UPON coming home from Cebu, one of the things that delighted me was getting my Europa Editions copy of Reine Arcache Melvin's first novel, The Betrayed. Melvin is a Filipino American author whose works focus on the Philippines and the lives of Filipinos both at home and abroad. Her short story collection, A Normal Life and Other Stories, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1999. The Betrayed is her first novel. The Ateneo de Manila University Press published the novel's Philippine edition two years ago.
The Betrayed tells the story of two sisters who love the same man. As dictatorship and political upheaval ravage the Philippines, the sisters' conflicting passions threaten to lead them to betray not only each other, but all that their father stood for.
Shy, idealistic Pilar initially resolves to carry on her father's fight against the regime, while her flamboyant older sister Lali reacts by marrying the enemy — Arturo, the dictator's godson. Each tries to find their place in this violent world, but can they withstand the corruption of politics and the relentless pull of their own desires? Taking in the Philippines' troubled history from the Marcos dictatorship to the establishment of the current autocratic regime, and expertly layering into this timely story many aspects of the human condition, The Betrayed is a complex and luminous novel.
Columnist Jessica Zafra said: "Melvin's beautiful, sensual, visceral writing shows us that the past is not really a foreign country, but our own country in eternal loop." Zafra herself has published her first novel, the smart and snarky The Age of Umbrage published by the Ateneo Press, which also published Zafra's bestselling Collected Stories.
Writer Angelo Lacuesta also noted that the novel is "highly readable and enjoyable. It compellingly contains, in its confident tone and language, a powerful mosaic of images, characters and relationships." Aside from writing prize-winning short stories, Lacuesta recently launched his first novel, Joy, under the imprint of Penguin Random House Southeast Asia.
Joy follows the life of Ariston Letrero, who is a renaissance man, audio producer, insurance salesman, musician, composer, part-time fast food mascot and an adulterer who quickly and quietly abandons his wife and son, Lucas, at the peak of his career for a new life in America with his lover, Odette.
Years later, he sends an email to his son, Lucas, an advertising man who has been brought up on super robot cartoons, Catholic-school truisms, and a diet of fast food and loneliness. Lucas himself has reconnected with his childhood sweetheart, Dedes, who has made a post-annulment life for herself in America.
In the 30-odd years in between is a story that sings songs and anthems of identity, relationships and loss, and how they figure in the lives of contemporary Filipinos scattered across space and time, but who are also connected and separated at the same time.
Complex and colorful, written with dash and style, Joy is a story of lives fragmented, separated, gathered, made virtual and finally made real.
Candy Gourlay, who was a journalist based in Manila and now lives in London, is another novelist helping push the boom in the Philippine novel.
Ateneo-educated Gourlay's novel, Bone Talk (play of words with Bontoc) is set in the northern woodlands at the dawn of American colonization in 1899. It was originally published by David Ficking Books in London, which had also published Gourlay's novels, Tall Story and Shine.
Samkad lives in a tribe in the jungle and has never encountered anyone from outside his tribe before. He's about to become a man, and while he's desperate to grow up, he's worried that this will take him away from his best friend, Little Luki. A strange man with white skin arrives in his village and Samkad discovers Kinyo, the brother (a mirror image) he never knew he had. This brother tells about the "Americans" who are bringing war to Samkad's homeland. The world, as Samkad knows it, is about to change.
Bone Talk has reaped the awards it richly deserves. It has received rapturous reviews and has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Costa Book Award. The Costa Book Award judges called it "a powerful, complex and fascinating coming-of-age novel." I first read the novel on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Manila before the Covid-19 pandemic and was taken by its nifty narrative and well-drawn characters. It takes jabs at the American colonial enterprise and correctly touches the pulse upon which colonialism throbs.
The boom in the Latin American novel came when many excellent novels from that continent began to be published. Interest has now shifted to Asia, and my bet is that South Korean and Filipino novelists will be the next stars in the literary firmament.
Email: danton.remoto @manilatimes.net
Twitter: Danton Remoto