For many, reading is a form of escape. Many prefer reading fantasies or science fiction, because these genres present to them unimaginable yet exciting lives of adventurous men and supernatural creatures with futuristic gizmos or magical implements.
Some like to read romantic novels to experience that sudden leap of the heart after the main character finally kisses her true love. In other words, reading gives one the feeling that imagination can give but reality cannot. So, who would like to read realistic stories that mirror the reality we want to escape from?
Fictionist Augusto Antonio Aguila follows the trend of realist writers who portray the miseries of life. The heroes in his collection “The Heart of Need and Other Stories” (UST Publishing House, 2013; available at Solidaridad Bookstore, tel. 2541068; UST Bookstore, tel. 7313522), are characters that mirror ordinary individuals whom readers may be familiar or even interact with.
The stories tackle love, heartache, betrayal, lust, memories, sorrow, poverty.
“Bliss” is about Tony, an average man who suddenly finds himself falling in love with a sales lady after years of abandoning “the idea of meeting someone special.”
This story reminds one of Paz Latorena’s “Desire.” The main characters of “Bliss” and “Desire” are both victims of society’s notion of beauty: Tony is a normal-looking guy with receding hairline, while the unnamed woman in “Desire” has a homely face and a sexy body (much to her dismay).
Another similarity is how the plots of both stories turn out: Both characters are betrayed in the end. Although Tony may be luckier than Latorena’s protagonist, both share the experience of being disillusioned by love. Both fall prey to momentary desire and illusionary bliss.
The titular story, “The Heart of Need,” is an intriguing narrative about an intelligent woman, Miranda, who falls in love with a priest. Here we can see how one can do everything for love, even sacrificing everything just to make the beloved happy—an act that may in turn make the lover concomitantly happy.
Miranda is exemplary of people who go head over heels over someone they can never have (a circumstance that netizens call “friendzoned”):
“There were times when she hated herself for loving what the world thought was the impossible. She hated herself because she knew where this was going, what was going to happen… He was going to thank her for all her services, and he would tell her that God would remember what she had done for him, and that they would be friends for the rest of their lives. Sometimes she hated him because he was so damn nice, so damn polite, and so damn beautiful.”
The ending of the story is quite intriguing. We are left with several questions like: What is the gender of the priest’s supposed friend? Would he return for her? But the ultimate question may be: After all she has done for him, what would she do after he leaves her?
“Thicker Than Any Circumstance” is a very familiar yarn for those who grew up gay in the 1980s. It is about a high-school student named Ritchie, an avid fan of Madonna. He often quarrels about who the best female singer is with his gay friends who idolize other pop icons such as Kylie Minogue, Whitney Houston and Cyndi Lauper.
Ritchie also has a big crush on a teen jock named Marco, who invites Ritchie to his house to “study:” “‘I’ll see you on Sunday then. I’ll be ready for you, Ritchie. I’ll let you use my really big pen,’ Marco said innocently.”
Aguila, who dedicates this story to Madonna, employs one of her most popular and controversial albums, “Like a Prayer,” in the story as framing device. The album somewhat parallels Ritchie’s life from the beginning until the end of the story. The titular song of the album near the end of the narrative is playing while Ritchie is being victimized by someone he trusts.
After the ill-fated scenario, Ritchie dances while imagining Marco watching him, as Madonna starts to sing: “Life is a mystery/ everyone must stand alone/ I hear you call my name/ and it feels like home!”
A woman disillusioned with artificial beauty is the center of “The Art of Neglect.” Phoebe used to be a plain-looking girl who grew tired of being part of a group of homely girls. After being inspired by her balikbayan aunt, she learns to wear makeup to cover undesirable parts of her face. She falls in love with Nick, a handsome jock, whom she believes likes her back.
Phoebe learns not to neglect her physical appearance, as evident in the way she meticulously chooses the right lipstick, eye shadow, and powder for her face. However, the art of neglect here is how she unconsciously neglects her self-worth by changing into someone she is not.
