There is something about The Bread of Salt that kept niggling at me no matter how many times I read it. I have lost track of the number of times I went through the story and each time, I failed to fully grasp its message. Is there something wrong with the story itself, or perhaps it’s really just me not getting it?
The unnamed narrator is a young man who, everyday at the break of dawn, would walk to the baker’s down their street to buy some pan de sal – the bread of salt – for the family’s breakfast. He briefly describes his routine when he is sent on this errand by his Grandmother, who gives the 15 centavos with which to buy the bread. And then he segues to Aida, the Spaniard’s niece and the love of his young life: his affection for her, his plans to profess his love for her, how he was inspired to be better at playing the violin and earning money so that he could buy her a brooch. From the narrative, it can be inferred that Aida is out of his league, as they belong to different classes in society. Our young man, however, is not deterred.
Her name, I was to learn many years later, was a convenient mnemonic for the qualities to which argument might aspire. But in those days it was a living voice. “Oh that you might be worthy of uttering me,” it said. And how I endeavored to build my body so that I might live long to honor her.
The Bread of Salt struck me as primarily the story of a young man’s unrequited love for a young lady who would not have given him the time of day, given the disparities in their stature and place in society. While our unnamed narrator also spoke about self-improvement – he did good in school and excelled in playing the violin so much that he was invited to play with a band that got paid for playing at events – the thing that hit a chord with me was his desire to express his love for the girl. His exercises at self-improvement were, after all, for the purpose of making her notice him, and he even felt a little resentment towards his Grandmother for requiring him to give him his earnings at the band’s gigs because he wanted to buy the girl a brooch.
[That violin. Did he own it? If he did, did he or someone from his family buy it? Was it borrowed from the school band? I wonder.]
Everything else that transpired in the story were mere obiter dicta: the bread of salt, the humiliation at the party. Perhaps the story ought to have been appreciated otherwise, that is, the love angle ought to have been interpreted as the backdrop to something more significant, although what it is, I still fail to see. But that is what keeps niggling at me until now: something missing from the narrative, something that is far more important than the realization of an unrequited love and one’s place in society.
Published in: The Bread of Salt and Other Stories