The Filipino Novel Comes of Age

A peculiar thing has happened to my reading habits which I have only realized recently. Having grown up as a reader who shifted from Nancy Drew mysteries in her elementary years to the meatier (and longer) Stephen King horrors in high school, I have never been a stranger to the novel form. It is, by far, the easiest way to get lost in a different world, with nothing required for travel expenses except time and imagination. Having been part of a readers club, I have encountered other people who expressed a great love for long, engaging narratives as well. However, there has been a glaring lack in this aspect of my formative years–an exposure to Filipino novels.

Ask a Pinoy on the street about a Filipino novel he has read and the most frequent answer would be Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, a product of the educational system that declares them required reading for every high schooler in the country. If you are lucky, you will hear a few other titles such as Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70 and Amado Hernandez’s Mga Ibong Mandaragit, which has gained light fame (or is it infamy?) recently due a recent online discussion about the Philippine canon. But the titles that have emerged from Filipino writers through the years aren’t reaching the consciousness of the lay man.

A few of my friends admit to reading nothing else besides Rizal and perhaps the occasional Bob Ong for their leisure reading, even though they declare themselves ardent bibliophiles. Our tradition is rich with examples of writing excellence, particularly in the realm of the short fiction. But what of those sprawling coming-of-age stories, knuckle-biting political thrillers–the kind of fiction people tote with their summer gear to the beach or savor during a lazy afternoon?

Writers, it seems, have been reluctant to try out the form following the heels of the Noli and the Fili. Those are hard acts to follow, after all. Many successful fictionists gain acclaim from penning short works of fiction before trying to branch out into full-length novels. Bucking the trend is F. Sionil Jose, who has a number of novels under his belt, including his definitive “Rosales Saga,” chronicling the tale of a clan’s rise and fall against the backdrop of a tumultuous national history.

There has been a gradual change in the recent years. Recent Palanca Award for the Novel winners ranging from Vincent Goryon to F.H. Batacan to Dean Alfar, attempt to do exactly that, produce novels that are at once literary and accessible, tapping into the contemporary consciousness while trying to maintain the stylistic verve that characterize their other shorter works.

F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles gained popularity after being lauded by the Palanca as a spunky, erudite detective novel featuring two Jesuit priests. They solve a series of murders through forensic anthropology. The plot seems to be straight out of a CSI episode, but interestingly enough, the still unpublished detective novel won the Palanca in 1999 exactly a year before the CSI franchise started invading our television sets.

Another winner, Dean Alfar, waxes lyrical about the marvelous and often implausible feats of love with Salamanca. It diverges significantly from realist fiction by blending reality and fantasy into a heady concoction that can make you believe that beauty can make houses transparent and that love can conquer all.

2008 can be considered a high watermark for the Philippine novel as Jose Dalisay, already an established name in Philippine letters (as well as columnist, academic, and untiring blogger), came close to bagging Asia’s most coveted literary award.

His quirky hybrid of a novel, Soledad’s Sister has been a literary triumph even before seeing print. It is included among the five shortlisted novels for the first ever Man Asian Literary Prize. Beating other English-language works from much more robust literary scenes like India and China, the Jury calls Soledad’s Sister, “a work of warmth, humanity and confidence.”

The story begins with a casket arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Charmed by Dalisay’s dry wit and tongue-in-cheek imagery, we follow a series of mishaps that causes the body labeled “Aurora Cabahug” to take the place of another Filipino OFW, one Filemon Catabay, in the tarmac, much to the annoyance of his family. To add to the confusion “Aurora” isn’t even the corpse’s name, having borrowed it from a younger sister, very much alive and singing her heart out at a karaoke in the far-flung town of Paez.

Snagged into this confusing web is the unlikely hero, a has-been cop whose faint affections towards Paez’s songbird compels him to take on the duty to drive the grief-stricken Rory (the live one) to fetch Soledad (the dead one) and bring back to their hometown.

What happens after is a sort of morbid road trip, two people going through a long and lonely journey through the countryside. For the younger sister Rory, fetching her sister’s body is a filial duty, compounded by guilt for taking all her sister’s sacrifice and hard work for granted.

The exiled cop, SPO2 Walter Zamora, however, it is his time to go back to the city he once called his home, the bustling and often dangerous Manila. His return brings back memories of infidelity and betrayal, a botched kidnapping rescue, and a young girl who disappeared from his life at a 7-11.

Oh, and the body is stolen on their way back.

Dalisay himself has dubbed this tale his, “glorious mess of a novel,” and in many ways, it is. The story itself touches upon many narrative tropes and conventions, turning them over their heads in ways that are often surprising.

Take Walter Zamora, the cop, one of the stock characters in every Filipino action movie. Fernando Poe Jr. or Erap Estrada has never played a policeman quite like this, however, he who prefers the company of an undemanding cat rather than human contact and who considers answering crossword puzzles the highlight of his week.

Throughout the story we catch glimpses of his young, more reckless self, probably with the trademark swagger of an action hero. But the man facing Rory is already a tired gunslinger, resigned to oblivion in Paez.

Rory Cabahug, the karaoke singer is a character described with much warmth and compassion,–a certain zest for life. She prefers Karen Carpenter to Edith Piaf and is unapologetic about it, but at heart, she is a vulnerable girl who suddenly finds herself acutely alone in the world. She will need to find her own strength to live a life that is not chained by duty, the way her Ate Soledad’s existence had been.

If there is an aspect to the story that comes short, it has to be the ending–it loses some of its steam and finally putters off to uncertainty. In the beginning, there has been teasing suggestions of a crime novel, but there is no dramatic final revelation about the culprit or the repercussions of the crime. Soledad’s gruesome fate in Jeddah is only disclosed to the reader as an omniscient aside, bearing no significance for the living. Even a Johny-come-lately carnapper’s entry to the story seems to simply make a point about the randomness of life rather than anything more substantial.

Ridiculous side trips and all, however, does not deter from the fact that the accolades have been deserved. The story never runs out of twist and turns, examining pertinent and often sensitive issues like the Philippine Diaspora, crime and corruption without sinking into sermons or invectives.

Cynical yet still hopeful, audacious as it is fumbling, it is a sincere ode to our own glorious mess of a city, of a culture, of a country. Everything is left to the imagination, with only a quiet but steely optimism. Ironic for a novel that starts with a dead body in an airport.

(Published in Manila Bulletin Student and Campuses Section – July 19, 2008)

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