Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

25 May 2012

(Short Story) The Bread of Salt by: N.V.M. Gonzalez

(Reaction) Half Baked by: Antonio Conejos

Bread of Salt, as if often noted, is Gonzalez's loving homage to Joyce's Araby. Both short stories feature young adolescents infatuated with a girl who is oblivious to them. Moreover, this puppy love ends in a searing instance of humiliation and realization; made all the more painful by the fact that even in that instant of pain, the girl is ignorant of their feelings. Bread of Salt casts this theme though in distinctly Filipino terms.

A running image throughout the story is how the narrator, is similar in many ways to pan de sal, the bread of salt. The similarity is physical: the bread is described as diminutive,nut-brown and the size of my little fist, just as the narrator is still basically only a boy. Note how the image of the narrator is quite similar to that of bread baking, I could feel my body glow in the sun as though it had been instantly cast in bronze.

The similarity is also metaphorical: just as bread needs to bake in the fire to rise and be ready, so too must the narrator undergo trials before he can be called a man. Indeed, a crucial acknowledgement at the end of the story (after he has embarrassed himself before Aida) is that the narrator admits that he is not yet baked, It was not quite five, and the bread was not yet ready.

This acknowledgement though only comes at the end. For most of the story the narrator is insistent on his maturity, that he has grown up enough for love. Thus his disdain for his aunt, She was the sort you could depend on to say such vulgar things. Thus also his constant need to excel, Quickly I raced through Alard. There is too his quiet pride in being accepted into a big-boys club, the band, Pete pressed my arm. He had for some time now been asking me to join the Minviluz Orchestra, his private band... My head began to whirl. Taken together these acts have the quaint tone of a young lad insisting to all around him that he is no longer a boy.

The object of all this effort is of course a girl, Aida. She is lovely and fair, the narrator's vision of perfection, Their [other girls'] eyes glowed with envy, it seemed to me, for those fair cheeks and the bobbed dark-brown hair which lineage had denied them Befitting an adolescent fantasy, the narrator imagines that he and she share a secret language, a codice of signs only apparent to them, She would perhaps never write me back. Neither by post nor by hand would a reply reach me. But no matter; it would be a silence full of voices.

But young fantasy ultimately collides with the reality that the affection is not mutual. While Aida seems like a nice enough girl she doesn't see the narrator in a romantic light. This epiphany hits the narrator when he is at his most vulnerable, when he is without pretensions and is hungrily wolfing down the remains of the food from the party, The sight of so much silver and china confused me. There was more food before us than I had ever imagined... [I] also wrapped up a quantity of those egg-yolk things in several sheets of napkin paper. None of my companions had thought of doing the same, and it was with some pride that I slipped the packet under my shirt.

The humiliation of Aida seeing him pocketing food (really a slight affront in the greater scheme of things) triggers an epiphany in the narrator; all affection for Aida is expunged from him, 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.

What triggers this epiphany is that Aida saw him in an unguarded moment, she saw him as he was and not as how he wished to appear. This clash between the affectation of polished maturity and the reality of boyish exuberance is a theme developed throughout the story and it climaxes in the narrator's loss of fire for Aida.

He, the narrator, has grown up though, if ever so slightly. With money he has earned from his own toil, he insists on buying for himself some pandesal.

Review:

Bread of Salt is a classroom favorite of English teachers in the Philippines. What I enjoy about it is the narrator's guileless tone; his infatuation runs pure and true. Gonzalez was able to capture perfectly the inner thoughts of a childhood crush, where every word unsaid and glance unheeded leads to a multiplicity of meanings in the mind of the smitten.

This innocent fantasy is captured in some great lines, particularly: She would perhaps never write me back. Neither by post nor by hand would a reply reach me. But no matter; it would be a silence full of voices.

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