Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

04 Feb 2011

(Novel) Salamanca by: Dean Alfar

(Reaction) The Myths of Beauty, Faith and the Writer by: Rafael Conejos

Dean Alfar's Salamanca is a love story set in a Philippines controlled by the powers of the fantastic, literature, and history. It is a world wherein the impossible [is] commonplace, which recognizes its use of magical realism to aid a nation deprived of guidance and identity.

Throughout the novel, the fantastic exists primarily within the province of Palawan (the home place of most of the characters) which acts as a divider between the realist Manila and the magically empowered provinces. In the conclusion, however, one finds that the birth of a new glass house in Manila becomes the catalyst that breaks down this idea of a border by linking both the land of magic and the land of realism into one unified Philippines.

The characters themselves seem to represent the images of Filipino history or the challenges of what the Filipino identity strives for. The protagonist Gaudencio seems to represent the Filipino writer's drive to excel in the arts, which pushes himself to embark on a journey for inspiration. The dazzling beauty of Jacinta is lost when her body is corrupted by Mrs. Brown and the abrupt departure of Gaudencio. Is she the image of the nation's beauty and innocence? Mrs. Brown, the American educator, seems to be a reminder of American Colonialism and its remnant desire to assimilate the Philippines.

The Myth of Beauty

Jacinta's exotic and magical beauty represents the face of an innocent Philippines, before it is defiled and introduced to the American colonizers. Her beauty is then changed by the scene of Mrs. Brown forcing her tongue deep into Jacinta's unsuspecting mouth, [while] exploring each nook and cranny of the warm cavity, which becomes an image that situates the innocent Jacinta being raped by an American Missionary. This scene marks the beginning of a series of events that leads to the decay of her other worldly beauty and quickly leads her to look as ordinary as any woman in town.

No sooner does Gaudencio arrive in the town of Tagbaoran after Fleeing from a bittersweet love affair in Manila, he is quickly introduced to the story of a woman whose beauty is so fantastic that it transforms her house into pure glass. The glasshouse not only makes everything visible from outside but could also be said to act as a magnifier for Jacinta's beauty. The news of her magnified beauty attracts hordes of men but she ignores them all.

Jacinta though does not see herself as beautiful, and even admits to herself that she might even be ugly. Then again, her inability to recognize beauty could be explained by the fact that she does not get out much since she usually stays at home and takes care of her blind and deaf aunt. She admits her lack of connection with other people only after the events of the whirlwind, which takes away her aunt and her glass home. She admits to Cesar that she has nowhere else to go because she does not know anyone else.

Yet the only physical descriptions given by the novel about her physical features comes from herself, when she even hints to herself that there is nothing extraordinary about the face she looks at through the mirror. Could it then be that Jacinta's physical features are indeed quite ordinary? The descriptions applied to her beauty by the masses all revolve around it being celestial and divine, yet there is not a single word of evidence from anyone of her admirers or fearful observers that describes her physical features.

Her beauty as a representation of a person with a physically desirable body is then a myth. Even Gaudencio, Jacinta's biggest and most insistent admirer, describes his initial encounter with her to be devastating because of Jacinta's luminous beauty. Indeed it sounds very profound, yet it only attempts to fool the reader into making him or her conceive of the most physically attractive person he or she could think of. If the "unearthly beauty" they speak of does not pertain to the image of a desirable physical body with then what is it?

As stated above, the glasshouse acts like some form of magnifying lens which helps radiate Jacinta's luminous beauty. I use the magnifying lens as my example because it seems that all of Tagbaoran seems to be observing Jacinta, as though she were some unexplainable phenomenon being studied under a microscope. It is seen here that the occupants of this town are not only marveling at beauty but also studying it. It is clear that she is being studied because of the waves of tsismis or rumors that either seem to condemn her beauty to be a curse or simply a mystery of wonder.

There are two possible threats to Jacinta's beauty, yet it is only Gaudencio's act of betrayal that deals the actual diminishment of her beauty and not her rape by Mrs. Brown. When Mrs. Brown takes Jacinta's face in her hands and pushes their lips together, forcing her tongue deep into Jacinta's unsuspecting mouth, Jacinta recoils back at the realization of a foreign tongue's invasion. It is seen here that Jacinta is raped, which should signify the death of her beauty because of the loss of her innocence and purity, yet her overall encounter with Mrs. Brown and the whirlwind only leaves her unearthly beauty diluted by the excess of water, which means that it is merely scarred, not lost.

It is when Gaudencio marries her only to elope with Cesar a week later, which becomes the primary reason as to what causes the diminishment of her unearthly beauty. If beauty is then a construct seen by the people to be a signifier of innocence and purity, why is it the act of Gaudencio leaving her more devastating to her beauty than the rape done by Mrs. Brown? Within the short time they were with each other, they (Gaudencio and Jacinta) did not at one point have sex, even if Jacinta asked him to make love to her. Instead, Gaudencio would reply and remind her that they had all the time in the world, and that there was no rush.

