Monday, March 03, 2008

kite review

The Literature of Unrequited Longing
by Ian Rosales Casocot
(from the Visayan Daily Star)

Things fall apart, and things are never as they are, in the speculative fiction of Dean Francis Alfar. To be more specific, the fragile bonds between one and another are often ripped apart to maintain what must be unconsummated distance: love from lover, dream from dreamer, traveler from destination. Mr. Alfar, it can be argued, is the sage of unrequited wants. He relishes, too, in the romance of heartbreak.

In his Palanca-winning novel Salamanca , for instance, the forces of nature, enchantment, and the vagaries of human desires conspire to keep his protagonists Jacinta Cordova and Gaudencio Rivera from settling into a happy union—and ironically, only a confounded bargain of wounding trickery somehow manages to rekindle lost magic. It is a novel whose ending can be said to be so wrong (“How could she agree to this arrangement?”), and yet also so right. In other words, we don't exactly get what we expect from this tale of passion, and yet nothing else but this throbbing unreciprocation of our expectations seems true in the end.

Alfar is strangely fond of rewarding stories of consuming passions with the dull ache of getting absolutely nothing in the end, and yet while we recoil from the slap of such unexpected twists, we also learn something vital about the dynamics of want: that it is the dogged pursuit that is truly rewarding.

In The Kite of Stars , his new collection of 18 stories (all of them variations of speculative fiction), Alfar gives us many variations of this theme, particularly in the haunting title story. But before anything else, the book is also a strange compendium of encounters with fantastic characters in a gamut of tales involving barbecued cerenas , dragons and prodigal daughters, locust-summoning pagan priests, fat women with racing ambitions, heartless maidens and gentle crocodiles, merchants of time and dreams, and princes aware of the stock destinies of their fairy tale characters.

In “L'Aquilone du Estrellas”—which was chosen in 2004 to be part of the landmark series The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror , alongside stories by Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates—a young girl goes on an incredible journey of many years through the islands of Hinirang. With an unnamed butcher boy as her companion and helper, she resolves to collect the impossibly strange and mysterious materials to build a kite large and powerful enough to carry her to the skies among the stars, where she hopes to be seen by the man of her dreams: a noble astronomer with eyes only for stars, and whose final condition gives the story its poignant sense of loss, as well as the unfairness for the final unfulfillment of desires. And in one corner of the story, there is also the butcher boy silent in his acknowledgement of a love he cannot have.

In “The Maiden and the Crocodile,” the treachery of love becomes more pronounced in this backwards-told tale of a woman who carves out the heart of her crocodile-lover—and her barbarity becomes more pronounced and more unsettling as we learn more of her own humanity.

In “Terminos,” we are introduced to Henares who buys and sells other people's time and memory, and Miguel Lopez Vicente, a writer of some renown who has exhausted his life's dramas and can no longer write. Their story becomes a meditation of endings and of time as a panacea of all hurts and pain. But it is also a postmodern exercise in seeing the many possibilities and consequences of our own expiration: in one supposed ending (there are five), the loss of faith for one character triggers the coming of the Apocalypse.

In “Saturdays with Fray Villalobos,” the disciple of a well-meaning frayle who has made it a mission to seek and tease out the divine through the cooking of the “savage” natives, goes from godly ministration to slow-burning bloody vengeance, the gastronomic implication of which will leave a distinct distaste in the reader's palate.

In “In the Dim Plane,” Alfar's high fantasy take of the world of Forlorn, the survivors of a cataclysm gather to tell stories from their shared past—and after one of them confesses to harboring desire to a forbidden woman, we learn that all of them has actually become undone by the sheer foolishness of having loved.

And in the science-fiction piece “Hollow Girl: A Romance,” a girl-robot struggles to become more human, and yet ironically erases every instance of human bond by her desire to seek answers to her questions of “how to become.” In one scene where she dreams of her creator whom she has left, she asks, “Why did you make me this way?” He replies by asking her, “Why are you obsessed with love? It's unhealthy.” “Why can't I be happy?” she questioned. “Why do you think love is the answer?” he said. And she replied: “Because love is what I do not have. It is the only thing that I do not understand.” Love, in Alfar's world, is a distant, often treacherous region—and his characters are defined by the frailty with which they succumb to it.

Alfar, in this volume, also challenges the possibilities of fiction with experimentations in form that he proceeds to undertake with a deftness that may be its own magic. The most difficult story to digest, “An Excerpt From Princes of the Sultanate (Ghazali: 1902), annotated by Omar Jamad Maududi, MLS, HOL, JMS,” is told mostly in footnotes, and a little patience to follow the myriad of information proves rewarding as we learn about the battle for the crown of the kingdom of Marawi. “Four-Letter Words” is erotic fiction involving three characters, where—in a span of narrative development that involves the evolution of four-letter words (give or take a letter)—is mostly a message about how carnality and desire transcends time and people. “MaMachine” reads like a blog from the future, where relationships and consequences are subtly and slowly revealed. “Six From Downtown” is a story composed of vignettes, each one a devastating story that has at its heart an organic marriage of the ordinary and the fantastic.

One thing immediately apparent though is that to read Alfar's stories is to nurture a secret dream of fantastic cartography. This is because the book is also an exercise, perhaps the most extensive ever seen in Philippine genre literature, of “worldling,” that pre-occupation in fantasy writing that requires the setting of geography (with the flora and fauna that go with it, as well as the minute demarcations of its strange corners and islands), and the peopling of another world.

In Alfar's fiction, that would be the world of Hinirang, a country of magic and history somehow mirroring the Philippines in a time that hovers between the immediate and the Hispanic pasts. (It is a world he conjures with fellow writers Vin Simbulan, Nikki Alfar, Alex Osias, Kate Aton-Osias, and Andrew Drilon, and there is a plan to put out an anthology of Hinirang stories.) It is a looking-glass world where familiar things take on a different dimension, where our own history is magnified to become a richer sepia picture of our dreams and nightmares.

Love may be blind, anguished, or treacherous in Mr. Alfar's stories, but such is the power of his prose that he makes us see there is beautiful honesty in acknowledging that our own hopeful romanticism can be even more perfidious.

The Kite of Stars and Other Stories is the first book out of the Fantasy imprint of Anvil Publishing. It is available in all major bookstores in the country.

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