Victor Arguelles’ second novel “A Season for Sunflowers,” seems like an easy read for most people. An unusual novel, it does not follow the classical western structure of a narrative which has a dramatic arc of exposition, rising action, climax, resolution and denouement. The novel is primarily episodic, consisting of several vignettes in the lives of the characters primarily of the protagonist, Ramon Brillante. Because of this, the novel has a more Asian sensibility than Western despite the common belief that most Filipino writers are western influenced.
The novel should not be taken lightly albeit its very fluid narrative and language. A closer look tells us that the novel challenges the reader to enter the psyche of its protagonist and look at the events in the narrative with a reminiscing eye, like that of a time-battered person looking at a box of old photographs, trying to define the meaning of his present through his past.
Symbols and Themes
The peculiarity of the novel does not begin with its structure but with its title, symbolism and theme. The title suggests a thematic and symbolic approach to the narrative. The sunflower symbolizes two things: the warm emotion conveyed by its appearance, and loyalty, as the sunflower follows the sun’s movement from east to west.
In the first, the sunflower becomes a metaphor for warmth and joy. Therefore the season for sunflowers brings you to an image of a bright summer, a season mostly associated with youthful vibrance, the audacity of youth, adventure, warmth and happiness. Summer, compared to the other seasons, evokes a feeling of joie de vivre. If the four seasons were metaphors for the cycle of life, Spring would be the metaphor for birth, Summer for growth and passion of youth, Autumn for the wisdom and decay of old age, and Winter for death and going home. It was not an accident that the novel begins with the protagonist facing the crossroads of his life—or the summer of his life. Ramon Brillante is now faced with choices that will define his destiny.
Indeed, Ramon’s story begins in April when the sunflowers are in full bloom. He was finishing his Masters’ thesis and that is when he first met Esperanza who helped him with his research. Ramon’s narrative does not only begin with the literal summer but with the metaphorical summer of his life. He was in his mid-twenties, when he is about to graduate and preparing to face the real world; excited by the challenges and obstacles he is about to hurdle for him to travel from summer to autumn:
Ramon Brillante represents the 21st century Filipino youth—intelligent, articulate, ambitious. He belongs to an anxious, angst-ridden generation that is never short of questions, but sometimes lacking in answers. Ramon and his peers have learned not to trust ‘conventional wisdom’ in the way that the generation before them never trusted anyone over 30. (19)
Ramon embodies the typical fire, passion, and heat of a protagonist who is in the summer of his life: an apt personification of the season for sunflowers. However, this analogy goes beyond the protagonist and extends to the romance character and anima, Esperanza, who becomes the muse who will fuel his journey in the novel:
In his mind, he sees Esperanza more like a sunflower. She has a bright, happy disposition which he finds contagious. Esperanza has a balanced outlook in life. (18)
The sunflower is Esperanza to Ramon. But towards the end, we will realize that they are both the sunflower as implied by the second meaning of the metaphor: loyalty.
Throughout the narrative, Ramon has been driven by his memory of Esperanza. He loses her at the beginning of the narrative and before attempting a thorough search for a lost symbol, he escapes and attempts to find himself instead. It is dramatically unclear what Ramon’s motivation is with regard to Esperanza but the subtlety is inescapable. She is under his skin, ingrained in his very core, buried at the center of his psyche. He cannot escape her and cannot escape the lethargy of his loss that fuels him in his adventures abroad. One cannot pin point how Esperanza has a direct effect in Ramon’s actions but the novel insists, even if subtly and subconsciously, that Esperanza had everything to do with it. We are only left with an image imposed on us by the thematic trickery of the title—the relationship of the sunflower and the sun. The sunflower cannot help but follow the movement of the sun, wherever it goes.
It may seem contradictory because Ramon never followed Esperanza, rather, he escaped. But he lost her and had no clue whatsoever where she went. But his heart and mind follows her, even if unconsciously on his part. Deep in his psyche, he is still on her trail, up to the very end. It would seem that Ramon is the sunflower and Esperanza is the sun. But in the final chapters of the novel, Esperanza too is the sunflower, chasing the sun:
Later he learns from Esperanza that three years ago, she went home to Bulacan to care for a sister who had just given birth to a baby girl. In her excitement, she left her cell phone on the bus. She returned to Manila two weeks later. She was surprised to know that Ramon suddenly left the country without even telling her. They lost contact during those three years. But every year, she goes to the same spot in the university during the month of sunflowers.
