Sunday, October 30, 2016

Nick Joaquin, Cave and Shadows; and May Day Eve and Other Stories


Opening Passage: From Cave and Shadows:

The vision -- a crab on a string being walked by a naked girl -- occurred in deep hotel-corridor twilight and moreover when he, Jack Henson, was feeling himself in a swoon.

It was after breakfast.

Summary: Everyone is hiding something. In Cave and Shadows, Jack Henson is back in Manila after years in Davao, because a girl, obsessed with discovering the true self everyone hides, was found mysteriously dead in a cave that had been locked up; the girl, Nenita Coogan, had been the daughter of Jack's wife, who had left him to run away with a Jesuit priest. Jack reconnects with his roots, but also finds himself enmeshed in an interlocking set of mysteries with ramifications for what the true self of Philippine culture itself is.

There are enough layers to this work, short though it is, that I can do no more than touch on a few points with regard to it. One thing that seems to be important is a matter Joaquin handles very subtly, namely, how accurate Nenita Coogan actually is. She is obsessed with the notion that people often have a real self that they are hiding, and that you just need to strip off the mask to find it. But I think Joaquin paints a subtler picture of human psyche -- Nenita Coogan is right that much of what people present to the world is a veil to hide something else. But the relation between the veil and the hidden is not necessarily a relation between the false and the true, because recognizing one's true self is not something you can get simply from stripping off outer layers -- there is a context that needs to be considered. We see this with Nenita's own father. Nenita thinks that under this mask of being an ordinary salesman her father's real self is the priest. But, of course, this doesn't actually mean that he isn't a salesman -- as if he's just living a lie. In fact, while there is , a perfectly good sense in which he is really a priest, he is in fact a priest who betrayed his vocation and ran off with another man's wife, and the life that he has built given that is as much part of who he is as his priesthood. Our self is in layers, yes, but this doesn't mean all the outer layers are just masks that can be taken off; Nenita keeps trying to take off a mask and (so to speak) keeps tearing up skin with it.

This serves as a kind of symbol for a larger concern throughout the work, namely, the relation between the colonial Catholic Philippines and the pagan Philippines. It is easy to read the work and get the impression that it is suggesting the view (which Joaquin notes in essays was coming in the Philippines in the 1970s and 80s) that the former is a kind of mask covering the latter, and that the latter is only waiting for its time to reassert itself as the True Philippines. This is certainly the view of a number of the characters. But the fact that Catholic Conversion did not erase the pagan Philippines does not mean that it is merely a veneer, a mask, an artificial covering over the latter. Try to tear off the Catholic 'mask' and you tear up significant parts of the Filipino identity. And it's notable that, apart from perhaps the pagan priestess, the Ginoong Ina herself, the pagans in the novel are pretty clearly posturing as much as any of the Catholics are.

While a number of characters dream of the pagan uprising that overthrows the Catholic falsehood, none of them manages to make this in itself sound very attractive, and I don't think this is accidental. What's actually happening is that they are leaching off a different, and more powerful, kind of dream. Throughout the book, Joaquin gives us the fairy tales and folklore underlying the cave, expressing the layers and layers of meanings involved with it (and thus the layers and layers of meaning in Filipino life itself). And the dream that endures through all these layers of legend is subtly different. It is not of the pagan Philippines arising and simply throwing out the Catholic Philippines. It is of the Catholic Philippines falling in love with the pagan Philippines and joining with it against colonization. The legend is not merely of a pagan priestess rising up against the Spanish. It is of her rising up and, at her side, the Archbishop of Manila riding in revolt with her. It is easy to put the 'Catholic' on the side of colonizer; but the whole point of the Conversion is that at least some of the 'Catholic' started being on the side of the colonized, too. Simply tearing out that part can hardly be made attractive, however much people might talk about it in the abstract. But the idea that there might be a real self to the Philippines that unites the pagan and the Catholic in truth against the lie of the colonizer and oppressor (even if the colonizer and oppressor is also Catholic) is one that has considerably more seductive power, and one which resonates through the folkloric identity of the cave and of the Philippines as Joaquin presents it here.

There is room to think that Joaquin is skeptical even of this dream -- the recurring cycles of priestess and Archbishop in the folktales presented are always cycles of failure, so that the dream is more one of hope (or fear, depending on your stance) springing eternal than of anything feasible. But the cave in the novel stands as a sort of rebuke against both those who want to strip things down to their pagan 'reality' and those who want to pretend that pagan aspect isn't there at all. Conversion, after all, is not elimination, nor is it merely a mask that can be removed at will.

There are other themes that I thought were interesting throughout. One that I thought was interesting, but would need more time to think about, was the picture of modernity that Joaquin presents in the novel. There's a comment in Part Four that I thought particularly interesting: "The Hermana was being quite modern, we see now, in trying to live a godly life as if, or even if, there were no God." This notion of modernity as the state of everyone -- not just the secular-minded, since the Hermana is no such thing, but everyone -- trying to live a godly life as if, or even if, there were no God, as well as the confusions and corruptions it necessarily causes, runs throughout the work.

May Day Eve and Other Stories is a collection of five of Joaquin's short tales. All of them were excellent.

* "Three Generations" looks at the cycle of rebellion from generation to generation. The path of rebellion against one's father is the easiest thing -- but it is both self-defeating, since it leads to that against which one rebels, and destructive.

* "Doña Jerónima" -- which actually gets mentioned in passing in Cave and Shadows, and has some themes in common with it -- tells the story of an Archbishop of Manila and his relationship to a woman recluse.

* "The Legend of the Dying Wanton", which I like the best, is an invisible miracle story -- it story trades on the twist of a miracle no one knows about because no one knows the full story.

* "May Day Eve", among other things, is about missed opportunity and failed communication.

* "Guardia de Honor" is a very clever time travel story. It's successful, I think, because of the power of one of its core ideas, which is that choices may take into account the past and the future, but choices themselves take place, in a sense, in an eternal now.

Favorite Passage: From Cave and Shadows:

He scaled the cliff, grabbing at root and tuft, and hoisted himself over the edge. Before him was the bamboo grove that encased the chapel; down the slope slept the village. Behind him, across the road below, was the apron of park overlooking the bank of the cave and the curve of the river. Overhead arched a gloom thinly grained with stars.

Not a stir of breeze on the hilltop, yet the air throbbed as if heat were indeed waves. Casting no shadow, himself a shadow, Jack slunk towards the sacred wood, the dark chapel. (p. 98)

The first sentence of "Doña Jerónima", whose length can only be deliberate:

In the days of the galleons, a certain Archbishop of Manila was called to a council in Mexico but on the way there fell in with the pirates who seized his ship, looted the holds, slew the crew, and were stringing up the Archbishop to a mast when a sudden storm ripped up and wrecked both pirate craft and Philippine galleon, drowning all that were on board, save only the Archbishop, who, being bound to the cross of the mast, was borne safely over the wrath of the waters and thus reached the shores of a desert isle, a dry isle that was but a tip of reef in the sea, where, for a burning year, he lived on fish and prayer, on rain water and meditation, crouched day and night in deep thought at the foot of the cross of the mast he had set up on the shore, all alone in that waste of ocean, until a passing ship, mystified by a reflection as of a giant cross shining in the air, tracked the mirage to the horizon and came upon the desert isle, and upon the cross of mast planted on the shore, and upon the bowed, mute, shriveled old man squatting motionless and cross-legged there, stark naked and half-blind and burned black as coal, all his hair turned white and his white beard trailing down to his navel, and hardly able to stand or move or speak or grasp, in which dismal condition he was carried back to his city, arriving there some two years after he had left in glory, having departed a fine blaze of a man, handsome and vigorous, and bidden farewell by all the city to a tumult of bells, banners, fireworks and music, and returning now in decay, terribly altered, terribly aged, mere skin and bone and wild eye, but still amid bells, banners, fireworks, music, and the tumult of the city, for news of his rescue had preceded him, the marvel of his sojourn on the island had grown into legend in the retelling, and he himself had become such a figure of miracle--the man twice saved by the Sign of the Cross; and fed on the desert isle, 'twas said, by ravens, like Elijah, and with manna from heaven, like the Israelites--that the folk who poured forth to welcome him dropped to their knees with a shudder as he was borne past, a frail wraith that, however, had power to stun the eye and seize the soul, that would, indeed, in those days, possess the popular mind, every travelling bard having but this one ballad to sing, and no print hawked at the fairs but carried the Archbishop's picture and a relation of his adventures, by which diverse manners the fame of him spread as a holy man on whom God had showered such mystical favours that when the Archbishop at last emerged from a long convalescence, firmer in fabric but never again to be in his prime, it was to find himself being revered in the land as a saint.

Recommendation: Recommended all around.

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