Reviewed by Gillian Polack
Dean Francis Alfar’s stories are fabulous. To be precise, they are mostly somewhere between the fable and the fairytale, ranging in tone from the lyrical (“L’Aquilone du Estrellas” – “The Kite of the Stars”) to the modern (“MaMachine”). They are also memorable. This slim volume of short stories is still making me think and smile, hours after I finished reading it. I want to sit and think about the stories, not explain them, or write about them, or review them. The very best of them touched somewhere deep inside and took me beyond words.
Alfar makes his cultural background work for him – the stories are quite specifically Filipino. The food, the mixed cultures, the comfort in more than one language and the capacity to write shards of other languages without worrying “Will monolingual English-speaking readers understand?” (I understood enough – the stories still worked, and the lack of language embarrassment from the author’s end was refreshing), the shape of the universe: all of these enriched the stories, sometimes in a startling way. One of my Philipino friends once told me that their island relatives would eat anything, and Dean Francis Alfar plays with this notion, just as he plays with time and space and love and questing.
One of the best elements in this volume for me was the sound of women. Alfar has a strong voice, and often uses a female narrative perspective. All his women ring true, whether they are strange dreamers or adolescents learning adult life.
I suspect that different stories will stand out for different people. “How Rosang Taba Won a Race” is not a big story, but it reminded me of the country stories of nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia, where wit wins out over wealth and (in this case) colonial splendour. Rosang Taba is a woman after my own heart … and size.
Most of the stories had a character that was easy for me to feel for and want to learn about. This is partly because of the care Alfar takes with his viewpoint characters, but it’s also because he made some choices that resonated with me personally. His story “The Middle Prince,” for instance, gave an alternate view of what happens in quests and what choices the middle prince might actually have. I’m a middle child and that prince’s choices and what he did with them were surprising, but also very familiar. “I would do that,” I found myself thinking, “even though no good could come from it and no one cares. I would do that.”
Alfar has a gift for the universal and a special gift with fables that break rules and yet still enchant. “An Excerpt from the Princes of the Sultanate (Ghazali: 1902), annotated by Omar Jamad Maududi, MLS, HOL, JMS.” is one such story. The footnotes are the best part of the story. They are the longest part of the story. And yet, without the text they were footnoting, they would not exist.
I want to talk through each story in turn.
I want to tell you about the sad tale that is “Terminós” where you can buy or sell time. Time is not neutral in “Terminós.” It’s personal and coloured and precious. Even if it’s something that a person doesn’t want, that doesn’t make it unimportant. And so this story contains a special sad beauty, the sadness of the passing and the lost.
I want to explain to you the relationship between preaching and colonisation and food and love, except that it’s done so finely in “Saturdays with Fray Villalobos” that it would be a waste of your time. You should just go read the story.
All the stories, from “L’Aquilone du Estrellas” to “Hollow Girl: A Romance” are good. Some are luminous.
Usually with a volume of stories I’ll look for the balance and the build and where it leads, but this volume doesn’t work like that. The stories flow naturally from one to another in the first half, because most of them share a tone of voice or a type of character, but all the more experimental stories and tales about modern places and people are clumped together near the end. It felt as if I was moving from Oscar Wilde’s enchanted tales to something by Ben Peek. The deep themes unite the volume sufficiently, however, and the stories stand alone, even if their order is not perfect.