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Story Review: The Bread of Salt by N.V.M. Gonzalez

The Bread of Salt by N.V.M. GonzalezUnlike other college students, I didn’t have the privilege of being enrolled in a Philippine Lit class while I was at the university. Or maybe I had, in one of those general education courses, but I could not remember being required to read local stories by famous local authors such as those by Nick Joaquin and Jose Garcia Villa. I was glad, therefore, that one of the featured stories for December was by a local author.

According to Wikipedia, Nestor Vicente Madali (N.V.M.) Gonzalez, the author of this featured story, was a notable author and essayist, and was awarded the Palanca Award for Literature and a Philippine National Artist. He also played the violin, and this perhaps inspired him to make the main character in the story as a violinist.

The Bread of Salt is a coming-of-age story narrated in the voice of a fourteen year-old lad who gets smitten by Aida, a mestiza, his classmate and the niece of a Spaniard with whom his grandfather used to work for. This infatuation makes him aware of their great incompatibility so he strives to improve himself by becoming more skilled in playing the violin. He hopes that through this, Aida will notice him and eventually reciprocate his affection.

On quiet mornings I imagined the patter of her shoes upon the wooden veranda floor as a further sign, and I would hurry off to school, taking the route she had fixed for me past the post office, the town plaza and the church, the health center east of the plaza, and at last the school grounds. I asked myself whether I would try to walk with her and decided it would be the height of rudeness. Enough that in her blue skirt and white middy she would be half a block ahead and, from that distance, perhaps throw a glance in my direction, to bestow upon my heart a deserved and abundant blessing. I believed it was but right that, in some such way as this, her mission in my life was disguised.

Aside from being a story of a boy’s transition into adulthood and maturity, The Bread of Salt is  also a portrayal of the societal chasm between the poor and the rich, and how unnatural and improbable it will be for the poor to marry the rich. Gonzalez used the pan de sal — the bread of salt, the bread of the masses, as a strong symbol and for me this was what makes the story remarkably very Filipino.

Towards the end, when the narrator finally found his chance to get close to Aida when he and his band mates were asked to perform at a party at the Spaniard’s house, he was, however, entranced with the lavish wealth of the family. He was even more intrigued of the abundance of food on the table, food which was far different from the nut-brown, fist-sized pan de sal that he usually ate in the mornings. He tried to steal some of the delectable-looking food but he realized that Aida saw him, and it was there that he felt his infatuation disappear.

What I liked about The Bread of Salt was that the narrative was very convincing and realistic. I wanted to laugh at the narrator’s naive stubbornness but at the same time I felt sorry about his hopeless romantic pursuits. There is nothing like love lost that makes a boy suddenly turn into a man. At least, he learned something about this episode of his life and it was something that made him realize about, and stay true to, his roots.

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.

My Rating: 3/5 stars.


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