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,

*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,

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