I was seventeen and clad in plaid when I borrowed Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels from our high school library. My first experience of reading Joaquin came when, as a freshman in the same high school, we were made to read his short story, “May Day Eve.” More than that seemingly never-ending opening sentence that captivated me, I genuinely felt that I’d finally found something I can sink my teeth into.
The story (in case you haven’t read it, and by way of telling you that You Should, You Should, You Should), is set in 19th century Philippines. I can’t explain why, but I have a strange fascination with the society in that era. I won’t go in depth as to why, except to suggest that this might be because I loved studying history even as an elementary student: the butterfly sleeves, the cobblestone streets–everything that Joaquin described in that relentless sentence, I found I was quite in love with.
Still, as in life between (and well outside) the lines, I found that a deeper political belief simmered just beneath the sweet spell of words strung together by [semi-] colons, dashes, and commas. In my first year of college, I was properly introduced to Nick Joaquin’s views on local history and literature, and where I once again picked up a copy of The Woman Who Had Two Navels–this time, to take it up for class.
Then again, what use is it to write about a novel I clearly already love? More recently, I read Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows. The premise, I promise you, is nothing but intriguing. Jack Henson returns to Manila to solve the mystery behind the death of his ex-wife’s daughter in a cave. Between the first chapter and the last, you’ll meet characters of august political lineage, a modern-day priestess who insists on the return of paganism-as-salvation, and goons ready to run down anyone who spills the beans on their big boss.
But the denouement and the ending both, in my opinion, disappoint.
I found that though the reason behind the daughter’s death was logical enough, many threads introduced in the novel were suddenly dropped. Maybe this was necessary as, being a mystery novel, false leads eventually had to be dropped. Truth to tell, I think this is just me-as-reader being disappointed that the many layers of the myth of the Hermana (as well as other significant socio-religious females) didn’t play a more concrete role in the key to the mystery.
You know what’s funny, though?
Once I finished the novel, I couldn’t understand how readily I subscribed to the events and characters in the novel: how instantaneously I accepted the idea of an almost military-type pagan group backed by a politician; how almost greedily I gobbled up the myth of a cave that could cause so much filial strife and national intrigue. And I look at society now and I have to admit, I’m a little less puzzled, having now figured that these things in the novel were but hyperbolic expressions of elements we can find even today.
Because in the end, that is truly what I love about Nick Joaquin. More than his eloquence in arguing his points about history or his storytelling prowess, he possesses that inherent ability to create a nearly fantastic world within the mundane Metro that you see everyday. He’ll write a sentence about the state of narrow side streets and not only will you find yourself agreeing that we’re all turning our noses up and pretending not to smell our own filth, we’re also travelling in the throbbing veins of a city that thrives in the occult, the Roman Catholic, the morally perverse, and the generations-strong, landlord-ruled political system.
Paco sensed an unreality in both worlds: the people who occupied them did not seem to be living there at all. They denied the locale–but their denial was not the asceticism of the mystic nor the vision of the reformer, but merely the aversion of the opium eater. They stepped over reality as they stepped across their gutters–with the transient frown of the tourist, the neutral disgust of the foreigner…
One might have to eat cold rice and squat on a pail in the outhouse and sleep on a bug-ridden floor: one sighed and pressed a scented handkerchief to one’s nose and invoked the vicarious magic of one’s wrist-watch (just what all the Wall Street tycoons are wearing now) or of one’s evening dress (just what all the New York hostesses are wearing now) against the cold rice, the rank pail, the buggy floor…One smiled and floated away, insulated from all the drab horror of inadequate reality by the ultra-perfect, colossal, stupendous, technicolored magnificence of the Great American Dream.
-Joaquin, The Woman Who Had Two Navels, p. 47-48 (The Bookmark Inc. copy)
(And it takes more than a whit of wit in order not to romanticize it all)
But on a more personal level, I now more clearly love Nick Joaquin because I have realized how he assures me that the stories told by my parents about their past (which, I will admit, bored me as a child), are not mere instances of nostalgia. In reading him, I feel closer to the stories my father tells me about city streets that were once grass fields, of a boy walking to school on a hot day, of a narrow road that leads to a rowdy neighborhood that boasts of two churches, rows of sleeping drivers on sun-warmed tricycles, and a Chowking to boot.
In the fantasy of Joaquin, I find that the place I live in becomes more substantial, without having to sacrifice the bittersweet reality of a history built on many a contradiction–and in my case, that includes all the irony of being part of this country’s middle class.
Well what do you know; another non-review.