Ramon is finally home. As they stroll among the bright sunflowers, he feels the warmth of Esperanza caressing his soul. (113)
Her annual ritual of going to the garden of sunflowers reveals her to be the sunflower herself, maintaining that subtle hint of loyalty, hoping to see her sun return to the same spot someday, somehow. But most importantly, they are each other’s sun and sunflower, caressing each other’s with the warmth of their souls.
Meditation and Reminiscence
The episodic character and fluidity of narrative through choice of words and sentence construction provide the second peculiarity of the novel. The form is not the traditional plot-oriented narrative, rather, it is episodic. Each chapter is a vignette, short and easy to digest.
It maintains an Asian feel to it, due to its structure and prose. Defying the western classical structure, the novel opts for an episodic approach, more akin to Asian fiction than Western. Each chapter was designed precisely to be a vignette, as if each chapter becomes a sutra, meant to be read slowly and meditated upon after each episode. In a sense, they can be considered prosaic haikus, engaging the reader not to mind the dramatic arc but to focus on the present, through a quaint, vivid yet fading reminiscence. One might even compare it to a tanka, where the vignette becomes the sensei’s challenge to the reader-monk, and the response becomes the reader’s silent and affective attachment to the fluidity of the prose. The vignettes may even be considered fables, each echoing a grain of truth, independent of the lessons of the other vignettes but not entirely fragmented from them.
The form creates a specific effect, not that of a page-turner but of a book on meditation, typical of an Indian collection of sutras or a Japanese anthology of haikus and tankas. The brevity of the chapters challenges the readers to read it slowly, as if inviting them to look at the vignettes as sepia-colored photographs, looking at it intently, while inviting the looker to delve deep into his memory and find the association of each image with an emotional memory.
There is some existentialist strain, although very subtle and not your usual brand of existentialism. The hardcore existentialist would not be subtle in the declaration of the protagonist’s actions as defining acts of his existence. The existentialist protagonist is in search of his being, attempting to define himself through his actions and decisions throughout the narrative. He struggles to create meaning within a world that has no meaning. He attempts to make sense of himself inside the trap of an absurd universe. This is not true of Ramon Brillante. Not entirely, at least.
It seems that Ramon has already defined himself and is not attempting to make sense of his existence through his actions and decisions. He is not faced by existentialist questions. This is evident in the structure and tone of the novel. However, there is still some search for meaning. Ramon does not do it in the present—in his actions and choices. He does it through reminiscence. Ramon now is faced with a box of old photographs (figuratively, of course) and tries to browse through each photo and retrieve emotional memories. Through this recollection, he recreates himself, still maintaining some sense of subtle existentialism in the protagonist:
Years later, when he was old enough to decipher the significance of the events, he would recall how a man in white came home to be assassinated on the tarmac…
“He remembers the first time he met Esperanza. (14)
The novel is filled with reminiscence and a lot of the crucial moments in the narrative were remembered rather than acted. Towards the final moment of resolution and completion, Ramon is once again caught reminiscing:
A voice disturbs his reminiscing. ‘Crispin!’ (113)
Although the novel is narrated in the present tense, one cannot help but feel that the entire collection of vignettes is a reminiscence. This is brought about by the free movement of the narrative from reminiscence to the realm of the imagination. There are moments when the narrative seamlessly shifts from event to thought (“Writer”), from thought to imagined scenes (“Theater”, “Lilac”), and from imagined scenes to social realism (“Buhay”, “Floods”). At first glance, the episodes (chapters) escape coherence. But the tone provides the vignettes a uniform color, as if the entire novel is an album of old photos, which defines the core of Ramon Brillante.
Each chapter does not constitute a plot point. Each episode in fact follows the lead of the chapter title. It gives a thematic framework to every vignette, like a photograph inside an album. Each photo does not necessarily bridge one event to the other although the characters provide that thread of coherence. Each photo is taken individually, enriched by its own context and story, escalated and augmented by the next one.
Structurally, “A Season for Sunflowers” follows the pattern of the episodic Odyssey. Classically speaking, there are two narrative patterns followed in literature—the plot structure following the example of the Iliad; and the episodic structure following the example of the Odyssey; both credited to Homer. These two narratives set the stage for all narratives and provide the basic pattern for most classic literature. Aristotle claims that the plot is superior to the episodic structure. This is probably the reason why Western Literature, specifically the narrative genres, has given premium to the plot structure.
The Asians do not seem to mind this claim. Most of the greatest Asian narratives—“101 Arabian Nights,” “The Mahabharatta,” “The Ramayana,” “Genji Monogatari,” and even our own epics “Biag ni Lam-Ang” and “Labao Donggon,”—are all episodic. This structure does not make it any inferior to the prescribed structure by Aristotle. Arguelles’ novel follows this structure not accidentally but quite deliberately and wittingly as he employs most elements and techniques used in this pattern of construction.
The dramatic arc of Ramon Brillante is akin to a Bildungsroman (a coming of age story), characterized by its pseudo-Odysseic structure. Although strictly speaking, the novel is not a coming of age story, it still follows a dramatic arc that leads the protagonist to a higher level of maturity due to the episodes his character goes through. Each episode is a stand-alone story but each vignette augments the character, moving Ramon from the summer of his life to the autumn.
Ramon begins as a “highly capable but impulsive young man” who is very idealistic and conscious about the social milieu that affects his psyche. As he loses his sun, Esperanza, due to an unexpected twist of fate, he is forced to leave his country and is subjected to several tests of character that will later shape him into a more mature and defined protagonist. Among the subcategories of the bildungsroman, Arguelles’ novel qualifies as a Kunstlerroman or the development of an artist. In essence, Ramon’s journey is the journey of an artist and his coming of age as an artist not so much his coming of age as a person. Ramon is a writer. Although he is passionate about so many other things, his core as an artist keeps all these passions coherent. Ramon uses his art as his vehicle for the journey to maturity—to autumn:
Ramon tries to use the power of writing to ‘improve himself’ and ‘find himself.’ It is there where ‘he will find his redemption,’ and find his authentic self. (69)
Ramon becomes a journalist, then a fictionist, then a playwright. Finally, he completes his existential journey by making a play out of his own life, writing and directing it, scene by scene, as he moves along the episodes / scenes which put his core to the test. Each episode does not consist of a dramatic conflict in the western sense, but the conflict is subtly planted from the beginning—that sun pulling him to a charted direction, while his destiny brings him to the opposite direction. When Ramon left his country, he feels his soul is being pulled back to its roots—to where his sun is. This type of conflict is also characteristic of Asian narratives. Instead of confronting an issue, the protagonist tries his best to avoid it, thus, Ramon’s escape. The conflict is not as pronounced as in Western prose. Ramon’s struggle is subtler, more internal, and as much as he can, he avoids conflict. Each episode is an independent story in itself but the psychological burden on Ramon is very evident. His mind is truly somewhere else—a place where it needs to go home to, the place where the sun is.
After Ramon watches an experimental play, he sinks into deep reverie and reviews his life as a writer and artist. He realizes in the end that “we can write poetry with our lives,” as the famous British novelist John Fowles said. At this point, Ramon finds his definition which proves that the novel is not entirely an existentialist search for meaning. Ramon finds it early enough in the narrative, which creates that impression that the rest of the novel is nothing but a confirmation of that single moment of realization. One can, in a sense, say that the structure of this novel is spiral rather than linear, where the fulcrum moment is the moment of his realization of his destiny as an artist, after a series of conflicts, tests, and moments of lethargy and angst. They spiral around the core—social realism, justice, love and passion, calamity, poverty, economics, relationships, friendships, memories. Each episode spirals into the core, liberating the form of the novel from following a strict linear narrative.
Arguelles’ “A Season for Sunflowers” is a daring attempt at deconstructing an existentialist mode of story telling with brief but insightful moments like old photographs in an album. The meaning of the protagonist’s existence is not sought for in the “traditional” sense but is revealed nonetheless as how meaning reveals itself in real life—momentarily like satori, fleeting like an emotional memory, lasting like a photograph, and vivid as an enlightenment. The fluidity of the narrative and the easy of words almost make it prose-poetry, each episode very visual and vivid, almost translatable into a film. The evocation of these satori-like moments in the narrative seals the novel’s Asian feel.
This novel, as was earlier said, should not be taken lightly. Its light reminiscing tone deceives the audience from its depth and weight, which is how wisdom should be taken. Like any sutra or zen haiku, the form is light, but the soul is heavy and full. “A Season for Sunflowers” is the triumph of the kunstler remembering his meaning, his core, and his reason for being an artist.