Jacinta is left a virgin still innocent and pure, yet her beauty vanishes not because of anything she has lost but because of the people's belief that it is lost. Her marriage to Gaudencio is the most celebrated in the town and it is no surprise if every single person in Tagbaoran eyes the progress of their marriage. Gaudencio's departure sparks the town's people into creating theories and stories that desecrates Jacinta's image of being pure and innocent. This is seen when Tagbaoran becomes full of the Rampant speculation and furtive gossiping [which] enabled the story to grow with each telling and retelling. Embellishments and new characters were added to the already extraordinary sequence of events, plus delicious conjectures on the motivations and histories of everyone involved.

Despite Jacinta's fall from beauty, the people of Tagbaoran, by and large worship Jacinta for a good part of the novel. They flock to her as though she is a goddess amongst humanity and it is precisely that, which sets her apart from the rest of the people in the town. She is special. She is an icon that influences all of Tagbaoran. Jacinta is what a nation essentially is, an icon that defines its people and the virtues they live by. So, when people say they fear Jacinta's beauty, which they say keeps them from having babies, they are not haunted by her per se but by the values and virtues that apply to their nation, which is mirrored through Jacinta's image.

The people of Tagbaoran then become the representation of the Filipino People, who not only seem to be studying Jacinta, but in a sense, studying themselves and the standards set to them. Their hearts are in doubt, which is why the beginning of the novel shows the old woman and man, telling Gaudencio that he will fall in love with her [Jacinta] and he will fail, a foreshadowing that expresses the doubt of the union between the Filipino People and the Nation.

An old woman, affirms that most people decided to stop giving birth after she [Jacinta] turned twelve. The reason being is that, Anyone born after [her] would be monstrous, thus concluding that beauty is also a curse. If we are to further deconstruct this "curse," one would realize that her loveliness, which is inspired by innocence and ignorance of the world, is at itself the heart of the hideous problem that helps this state of purgatory in the Philippines to go on and on. In away, innocence must be done away with if any form of change is to occur. It is through the unified efforts of betrayal and force that Mrs. Brown and Gaudencio do to Jacinta, which kills her beauty and makes her a threat to future generations no longer.

The Myth of Faith

It is seen through the actions of the people of Tagbaoran that faith is nothing more than a performance. Everyone from Apolinaria, to Mrs. Brown and to the grieving (for the supposed death of Carlito) townspeople undergo some form of performance, which is supposed to appease the supernatural by either offering them words of praise or sacrifices. Apolinaria sacrifices worldly desires and submits the rest of her life to praying and chanting. When the storm approaches she readies her act by telling Jacinta that if she has any sense, she'd pray with [her].

This form of reprimand is merely for show which is to portray herself as a devout woman who does not question her faith and is in fact influencing others, which further strengthens her image of being a devout believer. She does this in order to present this image to whatever god she believes in may be watching. What follows after the storm is the disappearance of the glass house and Apolinaria because of the storm brought by Mrs. Brown.

The whirlwind itself is not a product from the heavens but originates from inside Mrs. Brown's heart, wherein what lurks, a whirlwind of dismay. The reader assumes that Mrs. Brown believes that she is actually doing the bidding of God but she is actually fulfilling her own selfish desires. In countless scenes it is seen that Mrs. Brown is using the name of God as her excuse for her actions.

The whirlwind that originates from Mrs. Brown is not a divine action from God but originates from within her for the need to protect and feed her interests. In fact, God has nothing to do with it, since the whirlwind of dismay is something that no arrows of prayers shot to God could assuage. Prayers cannot stop this whirlwind because prayers, like every other activity performed to mirror faith, are not real or do not hold ground in Salamanca. Everything is merely a performance which is enacted to deceive that faith has power over the events that transpire in the text, when it in fact does not have any power over the reality found in the novel. As indicated already, the whirlwind is not manipulated by God but by Mrs. Brown, who merely uses the excuse that she is an instrument of God.

Colonizers have often used faith as a pretext for taking over countries and peoples. In particular, the American colonization in the Philippines was justified by Pres. McKinley's mission to civilize and Christianize the Philippine islands.

Mrs. Brown reflects this notion of faith as an excuse for dastardly acts. The pretext is meant to naturalize the notion that the colonizer is working for the interests of God, but is actually working for its own set of interests and desires. In the end, Mrs. Brown is oblivious to everything except her own need.

In the case of the events surrounding Carlito's supposed death it seems unclear as to how the spirits could be tricked when a good number of people knew he did not die from his fall. Filomena's old mother openly begins shouting out orders to retrieve the child's belongings in order to keep the spirits from knowing that Carlito never died.

