An army of lizards

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Flora and fauna grow in luxuriance in “The House on Calle Sombra,” the debut novel of Marga Ortigas published by Penguin Random House South East Asia. Subtitled “a parable,” it’s an epic on three generations of the mixed-race Castillo de Montijo family. The aforementioned flora and fauna follow Federico, the successful patriarch who arrived as a penniless orphan from Spain. Fates and fortunes intertwine in the life of Fatimah, a Muslim fugitive who meets Federico in the tumult of World War II. Fatima’s famous words to one of her children are “Trust no one.”

They have four children, privileged and torn by sibling rivalries, who seemed to have gone to the world’s four winds to be as far away from each other as possible. And then there is the brood of grandchildren, who grow up listless and unmoored. Only the words “La Familia Primero: Unida y Protegida (Family First: United and Protected),” engraved in their famed and crested motto, bind them together. Well, almost.

It is always difficult to write a multi-generational saga in the Philippines because foreign readers would always compare it to the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. Their “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “House of Spirits” are certainly landmarks in world literature. But let us remind the casual observer that the Latin Americans and the Filipinos have a shared heritage. At the bedrock are Inca and Mayan cultures (for some Latinos) and animistic and Malay (for Filipinos). Then there is the overlay of Spanish, with the Philippines being ruled for 333 years by Spain from its entrepot in Mexico. The final layer is American for both places. But the Filipino mix is more complex, for there is also the Chinese and Indian influence, and three years of Japanese imperialism.

Thus, what we have is a witch’s brew of history, potent, complex and colorful. And certainly, a gold mine for any novelist, which is what Marga Ortigas has done. Her work is not a pale imitation of a Latino Americana novel; she minted it as her own. The chapter headings are done in three languages – English, Spanish and Filipino – to show the country’s hybrid cultures. The national traumas (a subject matter of literary studies nowadays) of the Second World War, the Marcos dictatorship and the #Durog presidency of the new president mirror the family’s rise and fall.

Ortigas has worked for CNN in London and Al Jazeera, covering the wars in Iraq and the Muslim rebellion in the southern Philippines. A graduate of Ateneo de Manila University and the University of Greenwich, she brings to bear in this novel her impeccable credentials. Her shrewd observations on Philippine politics and culture are spot-on. I found myself laughing at several pages and marking them with parallel lines or smileys with my red ballpoint pen. Moreover, the epic sweep of the novel is told through a brisk prose style and fragmented sentences, unlike the long and winding sentences found in the novels of the “le boom” in the Latin American novel. At times, these beautiful sentences sound like heartbeats: quick, foretelling the desire and doom in these marvelous pages.

The novel’s texture is also enriched by the use of extra-literary texts. There are remembrances of songs, be they Hispanic or Muslim or childhood lullabies. There are also scripts of the 90-second news reports and the 15-second breaking news, told in the frantic words of the TV studios. There is a parody of government propaganda that reminds you of George Orwell’s whiplash. Moreover, there is a slew of gossip, mordant character sketches, posts in social media, barbed exchanges in chat rooms. There are premonitions, forebodings, moments of intuition. It is a world alive with words on the wing. And this novels’ pages turn and turn, gripping you with the twists of its narrative line.

This is how the young Ricky sees Manila through the wet burlap – and sting of salt – as his kidnappers beat him up: “He thought he saw the lights of Manila’s jagged skyline in the distance. The dense city’s uneven ridges looked like a frantic pulse on a heart monitor…”

This is how one of the characters sees their house: “It was at times like these that Alma missed Sombra and her desk of secret drawers.” It is also a house filled with bonsais, “because the dwarfed trees are all about discipline and control.” Her husband, Andy, “was still learning the language of the family’s idiosyncrasies. It was not like traipsing through a minefield.”

Moreover, the big and elegant house on Calle Sombra is honeycombed with tunnels and locked rooms. The same structure is found in the presidential palace, where the controversial president lives: there is a large bomb-proof basement where deals are struck at night, with the characters flitting about like bats.

Old man Federico’s words to his wife, Fatimah, were telling. At one big event in the mansion, Federico whispered to his unflappable wife: “I miss the war. At least, back then, we knew who the enemy was.” His insight comes from what happened after the Second World War, when collaborators were left unpunished and even rewarded. It also comes from a sharp reading of what happened to the Philippines: it has the façade of a democracy, but it is broken by elite politics and massive corruption. And later, the drug-dealing, smuggling and the transactional politics of #Durog and his ilk of characters.

At the end, “sombra” begins to overrun the once-imposing mansion. Decay, destruction and doom haunt it. “It wasn’t evening yet, but the house was already leaden in shadow. Heavy clouds sat overhead, casting a gloom that gnawed at the house and settled in.”

It’s still summer, so I suggest you settle in with “The House on Calle Sombra” by Marga Ortigas. After you have turned the last page, you wish that she would write a sequel to this thrilling novel.

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Copies of the novel are available at National Book Store, Fully Booked and Amazon for overseas. Email: d[email protected]

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