Interlineal

On Charlson Ong’s ‘Blue Angel, White Shadow’

Blue Angel, White Shadow. Charlson Ong.
University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.

Blue Angel, White Shadow. Charlson Ong. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.
Blue Angel, White Shadow. Charlson Ong. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.

Crime fiction arrived in the Philippines during the American colonial period and was hugely popular. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, became a household name, and Agatha Christie’s works gained a significant following. Detective stories were translated in the 1930s at the height of popularity of magazines such as Liwayway and Sampaguita. But there were, and still are, few Philippine literary works in this genre. It might be ironic that in a country full of crime, hardly anyone writes crime fiction, though of course crime fiction is different from the stories of crime reported daily in newspapers or on the airwaves.

Recent distinguished works of crime fiction include Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan and The Builder by the late National Artist for Literature Edith L. Tiempo. The former, which won the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the 1999 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, among other honors, has been hailed for being both “popular” and “literary”, and twists the typical pattern of a crime story by revealing to readers the mind of the killer. Tiempo’s novel also veers away from the usual whodunit and is instead a “why-dunit”, such that the conclusion of the story reveals the motivation of the suspect, whose identity is earlier shown. Also worth noting is Trese by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, an award-winning three-volume comics series that combines crime-fiction conventions with folk supernatural elements.

Charlson Ong’s latest novel, Blue Angel, White Shadow, is a welcome addition to Philippine literature in this genre. While the story has the usual elements of a crime fiction story—a crime, victim, a list of suspects, clues, and a detective—it does not entirely follow the traditional mold.

The story begins like most crime fiction: with a murder. Twenty-five-year-old Laurice Saldiaga is a lounge singer in a Binondo bar called Blue Angel Café, and she is killed in her room just above it. The detective, Inspector Cyrus Ledesma, is assigned to the case by his superior officer and uncle. Having grown up in Binondo, Ledesma encounters familiar faces and revisits his checkered past as he probes Laurice’s murder.

Every character that Ledemsa investigates has a possible motive to commit the crime and it keeps the reader guessing as to who is the guilty party: Is it Saldiaga’s boss Rosa Misa? The waitress Bituin? The piano player Rey? Manila mayor Lagdameo Go-Lopez? Business mogul Tony Cobianco? Ledesma also has to deal with Rosa Misa’s daughter, the journalist Rosemarie, who looms large in the plot and desires to clear her godfather Tony’s name.

Unlike many murder mysteries where the point-of-view is usually that of the detective, Ong devotes a chapter each to a character’s story, letting the reader judge for himself or herself if, based on this character’s history, he or she is the likely culprit. The novel also takes the reader through the nuances and complications of Philippine and Chinese-Filipino history, politics, and culture. The intricate web that Ong spins between the characters keeps the suspense and excitement at a high level.

As finely woven as Blue Angel is, however, I do not believe that it has a strong ending. It is almost as though the concluding revelation was the result of exhaustion with all the puzzles that had been previously constructed. Still, the novel is quite a page-turner, and is definitely a worthy read. —Karen Frondozo, Interlineal.net

*Thanks are due to Mr. Carljoe Javier of University of Santo Tomas Publishing House for generously providing a review copy of this book.

Into the male psyche?

FortyFied: Personal Chronicles. Cecille Lopez Lilles.
University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.

FortyFied. Cecille Lopez Lilles. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.
FortyFied. Cecille Lopez Lilles. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.

The cliché that goes “Women are from Venus while men are from Mars” is still believed to capture accurately the essence of the difference between man and woman. Often, this is taken as an absolute truth: men and women are simply different in the ways they experience, perceive, and cope with the world. The adage’s implications go beyond the perceived chasm between the two sexes. One implication is that women, as Venus, embody the sexual impulse, while men, as Mars, embody the aggressive impulse.

If we follow this line of thinking, it would not be a stretch to think that perhaps Freud was right when he postulated that any and all things stem from either or both of these two libidinal impulses. However, majority of Freud’s absolutes have been disputed, if not debunked outright. Absolute belief in the adage must similarly be discarded, if only in the light of recent vigorous research that examines and answers exactly that: How are men and women different?

In FortyFied, a collection of essays that have been published in The Philippine Star, Ms. Lilles writes in her introduction that her life’s journey is to understand men, and, in one of the essays in the collection (“My Muse Is A Man”), she says that men serve as the inspiration for her writing. Indeed, what baffles us often become the subject of our essays. Given this, perhaps the most frustrating thing about the essays authored by Ms. Lilles is that the challenge to understand carries a defeatist tone, as in “nothing will come out of this.” Her essays follow a predictable pattern: a vignette about the experience, musings and personal thoughts, an attempt to understand the male way of thinking, then ultimately falling back to the literary equivalent of shrugging and moving on. The mindset of “they’re just different, so what can we do about it” is evident in many of the essays, and if there is an effort to understand, it is done superficially through interviews with the author’s family and friends, which she still rejects in majority of her essays’ concluding remarks.

