It could just be me, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado. I liked the way the writer incorporated different forms of media and literature, all of which eventually made sense as the story developed, into one cohesive work, but I was just … okay with it. It’s not a very long book, but it took me a while to finish. (This doesn’t mean I have nothing to say though. I have a bunch.)
Because I like my history, let’s first talk about the title, Ilustrado.
For context, the Philippines was colonized by Spain for 333 years (I am not making this number up) from 1565 to 1898. The word “Ilustrado” referred to people from the Philippines who obtained their education abroad, in Mother Spain. This exposed them to liberal ideas, and they came back seeking to reform Spanish colonial rule (to turn the Philippines into a Spanish province instead of just a colony). Think: Jose Rizal and Plaridel.
But why use a word so old that it was used in history books?
Lysley Tenorio’s Felix Starro, a short story in Monstress, is about an old man and his grandson, both of whom are named Felix Starro, a faith-healing duo who perform Extractions of Negativities, a ritual of such profound spiritual healing that some blood is shed in the process. (If no blood is shed, which is very rare, the client is deemed “clean” from negativity.)
What? Is this person a shaman? Maybe. After all, Filipino culture (this is a compilation of Philippine literature that I found in the bookstore!) subscribes to a lot of superstitious and supernatural beliefs (see East of the Sun and Fallow’s Flight for other short reads), so I’m not surprised that people line up and, better yet, pay for an Extraction.
The story also covers migration; a few decades ago, Filipinos, with hopes of greener pastures, began migrating to the US. The problem is that they seem to think that time has stood still in the Philippines while they lived their lives anew in the US, and so we have Filipino Americans still raving about Felix Starro while the rest of the Philippines has moved on.
Well, greener pastures do not necessarily mean a life abroad. For the young Felix Starro, it means leaving the family business, Extractions. A new life, however, comes at a cost, and the young Felix eventually realizes: for every decision, sacrifices must be made.
A part two to last week’s Short Bites, here’s another story from Dean Francis Alfar’s How to Traverse Terra Incognita: Fallow’s Flight. The story follows an elderly dragon, Fallow, who is mourning the death of his daughter, Glorious, who perished in battle. This story is in Chapter 5, Get to Know the Locals, of the collection, and, in this case, dragons are the locals. (Check out East of the Sun for a glimpse of Chapter 4, Understand the Culture.)
Francis Dean Alfar does not only tell a story but also gives a commentary on society. This short read makes you think more critically about the wars that must be fought and our brave warriors risking their lives for the greater good.
The interesting part of the story is that the ongoing war is simply the norm. No explanation was ever given as to what had started the war; it had just always existed. I wish they told us what noble thing our great dragon warriors were fighting for. It didn’t seem to be freedom, for the dragon warriors were not in an oppressed society…
It doesn’t sound too different from the real world, does it? Can someone please tell me how to determine whether our great dragon warriors have gone too far? Thanks.
East of the Sun is a short story in Chapter 4, Understand the Culture, of Dean Francis Alfar’s collection, How to Traverse Terra Incognita. I highly suggest reading this if you can grab a copy of the collection. The stories are written in English, and the writer describes the creatures well enough that you don’t need to be familiar with Philippine folklore to get the story. (I had actually forgotten what a tikbalang was, but the story reminded me anyway.)
The tale is excellently told; it included:
a call for sympathy because desperate people do desperate things; and
a smack in the face because one always has a choice.
The story starts off when a poor family’s youngest daughter is given to a tikbalang, a creature that is half horse and half man, in exchange for wealth. But also: the tikbalang has threatened to kill off the whole family if they did not give up their bunso, the youngest daughter. Nevertheless, once it becomes agreed upon that the bunso is to be given away, everyone but her mother is already thinking of what to do with the wealth that is to come. And so the bunso is taken.
Before the tikbalang brings the bunso to his home, he rapes her practically to death. He eventually takes her home, and she can get anything she wishes for with the ring of a bell. And then late at night, after the lights have gone out, the tikbalang would lie down beside her, vulnerable and eager for love and affection. Say what? Please explain:
Why did he rape her if all he wanted was love?
How can he expect love after the crime he committed?
During my last trip to the Philippines (with only one night shared here), I went to the bookstore to line up find my next read. Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (translation: Amapola in 65 Chapters) was one of two books I bought for myself. I may not be down to zip line, let alone sky dive, but I will (try to) read anything. In the same way I support independent bookstores, I like to venture into Philippine literature and look for local writers I can rave about.
This book was okay. So okay that I was not sure if I should even post about it, but I should really push myself to be more comfortable stating my opinion. So here it is: I wasn’t sold.
I love the way Philippine culture is so entwined with the supernatural and the way this book has manananggals in its fictional society but also portrays them in an almost realistic way: that they are not accepted in society even if some of them are good and do not eat humans. Of course, the book cleans manananggals up to make them less gruesome. There’s even a divide between manananggals that eat humans and the ones that don’t, and the manananggals are described as more human-looking (albeit the long and powerful tongue and the body split in half) in the book.
The other thing that makes Philippine culture so interesting is its subcultures. In this book, the Becky (LGBT) culture is featured because the main character, Amapola, is a gay impersonator/entertainer at a bar. (Here’s a quick Philippine Star blurb from way back to give you a rundown on the subculture.) There’s no denying that Beckys have forged their way into the mainstream and have influenced trends in society. Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata is riddled with Becky to the point that I was flabbergasted—I had no idea what they were saying sometimes.
Although the supernatural creatures and the subcultures were amusing to read about, that was about it for the book. The story line was okay, and while I loved reading about Lola Sepa’s love affair with Andres Bonifacio (Andy, per my high school History teacher), I didn’t really like Amapola and the rest of the characters—except Nanay Angie because she has a heart made of gold. I wasn’t a fan of the savior plot, and the Grandiosa vs Montero subplot wasn’t very surprising.
To summarize: cultural depiction great, story line meh.
Ricky Lee is great at creating a picture. This isn’t surprising, as he’s written a lot of films. The tone of the book was incredibly entertaining, and I laughed a lot while reading, but I felt that it lacked a certain art to it. It reminded me very much of the hilarious romantic comedies I would watch during the MMFF, which I have also found to be formulaic money-makers. I know this book is supposed to be satirical, and while I can see it, it doesn’t cause a stir.