The Bread of Salt is a coming of age story by Filipino national artist Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez. It is about a fourteen-year-old male narrator who falls for Aida, the niece of a Spaniard plantation owner, and who realizes that this girl is out of his league. It begins with the narrator informing us of his daily task of buying the staple breakfast food pan de sal every 5 A.M. Pan de sal in English is bread of salt. The narrator describes it in detail in the second paragraph; he waits for pan de sal to be finished baking at the end.
The themes of race and class divisions are clearly set up early in the story. The mere mention of the coconut plantation owner who is Spanish is enough of a hint. It feels like it’s going to be a post-colonial literature through the eyes of a juvenile dreamer, but it eddies back to a boy’s romantic fantasies. The narrator regales us with hi head-in-the-cloud stories, mostly concerning him becoming Aida’s beloved one. She becomes his inspiration. He plays well at school games to become physically admirable and perseveres on improving his violin-playing to become artistically pleasing. He joins a band to earn money so that he could buy her a brooch. He improvises plans for her to read a letter filled with his feelings for her.
I find the violin part problematic because this instrument is a status symbol in this country. It weakens characterization and shades a fantasy element on the part of the author. But putting this aside and considering instead the narrator’s tales colored by his youthful tone, one cannot easily trust the narrator. Reading further, one can conclude that the narrator is full of himself. He thinks he can easily conquer the world, a classic teenage notion that is shredded as soon one gets a solid footing on reality. Disillusionment for him comes when his band is invited to perform at an alta sociedad party, where Aida is among the guests.
The narrator’s aunt rightfully observed that musicians at parties always eat last. After the narrator and his bandmates ate the food that they cannot name, he wraps more of “those egg-yolk things” and slips them under his jacket. Aida sees him do it and asks if he was able to eat. She further offers to give him a package of food if he could wait until the other guests have left.
The narrator’s and Aida’s habits and mannerisms come from distinct backgrounds, therefore introducing a preliminary hurdle in the two’s nonexistent love story. The former doesn’t know how to behave accordingly in a party where only high profile personas are invited. The latter seems to be either concerned or condescending, depending on how one looks at it. It is implied though that it is more of condescension since right after their conversation, the narrator’s admiration for Aida immediately evaporates, fueled further by his embarrassment.
He walked with me part of the way home. We stopped at the baker’s when I told him that I wanted to buy with my own money some bread to eat on the way to Grandmother’s house at the edge of the sea wall. He laughed, thinking it strange that I should be hungry. We found ourselves alone at the counter; and we watched the bakery assistants at work until our bodies grew warm from the oven across the door. It was not quite five, and the bread was not yet ready.
The young narrator gets his first taste of life’s disappointments and deals with it eating not those egg-yolk things but his staple comfort food.
Published in: The Bread of Salt and Other Stories
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars