), sounds like a sequel to the first story because the same deceased children were mentioned; however the living children and the parents have different names. This one also sound like it happened many years later when the children are grown up and many of them are studying, getting ready for university.
It tells, again in that lyrical prose-poetic form that Arcellana is so good at, about how Jaime, the father, brought home mats from one of his periodic inspection trips. Each one in the family now has a mat with his/her name and birthstone on it. But there are three extra mats in the set--one for each of the deceased children, Josefina, Victoria, and Concepcion--which spark an argument between the parents, with the father demanding, “Do you think I’d forgotten? Do you think I had forgotten them? Do you think I could forget them? Is it fair to forget them? Would it be just to disregard them?”
You know, apart from the names of the dead children, that overwhelming feeling of grief of the father and that attitude of the mother to move on with life and make the best of everything from The Flowers of May is so consistent with The Mats I might have been reading one novella rather than two separate short stories. The mats, the three remaining ones, are literal representations of sorrow. On the bright side, they also represent strong filial relationships that is so characteristic of Filipino families.
"The names which were with infinite slowness revealed, seemed strange and stranger still; the colors not bright but deathly dull; the separate letters spelling out the names of the dead among them, did not seem to glow or shine with a festive sheen as did the other living names."
With the unfolding of the mats, the climax ends, and so does the story. Please head over to Mel’s insightful post about The Mats. You can read the story here.
The third short story, How to Read (10 pages, 1944), is a lighter one and for sure a favorite for those who love books like me. I have this feeling Arcellana who is also a reader enjoyed writing this one under a sambag tree with the sights and sounds of a marketplace not far away.
How to Read tells of a couple who is soon going to have a baby but have very limited funds to buy baby stuff. Zacarias, the husband, decides to sell his most precious set of books that are “rare titles”. His wife, Belen, who acts strong yet submissive understands their real worth and expresses her reluctance. Zacarias is politely adamant and goes to the market to sell them but nobody is buying them. While waiting for buyers, Zacarias has enough time to ponder on his “wares”. I shared the same sentiments with him even at the mere sight of books I’ve read and love.
“...over and above all, he recalled the solace there, the singing and unassailable solace, the shining and the undefeated, the truth, the goodness, and the beauty there, the sweetness and the light, the revelation there: which had wracked him, shaken him, shattered him; which sensitized him more to life, made him more poignantly aware of being alive and living; which touched him to the quick and rendered him forever wary, watchful and vigilant’ which lifted the lids of his eyes and dropped the scales from them; which sharpened his nose and his ears and his mouth; which left everything shot in the most lovely light; which left his hands with the terrible feeling of tremendous helplessness and, at the same time, of tremendous power.”
Don’t you feel the same way when you read?
And here goes your answer to the short story’s title:
“But nobody cared to look at the books. Nobody picked them up to hold them in their hands and feel the smooth covers and test the strength of the bindings and admire their workmanship; nobody cared to read them, to thumb through the pages and glimpse the overwhelming riches there.”
Zacarias goes home, the books still in his bag, much to Belen’s delight.
A simple yet powerful short story, that is what How to Read is. At the moment, I couldn’t find an online link to the whole story. If you have time to search the library, I recommend these three stories.
What other stories by Arcellana have you read? What do you think about them?
- Nancy -