Yes, I know, I'm supposed to be back on an unadulterated diet of Bogus Science-related nonfiction now that the new year has started, but one of the stack of books that the indefatigable Charles Tan (charlesatan) very kindly sent to Pam and myself for Christmas began calling out my name as soon as it emerged from the box, and it continued to do so even after Christmas Day and all the way through until New Year's Eve, when finally I capitulated and began to read it. (This means I still have to read one more novel, this one for "quote" purposes.)
Dean Francis Alfar's novel Salamanca (2006) is a (quite short) piece of magic realism that stretches across much of the life of its central protagonist and through several decades of the Philippines' history. I've been slightly imprecise in that sentence because, while one spends perhaps as much as the first three-quarters of the book believing that, even during some longish periods when he is off-stage, the central protagonist is the oversexed writer Gaudencio Rivera, towards the end of the book, in a feat of tricksterism that made at least this reader grin appreciatively, one discovers this assumption was misplaced.
The book is full of plots, but the one that holds the others together concerns Gaudencio Rivera's discovery in Tagbaoran, a remote small town in the Philippines' island province of Palawan, of Jacinta, a young woman of such incandescent beauty that she has turned all the walls of her house to glass; of his desertion of her eleven days after their as-yet unconsummated marriage; of his decision years later to have children of whom he determines she must be the mother; of her initial reluctance to countenance the prospect; and of her eventual rediscovery of happiness through this unorthodox relationship so that, finally, she rediscovers also the beauty of her youth. There's a very, very great deal more to the book than these bare bones; indeed, it's astonishing how much Alfar manages to stuff into 160 pages or so.
It's a very writerly novel, too, despite that brevity, and I can't imagine any writer reading it without at least sneakily identifying with Rivera on occasion -- as when, in his youth, his lust (or could it possibly be love?) for Jacinta causes words and phrases and imagery to erupt orgasmically from every part of his body. Yet, as I say, at the end of the novel you realize the story isn't really about him at all.
Another discovery is the meaning of the book's title. I'd assumed it was a placename, and was slightly bemused by the fact that no reference to the Spanish city ever turned up, or even seemed remotely likely to do so. It was only on page 126 that I came across this passage:
He [Rivera] created powerful fantasies set in a reimagined Philippines, circa the time of Spanish rule, imbuing the land he called Hinirang, the Land Longed For, with tikbalang half-breeds that warred against their greedy oppressors; natives who went on impossible quests in the name of unattainable love and other abstract ideals; and wondrous galleons that soared through the skies fueled by salamanca, the mysterious magic of the gods of sky, field, and sea.
So in a way the title is yet another of Alfar's conjuring tricks.
I really enjoyed this book. Charles included also in his Bumper Package a collection of Alfar's stories that is now, of course, getting under my skin just by its very presence among my to-be-read piles; strong will is going to be necessary to hold off from reading it until my Bogus Science research is done. In the meantime, I have my memories of Salamanca to play with.