Prof. Antonio Salvador S. de Veyra
Comparative Literature (CL) 150
30 September 2011
A Literary Analysis of N.V.M. Gonzalez’s “Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories”
N.V.M. Gonzalez’s “Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and other stories” is a humble and comely collection of seven short stories that plunges deep into “the private and the public lives” of Filipino women and children bound to see life in a new light as events unfold. The world of the book is, as Francisco Arcellana puts it, is “the world of Mindoro and Manila: the world of the paraya and the anting-anting and anito-worshiping as well as the world of public lectures and TV and Cinemascope. The theme of the collection is the clash between the city and the farm, the impact of the sophisticate upon the primitive, the collision between reality and the unreal city. The subject is man and the life of man…” (Arcellana). The stories are rich, deep and massive in their delineation of the aspects of rural and urban living and especially the depiction the private and public lives of the main characters that are basically women and children.
“No other Filipino writer has written prose more clear and clean and straight and direct and hard and pure as N.V.M. Gonzalez” writes Arcellana. His prose is a perfect vehicle of thought. A prose where texture has been added to structure and subtlety to strength. A collection of prose with an inner calmness, subtly and warmth but the effect is startling and powerful. Indeed, N.V.M. Gonzalez’s “Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and other stories” is one of the few Filipino stories of real power.
Evident in “Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and other stories” is Gonzalez’s economy with words and focus on surface description. There is also a certain striking restraint in his prose style, sparseness of story, and flatness of narrative tone. However, the sparseness in place, descriptive detail and characterization of Gonzalez’s stories are balanced by his emphasis on dialogue and dispassionate approach of his narrators to consequential experiences. Indeed, N.V.M. Gonzalez’s prose style belongs to the minimalist school of writing.
In this literary analysis, I will only choose two out the seven short stories included in the collection to focus on. This decision stems from my belief that although each stories in the collection is distinctly N.V.M. Gonzalez’s, a closer reading of just a few of his stories would be enough to illuminate the point the author is driving at in this brief literary analysis of N.V.M. Gonzalez’s book. Moreover, the other five stories not covered in this analysis, although not critical commented on, will still be briefly mentioned along the way. This is to prove that I really read the entire stories in the collection and not just tinker on specific stories to deal upon.
“Gonzalez' stories smell of ginger root and oils to appease the spirits and of a boy's hunger and curiosity,” writes Terry Farish. She commends Gonzalez’s remarkable use of Filipino words so perfectly woven into the English that his stories become, to use the words of Farish, “colorful paintings of Philippine characters and sensibility” (Farish).
Many of Gonzalez‘s stories are nostalgic looks, through a boy's eyes, of rural life. In "The Morning Star," Gonzalez creates a quietly powerful woman who gives birth to an American soldier's baby. In "Children of the Ash-Covered Loam," the boy, Tarang, runs from his hut to see the pig's new litter. He strikes a tree trunk with his big toe, but the hurt is ‘not half as sharp as his hunger for knowing.’ This hunger is in all these stories (Farish). Also included are stories that have themes of migration, inter-island travel, and the perils of the sea. “The Sea Beyond” features a dying stevedore who has fallen off the reconverted minesweeper Adela. In “A Warm Hand,” the passengers of the Ligaya went ashore to seek refuge is a fisherman’s hut during a violent storm.
“Children of the Ash-Covered Loam,” seems straightforwardly realistic in approach. There are no distorting tricks of language. The presentation is essentially objective—that is, Gonzalez supplies very little interpretation. Gonzalez tells the reader the scene using brief and simple words. He almost always makes it sure that the scene would come out vivid and alive, as they were, in the imagination of the attentive reader. However, there are also certain scenes where the reader is to infer its larger meaning. I am particularly referring to the last scene in the story where while hurrying down the hut, on rainy evening, Tarang thought “he could hear something else besides—may be the sow in the pen, under the dao tree. He listened more carefully. He could hear the grunting. There were little noises, too. A squirming litter, protesting against the cold. Surely, with wet snouts tugging at its teats, a sow could be annoyed…” (21). At that moment, Tarang “got up quietly and slipped out the door into the rain. It seemed that at this very hour the rice grains, too, would be pressing forward, up the ash-covered loam, thrusting forth their tender stalks through the sodden dirt. he thought he caught the sound that the seeds also made. The ground was not too wet. In his haste, Tarang struck a tree stump with his big toe; and the hurt was not half as keen as it might have been, not half as sharp as his hunger for knowing, for seeing with his own eyes how life emerged from his dark womb of the land and this time of the night” (21). The reader is left to infer which is gave new life—the pig or the seeds planted on the ground. It could be something symbolic. However, it could also be something representational of the cycle of life and death. Whatever it is, the reader is to ponder it on.
The story is in third-person narration. The story is about a seven-year-old boy named Tarang and his family living in the hinterlands of Mindoro, as they take on kaingin system to prepare the earth for the coming planting season. Slash and burn is a specific functional element of certain farming practices among Filipino farmers (and of course, in many civilizations all over the world).
It is Tarang’s first time to go with his parents to the ash-covered field where they will soon plant seeds. His father brought with him a chicken. His father bartered his mother’s camisa in exchange of the chicken to be offered to the spirits. As the other farmers gather around the clearing, Tarang watches with awe and wonder as his father “laid the pullet’s neck upon the flat of the tree stump, and without a word cut the head off” (Gonzales). He watches closely as his father “held the headless pullet up with one hand, to let the blood spurt well and make a long leap” (10). The following day, everyone gathered on the same spot where Tarang’s father killed the chicken. Tarang witness his Tio Longinos setting up a small cross made of banban reeds and mumbling, “let citronella grass give fragrance… let ginger appease the Evil Ones… let iron give weight to the heads of rice on this clearing” (12). As Tarang edges closer, he sees bits of ginger and the three two-inch nails that his Tio Longinos placed at the foot of the reed cross. The ritual is practiced by farmers in Mindoro before planting because it is believed that by offering the blood of an animal and other objects to the spirits of the earth, will yield them rich crops and abundant harvest.
The infusion of animistic and ritualistic elements with the agricultural lives of people in Mindoro is evident in the story. Normally, Filipinos are superstitious. They believe in whatever stories that are not of this world. It fascinates them. Their great respect for nature and those that thrives in it is celebrated in Gonzalez’s “Children of the Ash-Covered Loam”. For instance, the night when Tia Orang, the midwife, came over their hut. She talked a great deal about Evil Ones and Spirits that made Tarang “remember the kaingin and his Tio Longinos and the citronella and the nails and the ginger root” (19).
Filipino rituals comes in many forms. In “Lupo and the River,” it is suggested in the story that Lupo is engaged to Manding Paula, the step sister of the nine-year-old Pisco Olarte. But before they get married, Lupo has to serve her would-be wife. He has to fill their jar with water every morning, chopped some woods and give her family twenty-five cavanes of rice, and built a home for their family. In another story “The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms,” the skull of the departed is still being implored upon in order for his soul to enter the gates of heaven in his afterlife. A padasal is being given for the soul of Pepito Malabanan—“the family altar was in Mrs. Malabanan’s bedroom… the Rosario had already started. More than that, the smell of home-made candles, the old women praying, old Mr. and Mrs. Malabanan kneeling humbly before the fact that was Death…” (88).
Similar to the aforementioned story, “The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms,” is straightforwardly realistic in approach but the presentation is not particularly objective. In the story, the omniscient narrator expounds the details and generalities of Miss Inocencio’s thoughts, character, and milieu. The story follows Miss Inocencio’s thoughts but the narrator does not only limit himself to her thoughts or experiences. The ironic, melancholy tone rises chiefly, perhaps, from the surprises of the plot, but is enhanced by some of the rueful observations contributed by the narrator.
In an interesting essay “Politeness, Perlocution and the Panopticon: a Pragmatic Stylistic Analysis of NVM Gonzalez’s 'The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms',” Wadi Sui analyses Miss Inocencio and Mr. Vidal psyche based from their language and dialogues in order to follow the pattern and undertones of their interaction. He writes that “Ms. Inocencio’s language at the beginning of the story reveals an overuse of the politeness indicated by the word “sir,” which she uses after almost every utterance” (Sui). Wadi Sui furthers adds that this indicates “her desire to please Mr. Vidal, the school inspector, and not simply to be polite. This also emphasizes how she sees herself as subordinate, and even inferior, to him. Later on, in their first encounter at the school, she moves from short phatic utterances to more illustrative illocutionary acts like explaining her plans for the garden, the illocutionary force being to make a good impression” (Sui). Mr. Vidal, on the other hand, Sui writes, “begins with a series of compliments to Ms. Inocencio. He also addresses her as Ms. Inocencio only once, and the rest is direct “you” address. This reveals his desire not to seem imposing and to establish a less formal and more familiar interaction with Ms. Inocencio” (Sui).
