March 4, 2013

The Woman Who Had Two Navels (Nick Joaquín)


The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquín (1961; Bookmark, 1991)


Over damp Hong Kong the day dawned drizzling, astonishing with sunshine the first passengers huddled inside the ferries, luring them out on deck to spread cold fingers in the blond air and to smile excitedly (that night was full moon of the Chinese New Year) at the great rock city coming up across the black water, rising so fat and spongy in the splashing light the waterfront's belt of buildings looked like a cake, with alleys cutting deep into the icing and hordes of rickshaws vanishing like ants between the slices.

The postwar Hong Kong setting of Nick Joaquín's first novel was significant in at least one respect. It highlighted the exiled condition of its Filipino characters, exile of the physical and spiritual kind. The Monson family—the elder Doctor Monson and his sons Doctor Pepe Monson and Father Tony Monson—had been living in Hong Kong for the better part or the whole of their lives. The elder Monson was veteran of the turn of the century wars against Spanish and American colonial armies. It was also to Hong Kong where General Emilio Aguinaldo (first president of the Philippine Republic), whose image adorned the younger doctor's clinic, went into a short-lived voluntary exile after a political settlement with the Spanish government. It had been Monson's dream to come back to the country only when "it was a free country again", which he finally did after the second world war. What he had seen when he came back to Manila, however, had so disappointed him it dashed the idyllic images of the country he harbored in his mind.

Also fleeing to Hong Kong was Connie Escobar, the woman who thought she has two navels. Whereas the elder Monson was haunted by the specter of the past and the shame of discovering its impermanence, a different kind of shame, anatomical in nature, was haunting Connie Escobar. She ran away from Manila, presumably to flee her husband and to seek out Doctor Pepe Monson. She wanted to undergo an operation, "something surgical", that would remove one of the two orifices that supposedly peered from her belly like eyes. Her complaint may be psychological yet it clearly had something metaphorical about it. It seemed like a product of her sensitivity and a trauma from childhood, a projection of her repressed anxieties. The same physical deformity marked a "defaced" statue of the Biliken, a "toy" grudgingly given to her by her parents when she was a child. Although meant as a good luck charm, owing to its perpetually smiling face, there was something sinister associated with the Biliken in the novel—"an old fat god, with sagging udders, bald and huge-eared and squatting like a buddha; and the sly look in its eyes was repeated by the two navels that winked from its gross belly".


BILLIKEN STATUE


Connie's "imagined" condition could also be caused by emotional rebellion. She felt betrayed by her husband (Macho Escobar) and mother (Concha Vidal) when she learned that they were former lovers. She was so affected by this that it may have triggered a kind of internal division in her, a branching of consciousness that manifested itself on her body. Those around her, those she told of it, denied the possible existence of an extra navel, almost taking her for a madwoman. The symbol of the two navels, the aberration it signifies, was so rich with implications that unraveling it almost made for a mystery story, although to call the novel a horror story was not farfetched either.

Another character seemingly in search of direction was Paco Texeira, a married band vocalist living in Hong Kong. Paco, a Filipino-Portuguese, went to work for a while in Manila's entertainment clubs and became entangled with Concha Vidal (La Vidal), Connie's mother. He became her constant escort, accompanying her in various parties and functions. Paco also got involved with Connie but he had to flee the two women as he detected a kind of evil force around them.

"They're both agents of the devil—she and her mother. They work as a team: the mother catches you and plays with you until you're a bloody rag; then she feeds you over to her daughter.... They work for each other. Whenever I was with one of them I could feel the other watching greedily. They share each other's pleasure, watching you twitch. And when they've screwed you up to the breaking point the daughter springs her abominable revelation [of having two navels]—and you go mad and run amuck. And there's one more soul that's damned."

Connie's mother was also in Hong Kong, presumably on business. The two women were actually pursuing Paco. To add to the complication, Macho Escobar arrived looking for his wife. These characters were all exiles of a spiritual kind, imprisoned by their desires and baffled by their pride.

Connie's characterization, with her unstable mental condition, was already a far cry from that of Maria Clara in José Rizal's nationalist novel Noli Me Tangere (1887). The latter had always been seen as the representation of the ideal Filipina and symbol of the 'motherland'. Maria Clara turned out to be an illegitimate child of a villainous Spanish priest (Padre Damaso), a secret which when she discovered brought her unimaginable shame. The source of Connie's shame, for her part, was seeing her own self as a freak of nature.

An obvious meaning of the two navels was Connie's inheritance of a dual identity, her being a child of two worlds, of Spanish and American cultures. Her cultural environment, wracked by a recent war, created in her soul a kind of hybrid self. It may be too transparent a metaphor: the Filipino identity being frayed twice by conquistadors during bloody conflicts and colonial administrations, native culture hostage to two cultural axes. Punctuating these cultural crises were the major wars (the Philippine Revolution against Spain, the Philippine-American War, and World War II against the Japanese) which left destruction in their wakes: the savaging of lives, landscapes, and, again, identities.

This transparent reading of the Joaquín's inquiry into Filipino identity was complicated by the clash of the male and female. The dramatic battle of the sexes that figured in the novelist's other works of fiction was here played out in its full barbaric sensuality. And Joaquín being Joaquín, the writing was a celebration of existence. His sentences were acute expressions of beauty, horror, and vitality.

From the ramparts where the Spaniards had watched for Chinese pirate and English buccaneer, the younger taller city beyond the walls seemed rimmed with flame, belted with fire, cupped in a conflagration, for a wind was sweeping the avenue of flametrees below, and the massed treetops, crimson in the hot light, moved in the wind like a track of fire, the red flowers falling so thickly like coals the street itself seemed to be burning.