Certainly, her essays are interesting. She writes with wit and humor as she describes her encounters with the jock, the nerd, the attendants in the hardware store, and CEO archetypes that quail under the pressure of negotiating airports. Even her attempts to grasp what she terms as “man-speak” (“Ugga bugga”, she says) are certainly interesting situations in and by themselves. After the promise of the blurb and the introduction, what I expected from Ms. Lilles essays are the answers to the whys. Why do men have and maintain mistresses? Why do men engage in risky sports? Why are men’s bags when traveling significantly fewer and smaller than women’s? Why do men seemingly have their own language? And, with regards to the last question, really, how is man-speak different from how women speak, with their endless tittering about the latest fashion trends and the most expensive shoes?

And this is where the problem lies: in her quest to portray men as always “entertaining and enthralling”, the fascination impedes true understanding. Those who make it their life’s work to comprehend do not simply stop at fascination: they are required to investigate, to examine, to take apart all pre-conceived notions and simply let it be. Often, the essays attempt to explain the behaviours through evolution: that in the course of their maturity as homo sapiens they are required by circumstance to preserve and protect their ego. While this is a valid explanation, is this the only reason that can inform women who are attempting to understand their partners?
In many ways, Ms. Lilles’ essays aim to be guideposts for women to eventually accept men’s specific behaviors. She does this by presenting various “case studies” of encounters with men. Ultimately, she comes to the conclusion that there’s nothing to be done, that’s just the way they are. While this may be helpful to a certain set of readers, accepting does not equate to understanding, and thus it does not fulfill the book’s promise of “understanding the male psyche.”

Speaking of reader characteristics, another problem I had was that majority of Ms. Lilles’ pronouncements about men’s responsibilities and women’s privileges do not resonate with me. For example, men must, at one point in time, take a woman out to a fancy dinner to a restaurant with great ambience which serves food that can barely reach the lower part of the esophagus. They are also expected to foot the bill. Or, men should always carry a woman’s luggage. If they do not do these, they can be rightfully dumped or the woman would have every right to throw a fit. While Ms. Lilles in her introduction says that her preconceptions about men were debunked after writing about them for five years, there is still the irresistible urge to try to cram them into neat little boxes made with dated rules and norms. Thus, I am left with the impression that the explanations provided by the essays are just token declarations without any real value.

This then prompts the question: who, exactly, is FortyFied’s target audience? Is it young women like me, who survive with one foot in the era of 20-volume encyclopedias and old-school library card catalogs, and the other in the Google, Facebook and Twitter age? Does she target women in their twenty-somethings who are just as baffled by men, if not more so, than women who are significantly older and are more experienced than us? Is it the thirty-somethings, who are career women, who tuck a newspaper in their armpits while one hand carries their hard-earned (or not) LV handbags and the other a cup of steaming hot Starbucks coffee, on their way to the office where they must work to make ends meet? They who are perhaps at their first couple of years of marriage, and fighting tooth and limb to reconcile their own identity with their husband’s and children’s? Or is it women who are of the same age as the author, those who have perhaps made a name for themselves (or have very nearly done so), with children who are at least school-age, some perhaps even working?

In truth, the writing and the essays are at their most brilliant when talking about her experiences as a mother: how she, as the mother of twenty-something girls fend off suitors and bad-mannered boys, how she labors to explain to her eight-year-old son why she is so fond of her shoes. She is most engaging when talking about how desperately she holds on to norms during the Facebook generation, how she, as a mother, is keeping her head afloat in the sea of confusing signals that only men seem to understand. Her most inspired essays come when she is talking about herself.

Thus, while I would not recommend FortyFied to anyone who wants to gain insight into a man’s mind, I would definitely recommend it to women who are poised for a slowdown after a lifetime of hectic scurrying to and fro, for some entertaining essays about how a woman like them has also struggled to move inside a man’s world. Marie Rose G. Henson, Interlineal.net

*Thanks are due to Mr. Carljoe Javier of University of Santo Tomas Publishing House for generously providing a review copy of this book.

‘The House of True Desire’: Afterthoughts

The House of True Desire: Essays on Life and Literature. Cirilo F. Bautista.
University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.

The House of True Desire. Cirilo F. Bautista. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.
The House of True Desire. Cirilo F. Bautista. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.

There is a relation between the life of a literary piece and the allotment of power in society. The essays in this collection form an image of the writer as one who is essentially rooted in the country’s political conditions. However, the meaning of this rootedness is not always self-evident. The entanglement of standards of literariness with social forces is not necessarily always allusive to the doctrine that society’s material conditions of production are determinative of literary production.

Cirilo Bautista’s collection contemplates a notion that political conditions do not always preclude the freedom of the consciousness of the writer. The will-to-imagine, so to speak, is not entirely a function of the will-to-power.

