Chapter 2 of Villa Magdalena a novel by Bienvenido N. Santos [1/3]

Villa Magdalena is Bienvenido N. Santos’ first novel and it was first published by Erehwon in 1965.  The foreword of the book describes the story as “ideal for film because of its rich visual scenes and realistic portrayal of Philippine society…[I]t was in a large sense way ahead of its time.  Critics called it the first Filipino novel to deal with the wealthy and landed class of Philippine society, and the first to explore sex and human passion as a theme for Philippine fiction. .. [Villa Magdalena] appears to be the least read of Santos’ novels…”

I cannot personally comment on the entirety of the story as of yet.  I am barely through with the third chapter and don’t expect to finish it anytime soon due to my busy work schedule.  But, I must admit, I have been neglecting the paperwork I brought home in favor of this book.  The lyrical style of describing events and the analepsis (flashback) style of storytelling took some getting used to after spending the past few years reading Internet articles, but hopping from one timeline to another does not break apart the story in any way.

It is not an extremely long novel.  I agree that it will make a good movie.  Filipinos, after all, are very fond of stories of passion, doomed romance, and star-crossed lovers.  I hope more people pick this up as leisure reading.  Now, I have chosen this chapter because it paints a more or less complete picture of the blooming of an affair from a third person's perspective.  It is an overview of circumstances of the relationship of the rich and dignified Isabel and the handsome and humble Sol. I have pulled out a few passages from the earlier chapter to describe Isabel, but beyond that, I have left it more or less as it was written.  This first part will be something of a cliffhanger, so please bear with me or buy the book yourself.


The first time I saw Isabel, she had just arrived from Europe, after her honeymoon with her husband, Dr. Abdon Vidal.  She was Donya Magdalena's niece, a Conde.  She stood to inherit a huge portion of the Conde estate, fishponds, sugar plantations and rice fields--that part which Don Magno had not yet invested in leather or succeeded in putting in his name.

Sol’s mother worked for the ladies in Villa Magdalena,where she stayed all day long sewing in the back room near the master bedroom and went home nights to Palomar where her family lived. I remembered her as a slight, old woman with varicose veins in her legs. She didn’t look like Sol, who had taken after his father, a good-looking man.

Sol visited the Villa quite often to wait for his mother. But he would not come up to see her there. He waited around near the garage, where I worked. There we talked about school, jobs. We attended nigh classes at Far Eastern College. He was jobless. Soon, he became a familiar visitor at Villa Magdalena. Nobody minded his being around.

Even then he did not see much of the Villa, but what he saw impressed him: the long, spacious living room with the wide narra floors, the gleaming oak panels, each almost two feet wide, the grains showing clearly in the even varnish, curved and flowing like the partly drawn curtains and drapes tied on the sides. Somewhere half-way down the hall, to break its size in two, was an over-hand arching cupola with leaf and flower designs. The post that held the arch resembled the trunk of a rubber tree, with parasite branches twined around it. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. Floor lamps stood in appropriate corners. On the piano was a pair of silver carved with intricate designs. Don Magno took pride in the workmanship. He never failed to mention to visitors who admired the furniture that all the labor had been done by inmates of the insular penitentiary. “There are many artists among those criminals,” he would say, laughing at his own observation.

“Mother didn’t tell me about these things,” Sol said.

“Maybe she just didn’t notice them,” I said. “She sews all the time.”

“How many rooms are there?”

“Ten bedrooms.” I could have added: And I scrubbed all those floors, swept all of them, made them all shiny and slippery. The little Elisa, just learning to walk, had had quie a number of falls, and some of them must have hurt. Ask Isabel. Even her husband, the doctor, had slipped, especially when he came home drunk. Or I could have said further: For two or three years I slept on the floor in the kitchen, on an old man, which I spread in a corner, full of coconut husks and smelling of petroleum and candle wax, which I used as floor wax.

Instead I talked about Don Magno’s room.

It was really an ante-room, cluttered with papers and bits of sample leather from competitors and from his own company. A book shelf held law books (Don Magno was interested in law, but he was too proud to go to school. None of the professors he knew lived up to his standards. So he had a tutor whom he paid well, not to teach him, but to agree with everything he said, including his misinterpretations of the law.) Above the shelf was a bust of Don Magno himself, in the uniform of a colonel of the Philippine Army, cut out of Romblon marble.

Sol was impressed. Now a familiar visitor in the villa he played in the yard with Isabel’s little daughter Elisa, with the mother joining them in their games occasionally. When Isabel was around, he appeared stiff, diffident. Isabel laughed and sometimes screamed, as on that afternoon when while tussling with Sol on the grass the little girl tried to drag him by the ahir. Sol’s face was red. It must have hurt. Isabel gave Elisa a scolding, which the little girl didn’t mind too much. She would have whipped her were it not for Sol who shielded Elisa from her mother’s blows.

As time went on, Sol and Isabel became friendly. Once I saw them looking meaningfully into each other’s eyes and laughing at something funny the two of them shared, but I thought nothing of it. When Sol started telling me that Isabel was the most beautiful woman he had ever soon, how kind she was, how often she teased him about his good looks, his shining white teeth and laughing eyes, or how, one day she passed her hand over his hair, saying how nice it felt, still I had no suspicions, much less any premonition of what happened afterwards. Isabel was a lonely woman and not very happy with her doctor husband, who seemed indifferent to her.

One evening I came upon Sol and Isabel coming from the front of the car parked in the garage, where it was completely dark. I didn’t realize then how flustered they must have appeared as they saw me coming. Isabel chattered about a lot of things that made no sense to me while Sol stood by, looking down at his feet and passing both hands over his hair. Soon after that, however, Sol confided to me how much Isabel liked him and how afraid he was. He didn’t want to go to the Villa anymore, but Isabel urged him to keep coming every day.

“What for?” I asked in a voice I tried to keep as natural as I could.

“She says the day isn’t complete for her if she doesn’t see me,” Sol confided.

“She said that?” I asked.

He nodded and said, “And she had been giving me gifts.”

“What gifts?”

“Money,” Sol answered and looked as though he wanted to cry.

Sol was young—I recognized that—he was much younger that Isabel; perhaps he was even younger than I. It was possible that he was exaggerating a bit. True, Isabel had been kind to him, but this was how Isabel was, kind. She was a wealthy woman in her own right and perhaps she felt that what Sol needed was money, so she gave him money. There was no malice in her act. She was treating Sol like a brother, a younger brother. Or maybe she was conceiving and had taken a fancy to Sol whose face was soft and pretty like a girl’s and blushed easily. It was not eas for me to believe that even with his good looks, a married woman as respectable as Isabel could have fallen in love with him. Yes that was the fact. Practically everybody in Villa Magdalena knew that she was not happy in her married life. Her husband, Dr. Vidal, didn’t seem to have any desire to begin his medical practice. The only son of another wealthy family, he came into a fortune in sugar and rice on his father’s death. Upon graduation from medical school, he married Isabel in a wedding that was the social even of that year. All the great and beautiful people of the islands, in and around cosmopolitan Manila, were there. The couple went to Europe on their honeymoon and stayed in Germany where Dr. Vidal took post-graduate work. Their only child, Elisa, was not born in Europe, but in Villa Magdalena. I was a newcomer to the Villa myself, but somehow, it was one of those days, not too easily forgotten. It was the 25th of January…but it was not the date nor the bit part I played, no… not any of these, but I have not forgotten that day. The passing years have sharpened the details and pulled back the shadows.


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Anonymous said...

Did you ever get to finish the book?