Interestingly, Wadi Sui concludes that “the disparity in the disposition of the two is revealed in the dialogue they have after Ms. Inocencio mentioned the war. Her illocutionary act describes the school during and after the war, hoping to make a point about the school’s condition. The perlocution on Mr. Vidal instead is to discuss an intimate topic, the death of Pepito, Ms. Inocencio’s lover. He does this using an illocutionary act of clarifying a fact. He asks Ms. Inocencio, ‘Did you know him?’ not to clarify but perhaps to get her to talk more. She, in turn, rejects and replies with an indirect illocution, ‘Pepito Malabanan, sir?’ Mr. Vidal persists, ‘Do you think it’s ever possible… his being alive, his ever coming home?’ And Ms. Inocencio answers, “I can’t say, sir.’” (Sui). The polite address at the end, Wadi Sui writes, reveals she does not want to discuss the intimate connection she has with the man in question. Obviously, though, with his questions, Mr. Vidal is aware of it (Sui). The aforementioned explains a hidden illocutionary force in Mr. Vidal’s being generous with compliments at the start. He wants a more personal relationship with Ms. Inocencio, and perhaps even to court her (Sui).
What is striking, aside from the skull being discovered by the children in the school garden, is the last sentence of the story, “the dark palms were staring at her”. What could the personification possibly mean? What does image tell us about Miss Inocencio?
Again, in “Politeness, Perlocution and the Panopticon: a Pragmatic Stylistic Analysis of NVM Gonzalez’s 'The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms',” writes that “the change in the personification of the palms, ‘waving’ to ‘staring’ shows that for Miss Inocencio, the barrio residents are watching her. This is reminiscent of the concept of panopticon, where people think and feel their actions are being watched even if they are alone. This hinders them from doing forbidden acts by the community. This panopticon can be of religion, tradition and culture, ideologies” (Sui). He further writes that “for Miss Inocencio, the barrio folk have been watching her every step ever since Pepito Malabanan did not come back, and they continue to do so after the skull’s discovery. Even if she leaves for the capital, the people will talk about her and how she abandoned her betrothal. This underlying reason is shown in how she had said her last utterances: ‘as if someone were making decisions on her behalf.’ ‘There—her tongue had uttered them!’ emphasizes that she does not claim it as an utterance from her but that her tongue had merely produced them” (Sui).
I personally like Gonzalez’s “Children of the Ash-Covered Loam” and “The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms” because I can vividly visualize the scenes in my imagination at first reading.
To fully appreciate N.V.M. Gonzalez’s work, the only requirement is the reader’s full attention to the text. As Francisco Arcellana in his generous introduction to the books puts it, “these stories are not just triumphs of skill and craft. Neither are they just examples of the growth and ripening that is art. The reader of these stories must attend to them, must read them attentively, must read them with attention. For that is the least that they ask of him [the reader]. Then he shall not fail to see that they are works of art and that they are drawn from a world attentively and lovingly observed” (Arcellana).
Indeed, N.V.M. Gonzalez is one true Filipino writer worth emulating and remembering. There is no other Filipino writer like him. No other Filipino writer has written prose more comely and homely than him. He is definitely worth the read.
Arcellana, Francisco. "The Art of N.V.M. Gonzalez." Gonzalez, N.V.M. Children of the Ash-Covered Loam. Makati City: Bookmark, Inc, 1992.
Farish, Terry. Bread of Salt and Other Stories. n.d. 29 September 2011 <http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:DTU8OozhonEJ:www.barnesandnoble.com/w/bread-of-salt-and-other-stories-n-v-m-gonzalez/1002265454+N.V.M+Gonzalez'sthe+morning+star&cd=3&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ph>.
"Children of the Ash-Covered Loam ." Gonzales, N.V.M. Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories. makati City: Bookmark.Inc, 1992. 10.
"Children of the Ash-Covered Loam." Gonzalez, N.V.M. Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories. Makati City: Bookmark, Inc., 1992. 19.
"Children of the Ash-Covered Loam." Gonzalez, N.V.M. Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories. Makati City: Bookmark, Inc., 1992. 21.
"Children of the Ash-Covered Loam." Gonzalez, N.V.M. Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories. Makati City: Bookmark, Inc., 1992. 88.
Sui, Wadi. Politeness, Perlocution and the Panopticon: a Pragmatic Stylistic Analysis of NVM Gonzalez’s “The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms”. n.d. 29 September 2011 <http://wadisui.wordpress.com/2008/09/11/politeness-perlocution-and-the-panopticon-a-pragmatic-stylistic-analysis-of-nvm-gonzalezs-the-blue-skull-and-the-dark-palms/>.