21 January 2017

Children of the Ash-Covered Loam

Pitóng Gulod pa ang Layo at Iba pang Kuwento (Seven Hills Away) by N.V.M. Gonzalez, translated by Ed Maranan (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2016)

Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories by N.V.M. Gonzalez (Bookmark, 1992)

At the age of 25, Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez (1915-1999) produced his first novel. The Winds of April was given honorable mention, next to Juan C. Laya's winning novel His Native Soil, in the 1940 Commonwealth Literary Contest. Ostensibly an autobiographical novel, it was a portrait of an artist as a child in a rural island province and his induction into literary life in the city. I had been looking for a copy of this for some time but never managed to do so.

Recently I read the stories of N.V.M. Gonzalez—the name he would sign his books with—from his first two collections. The 12 stories in Seven Hills Away (1947) and the seven in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories (1954) could certainly be considered "period pieces" now. The setting of these stories was exclusively the countryside. The novelist's subjects were the common people—the "children of the ash-covered loam"—leading their simple lives in the farming and coastal communities of rural Philippines. They either lived in abject poverty or they barely subsisted in hand-to-mouth existence. They were stories of their time, in the immediate post-war or the years prior to the war—in the early decades of the last century during the American occupation.

With their simple rituals and lifestyle and avid display of folk belief and superstitions, the people in Gonzalez's stories existed in a milieu far from the pace and worldly concerns of contemporary life. However, contrary to the author's assessment that "these stories could easily strike the reader as belonging to a place removed from the space and time he is familiar with", his stories still speak to the present readers about the same qualities of challenges and dangers inherent in life, the same eruptions of human passions and feeling from grave circumstances, the same whimsicality of life and nature. The details in his stories are the timeless, universal, and scintillating details of human fragility and vulnerability against the forces of nature and human conflict.

The two collections showed an evolution in complexity but not in style or temperament. From the sketch-like quality of the brief, miniature stories in Seven Hills Away, it was as if Gonzalez deliberately broadened his canvas to produce larger portraits in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam. Between the two collections, he navigated from simple situations to proper stories. But the register in both was exemplified by an understated elegance in the craft of writing. The stories were discrete artworks, like finely woven mats whose exquisite design gives rise to subtle and tactile textures. It was the same design felt by the sleeper on his back in "Ang Malayòng Abot-tanaw" (Far Horizons) from the first collection, translated by Ed Maranan.

Nang gabing iyon, ipinaglatag siya ng banig na marikit ang pagkakahabi. Ramdam niya sa kaniyang likod ang mga pinong disenyo ng makukulay na buling ginamit sa paggawa nitó. Gaano kayâ katagal hinabi ang banig na ito, tanong niya sa sarili, hanggang sa tuluyan na siyang maidlip.

I dared not translate back into English the above passage. I was sure the original was just as exquisitely stated as the translation and my effort would destroy the simple yet fine weaving of the prose. His metaphors were not wasted. The words were used efficiently. An example of a poetical touch: "The afternoon sun made the bark of the trees glisten like the bolo blade itself." Or, during a storm: "The walls of the hut shook—like a man in the throes of malarial chills."

The very first story in the second collection was the title story which, together with the masterful second story "Lupo and the River", was a fixture in classes in Philippine literature in English. What seemed like ordinary scenes of country life gave rise to a larger unifying theme of the celebration of honest work. Despite their material poverty, the characters went through life with quiet dignity to earn what they can keep, so to speak. "Should I not first of all earn my supper, no?" one character asked another for a service she volunteered to offer.

The stories were hardly open-ended; they were purposive in the sense that they imparted a concrete idea or theme that was only seemingly glossed over but actually purposefully arrived at. The stories in the second collection particularly demonstrated the power of retrospective telling in which the surprise twist at the end of the story could only be logically explained after a careful analysis of the dialogues and details that came before. The delay in relaying the crucial, telling detail near the end of the story added to the effectiveness of the entire design. The structure was almost invisible and hardly penetrable; the story was almost constructed like a puzzle. One must tread carefully through the non-random sequence of events, the mounting details, and the speech and action of the characters.

If I could name a common thread running in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam, specifically in the last five of its seven stories, I would say that they all dealt with the loneliness of women. In "A Warm Hand", an illiterate servant woman was contrasted with her carefree mistress. In "The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms", a young female substitute teacher in an out of the way barrio decided to remain in her teaching post—contrary to what was indicated in the surface of the story—despite the many difficulties she was encountering in the barrio as she readily confessed to her supervisor and despite the opportunity offered to her by her supervisor to transfer to the capital. Her sudden decision could only be explained by reviewing her conversation with her superior. In "The Morning Star", a strong and independent servant impregnated by an American soldier now confronted her pregnancy head on even as she prepared to give birth with the help of an old man.

In "Where's My Baby Now" a housewife was undergoing a sort of mid-life crisis as she began to question her role as a wife to an accountant husband who was obsessed with observing children's games. Her actions strongly indicated her unhappiness at a wife's traditional role and subservient attitude toward her husband.

It can't now be said that although a mere housewife she isn't progressive—this fact she feels has become the essence of her life—to be forever interested in the significant and new to be always in search of facts to investigate and evaluate that other beautiful world and not to sit there watching children all day long at some old game [like what her husband does] but rather to cut the heart open and probe into its secrets— [emphases supplied]

Lately, she was getting a glimpse of "that other beautiful world" outside her home, in her frequent various civic organization meetings. The story ended in mid-sentence—with a long dash. The secrets of lonely women could only be revealed if the heart was cut open and probed.

The first, titular story "Children of the Ash-Covered Loam" may have hinted at the overall concern for the marginalized and poor rural folks—children who kept on tilling their soil against all odds in order to survive one day at a time. The final story, however, encapsulates the concern for women as a more distinct set of disenfranchised individuals. In "The Sea Beyond", a dying cargardor was attended by his young wife who "already ... wore the sadness of her widowhood" aboard a ship that will supposedly deliver the dying man to the doctor. As Gonzalez zoomed in on women in the last of these stories, he summarized the plight of his female characters with a sardonic and wry touch.

The wife assured her calmly that the telegram had been sent. "So what harm could it have done to have spoken to the captain, to have reminded him, since he would be riding into town anyway?" the mother said; and to this the daughter's reply was the kind of serenity ... that can come only from knowledge: "All men know is to take advantage of us [women], Mother," she said.

In a kind of serenity akin to wisdom and knowledge, the novelist's main concern for women in his stories could not be imputed to feminism per se—it's such a loaded, value-laden word nowadays. His concern for women was only a symptom of his larger compassion for people and their struggle for the basic right to live well.