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. Continue reading
It’s a little weird, writing this post months after having read the book and having given my copy away, but my personal need to chronicle my reading life is compelling me, so here we go.
Naermyth by Karen Francisco is a take on post-apocalyptic YA that combines the tropes of the genre with uniquely Filipino references. In this world, the creatures of mythology suddenly emerge and lay waste to most of civilization. In the Philippines, these are the creatures parents used to invoke to strike fear into children’s hearts, such as the aswang, sigben, and the manananggal. Only pockets of surviving and resisting bands of humanity continue to exist, including a fort in Manila that is protected by the so-called Shepherds.
The Shepherds venture to the aswang-infested territories of Manila to find surviving humans and lead them to relative safety. One of the most efficient and competent aswang-killers among this ragtag group is a girl that answers to the name Aegis. One day, she finds an unconscious man who is about to be attacked by aswangs and saves him, only to find out that this man has absolutely no recollection that the end of the civilization has occurred.
So far so good, right? I was initially interested in reading this book because of the premise. A sustained novel of this genre from a Filipino author has been a long time coming. I was ready to experience some intricate worldbuilding, a spunky heroine, and copious amount of Filipino mythology thrown in. All requisite boxes are checked. However, I found no pleasure in reading it because the first person point of view, the dialogue, and the plot twists struck me as utterly unconvincing.
Nostalgia for a Manila slowly ebbing away lies at the heart of Blue Angel, White Shadow, the newest offering from one of the Philippines’ most renowned novelists, Charlson Ong. With references to Marlene Dietrich, John Coltrane, Old Binondo, World War II, dogfights and summary executions, his foray into the mystery genre results in a symphony about the constant push and pull between the old and the new, the artful and the brutal.
The story begins with an iconic noir image: the beautiful woman in a red dress. Rather than a seductive shift, however, singer Laurice Saldiaga was wearing a red cheongsam when she died in the upstairs apartment of the Blue Angel, a decrepit jazz bar in the middle of Chinatown. A Hokkien-speaking mestizo policeman named Cyrus Ledesma is brought into the investigation because of its delicate nature, even as he comes to terms with his own dodgy past. He encounters a list of people with motives and opportunities to kill Laurice. The implication even goes as high up as the Mayor of Manila himself, Lagdameo Go-Lopez.
Something peculiar happens to stories when they are housed in the same anthology, especially when an overarching theme or rubric comes into play. Aside from the sensibilities of the editors informing the curation process, the stories themselves cease to become autonomous units of narrative. Difference in writing styles become sharper by contrast, premises are either reinforced or disputed by the stories that come before or after it.
In Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology Volume 6, editors Nikki Alfar and Kate Aton-Osias continue the annual tradition of gathering short fiction in with a speculative vein, with works of publishing newbies mingling with those by seasoned, award-winning authors. Kapres, supervillains, galactic warship captains, and (alleged) cannibals are among the archetypal characters featured this time around. The stories that stand out for me explore the unease that is often overshadowed or glossed over by the flashier aspects of science fiction, horror, and fantasy.
A Guilty Thing Surprised by Ruth Rendell
Despite my fondness for British Golden Age mysteries (Christie, Sayers, Marsh), I have yet to find a more contemporary mystery writer that I really enjoy. To wit, Ruth Rendell is widely regarded as a master of the form, yet this manor mystery about a woman found dead in the woods left me cold (pun not intended). There’s a certain amount of wit that I feel is lacking here, despite erudite nature of the story.
A Guilty Thing Surprised is a novel that features Chief Inspector Wexford and Inspector Burden investigating the murder of Elizabeth Nightingale, the mistress of a manor that only seems genteel on the surface. Suspects immediately crop up as a series of interviews reveal the victim’s manipulative nature. The retiring husband, the worldly au pair, and the professor brother–each one has something to hide. The novel’s title is from a Coleridge poem, alluding to a setting that involves many literary and academic preoccupations.
Ilustrado is a novel full of and about fakes. The fragments that make up the book are themselves knockoffs of different genres–murder mystery, satire, interviews from The Paris Review, everything but the kitchen sink. Miguel Syjuco’s brassy debut novel turns on its head the first accusation thrown in the face of every expat writing a novel set in the Philippines: “Just how authentic are you?”
A manuscript by lionized (or should it be “pantherized?”) Filipino writer Crispin Salvador disappears after his death in New York. This propels his student Miguel to travel to the Philippines, taking it upon himself to connect together the different threads of his mentor’s existence and hopefully retrieve the lost magnum opus. Interspersed between fragments of Crispin’s earlier novels, plays, and newspaper columns, the narrative follows Miguel as he tracks down the different people that Crispin had loved and wronged, unearthing a portrait of a sublime failure.
This is kind of embarrassing. I fell off the face of the blogging world without really intending to and I can’t even blame my lack of free time. Most of my writing recently have been for work but I’ve also discovered the wonders of Twitter. I admit to giving in to the temptation of expressing myself exclusively through 140-character spurts. I’m also hopelessly behind in my writeups–eight books’ worth of backlog–but I’m determined to catch up.
Speaking of writing, please read my PGS Crime Issue Review, published by The Philippine Online Chronicles a couple of weeks ago. A short excerpt:
None of the stories in the PGS Crime Issue are whodunits in the true sense of the word. They are, however, why- and how-dunnits, with a couple of stories morphing into revenge tales redressing sins of the past.
Justice takes on a very fluid quality in Philippine crime, where the trick isn’t finding who the culprit is, but making sure he does pay. Even the arrival of the police does not signal the end of a criminal ordeal–they often turn out to be a different, more dangerous complication.
I’ve finished 18 books so far this year which, according to Goodreads, means I’m six books behind if I still wish to read 50 books in 2011. Cry. Still, that’s already six books more than I’ve read the whole of last year so I can’t really complain.