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza said that if rocks were capable of thinking, and if one was thrown at a certain trajectory, it would believe that this trajectory was a product of its volition. If writers are these rocks, it is history — the critical schools of thought tell us — that does the throwing. And consciousness, being enmeshed in material conditions of production, fails to account the action of history, and instead assigns the cause of its trajectory (in various political, sexual, academic, or artistic endeavors) to a vacuity — in short, to the freedom of the will.

Cirilo Bautista’s essays conceive a kind of clearing in this chain of determinations. The House of True Desire, a collection of the author’s writings from his column in Panorama magazine, “Breaking Signs”, does not explicitly articulate this theme. But it is present in the book’s overall tenor. He never tires of cataloguing political problems of the nation along with the articulation of a poetics. The author’s own experience of poverty and his outlook of it as a spectator inform his views on the inextricable connection of literature and society, and it is the writer’s manipulation of signs that is key to the writer’s active stance in the world of necessity.

The relentless correlation of a poem’s “linguistic environment” with the immediacy of reality in all its fleshliness is not always apparent. “We seek in literature what we cannot find in life, and in life what literature promises,” he says. In “Literature and Suffering”, he adopts a Nietzschean-romantic perspective which views art as the distillation of all the pain endured by the artist. But our perspective of literature must go beyond this view. To see the “best words in the best order” as merely a distillation of experience is to limit the writer’s role as a container and to see any piece of literature as merely an indication and product of the Zeitgeist.

Bautista talks about “signifiers”, “linguistic space”, and “private transactions” between the reader and the poem as though literature is strictly a textual affair, with the sole motivation of the reader being “delectation”, a deeply private and intimate subjective experience with the piece. His reviews of Jose Garcia Villa, for instance, reveal how the poet’s manipulation of signs can radically alter the imaginative capacity of the reader. However, one cannot deny that extra-poetic considerations haunt Bautista’s reflections. Read between the lines and you will feel the author’s longing for a more active stance that goes beyond “delectation”—what is the role of literature in government, for instance?

The question of “social relevance” is not a Philippine-style self-reflexive dilemma of our local literary community. It is an ancient question which the Greeks asked themselves. While some may frown at Plato’s view of poetry as a danger to the stability of the republic, one can receive this condemnation with a different attitude—that is, as an inadvertent form of flattery. It highlights the poet’s social importance and conceives of poetry as a potent agent of political change.

The author, however, is suspicious of any critical agenda in the creative process. Bautista does not advise the young writer to try to change society with a literary piece, and seems to capitulate to the statement that the sword, after all, is mightier than the pen. My suspicion, however, is that the author wants literature to change society in the manner that religion does—that is to say, by way of the soul. —Russell Stanley Geronimo, Interlineal.net

*Thanks are due to Mr. Carljoe Javier of University of Santo Tomas Publishing House for generously providing a review copy of this book.

Famed writer Yuson dropped from GMA News Online

Following a thorough investigation by an ethics committee into charges of plagiarism against famed writer Alfred “Krip” Yuson, his contract as editor at large for GMA News Online, which reportedly expired mid-April, has not been renewed. In a statement, GMA Network management explained that, “The decision not to renew the services of Mr. Yuson is consistent with the policy of GMA that personnel do not plagiarize or copy other people’s work.”

The issue of plagiarism was first raised by blogger Jaemark Tordecilla of Fire Quinito, who noted strong similarities between an article by Yuson published in Rogue magazine, and an earlier piece written by GMA News Online sportswriter Rey Joble. Yuson, in a response to Tordecilla, admitted that he had lifted portions from Joble’s article, but said that he had been under deadline pressure. He also said that he thought he had co-authorial rights, given that he had edited Joble’s work before it was published by GMA News.

The controversy drew a flurry of outraged reactions from the blogosphere, including Ina Stuart Santiago, James Cordova of Asian Correspondent, and Interlineal, a content partner of ProPinoy.net. After Yuson, in his weekly column for The Philippine Star, said that “it is hardly of any consequence that the usual lynch mob that marauds through social media is having such a fun time indulging in vituperation”, Tordecilla had strong words for the multi-awarded wordsmith. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) slammed Yuson as well, saying, “An apology would have sufficed; making excuses is just too much.”

Yuson is a significant figure in Philippine letters. The author or editor of several books, he is a member of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature Hall of Fame, probably the most prestigious literary distinction in the country. He has also won many other prizes locally and internationally.

As of this writing, Rogue has yet to issue a statement on the matter. Ateneo de Manila University, where Yuson is listed as a member of the Department of English, has similarly made no comment.

The university has been involved in previous plagiarism disputes that erupted around business tycoon Manuel “Manny” V. Pangilinan, a former member of the Ateneo board of trustees, and Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, a graduate of Ateneo Law School.

Editor’s note (May 2, 2011; 7:45 PM): This article was first published in slightly different form. It has since been revised to better comply with the editorial standards of The Pro Pinoy Project. Our apologies.