Posted Friday, June 12, 2009 (Philippine News)
TITLE: Banana Heart Summer
AUTHOR: Merlinda Bobis
PUBLISHER: Random House, Inc.
First-time novelist Merlinda Bobis’s “Banana Heart Summer” is characterized by a radiantly sensual plot and narrative that are prescribed by themes familiar to Filipino audiences: romantic yearning, mouthwatering cuisine, and family relations. At the center of Bobis’s story is Nenita, a twelve-year old girl--in a family of six--who has a zest for life despite her impoverished circumstances in the Philippines.
Indispensable to the world of Nenita’s being is its gastronomical complexion. Indeed, it is impossible for the reader to escape food as a subject-matter in the book. Food is a ubiquitous presence throughout “Banana Heart Summer” as it plays an important cultural and psychological role in the book. Bobis also sets food against the background of love as a human emotion. From Bobis’s literary perspective, love and food--or should we say “hunger”--are two sides of the same coin as she demonstrates in the title of her first chapter: “For those who love to love and eat/For those who long to love and eat.”
The scourge of hunger makes an indelible mark on Nenita’s soul and psyche. Rather than delegate the topic of hunger to the margins, Bobis explores what it is in a social context: “Hunger we all experience. Hunger is the greatest leveler of humankind, if it wishes to be leveled. But how and whether we appease it always restores the social order.”
“Banana Heart Summer” is packed with signs and metaphors that never fail to arouse the senses. For example, it would appear that any and every mention of food is suggestive of something else. Like how Bobis forms a correlation between the deep frying of the Filipino delicacy “turon” (jackfruit and plantain wrapped in a spring roll) with the sound and smell of happiness. Or when Nenita surmises that the devil ate her father’s tongue by cooking it in mushroom sauce, which happens to be the same way that the Spanish cooked ox tongue.
Amidst the throng of metaphors that are strewn throughout Bobis’s novel there is an overriding metaphorical theme that does not immediately appeal to our senses, but rather, to our intellect. This involves the strange synthesis of cookery and human interaction. In creatively symbolic fashion, Bobis does for us what other food novelists like Laura Esquivel and Peter Mayle have done in the past with their respective works. They attempt to establish a literary continuity between food preparation, consumption, and human relations. As the reading audience, we will be called on to stretch our imaginations and accept for the duration of Bobis’s novel that human relationships can be creatively explained and understood in terms of food.
Nenita’s love for luscious repasts reflects her desire for a different life that is both fulfilling and happy. The lovely and urbane figure of the eighteen year-old Violeta Valenzuela becomes a sort of patron to Nenita as “Miss VV” hires her to work as a maid in her household. This turns out to be a stroke of luck for Nenita for she not only becomes VV’s bosom friend, but, as a measure of VV’s love and trust, is brought along for their eventual life in America.
While the economic poverty that Nenita and her family live through is impossible to overlook as much as any other theme in the novel, the matter of poverty as a whole is two-tiered in “Banana Heart Summer.” In the book, material poverty coexists alongside spiritual poverty as a dual affliction for its characters. On the grim side, several of Bobis’s characters are semi-pathetic individuals who are eternally searching for an inner balance or an inner peace they can anchor their being onto in the midst of a difficult existence. Nenita herself is not above this backdrop of simmering angst for her character is fairly defined by her endless pursuit of maternal love. Even Miss VV’s persona is beset by feelings of emotional isolation.
There are other thematic aspects latent in “Banana Heart Summer” worth mentioning, but its main source of success lies in it being a stimulating food novel. As a firm believer in the value of the culinary arts, Merlinda Bobis articulates what is a moving and sentimental story and immerses it in the language of food. This language abets the novel in reaffirming the passion and perseverance of the Filipino in the face of life’s many challenges.