Monday, November 17, 2014
7:00 AM |
First published in Esquire Philippines, July 2014.
I have cursed Dean Francis Alfar, author of Salamanca
, a few times in my life. Once, when he sent me a very short story— “Packing for the Moon”—to read, which led me to a dramatic whirlwind involving a book, a list, a sick child, and her father. When I got to the end, I burst into tears, and promptly texted him: “I hate you.”
Another time, it was another story, a longer one titled “The Kite of Stars,” which told of another young girl named Maria Isabelle d’ul Cielo who has become besotted with a handsome astronomer who, unfortunately for our plucky heroine, only has eyes for the stars. And so she spends the rest of the story—in the company of a faithful young man she only knows as Butcher Boy—gathering for close to forty years the magical materials, gleaned from across a tumultuous archipelago, to make a kite strong enough to fly her to the stars where she hopes to finally be seen by her beloved. But the story has a cruel twist, and what we get from the tale is an invocation of desires thwarted and hearts perpetually broken. Mr. Alfar, I was convinced, is a connoisseur of heartbreak, and I texted him: “What the heck are you doing to my poor heart?”
And yet, in that story, it isn’t even the lovestruck girl who evokes so much sympathy: it is the nameless young man who faithfully accompanies her on her willful quest to gain what she thinks is true love. For four decades, he fought pirates and various monsters, sailed rough seas, and endured the whimsies of magic and fortune, to help a woman he had come to love deeply, but who only knew him as Butcher Boy. Near the end, when he says goodbye to her as she goes off with her painstakingly collected materials towards the house of the kitemaker, the reader who has known the vagaries of loving cannot help but think: I have been that person. I have known what it is like to love and not to be loved in return.
Heartbreak stories, especially those penned by Filipino authors, have always been my secret cup of tea, my guilty pleasure. While there are similar stories told by foreign storytellers—there’s David Lean’s Brief Encounter
, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars
—when it is told in the atmosphere and milieu of the familiar, the pleasurable pain we get from the text throbs even more.
And so, between April and May, when I teach Philippine literature for my summer classes at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, I go away from the usual syllabus I do in the regular term, and plunge my students into an exploration of heartbreak in Filipino writings. My fascination of this seems endless. To quote Barbra Streisand in The Mirror Has Two Faces
: “The question is, why do we buy [love stories]? Because, myth or manipulation, we all want to fall in love. That experience makes us feel completely alive. Our everyday reality is shattered, and we are flung into the heavens. lt may only last a moment, an hour, but that doesn’t diminish its value. We’re left with memories we treasure for the rest of our lives. l read, ‘When we fall in love, we hear Puccini in our heads.’ l love that.
His music expresses our need for passion and romantic love. We listen to La Bóheme
, or read Wuthering Heights, or watch Casablanca, and a little of that love lives in us, too. So the final question is: Why do people want to fall in love when it can have such a short run and be so painful?
... l think it’s because, as some of you may already know, while it does last, it feels f—g great
Heartbreak as a theme has found a comfortable niche in our national narrative, anyway: our popular paperback novels, sold cheap, are awash in it; our movies and teleseryes
In literature, our earliest novels share this theme as a common point for its heroines. In Zoilo M. Galang’s A Child of Sorrow
, our first novel in English, Rosa, trapped in a loveless marriage and separated from her beloved Lucio Soliman, dies of heartbreak. In Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere
and El Filibusterismo
, our first novels in Spanish, Maria Clara—upon learning of Crisostomo Ibarra’s “death”—retires to the nunnery where she is raped by Father Salvi, and—although Rizal is vague in penning the specific circumstances—seems to invariably die from heartbreak. In Pedro Paterno’s Ninay
, our first Tagalog novel, the title character has unrequited love for Carlos Mabagsic, is forced to separate from her beloved, and later dies of cholera—but I dare say it might as well be from heartbreak. The women always seems to die from heartbreak; perhaps there is nothing more wrenching in our imagination than the image of a beloved female character bare the wounds of her heart, and succumb finally to its frailties. In today’s popular narratives, they don’t necessarily die, of course—but they do cry and beg: “Pwede ako na lang ulit?
(Can you please choose me, again?),” which was Basha’s plea to Popoy in Cathy Garcia- Molina’s seminal One More Chance
Every summer, we read Mr. Alfar’s Salamanca
, Gerry Alanguilan’s Wasted
, and Carlo Vergara’s One Night in Purgatory
—three long works that give different evocations of the heartbroken: a wife makes a painful deal with a philandering husband who left her once after only eleven days of marriage; a young man runs amok after his girlfriend leaves him for another man; and another young man, this one gay, nurtures a secret longing for his best friend, a desire which finally gets tested during that titular night.
Of course, there’s also the delusions we mistake for love in Paz Marquez Benitez’s “Dead Stars,” the seemingly unfair tribal demands on a childless marriage in Amador Daguio’s “Wedding Dance,” the memory of a loss reflected in a sunset in Carlos Angeles’ “Landscape II,” the loneliness of a long-distance love in Ronald Baytan’s “Distance,” the imagistic description of the heartbreak in Alfred Yuson’s “Falling Out,” a mother’s silent lament for a child who has grown up too quickly in Benilda Santos “Ang Pagbabay ni Atong,” and the various domestic fallouts in Jaime An Lim’s “Relative Distance,” Nick Joaquin’s “May Day Eve,” Edith Lopez Tiempo’s “Lament for the Littlest Fellow,” Angelo Suarez’s “Moms Baking Cats,” and Corazon Almerino’s “Unsaon Paggisa sa Bana nga Manghulga sa Asawang Dili Kahibalong Moluto.” Our literature is a well-spring of stories that limn these secret aches.
Why do we like these heartbreak stories? Is there a historical or cultural explanation for this, and if so, what is it? Do we like them because we are Filipino, or because the material is Filipino, or does being Filipino have anything to do with a fascination with heartbreak? But how is heartbreak “constructed” exactly? Did “heartbreak” literature come with our introduction to the Western ideas of literature: drama, melodrama, tragedy, comedy, etc.? If so, is post- colonialism at work here, and in what ways?
I have no ready answers to these questions yet. But I do know that by the end of my reading of Mr. Alfar’s Salamanca
, when I read Jacinta’s final letter to her husband Gaudencio, I cried once more, much to my dismay. I don’t cry
, I berated myself. But Jacinta’s words, simple and short, was a stake through my heart: they seemed to be the embodiment of the sweet futility we all feel for the sometimes unworthy people in our lives our hearts seem to beat foolishly for. And so I texted Mr. Alfar once more: “I really hate you, my friend. But thanks for everything.”
Labels: books, life, love, philippine literature, writers
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