Groves of academe
“The Lost Season” begins with a cartoon episode starring Sissy, a whiny pig who thinks that the world revolves around her and that everyone should always take notice of her and her small problems. Aguila uses this as an opening to parody the people the main character, Arthur, encounters during the first faculty meeting for the upcoming academic year.
Aguila shows the frustrating internecine politics a new administrator faces, especially for someone who wishes to improve the university, only to have his scholastic and scholarly ideals shattered by the stupidity of his colleagues.
This frustration is further tackled in another story, “The Shadows of Sorrow.” Here we see three professors having a good time drinking in a bar near their university. The three laugh at (yet also express disdain for) the academic officials ruling over their ill-fated institution.
They talk about a dean who has two PhDs yet does the opposite of what a dean is supposed to do; a dumb associate dean; and a fellow professor who is manipulative yet ultimately brainless when it comes to class.
They also mourn for the death of two professors whom they look up to: one, an acclaimed fictionist; another, an inspiring educator. Despite knowing the problems of the university, the three characters cannot do anything about it but drown their disgust in alcohol.
A rather different story is the lighthearted “These Memories Provide.” Using the first-person point of view, this story is about a fictionist attending the opening ceremony for a basketball game in his high-school alma mater and the small reunion both organized by his batchmates.
Disgust and disdain
The problem of poverty is the locus of the stories “Kissing the Dead,” “A Convenient Fantasy,” and “Soon Before the Sun”—all of which are bleaker than the other stories.
“Kissing the Dead” is about half-Danish, half-Filipino Marco Arcega, a young married lad forced by poverty to become a much-admired macho dancer who occasionally does escort service to closeted politicians, rich matrons and dirty old gay men.
It seems Marco loves his lust-filled job, something Filipinos express disgust and disdain for. However, Aguila wisely points out in the end that because of the money he earns his disgust has been buried deep inside him. Marco does not realize the main reason he has chronic nausea is because of self-disgust.
“A Convenient Fantasy” centers on a middle-class worker named Jeric. Many Filipinos will see themselves in this character—a hardworking employee irritated by the complaints and requests of his company bosses. Just like many of us, Jeric is silenced by the powers that be, yet he is actively criticizing in his mind the political structure of the company.
Jeric is the reflection of every middle-class Filipino worker who bears the yoke of his superiors, and finds it hard to sleep peacefully at night even after a day’s work.
The last story in the collection has a different narrative structure. “Soon Before the Sun” is composed mostly of dialogues by different characters unknown to the protagonist, a handsome taxi driver. Aguila successfully portrays the everyday life of a taxi driver through this kind of literary device—from leaving the house to coming home; the arrival and departure of passengers; his short conversations with them.
The structure only changes in the middle of the story, during a lunch break with his fellow taxi drivers; however, the conversational schema reemerges near the ending when a passenger offers him an indecent proposal.
Aguila is one of the latest and freshest voices to come out of University of Santo Tomas. He follows a great line of successful Thomasian fictionists that includes Latorena, F. Sionil José, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, Rogelio Sicat, even Ophelia A. Dimalanta.
The stories in Aguila’s first collection, whether they are about the interplay of love and heartbreak, or the politics of poverty, successfully mirror the quotidian lives of ordinary and not-so-ordinary Filipinos. Any individual, whether male or female, gay or straight, will be able to see him or herself in at least one of the stories in “The Heart of Need.”
Gustave Flaubert, the great French realist, once said that people should “not read as children do, to amuse ourselves, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction… Read in order to live.”
Aguila’s short stories echo Flaubert’s injunction by pointing this out: Unlike the characters in his fiction, whose circumstances are reduced, we, the privileged readers, are lucky enough to read these stories in the comfort of our homes—to read about these unfortunate, sad lives imagined, yes, but yet so true, for they mirror what we are or what we should have been if we were in their shoes. Read Aguila’s fiction not only just “to live,” but also to reflect on and reconnect with our daily lives.