13 short stories of hunger, desperation, arrogance

The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker by Gilda Cordero-Fernando
You can attribute my past lack of knowledge on Filipino artists to the degree I completed in college where I was so focused on media and its relationships with the world. Even as a child, I was already reading books by foreign writers. When I took some units in literature during my erratic journey to some sort of a postgraduate degree, I missed the opportunity to sharpen my knowledge on Philippine literature. This changed a little when I hoarded as many as I can Filipiniana books I stumbled upon at Booksale a few years ago. And I started reading more.

One of these hoarded books is The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker, a collection of 13 short stories by Gilda Cordero-Fernando. I first read A Love Story from the same collection as my participation in the #DealMeIn2019 challenge. In the past week, I finished reading the rest, often taking pauses in between short stories and engaging in a bewildering reflection that the previous short story read demands.

It was indeed a bewildering reading journey, which stemmed from the realization that the stories were published in 1962 or 57 years ago and are still painfully relevant today and from the pride of being co-alumnus of the same educational institution. Fernando has a BA from St. Theresa’s College-Manila (mine is from the Cebu branch) and an MA from Ateneo de Manila University. Apart from being a writer, she is also a publisher, a visual artists, fashion designer, playwright, art curator, and producer.

Her background and diversity in exposures and experiences are reflected in The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker. Her stories deal with people and how they are affected by the decisions they make, by the decisions others around them make, and by the environments in which they choose to be in. Fernando’s literary creations are striking and memorable to me for their tone and realistic premise that rings familiar bells. She draws her characters from people we often meet or know: disgruntled employees, discontented housewives, bullies, selfish families, superstition-infested communities, and lonely rich children.

In High Fashion, perhaps my third favorite short story in this collection, raises the question on how far you will go to make a legacy to your name. Are you prepared to die doing so? In The Race Up to Heaven, the writer provides distinct contrasts between two families, one arriving from abroad and the other with deep roots in their mountain home.  

In The Level of Each Day’s Need, even a glamour-starved wife and a money-anxious husband can find peace and contentment together. People in the War is my first favorite for how the writer detaches herself from a series of grimy events during the Japanese Occupation in the Philippines and successfully illustrates the desperation of people in the war who are first individuals before they are family.

A Fear of Heights tells the story of a successful architect who loses his artistic soul to the devil and yearns for salvation. Hunger is such a sad, sad story about a girl, though rich, is always, always hungry for food…and neighborly affection and parental love.

For Sunburn, I think this line from the short story aptly describes it: “Noli and I had finished five years in college. We came from respectable hardworking families who sent us our allowance with religious regularity. We spoke good English, we bathed everyday, had impeccable table manners and a reasonable amount of interesting conversation. Yet past the International Dateline, we were brown, they were white, as irrevocably as if the tropic sun followed us everywhere to give us a sunburn.”

Magnanimity is a portrayal of an arrogant housewife (who does not know she is arrogant) who only wants her life easy and convenient at the expense of other equally arrogant people’s dignity and self-respect. A Love Story is about two young adults, often misunderstood by their families, who meet in a small town museum, their safe haven, the container of their dreams.

A Harvest of Humble Folk, my second favorite, shows the culture often found in a rural area that, despite how strong and united the people look as a unit, can easily crumble at the invasion of one cunning devil’s advocate. Hothouse is a coming-of-age narrative of two young people trying to find their place in the world.

The Visitation of the Gods is a story that is, for me, real, current, painfully funny, and depressing. It tells the abusive preparation for and corrupt events that transpired during the coming of top education officials to a mountain school for an inspection. The Eye of a Needle, which is both biblical and accurate, shows a young girl’s conflicting emotions between doing what is right and what is wrong in order to escape physical suffering.

Which of these stories interest you?

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