Re-reading the 50 Best Philippine Short Stories of the Twentieth Century – Story #1:
The first time we read it, we didn’t pay much heed because it was a school requirement, thus, robbing us the enjoyment of simply reading it. Half a decade later, we visited it again, and to our surprise, it gave us the same feelings F.Scott Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby. We immediately noticed her language. She has a quiet ability to manipulate emotions, create images, and conjure memories. There is subtlety and restraint in her composition, the same way her characters are ruled by unspoken social decorum, they dance around the state of their relationships, trying to gain understanding through long gazes and minute touches. They seldom use words to define their relationships, but when words are used, it is with finality.
We do not know whether to consider Alfredo courageous or coward. Maybe even he himself does not know. He fills his life with regrets: of what has been done, of what could have been; of taking action, and of not taking action. Still we’ll give a little credit to Alfredo, because he knows these things. He has the intelligence of a self-aware man, able to step back and asses his reality. But he is helpless to the call of desire, and is shackled by the call of duty.
To label it bluntly, Alfredo was having an emotional affair. To Julia, he laid out (not offered) something he is not free to give. To Esperanza, he was the man she shared life with but was never truly her own. He is gentle and kind, but has the residues of an ill-content man. In the end he became unfair to both women. What struck us most was when Esperanza was confronting him about his coldness towards her. During their heated exchange, he addressed himself as “one”,subconsciously distancing himself from her accusations and justifying his actions–which means he’s (a) guilty and (b) he does not want to own up to it.
And Paz Marquez-Benitez presented all these in eloquence able to rival the thoughtful pronouncements of Fitzgerald about the human condition.
Of Greed, she wrote:
We could name a number of men (departed, alive, and fictional) who can identify with Alfredo. He argues with Esperanza that he’s only trying to be honest to himself and that he is not injuring anyone. And yet this is what most men fail to understand: a woman always knows. It’s an open secret devalued by many. Diana, Princess of Wales, when asked how she knew her husband was having an affair, answered with cast-down eyes and a sad smile, “A woman’s instinct is a very good one,” and she was right. It’s illogical, it’s beyond-the-natural, it’s a gift. We admire men who are wise enough to acknowledge this, men like Ronald Reagan who passed on the wisdom to his son in this letter.
We’re proud that a woman wrote this short story–with all her sensitivity, intuition, and intelligence, all told through the consciousness of a man. It was written in 1925 when our nation was still young. And yet she was able to wield the new language in mastery and grace, creating a story that still speaks true almost a century after. Now it’s lauded as the first Filipino short story in English. We once read somewhere that the Filipino novel in English was like birth of Athena, springing from the head of Zeus complete and mature. It’s an apt description. We couldn’t agree more.