Short and snarky

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

The Age of Umbrage,” the long-awaited novel of Jessica Zafra, is finally out under the imprint of Ateneo de Manila University Press. The first printing quickly sold out, and a second printing was immediately done.

Zafra is famous for her “Twister” columns that appeared in “Today” newspaper. Quirky and funny, her columns were short and spot-on commentaries on society’s foibles and flaws. Her columns were collected in several books and her stories published in three volumes: “Manananggal Terrorizes Manila and Other Stories,” “The Stories So Far” (both from Anvil) and “The Collected Stories of Jessica Zafra” published by Ateneo Press.

The novel’s cover by Bianca Alexandra Ortigas is a scene from a party of the young and the rich, done in mauve, violet and pink. The images are arresting, and they capture the heart of this novel: the layers of classes that cover Philippine society, the layers of hypocrisy we foist on each other and the many layers of love and lovelessness found therein.

Expect a Jessica Zafra novel to have language as one of its major characters. Hernani and Siony, the parents of Asuncion Pelayo, are described thus: “Hernani had every intention of pinching Siony, who was eminently pinchable. She had breasts which entered the room fifteen seconds before she did, and a derriere that walked in fifteen seconds later. There was a ripeness about her, and Hernani could tell that she was ready, aching, to be plucked….”

Nani becomes a sailor but still continues womanizing, even if already married. The pregnant Siony follows him in New York City. “When she made her surprise appearance, Nani had been carrying on with an American woman, a blonde who had just divorced her third husband. She had white eyebrows and eyelashes and the biggest mouth he had ever seen – when they kissed he thought she would swallow him whole.”

And we are just on page 5 of the novel. Soon Guada was born, and Siony pins all her hopes on her daughter, who is brilliant, bookish and weird. But the parents’ relationship is not meant to be. Their separation scene is sketched in satirical lines. Siony clings on to Nani while driving him away: “By this time the neighbors had massed at the windows to watch this live drama. With great effort Nani moved towards the front door, an actual demonstration of the ball-and-chain metaphor. Siony had an impressive grip that was no doubt developed by years of squeezing the milk out of coconut meat…”

Finally separated – and finally free – Siony, the teacher, works as a cook in the household of Don Paquito Almagro. She receives a good salary, gets free board and lodging – and Guada goes to an exclusive school for girls. The novel has a swift pacing, and the next moment we find Guada in the well-appointed library, reading. And who would come in but Gabriel, the scion of the rich family, with his girlfriend. She ministers to him orally, with the young child in wide-eyed wonder. Gabriel later finds this out and asks Guada to just keep quiet.

And thus Guada learns how to balance life in the house of the Almagros, “who were in trade and whose blood lacked the necessary azure.” But wealth has a way of shushing gossip-mad Manila. “Besides, if the descendants of the ancient native chieftains were found, they were not likely to be as rich, fair-skinned, cosmopolitan, well-spoken and photogenic as the Almagros.”

How did Don Paquito meet Siony the schoolteacher?

Through food, and this is one of the finest set-pieces in this short novel. “When Don Paquito sat down to lunch at the company cafeteria, he was served a dish called ‘pinangat’ – pork cooked in coconut milk and chilis, then wrapped in gabi leaves. He took one bite and was immediately transported to the little island in Camarines Norte where he’d spent an idyllic summer when he was fourteen. It seemed that he was not merely chewing a humble provincial delicacy, but reliving those invigorating treks in the woods with a BB gun, long-distance swimming contests with the local urchins and the shenanigans of his pet Pepay the mad monkey. The great man, with tears in his eyes, summoned the head cook and asked her who had prepared this Proustian repast…”

His wife is named Doña Consuelo, who bears him a daughter named Emilia, “a surprise menopause baby” with long brown hair and longer limbs. She and Guada go to school together, chauffeur-driven in an expensive car, and Guada helps the rich girl with her assignments. Her brother, Guillermo, just came back from London, seemingly adrift. He has a fantastic collection of laser-disc records, and he watches films with Guada. The bookish Guada discovers another world, this time of moving light and shadows.

One day Doña Consuelo enters the viewing room and asks Guillermo to go back to school. Guillermo and Guada are watching “La Strada.” It is a credit to Jessica Zafra’s huge talent as a writer that she can use a film as a sieve to show the innermost feelings of the characters – both in the novel and in the film.

“There was silence as the three of them stared at the screen but saw different things. Guada wondered why a movie with clowns in it was making her sad. Guillermo mused on what the lovely Ettore might be doing back at their boarding school. Doña Consuelo brooded on whether Guillermo manifested the mad gene that showed up every other generation in her family.”

The novel’s fictional rhythm is sometimes broken by paragraphs that explain “the Filipino character” or some such idea. But they don’t bother me, since they recall  18th-century novels where the narrator inserts wry commentaries in between scenes. There are also other minor characters who do cameo appearances here, and Zafra describes them with withering accuracy. Her pen is like a dart and she rarely misses the bull’s eye.

Jessica Zafra has written a novel dripping with acid in “The Age of Umbrage.” I hope she will write a sequel to this short and snarky novel – one of the wittiest and most elegant I’ve read in contemporary Philippine fiction.

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Email: [email protected]. Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun,” has just been published by Penguin Random House.

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