The bread of salt! How did it get that name? From where did its flavor come, through what secret action of salt and yeast?
The Bread of Salt is perhaps NVM Gonzalez’ most famous and most anthologized short story. It tells the tale of an unnamed narrator, on the cusp of youth, as he falls in love (or, to be more accurate, infatuated) with a young girl named Aida who is the niece of a rich Spaniard. Aida, however, is out of his league as she is the rich while the narrator is poor. Class division then is the obstacle that our narrator must overcome in order to be worthy of Aida and his tool in doing so would be his violin which he dreams would propel him to great heights by being an adept and world-renowned player of the instrument, only then will he be worthy of Aida.
The critical moment in the story occurred when the narrator was invited by a friend of his to play in a band for a big and gallant occasion in Aida’s household. As a custom, hired musicians aren’t allowed to eat until the festivities are about to end and so our narrator, during the course of the festivities, could only observe Aida while playing his violin, desperate to impress his beloved with his musical ability. In the end, the musicians are finally allowed to eat and they do so with uninhibited glee, overwhelmed by the bounty in front of them and our narrator is no exception. Seeing globes of egg yolk-like pastries, he abandons himself to gluttony and eats ravenously while also wrapping such pastries in tissue paper so that he can bring it home. Then, to his horror, he realizes that Aida is observing him and, to further his embarrassment, proceeds to tell him that she will wrap up a parcel of food for him to bring home. This incident caused him to retreat to the veranda where he threw the tissue-wrapped egg yolk-like pastries to the darkness beyond. Walking home, he stopped by the local bakery where the baking of the pan de sal, bread of salt, comforts him.
I first read this story in high school when it was assigned as a required reading for our English literature class and this story never stuck with me because I didn’t really find it remarkable. Now, reading it years after our first encounter, I am reminded of what I felt when I read Carlos Bulosan’s My Father Goes To Court. Both stories are written by giants in Philippine Literature and yet both stories disappointed me. I found both stories to be rather simplistic unworthy of the reputation of the giants who wrote them. Yes, there is poignancy to the stories and I felt that both were trying to deliver a message yet it is unfulfilled.
In the case of The Bread of Salt, I felt that the story was unsure if it is going to be a commentary on class divisions or a primer on young love and all its heartbreaks. By sitting on the fence, the story lacked the punch needed to make an impact. Maybe if Gonzalez concentrated more on either the class divisions or young love and not bothm the story would be on a more steady ground and would work better than what we have now. Aside from problems of tone, I found the story very simple in its handling of its characters. They aren’t fleshed out in a way that you expect them to be so, for me, the narrator just seemed flat and Aida, as an object of affection, seemed like your run-of-the-mill alpha female that hopelessly romantic protagonists pine for in mediocre stories. In short, I felt that the story lacked depth.
Still, despite the story’s major flaws, it is not without moments of brilliance and beauty. The narrative felt rushed, yes, but the descriptions within the story especially that of the process of making pan de sal is vivid enough to leave an impression with the reader.
Originally Published in The Bread of Salt and Other Stories