"The Woman in the Box", the title of the first chapter of the second novel by Filipino writer Jose Dalisay, recounts the story of Aurora Cabahug's journey as a corpse in a casket from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to her home country. Aurora was one of millions of Filipino workers scattered all over the world who left the Philippines in droves in order to bring home the dollar, or riyal or whatever currency can fill empty pockets. Lacking sufficient source of income at home, they were swayed into working day jobs abroad to earn enough for a few years and then come home to live the Filipino dream. There's a profession for every determined person.
These were the maids, cooks, drivers, dancers, plumbers, draftsmen, welders, able-bodied seamen, and other purveyors of sundry services and trades who had left their kitchens, pigsties, classrooms, fruit stands, videoke bars, shoe factories, and vulcanizing shops in search of better jobs—in roiling sea and burning sand, from Singapore to Stockholm, London to Lagos, Riyadh to Reykjavik, in backstreet bar and oil rig, in nursing home and cannery, in wave after leaping wave across all the seas and oceans that ringed their island.
In exchange for financial gain, they had to make the sacrifice of leaving their children, spouses, parents, siblings, and friends. They had to brave the discrimination and abuses that some intolerant foreigners heap on them. Sometimes Filipino women who were taken in as domestic helpers were maltreated by their employers. Along with hard-earned dollars, some were unlucky enough to also earn bruises, scratches, and marks of flat iron on their back. Some had to escape their place of work and run to the Philippine embassy to report the physical assault and torture they suffered under their cruel employers. One also hears of news reports of a Filipina leaping from a high building in order to escape male employers who were about to rape them.
The government, instead of creating attractive jobs at home, was complicit in this diaspora. Grateful for the cash that their Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) bring home, the government hailed them as bagong bayani (modern-day heroes). Their sacrifices and martyrdom were a big factor in bolstering the economy. Those who were hardworking and lucky managed to come home moneyed and triumphant. But some 600 of them—the likes of Aurora Cabahug who was dead from a mysterious drowning and Filemon Catabay who was beheaded for some reason—yearly arrived in Ninoy Aquino International Airport in boxes, sealed tight and properly tagged with names and other identifying information.
Soledad's Sister is a darkly comic novel of Aurora's premature homecoming. The tragedy is not lightened by the frankness of the telling but the comedy is so potent it brings silent chuckles with its prose alive with brilliant asides, snides, and scathing ironies.
And so it happened that a family of seven had come all the way in a jeepney from Lingayen to meet and to claim the two segments of Filemon Catabay, who had been executed three months earlier. They had learned of his death the way many others did—after it happened, from a routine news report on DZXL, between an involved discussion of a movie star's rumored abortion and a commercial for a new and more potent livestock dewormer. The man's mother was gutting fish when her grandson ran in with the news; the fish she was holding trembled in her hand and then leapt out altogether in a final spasm, as though it had come back to life.
It was a case of corpse switching. It was a mistake, like every mistake and quirk of fate that materialized in the rest of the novel's trajectory. The body in the box was that of Aurora's, not Filemon's. The cause was a switching of the documents in the hands of an inconsiderate and vengeful vice-consul.
Dalisay used an irreverent omniscient narrator so powerful that he (the narrator) had recourse to every detail from what's being reported in radios to what the fish did after its last moments on earth. The seamless enjambment of scenes delineates the fickle narrator's switching from one detail to another. The narrator did not lack for things to say about certain characters introduced in the novel. In fact, new characters are still introduced even until late in the game. The narrator was without let up in describing things and people and their background and their circumstances in life. At the same time, he seems to be the harbinger of the fateful happenings in the story. Just like what the real Aurora, Soledad's sister, observed:
Who knows why people do what they do? Every day we do things we ourselves don't understand, although they seemed to make sense when we did them. Why is that? Can you tell me?
Who knows why novelists do what they do? The narrator will not tell but he sure will describe every nook and cranny of whatever, whatnot, anything his mind alights on. The rest of the novel's plot ambled along according to this principle of random-like addition of story elements. But instead of swiftly panning from one area of interest to another, the narrative started to linger longer on every character. This had the effect of killing the steam of the story. The pace rather flagged in the end such that the masterful, darkly comic start devolved into a solemn exercise in writing descriptive passages. It became a bit monotonous when its embrace of its initial conceptual framework began to loosen.
Nevertheless, Dalisay consistently cultivated at the heart of his tale a paradox as universal as it is inscrutable. Something to do with a person's pining for and expectation of something right, something better, something that will improve her station in life. When the overseas worker is far from home, there is no contingency for which she is ever prepared for. Her loved ones, for their part, are no less ready for any externality. Just like that.
Soledad's Sister is in the shortlist of the 2007 inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize.