YOUTH is but a fleeting thing, like a shining star that dies into a mere speck in the universe.

But for Palanca Hall of Fame honoree Gregorio C. Brillantes, the star of his youth continues to shine brightly in his short story compilation, The Distance to Andromeda and Other Stories (University of the Philippines Press, 2000), which features 25 stories he wrote in his younger days. The tales are more than remembering his childhood; they are glimpses of what by now is history–the Oldsmobile, Calle Simon de Anda, and World War II.

Different themes are depicted in the stories. In “The Distance to Andromeda”, 13-year-old Ben contemplates his existence after watching a sci-fi movie on the end of the world and the beginning of a new Earth. He realizes, with a sudden loneliness, that in the universe he is “very tiny, only a boy, shrinking, helpless, standing between the dark river and the lights in the sky.” But upon spending a simple yet meaningful night with his father, who had just come home after being away for a week, and the rest of his family, and witnessing a shooting star fall from the sky, the abrupt loneliness is replaced by the feeling that “love surrounds him and no evil can touch him here, in his father’s house.”

“My Cousin Ramon”, on the other hand, tells of Pepe and his admiration for his cousin Ramon, the writer in the family. Stirred by his cousin’s ideals and the thought of “time passing, flowing like a river, carrying away what was best and most precious to men on the earth,” he feels the need to preserve the memories of his childhood, and he promises to himself that “(he) too will write, with fury, anger and tenderness.”

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Although the subjects of the stories vary, they are bound together by an unmistakable Filipino flavor, evident in the provincial settings like the town plaza where social dances take place, the church, “cool as the shade of a huge spreading tree,” and a strange, yet familiar house with a huge acacia tree beside it.

Made vivid by Brillantes’ masterful narration and choice of words, the settings will make the reader feel as though he “had lived here before, loved here (his) deepest love, knew the names of the streets, the history of each house, the blend of light and shadow under the trees.”

The family’s role also takes center stage in most of the stories, as in “Sunday”, where a poor farming family spends a happy day in town, and “The Last December”, a family reunion spoiled by the onset of the second World War.

And what is Filipino culture without religion? “Faith, Love, Time, and Dr. Lazaro” shows a faithless father being humbled by a faithful son, while “The Living and the Dead” gives us a picture of both father and son feeling God-forsaken: “God–if He exists at all–is too far away…” On a positive note, “The Strangers” is about a woman who suddenly finds her way back to the church after a long time of estrangement.

However, Brillantes’ stories of unnoticed love, such as “Blue Piano” and “The Rain”, fails to tug at the heartstrings because of a lack in depth. They are not very heartrending, like the serendipity-themed “Lost”, where Fred wonders how he and Laura “had come to one another through all the accidents of their lives, two persons, distinct and apart.”

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The tone Brillantes uses throughout the book is light and engaging, reflective of the innocence people usually possess during their youth.

Unmarred by any political color, the book gives the reader a picture of the God-fearing and family-oriented provincial gentry from the 1920s up to the 1950s.

The charm, the innocence, and the poetic quality of Brillantes’ fiction bring these stories closer to the heart, making them unforgettable as the stars in the sky, always visible even in their distance. M. J. U. Bantog

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