Books at random
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - October 19, 2019 - 12:00am

The Quiet Ones by Glenn Diaz is his debut novel, and it’s an accomplished one. It won the Palanca Grand Prize in 2017. The Philippines is the top call-center country in the world, and this reputation is skewered in this hothouse of a novel. Our protagonist Alvin Estrada is a typical call center worker in an American company in Makati, stressed but happy only when it’s 15/30 payday. He has discovered a way to remit funds to an account overseas, and pretty soon, has thousands of filched funds. Soon two friends join in the caper, and the novel follows them as they lead separate, but linked, lives.

There are wonderful set-pieces like the Philip Manabat “twins”; the different stories are smartly interlocked. The pacing is fast and furious, the scenes cinematic. I can almost smell a screenplay at the heart of this novel. It clocks in at 386 pages but it won’t end up as your doorstop because you will flip past the pages, occasionally stopping at heartbreaking and spot-on descriptions of Manila’s love and squalor. Diaz knows his characters and his city, and he writes with elegant rage about our blighted urban lives.

Dr. Anthony L. Tan’s life’s work of poetry has been collected in Crossing the Water. His first book, The Badjao Cemetery and other Poems, was published in 1985 by the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology Research Office. The poet took his PhD in English Literature at the prestigious Silliman University, home of the country’s National Writers’ Workshop, under the tutelage of Doctors Edilberto K. and Edith L. Tiempo, our National Artist for Literature.

Poet, publisher, and Literature teacher Rayvi Sunico wrote an introduction to Dr. Tan’s next book, Poems of Muddas. He said that “The well-versed ear detects a confluence of lyrical traditions. His academic sources reveal themselves in lines and titles salted with rhetorical Latin devices, allusions to Wallace Stevens (are there still people who remember this pre-postmodern sorcerer?), and even an occasional Homeric line. Yet, and this is more important, the same ear hears the sound of the water that binds our islands together – and keeps them far apart.”

Dr. Tan – who is also a well-liked panelist at the Silliman Writers’ Workshop –  indeed knows his T.S Eliot and his Wallace Stevens, but he finds his métier when he writes about his Chinese-Filipino ancestors and the glittering waters of Siasi, Sulu, his hometown. Many of his poems deal with this upbringing, like onions whose layer upon layer reveal his multiple identities.

Dr. Tan infuses his poetry with the hybrid content shaped by his various contexts. These contexts are geographical (the insular islands southwest of Mindanao), ethnic (southern Chinese roots commingled with southern Philippines), spiritual (Badjao cemeteries built near the water and Chinese funerary rituals on land), even supernatural (meeting pagan mediums and Chinese ancestors long gone).

He charts the islands of Sulu as cartographic markers that bore items of trade and artifacts of culture from China as well as from the Arabian Peninsula, to Malaysia and Indonesia, driven by trade winds across the Celebes and Sulu Seas, and finally to the geographical entity that is now called “the Philippines.” Exiles, emigrants, and entrepreneurs of all races (Chinese, Arab, Indian, Malay) have crossed bodies of water throughout the centuries to reside in the green islands of the Sulu Sea, their lore and their lives now embedded in the estuaries of the Filipino soul.

All these cultural influences are welded together seamlessly in this poem, “Leaving Muddas” set in Sulu. It is well worth quoting in full. “To stand astern a departing boat/ And watch your home drift away,/ Scrawny stilts, roofs and crooked windows;/To watch a million shards of light multiply/Between you and the vanishing landmarks:/Belfry, tower and mountain sink/Into the thin line of blue infinity;/To feel the heave, the oceanic sigh/Of the morning sea, a wake of fleecy foams/ In pursuit, like the memory/ Of an invincible childhood, on and on/ Beyond Tara and Singangang, on till windward/And the kiss of inscrutable fate,/When the bow pivots northeast/And you come upon Lugus Island,/Its bend of ancient crags, forlorn, precipitous./ Over the spindrift of the wind-wracked breakers,/The sea hawks hover in lament,/A fierce, quotidian cry,/Foreboding nothing, simply announcing/Another island, another destiny.”

Last in my cache of books is The Collected Stories of Jessica Zafra recently published by Ateneo de Manila University Press. Zafra’s last collection was The Stories So Far and her first was Manananggal Terrorizes Manila and Other Stories, both published by Anvil. She has won the Palanca Award for the Short Story, has hosted TV and radio shows, and has been writing a famous column, “Twisted”, now on its nth year.

The Collected Stories contains the short, episodic vignettes found in Manananggal as well as the longer, sharper ones found in The Stories So Far.

The scenes and characters are unforgettable, their settings ranging from Metro Manila to Paris to the other dimensions. In a coffee shop in Makati, three strangers cross paths on what might be the last day of the world. In an apartment in Paris, unfriendly dinner guests wait for a frozen leg of lamb to cook. Jude, allegedly the smartest kid in the room, discovers that a high IQ is no guarantee of survival.

And more: an actress with the face of an angel and the talent of a brown paper bag considers her dwindling prospects. Sociopaths, spies, aspiring gold diggers, heiresses on the run and advertising executives wrongly hunted for murder find themselves aboard the same train. The neighbors keep missing each other in an apartment building that messes with the space-time continuum. And a porn star turned religious fundamentalist preaches on the bus while a tarot-card reader battles possession by a demonic dwarf.

It’s a wild and weird world, and Jessica Zafra – with her wry humor, barbed wit, and fluid language – captures it all with a sure and vise-like grip.

The Ateneo books are available at the Ateneo de Manila University Press website and Shoppee. The Anvil Books are available at the website of Anvil Publishing. Or you may visit the authors’ Facebook pages and order your signed copies there, which they can send via courier. Please read the works of our wonderful Filipino writers. You will learn more deeply about this country we all love.

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