The prose was rich with color and details; reading it sometimes felt like watching a fashion show. The Vidal mother and daughter strutted their clothes, hats, pearls, and furs like ramp models. Even the description of postwar destruction had a surreal energy about it.

Macho had suddenly packed up one day and flown off to Manila; not really caring to see the city again or anyone there; not really moved when he saw it, flat and spiky, its bared ribs and twisted limbs a graph of pain in the air; not really astonished even by its vivacity—traffic brimming between the banks of rubble; daylong blocklong queues at the movie houses; the ruins noisy with night clubs; and, on his third night there, like a nightmare's climax, a glittering fashion show in the bullet-pocked ballroom of a gutted hotel, where Macho, turning away from the sequins and diamonds, the shattered ceiling and the bloodstained floor, had so abruptly come face to face with Concha Vidal ...[H]e had suddenly and sharply and exultantly known, with the old ache in the marrow and a blaze of flametrees in the mind, that he had never stopped wanting, he had never stopped desiring this woman.

The imagery that lighted the novel's hallways was determined by poetry. But it was a fixed form poetry, as the repetitions of details were deliberate, creating the patterning effect of an elaborate tapestry. The symmetric structure of repetition was like that of a villanelle's, with the images repeated like a refrain after several lines.

Consider a flashback scene near the novel's end, in the final chapter titled "DOCTOR MONSON". (The penultimate chapter was called "THE CHINESE MOON", the double letter O's in these titles almost concretized the presence of the two navels).

Behind him now, like smoky flames in the noon sun, the whole beautiful beloved city, the city that he guarded even now, here on this mountain pass, and for which he had come so far away to die—to the edge of the land, into the wilderness, up the cold soggy mountains of the north—and he told himself that, finally, one discovered that one had been fighting, not for a flag or a people, but for just one town, one street, one house; for the sound of a canal in the morning, the look of some roofs in the noon sun, and the fragrance of a certain evening flower.

He told himself that, finally, one found oneself willing to die, not for a great public future, but a small private past; and he picked up his pistol, having finished eating, and crawled back to the cliff's edge.

The elder Monson was here on his deathbed dreaming retrospectively of his participation as a young fighter in the decisive battle in the mountain of Tirad Pass, the last stand of Filipino fighters against Americans. It was an inspired juxtaposition of his imagined death years ago in the battlefield with that of his actual dying in old age. The same images were repeated later in the novel, a kind of closure for the old man as he finally defined his once conflicted nationalism.

Opening his eyes he saw, not the stars or pine branches, but the canopy of a bed and the faces of his two sons hovering over him; seeing suddenly in their faces all the years of foreign wandering, the years of exile, but knowing suddenly now that the exile had, after all, been more than a vain gesture, that his task had not ended with that other death in the pinewoods, that he had stood on guard, all these years, as on the mountain pass, while something precious was carried to safety. For there it was now in the faces of his sons—the mountain pass, and the pinewoods, and the shapes of the men who had died there. There it was now in their faces—the Revolution and the Republic, and that small private past for which he had come so far away to die. It had not been lost ... [T]here was no need to cross the sea to find it. Here it was before him (and he strove to rise to salute it) in the faces of his sons. He had saved it and it was now in the present, and the hovering faces brightened and blurred about him, became the sound of a canal in the morning, the look of some roofs in the noon sun, and the fragrance of a certain evening flower. Here he was, home at last ... and before him, like smoky flames in the sunset, the whole beautiful beloved city.

Nationalism was here depicted as a homage to one's "small private past" and testified by Monson's two sons who will carry on after his death, even if they remain as exiles in Hong Kong. (Contrast the same battle of Tirad Pass in the closing scene of F. Sionil José's nationalist novel Dusk wherein nationalism was proffered as an inborn "duty".) This scene was a form of making peace with the past, the kind of closure that eluded Connie Escobar. In one of her imagined death scenes, she was arguing with her father, Manolo Vidal, about acceptance and letting go of the past. Her father's advice hinted at looking back at their lives with a critical eye, repairing the generational break, the severed connections:

"If you must go down, go down raging. Do not lose that ability, like I did. Take things hard, make a fuss, and refuse to accept what we are—no not even now. Rage, rage against us—even now!"

The reference here was to the poem by Dylan Thomas, with "Do not lose that ability" paralleling "Do not go gentle into that good night". The poem was in fact a villanelle constantly echoing the famous passage about raging against darkness and stagnant death.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

...

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The poem's subject was the poet's dying father. Joaquín's paraphrase was relevant as the poem's theme contextualized his discourse on memory and nationalism. In addition to the borrowing of novelistic structure of repetition, it anticipated the death scene of old doctor Monson and illuminated the meaning of Connie's (four) death scenes. Four times, the poet urged his father about why he must rage against the dying light, must not go gently with the good night. In the particular hallucinatory scene in the novel, the roles were reversed. Connie was with her father on an airplane ("there on the sad height", as in the poem; atop Mount Tirad as in the case of old Monson). Manolo was appealing to her to finally face the specter haunting her and embrace her destiny, her identity, whatever she may have thought of it. Present reality check as key to affirming life, to attaining rebirth and regeneration.

In The Woman Who Had Two Navels, as with his only other novel (Cave and Shadows) which appeared more than 20 years later, Joaquín abstracted his ideas on memory and identity and played the devil's advocate on the subject of nationalism. He was ever the sly novelist and consummate prose writer.

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