Heart of the matter

- Ophelia A. Dimalanta () - December 5, 2005 - 12:00am
Banana Heart Summer, a recent novel by Merlinda Bobis, is a book one would love to fondle with sense/heart/mind all at once.

Right at the back of the front cover (and back) spilling into first page is a cute girly sketch of the setting’s immediate vicinity, Remedios St. where the host of characters live: the almost mansion and construction site of Rich Man Ching, Wok of Nana Dora, the small one-room affair of our 12-year-old narrator, Nenita, and family of eight, six siblings and parents, a garden of banana trees where banana hearts bloom for the denizens’ palates, and on festive or modest tables and finally where it matters. On one end of the street sits the grim volcano with its occasional threats of spewed fury given vent one afternoon covering the site with appalling ash-grayness, and on the other end, the Church blessing the peace-makers and the silent sufferers.

There is much life in this street, as portrayed in this not necessarily romantic but romance-filled story. For there is much fighting here as well, mostly on account of hunger for more than food, for indeed "how sadly mortal are hunger and the feeble attempts to hide it in the name of pride."

Love, also. Love triumphant, love lost, love gone awry, love not quite made possible, and the characters weave in and out of this tapestry of quotidian experiences through the prescience, perceptiveness, sensitivity of our girl narrator who gives an account in recall of her own personal odyssey in that street one hot banana heart summer. Against a backdrop of hunger and dire need, Nenita takes upon her frail shoulders the utter burden of the world in that one-room house with the specter of poverty constantly and sinisterly hovering.

In fact, she gives up school to work, later becoming a helpmate of VV, a charming nursing student who towards the end of the story leaves for the States with her lover bringing Nenita along. We are enjoined to follow the day-to-day existence of this family mostly through smell, sound, touch, sight, flowing through a prism of colors, recipes, meals, fruits and vegetables, in an exciting culinary-cultural trip meant for the literary gourmet. Gable (father) is magenta, Lydia (sister) is aquamarine, Nilo (brother) is ochre, Claro, (another brother) is somber sky, and Nenita herself, red with black ridges.

For all the low-keyed, slow-geared style, now and then belabored by loving sensory details, the story picks up pace at the conclusion in a dramatic, gripping scene where Mother kicks and slaps Junior who holds on to his loot of pig knuckles in a scuffle with brothers and sister over food, continues to deal him blows unable to contain her anger more towards their state than towards the boy. Nenita, shocked , pushes Mother against the wall causing her to bleed away a coming seventh child. The epilogue is heart-tugging. Nenita writes, "How do I tell you that we were good kids? That I knew how they longed to multiply the meager rice and fish to feed our thousand yearnings? How do I say that there was no need for your sad and furious hands to set us aright?… How do I say that I have kissed those hands again and again in my dreams?" These are the words she intends Mother to read at some later auspicious time.

The author carries us along with such candid (candied?) ease and unobtrusive art with the banana heart myth as main motif. For "close to midnight, when the heart bows from its stem, wait for the first dew. It will drop like a gem. Catch it with your tongue. When you eat the heart of the matter, you’ll never go hungry."

"Sweet epigrams" and quotables suffuse the atmosphere. "Happiness is simply gustatory and sorrow means gruel and fish sauce for the rest of our lives." "Loving and unloving are old conspirators and the secret lies in the collusion of ingredients and the attention of the scheming cook."

Self-reflexivity. "I am only as good as my use to you, in this case, as storyteller, as rambler of recipes, as the older version of the bewildered child. But not old enough to escape the humbling state of bewilderedness, this daily ambush of life’s divergent exigencies."

And while it is the ear or the eyes that take in the text, it is the tongue that licks it up and savors it for pleasure. The tongue is inexorably indulged indeed.

It is poetry in prose, where ordinary things and events are raised to the level of the strange and unfamiliar. Magic. The style as previously mentioned is at the surface simple, but is in fact, complex because largely metaphorical and meanings are multi-layered. Poetry’s main accoutrements are there: poetic synaesthesia (rich brew of different sensations in intensified imagery), poetic irony (hunger is an atmosphere saturating the story expressed in a veritable splurge of all kinds of sensations in a culinary surrealistic binge as we get our fill as much as we can comfortably and lavishly take in). At times, this kind of strategy may be a little too long drawn out for some readers, but certainly not for some rich sensibilities for whom this oeuvre is nothing short of dazzling.

For more than just a narrative of brave at times futile efforts of one frail 12-year-old girl to keep her family’s faith and dignity afloat in that little private space they call life in the face of want, this is an overture standing out in originality, virtuosity, and pathos as it avows a moral statement that is also social and even cosmic.

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