Filipino novel is a tragicomedy

By Sarge Lacuesta
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:39:00 07/07/2008

Shortlisted for Man Asia literature prize

MANILA, Philippines - The title of José Y. Dalisay’s new novel (“Soledad’s Sister,” published by Anvil Publishing, shortlisted for the 1st Man Asia Literary Prize), at once dislocated and removed, is a tantalizing articulation of the story’s tragicomic problem: a casket unceremoniously arrives from Jeddah carrying the corpse of a Filipina identified by the label on the crate as Aurora M. Cabahug, mysteriously certified by the Jeddah authorities as having died from “drowning.”

Uniting the body with the grieving family should be a simple thing, except that there is no one to claim her at the airport, and the woman in the box is not, in fact, who the label claims she is.

But even before that misunderstanding surfaces, Filipino bureaucracy and SOP take over. A missive calling for next of kin is sent to Paez, the woman’s hometown, a backwater five or six hours by car from Manila.

Here, the real Aurora M. Cabahug lives, and languishes—she sings nightly at the Flame Tree, a KTV nightclub frequented by cops, the town’s vice mayor, and the occasional gaggle of Koreans passing through. But if “Aurora” the corpse is aimless and nameless, Rory, younger sister of the titular woman, who has never set foot much beyond the leafy borders of Paez, is still caught in the Filipino dream, drunk on her raw, God-given talent, and flush with wonder about the world beyond.

The unglamorous task of reuniting the two sisters and their split identities falls upon SPO2 Walter G. Zamora, a lonely cop who knows Rory to be alive: He remembers her during that one visit to the Flame Tree.

Walter is himself a victim of circumstance, having found himself in Paez from Manila, by way of romantic indiscretion and a string of bad luck. But most significantly, Walter is a good cop, and the last time we saw a believably good cop was in Aureus Solito’s “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros,” where Victor, the object of Maximo’s affection, appeared a bit too green and soft to become much more than a clever plot device.

Precision play is perhaps precisely where Philippine prose has one over cinema. We see that Walter is not that green—and not that soft-hearted, either.

“He had just turned thirty-eight,” Dalisay describes him “—an age that was neither here nor there, but at which point, with most lives, the future should have emerged with a certain clarity, an invitation to hurry and grab a hold of some great last chances.” (Not that this reviewer
doesn’t happen to be thirty-eight, either.)

In writing him so, Dalisay performs an important trick—not just on our literary senses, but also on our Pinoy sensibilities. Why not a Pinoy cop who can suffer the mundane depths of worrying about the weight and waste of his age?

Tough trick

It’s a tough trick, but if anyone can do it, Dalisay can. He even places his policeman in the role of a classical hero, charges him with an actual quest, and even requisitions for him an ungainly mount (a pre-FX Tamaraw that, true to the discipline and economy found in the author’s most celebrated short stories, finds its own significance later on).

He asks you to note his clumsy attempts at chivalry, his trademark emotional scar, the stray cat he befriends and now tends to like a child in his apartment. In fact, even the most jaded reader will perhaps find himself, despite himself, aching to see him find some love.

As soon as Walter enlists our empathy, you breathlessly follow him (and you can almost hear the author smile broadly to himself) as he drives Soledad’s sister from Paez to various points in Manila, with stops in Hong Kong and Jeddah, where the dead Soledad’s itinerant memory takes us.

Though the frame story takes place over only three days, the separate accounts of each of the main characters tightly bridge plot points and points of view, so that the novel easily gains scope and momentum as the van and its strange cargo of bedfellows cover more ground toward Manila—and many unexpected parts within.

In the hustle of events that follows in the great city, Rory’s strange reunion turns into a strange separation, Walter’s unscheduled homecoming becomes a puzzle and a chase, Soledad’s character sheds mystery and gains motivation, and a series of outside and past happenings and forces come to a head, across a clever convergence of timeframes, crime scenes and cityscapes.

It is the city, of course, with its illusions of quick employment and easy money, that has lured millions of Filipinos out of small towns like Paez. In the novel, it is Dalisay’s prose that lures us to stop and stare—whether it’s Hong Kong, its harbor lights “like white letters on a black page,” or Jeddah and its “stream of kaleidoscopic and cacophonic impressions.”

But what Dalisay makes us share most are his sharp observations on the bright, dark city of Manila itself, its vast, seeming omniscience, its near-complete sentience, where “the people themselves all seemed to know where they were going, or how they were expected to act in this massively choreographed, painstakingly produced performance, the pedestrians sure of step even with cellular phones glued to their ears, the motorists puffing blithely away on their cigarettes and tapping their fingers on their dashboards in tune to some muted radio, staring a hundred meters ahead.”

Still, there is a special warm, fuzzy feeling touchingly reserved for the town and the townfolk of Paez, so that pages set in its confines somehow acquire the gauze and the veneer of a 1950s romance, furnished with all the right elements: the virgin chanteuse, the hard-boiled cop, the old songs laden with flowers and moonlight and promises. But while Paez makes for a quick and simple stand-in for that photo-album town many of us alternately cannot imagine to have lived in and secretly long to return to, this reviewer chooses to interpret the place as the dusty origin and never-forgotten hometown of the modern Filipino heart.

And there lies one of the most engaging attributes of “Soledad’s Sister.” It stands firm and true however the reader might choose to see it—as a tale exquisitely formed and told, or as a page-turner full of real grit and glitter. Almost unbelievably, and quite reassuringly, “Soledad’s Sister” stands quite well and quite handsomely on both legs, and all of 194 pages.

The book’s slenderness, which may be seen by some as a bit too slim, is, in fact, what points us to its most singular and most difficult accomplishments: deceptive simplicity and breathtaking restraint.