Dead Stars is a short story that revolves around the love affairs of Alfredo, Esperanza, and Julia. Alfredo Salazar, a lawyer, is in a long engagement with Esperanza. Julia enters the scene through Alfredo’s constituent. He experiences an immediate attraction to her, but alas, he is soon to be married with his fiancee. He conservatively flirts with Julia through secret meetings and subtle declarations, but in the end, he lets her go, with her gaining the late knowledge of his impending marriage. Is he right in pursuing his marriage with Esperanza or could things have been better if he chose Julia? And are his feelings for Julia as deep as he thinks they are or are they as fleeting as any momentary love affair?
Dead Stars is a pioneer modern short story in the Philippines. By modern, I mean not historical or not having anything to do with the events of the late 1900s or not having the modernist qualities that were prevalent during the time it was first published, which was in 1925. The world was turning to new things during this period, and perhaps the emergence of this short story is one of them as far as the Philippine literary circle is concerned.
My feelings for it are lukewarm because I expected so much from it. I love the short stories published in this period. One of them, Paul’s Case by Willa Cather, has such a great impact on me that I never looked at short stories the same way again. I wish not to compare Benitez with Cather, but I can’t help it because both are female writers and the latter has even published her case twenty years earlier.
It could be that the Philippines was too busy rebuilding itself after the Spaniards left or that the school of modernism never made it to the local shores or that modernism simply has such a great appeal to me, but these should not be excuses. So let’s try to figure it out.
How would life seem now if he had married Julia Salas? Had he meant anything to her? That unforgettable red-and-gold afternoon in early April haunted him with a sense of incompleteness as restless as other unlaid ghosts. She had not married–why? Faithfulness, he reflected, was not a conscious effort at regretful memory. It was something unvolitional, maybe a recurrent awareness of irreplaceability. Irrelevant trifles–a cool wind on his forehead, far-away sounds as of voices in a dream–at times moved him to an oddly irresistible impulse to listen as to an insistent, unfinished prayer.
I feel that the story lacked conflict. Alfredo’s situation is interesting enough, but what about the two women? These two, even when they are put together, are so flat and forgettable that the reader may find that something is wrong with the man for falling prey to these two cardboard cutouts. They are not fleshed out effectively, and the mired language didn’t help in the task of characterization.
[Suddenly, Alfredo's slow blood began to beat violently, irregularly. A girl was coming down the line--a girl that was striking, and vividly alive, the woman that could cause violent commotion in his heart, yet had no place in the completed ordering of his life.]
I’m fine with the plot; it’s a short story after all. And since it’s an almost tragic story, the melancholic tone and mood fit like they should. The setting is indeed modern in the sense that it could have taken place anywhere. To put it another way, it lacked local flavor. Is this an influence of the American occupation during Benitez’s time?
Another problem aside from the characters, and this is a general one that I have with Filipino writers (let’s include Indian writers while I am at it), is the diction. They have a strong propensity to use words that are rarely used by American and English writers, and the result has a hint of clumsiness. It’s not a big issue; perhaps I have to get used to this if I am to explore more local and non-Western writers.
[Had the final word been said? He wondered. It had. Yet a feeble flutter of hope trembled in his mind though set against that hope were three years of engagement, a very near wedding, perfect understanding between the parents, his own conscience, and Esperanza herself--Esperanza waiting, Esperanza no longer young, Esperanza the efficient, the literal-minded, the intensely acquisitive.]
In fairness to Benitez, the work does not boast. Reading it feels like it’s the humble work of a great woman, something akin to the discovery of a hidden talent. Despite my general feelings for this story, I regret that she did not come up with more stories. In fact, she only has two published short stories: Dead Stars and A Night in the Hills.
Still, she has a mark in the local literary scene because she is a pioneer. This story, I was told, is much discussed in college literature classes (it wasn’t discussed in our class). But is it right to give so much reverence to something for the sole virtue of being a first? I find something terribly warped in that thinking, especially if the successors did better than the first. It also somehow gives less chances for other works to be noticed because the first has been in the limelight for too long despite the curtains being long drawn.
[So all these years--since when?--he had been seeing the light of dead stars, long extinguished, yet seemingly still in their appointed places in the heavens.]
I could be totally wrong because it wouldn’t have endured if it weren’t that good, right? Besides, it isn’t so bad. I just don’t feel it. I even feel that it should be buried already; it’s a dead star, for crying out loud. It’s light wouldn’t last that long; it would extinguish sooner or later. It’s time for other Filipino short stories to be given the limelight in the collegiate stages.
Dates Read: February 1 to 2, 2012
No. of Pages: 15 (printed on short bond paper)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars