A novel filled with parodic exuberance and tongue-in-cheek humor often runs the risk of archness to the point coldness, becoming too intent at skewering the ridiculous to actually carry a human center. R. Zamora Linmark’s Leche sidesteps this trap by grounding the chaos of his setting with a fallible and searching viewpoint character, a balikbayan named Vince who wins a trip through a Mr. Pogi beauty contest. Through his incredulous but largely game eyes, the readers navigate the crooked sidestreets and gridlocked roads that make up life in 1990s Philippines.
Vince descends into an Aligherian hell from the first scene as he takes in the cacophony of voices, smells, and personalities in a Manila airport. He then interacts with a gaggle of personalities not unlike the Italian nobility that populate Inferno and Purgatorio–from the iconoclastic director Bino Boca to the distressingly effervescent fictional(?!) Kris Aquino. The rugged man who ferries him to the various sights of Manila is even named Dante. Linmark makes these parallelisms overt throughout the novel. But Leche also has much in common with another work of literature to use an epigraph from The Divine Comedy–the eponymous J. Alfred Prufrock from T.S. Eliot’s landmark modernist poem.
Much like Prufrock, the inaction and ennui that Vince feels through much of the novel is a response to a wide range of anxieties and hurt that he has experienced in his life. While Prufrock’s trauma comes from the unexpected assault of war and modernity, however, Vince’s come from leaving his country as a child to build a life in a new one. The novel also intersects Vince’s diasporic identity with that of his queer experience. I like that being gay is not the definitive aspect of his character–in fact, you can say that it only ends up complicating his already fraught relationships, not only with his friends and loved ones but also with his two countries.
This novel was a slow burn for me. The din generated not only by the characters but also the setting, humor, and writing style can overwhelm a reader who is not expecting it. It took a while to warm up to Vince’s character, but the final pages that take him on a jeepney ride out of Manila (and into Paradiso, perhaps?) ties up all the disparate parts of his identity, including his relationship with his deceased grandfather, and allows his story to end somewhere quiet, mournful, and beautiful. It is a wonderful meditation of the question that emigres often grapple with, whether one can ever truly go home.
Notice how I haven’t yet mentioned how this novel is a veritable stew of postmodernist narrative tools, the most obvious aspect of Leche. Vince’s sightseeing is punctuated by postcard messages, excerpts from tourist books, interview transcripts, even an extended scene from a Bino Boca movie extravaganza. A postmodern homecoming novel about a balikbayan is not new (hello there, Ilustrado). I decided to focus on the novels more affective qualities to demonstrate that formal inventiveness is not enough to create resonance. Leche checks off as many literary references as Ilustrado (read: a hell of a lot of them), but I argue that they do not distract from the characters’ fiercely beating hearts.
Diaspora stories have become a staple of Philippine fiction, thanks to our historical and economic realities. Because this experience fractures so many of us, much of our literary real estate is invested in collecting the broken pieces and gluing them back together. Leche‘s foray into the diaspora archetype shows that some of the most emotionally rich places exist within the jagged edges that we are trying to smooth over. Let us go then, you and I.