Salamanca by Dean Francis Alfar

A thing about Filipino fiction that I’m beginning to notice: You don’t quite know where the mythos begins and ends. On one hand Salamanca is a lot like The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It features characters that follow their passions and sees where it takes them; it asks questions about burdens, identity, and family, testing and poking at the reader’s personal philosophy with a raised eyebrow at said philosophy’s realism. (Or at least, mine.)

On the other hand, there are houses that turn into glass out of the power of beauty, and spirits that bless villagers for the sacrifice of children. It’s weird and savage and clever, if you don’t mind a bit of confusion.

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Dean Alfar’s first novel is about the sorcery wrought by love, lust, and literature, by friendship, family, and the Filipino nation. Salamanca streaks across decades and spaces, tracking the stormy relationship between polymorphous-perverse Gaudencio Rivera, whose passions ignite prodigious feats of writing and wandering, and Palawena beauty Jacinta Cordova, whose perfection transmutes walls into glass and adoration into art.

Tracing the arc of an imperfect marriage sundered by acts of nature (not least human) and sutured by acts of will (not least nonhuman), and vividly peopled by a multigenerational and multinational cast of kith and kin, this work of imagination takes the reader on a magical excursion into Philippine life and history while setting new standards for the Filipino novel along the way.

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The blurb doesn’t do justice in how many stories there are in this book. (There are so. Many. Stories. There are so many characters.) (I’m also wondering now if switching perspectives is a Filipino novel trait, since the authors I’ve been reading so far love giving a voice to everyone.) Not that it takes away from the book—I would argue that it enriches it, though it does get a little noisy. Still. Any story that has a dog partly as the perspective character, while also not killing him off, has a special place in my heart.

The narrative revolves around the marriage of Guadencio and Jacinta, who are…interesting. They are interesting individually – which is awesome because anything less would make for a vapid romance. Guadencio is a writer and serial lover, and does not consider those two roles separate. Jacinta is dignified and modest, and absolutely refuses to let emotions control what she does after her first mistake. (Seemingly.) Alfar spends 113 out of 174 pages mostly developing them apart, and for that I applaud him, considering that this book is supposed to be about their love. Ish.

It allows the time when they actually do get together especially fascinating, since you get to see how their ferociously vivid characters tentatively interact around one another. There is hate, kindness, commitment, patience. Their relationship evolves like some strange, mutated butterfly, all the while asking the question: What is love, anyway?

The writer’s answer is uncomfortable, and one you don’t read in books every day. I’m glad that he wrote it.

Salamanca is short, but it is full to bursting with ideas, with characters, with magic and questions and love of all kinds. It runs around its plot at the whim of its strong-willed protagonists, so you can never quite guess what happens next. (You get the sense that the writer doesn’t, either, that his characters just came alive and he ran after them with a pen, and it makes the particular twists and turns of the novel all the more satisfying.) Read it if ever you feel like a book that’s all of sensuous, sad, and fun.

No online excerpt, so I shall type one up. [Book cover via Goodreads.]

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