Spirits are supposed to be all knowing and it seems very suspicious that these "spirits" seem to be degraded for not noticing such an obvious trick. Again, faith signifies another performance without any real belief in the spirituality of faith. If spirits can be tricked, therefore performance can be enacted to deceive.

The text then implies to the reader that the decade of happiness is the work of the spirits. However, it is actually the staged events of faith that becomes the catalyst for the vigorous performance and activity of the people. This is supported when Mrs. Brown's combustion, formalized the end of the decade of abundance, because of the fear and shock from her hot black bile [which hit] everyone without exception. This episode signifies that the people of Tagbaoran, simply lose the drive or morale to work hard after such a tragic occurrence, which is the possible "real" reason as to why the decade of abundance ended.

What the readers assume to be a belief is merely a performance. Mrs. Brown carries a bible around and preaches to the people of Tagbaoran that God is on [her] side. This image of holiness is a myth, which naturalizes the notion that Mrs. Brown is an instrument of God, when in fact she is a tool in disguise used by the colonizer. She stages her faith in order to better attract a people that are superstitious in nature. When it comes to the masquarade of Carlito's death, it is apparent that the townspeople believe in the real life benefits of the performance and not so much the world of the spirits.

The Myth of the Writer

The intersection bewtween beauty and faith as a mere pretext occur in the character of Gaudencio. Gaudencio does not come to Tagbaoran for the sole purpose to win the heart of its maiden, but rather to escape his own bittersweet love affair in Manila.

When he first encounters Jacinta, he falls into a state of panic and wonder which he describes to be an

almost unbearable torrent of words rise up through his body: inarticulate syllables swiftly welled up from the soles of his feet; combining into nouns at his knees, verbs at his loins, adjectives and adverbs by the time they reached his heart...[all of which] threatened to erupt not only from his lips but also seeking immediate egress from his eyes, ears, and nose; before finally causing his hair to writhe as whole paragraphs, chapters, short stories, novellas, and novels recoiled backwards, suffusing his entire being with terrible power of the unspoken expression.
Jacinta and her beauty becomes the ultimate object of inspiration for Gaudencio. He is consumed by the inspiration that Jacinta almost seems to radiate from her, he wrote on the walls and on the floor... not sparing the sheets or the single hard pillow. It is he, from among the many that flock to her, who recognizes Jacinta's true beauty. While the envious others look at her and see a curse, a challenge, a love they will never have, Gaudencio sees her for what she truly is, inspiration.

Jacinta is then seen as the face of the nation, which embodies that nation's ideology, which gives purpose, inspiration and meaning for a Filipino to live. Although the people of Tagbaoran are all Filipinos, it is only Gaudencio who recognizes the true beauty of the Filipino nation and how to use it for himself. He does not become an idle spectator like the masses but acts on his love and gets to work on words of praise, which he literally covers the house of Jacinta with. For, It was in this way that Gaudencio paid court to Jacinta, everyday for three months, just before the sun rose, he would finish covering up the walls of her house with the fruits of her nocturnal writing. And Jacinta... allowed herself the luxury of reading only a page or two at a time.

Later, Jacinta becomes so enamored with his words of praise, she began to assign attributes to the man she had seen for only the briefest of instants. Every positive word was applied to his image in her mind, and so she constructed the perfect man that Gaudencio could never hope to be.

His stories and words carry a cornucopia of hope that expresses an unending desire to nurture and protect the very person, who is lovely in all possible ways, yet constantly finds herself alone and unloved amongst a crowd, who never fully understands what her true beauty is. In fact, moments before Mrs. Brown's storm engulfs them all, Gaudencio had begun a story about a man who had to perform impossible tasks to free a maiden from imprisonment. It is Mrs. Brown's whirlwind and storm that set Jacinta free, but with great cost to the invasion of her body and the forced submission to her power.

After their marriage, Jacinta asks Gaudencio to make love to her, only to hear him say that since we [Gaudencio and Jacinta] are together; we have all the time in the world. This foreshadows the true intentions of Gaudencio and his supposed true love for Jacinta. Shortly before the storm ends, he leaves her and elopes with his friend Cesar to Manila. Gaudencio's abrupt leave-taking was the diminishment of her (Jacinta) unearthly beauty. His betrayal devastates her and immediately shows its damage when the magical beauty that was Jacinta transforms into nothing more than an ordinary woman.

Gaudencio marries Jacinata merely to safeguard his treasure, his unending inspiration, in order to create piles of manuscripts...short stories, novels, and plays to all the magazines, newspapers, publications, university presses, publishers, and literary award-giving bodies that he could find. It is no surprise then that the first short story that he publishes is titled The Woman in a Glass House.

His works are born not out of the experience of love but through its betrayal, wherein his words had the devastating effect of making the reader experience again the bittersweet nature of their own personal lost loves.) He leaves Jacinta, in order to feed on that distance and longing, which he later morphs into masterpieces.

When Gaudencio [goes to bed with someone and] experiences his body's familiar transubstantiation of carnal lust to sublime vocabularies, he would [begin] mentally partition[ing] texts as they were composed in his mind. It is through this constant ritual of trapping potential people who would help him bag the next literary award that makes him realize that his muse was the instant of passion, [and] that the quality of his work deteriorated in equal proportion to the fragile nature of his desire, and that he was too easily struck by a profound sense of ennui after being too long with the same person.

In a matter of years Gaudencio begins to exhaust his supply of canned inspiration, which he opens again and again until nothing is left. This leaves his words nothing to hold on to because he gobbled up his food supply of inspiration. With his food gone, Gaudencio watches the decline in both the quantity and quality of his output, which the rest of the writers in Manila took full advantage of, shutting Gaundencio out of the premiere publications, and forcing him to settle for the fifty pesos that accompanied his lone Honorable Mention in the literary competitions he had previously dominated.

It was the news of the utter annihilation of Manilaville in the swamps of Louisiana that broke Gaudencio Rivera's streak of empty pages. Gaudencio and his fellow Filipino writers are awestruck by the collapse of a Filipino community and immediately begin to get home sick and use the vast distance between the two lands to create literature that would become the Filipino's catharsis in a land that continues to oppress and remind the colonized, who is in power. It almost seems at this point that Gaudencio begins to glow with patriotic zeal, yet the storm is just another thing he feeds on in order to get his way and only his way.

Gaudencio is seen in the novel to be nothing more than a parasite that takes and gives nothing back to Jacinta, The Pearl of The Orient. Upon meeting Jacinta, he knows that deep down in his heart that this unconquerable beauty will serve him and his lust for words by being the light of inspiration that will never falter, regardless of storm or distance.

Gaudencio eats up the people he can use in order to bring into being works that would support him economically and feed his relentless ego. For Gaudencio, his work is what keeps him alive, which is why he makes sure he keeps Jacinta untouched and available to him, just in case he reaches a point of intellectual starvation. To see it in more simple terms; Gaudencio needs to write not only to put food on his table but to feed his hunger for fame and glory that outshines everything else, including his wife and child.

Gaudencio's play Run, Iscariot, Run, alludes to a biblical story, wherein Judas betrays Christ for money. Gaudencio, alludes to this story because of his acts of betrayal which he continues to commit because he needed the money

The writer in Salamanca is then a sign, which signifies a profession that is supposed to reflect on the virtues and frailties of the human experience. It is ironic though that instead of the profession being fueled by the refined, civilized, and humane qualities of human, it is the carnal, the instinctive or the animal that becomes his guide to writing. The reader is made to believe that Gaudencio changes when he is reunited with Jacinta and brings up a family. The change is shown when he says that he does away with the carnal muse and replaces it with purely his imagination.

Here, Gaudencio is trying to mirror the image of the writer that Barthes describes to be a man whose muse is everywhere, for the imagination signifies the collective use of all of one's knowledge and experience. He says he has changed yet he still weighs the monetary compensation... [of] his service[s] [and checks] his financial worth, even after he marries and settles down with Jacinta, which indicates that he is still doing what he is best at doing, lying.

Gaudencio has a vampire-like appetite for inspiration which he feeds by betraying anyone he can use from beginning to end. The signs that indicate change do not add up, which makes the writer in Salamanca to be nothing more than a liar, who cheats his way into fortune and a happy ending. Thus ends beauty, faith and the writer, in a mire of lies, deceit and sullied dreams.

Review:

Salamanca seeks to naturalize the notion that the Philippines is a land that thrives on the magical, the wondrous and the unexplainable. It is a land that achieves the impossible by not even trying. It is a land fueled by Salamanca, the mysterious magic of the gods of sky, field, and sea.

The above is a myth. Some of these signs of the magical are too contradictory, too attention-getting, or manufactured. The decade of prosperity for instance which is supposed to be a gift from the spirits for their sacrifice, is not a gift of magic at all but is actually the product of their hard work after they performed their ritual of faith that inspires them to work hard.

In reality, Palawan, where Tagbaoran is supposedly set, is a place where typhoons and storms seldom visit, much less a whirlwind, which makes the use of this object artificial. Barthes would describe it as cheating, since Signs ought to present themselves only in two extreme forms: either openly intellectual and so remote that they are reduced to an algebra, as in the Chinese theatre, where a flag on its own signifies a regiment; or deeply rooted, invested so to speak, on each occasion, revealing an internal, hidden fact, and indicative of a moment in time, no longer of a concept (as in the art of Stanislavsky, for instance).

Although the novel says that anything can happen in the Philippines, the magical signs that are supposed to signify the Filipino nation seem too foreign or out of place and are unheard of in Filipino legends and folklore.

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