A review of ‘The Boys in the Boarding House’ by Geraldine Maayo
SEASONED short story writer Geradine Maayo’s gallery of portraits, old and new, most recently collected in The Boys in the Boarding House (already in its third printing) continue to unnerve the reader, even those who, like this one, have read her short stories with uncommon interest for the several decades of an enviable career.
Familiarity does not guarantee a lessening of the initial shock of meeting and getting to know the souls in torment laid bare for us by this amorist—pitilessly, but with painstaking care. The martyrs to love and passion that we find in these pages seem to be incarnated contradictions of their avowed beliefs, living on with the pain these continuing traumas inflict on the psyche—indeed, often achieving between these contrary elements an uneasy but permanent détente. Achievers they are, in this odd, peculiar fashion of being living oxymorons.
More than a couple of these martyrs—to lust, or love, or both—are card-carrying Roman Catholics, with estampitas and santos and novenas to show for it. For instance, Mrs. Tina Chan alias Ms. Tina Yap, of the story simply entitled “Friends,” one who seems to have undergone several abortion procedures, is a living contradiction of her avowed beliefs:
“Religious she was, attending the late afternoon daily mass either at the Binondo or Santa Cruz Church. She was a Catholic and sounded very proud of her faith. And she was a Marian, too, a devotee of the Virgin Mother, particularly the mother of Perpetual Help, regularly manifesting her devotion by having herself driven to Baclaran Church every first Wednesday of the month. She also never failed to join the annual procession of La Virgen de Naval at Santo Domingo.”
This species of “religious hypocrite,” unfortunately not quite uncommon, would make any proper bishop wince. Had this story been published in the colonial era, our dear Maayo would have been martyred for sure on that open field then known as Bagumbayan.
And yet—although perhaps only behaving true to type—alluring Mrs. Tina Chan?/Yap?, is surely more than just the usual humdrum character we find in the parish. She shows us another face/facet of the hypocrite which is startlingly, strangely admirable: She is a rebel—indeed, one might even say a feminist in her own way, in her own right. Earlier trapped in an arranged marriage once typical of the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines, she bolts the home-prison, taking her first-born with her, and eventually lives with a lover by whom she has her second child. She has other lovers, after that, often casual, down the Revolutionary Road, even though for her as for most Catholics all roads—as goes the adage—lead back to church.
But revolutionary? Well, why not? After all, the major players on the Maayo stage break through convention in a passionate dash, often blind, to freedom. And that’s a theme well worth working at for—for any serious writer.
In “The Promise,” this theme is played out for all its worth. The narrator’s lover, married and with children, is a Catolico cerrado, piously attached to the ways of his faith. Once after a spat, the lovers settle down in their theater seats in sullen silence to watch Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in the wide-screen version of Graham Greene’s torridly divine (and Roman Catholic!) The End of the Affair. Reminiscing, the narrator reflects,
“I was to see it again—in VCD—several years later, when we were no longer together, and I realized if there was a character you might have empathized with it would be Julianne Moore’s. She was very Catholic, and so were you. And she made her decisions based on precepts of her religion. And she loved. So magnificently, so deeply. She sacrificed with her life.”
But as though to condone their sin, the story segues into a refreshingly humane denouement: The wife and her family invite the erstwhile querida to the deceased husband’s funeral practically as his chieftest mourner. Romance triumphs.
However, this happy blend of passion and religion is not the rule in this collection of 13 short stories. Though the book is faithful to its theme of love and passion, there is an astonishing variety of plot and character.
The portraits are unforgettable islands in the relentless stream of narrative. One such memorable instance of portraiture is that of Noemi, the religious fanatic in “Woman of God”. Here, as in “The Promise”, romantic fervor attempts to unite itself with divine love. However, passion in this case is unable to divest itself of its carnal dress. Indeed, Noemi’s religious passion is desire that dresses itself in Pentecostal flame. Desire and cupidity are much too strong for her to ever tame. Mouthing verses from the bible, the unfortunate heroine of this cautionary tale remains a selfish person, irascibly lashing out at sin and sinners, unable to purify her own guilty soul. Beware, dear reader. This searing portrait could mark you for life.
At this point of literary history where fictional and real can bask in each other’s legitimized flame, it is without embarrassment that Maayo’s readers can now articulate their suspicion that her stories are for real and emerge barely edited from actual life.
And by the way, such suspicions pay unconscious tribute to the way this fictionist/realist can get under their skin—because the people in these stories are not just doing sittings. They are living, passionate souls, and (to revise Aristotle) they are the soul of the plot.
But why not a novel? Critics and readers ask this question—indeed, they suggest and often encourage this option. But the people in this collection of stories are too singular, too independent. They will not allow themselves to be shackled by a single story line. To the kind observation that a novel eases the development of theme, one can as easily answer that a theme does emerge from these tales, if subtly, even though the material (to do them credit) stubbornly refuse to toe the line.
And perhaps because the writer’s mode is indeed so quasi-biographical, so culled-from-life, the personal urge to manifest intent cannot be resisted, as notice the narrator/writer of “A Christmas Lunch and Some Issues of Consequence”:
“My writing. Something which most of my friends, to include the so-called friends, found hard to understand. The compulsion to enclose myself, distance myself, break away from the world, and write of the craziness of the men and women of my time.”
A declaration, surely, that one—at least, of intent. But the author hardly ever goes out of herself for message. What for? Story is story is story, and what Geraldine Maayo stands for any day of her life, with the meaning—but of course—to be read between the lines, lines that exude all the human vapors: meaning in the flesh.
When on occasion, the author does get up on the (Ibsenite?) soap-box as in “And All that Stuff” to speak for the self-made women with solid careers, unmarried and proudly childless, she finds the box rickety and gets off it just as soon as she has a quick vision of the terrors the future holds for those who live alone—and the story ends with a subtle cry of anguish—backed up by indomitable fortitude.
A nymphet-like figure haunts the pages of “The Strangers”, but far more self-possessed than Hedda Gabler, and by being refreshingly, achingly beautiful in the act of love, magically dispels the truism that women of independent character are made of stone. The air of enchantment, too, pervades “The House of Mirrors” a tale of sexual initiation that does not lose its charm despite its unabashedly Oedipal material or its paean to non-attachment.
In these absorbing tales of amours, even those who have committed themselves to impossible relationships, licit or illicit, possess a daring all their own. This, I daresay, is Maayo’s theme, and, like that nymphet/mother-goddess figure of “The Strangers” (shades of Holly Golightly!) it is as daring as it is ageless.
I have much less to say of the writing style except to agree with everyone who are drawn to it—and they are legion—that Maayo tells it like it is with uncommon skill, and that we are drawn to her fiction rather like we are drawn to life.
But these “characters” of fiction are full of life and passion—they dare to break codes—there is scarcely a timid soul among them. They are surely more the exception than the rule—and they break rules. And for this we remember them.
The straightforward style of narrative is a convenient illusion. It keeps our guard down, as, stealthily, we are caught in a plot. This could serve as a warning, but it is really more like an invitation.