05 January 2011

Cave and Shadows (Nick Joaquín)

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said ...
- Plato, The Republic

The most mystical Filipino writer is probably Nick Joaquín (1917-2004). In his books characters are seized by visions, the faithless become converts, and the faithful turn into seers. Nick Joaquín was a novelist, poet, dramatist, historian, journalist, and biographer. His significant contribution to Philippine literature in English led to his conferment of the title National Artist for Literature.

He was, as he wrote in his dedication, a "man who has two novels," alluding to his first novel, The Woman Who Had Two Navels. His second novel, Cave and Shadows, dealt with a literal cave and some metaphorical shadows. Yet the reference to Plato's cave was not lost.

From its first surreal sentence ("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.") the novel was propelled by the mysterious death of a girl found in a cave that was practically sealed from the outside. The girl was naked, had no sign of any injury or violation on her body, and a scent of flowers seemed to emanate from her. Was she the same crab-walking girl that Jack saw in the hotel corridor? If yes, why was she haunting him?

Jack Henson, 42, divorced, and an American expatriate living in an island in southern Philippines, was asked by his former wife to get to the bottom of the unexplained death of her daughter, Nenita Coogan, the girl found in the cave. A possible explanation for her death, as "folk memory" would have it, would be the sacrificing of youth at planting time so that the harvest of the fields will be more fruitful and abundant. The sweet-smelling body of a "saint" will appease the gods. But then it could also be a crime of passion. Or some other primal offense. No neat explanation was at hand.

As Henson investigates, Joaquín traced the increasingly surreal and mysterious circumstances surrounding the girl. He came to interview a number of quirky characters that were associated with her while still alive. As the story progressed, the present started to play against the insistent echoes of the distant past. Forgotten incidents were projected onto the pages of history, becoming more and more pronounced as they filled narrative gaps. Amid the reverent themes of religious fanaticism and the search for an authentic native god, Joaquín used the genres of the detective story and historical documentary as creative vehicles for exploring the intersection of various spheres of Philippine life: history, politics, religion, activism, and colonialism.

The main thread of the detective story was alternated with chapters that foregrounded the mythical and superstitious elements of the story. These include: a discourse on the origin of the cult of the cave; a documentary investigation into the rise of the religious figures known as the Hermana, the Beatas, and the cave goddess; and an exposition of events sometime in the 17th century, events that go back to the roots of religion and could rewrite the official history on paper and the articles of faith etched in stone. Yet again, as in Joaquín's short stories and his first novel, readers were privy to a subtle battle of the sexes in the book, wherein a feminist revisionist approach to history was enacted.

Joaquín situated the "present" of the story in August of 1972, a month before the declaration of martial law in the country. This avoidance of an important political turning point in history is significant in terms of Joaquín's deliberate gloss over an event that is still shaping the course of the present. In any case, the novelist did not completely detach himself from the political sphere since major characters in the story are either public officials or have direct connection to people in power. As Henson said in one conversation, "politics is what we have to have instead of love; it's how we arrange for safety and justice in a society where people don't really care much for one another."

The cave in question was subject to previous worship and ritual ceremonies as early as the 16th century before being literally obstructed by the Spanish clergy - it was covered by an embankment twice over. Out of sight, its existence gradually vanished from memory. The obstruction was meant to suppress the practice of pagan rites by the villagers which was threatening to eclipse the Catholic faith that was then being aggressively spread by Spanish colonists. In 1970 the cave was uncovered by an earthquake which brought down the paved scaffold and revealed the gaping entrance. What was once buried from memory was unearthed from memory.

The rediscovery of the cave became a sort of trigger that invaded people's consciousness, eventually excavating folk memories lying in the recesses of the mind. The process was aided by researchers who reconstructed the events in history. At least two versions came out of submerged history: the native and the colonial religious histories and their associated customs.

Culture, Joaquín seemed to be implying, is not forever dormant even if systematically suppressed. It is very like strands of DNA that remain intact even after several millennia. It only takes a blunt force of nature for it to uncoil itself and spread its contagious doctrine.

With the cave once again "in place," it was thus inevitable that the cultural DNA will be resurrected by its modern-day adherents, the neo-pagans. The vestiges of anito - old faith of the forefathers, sticks and stones ready for worship - can survive in the new and can reclaim its once strong foothold in people's hearts and souls. Naturally, in the reorientation of belief systems, there was bound to be a clash of beliefs, an overt war, between introduced Christianity and home-grown paganism. Each of the two sides had proponents who will go to such length as to form new cults and recruit followers to protect the interest of their gods. The all-out war on faith and the unchecked ceremonies of the faithful could turn deceptive, violent, and deadly, as they in fact did. The cave was ordered closed to the public before Nenita Coogan was found dead in it.

I will hazard a guess as to what the cave probably signified in the novel. It may be a stand-in for memory, particularly that of cultural memory. Its reopening allowed paganism, a recessive trait, to be reborn in contemporary times, brought out again to the light for everyone to inhabit and cultivate. It would only take a well-timed stimulus, a natural calamity, or perhaps a demagogue's fiery speech during a demonstration rally, to trigger a crisis of faith. The objective histories told in books and in official documents belied the deep-set motives and desires of the characters. Everyone was capable of compassion; everyone was capable of murder and machination.

The novel was so opaque and tangible that it can harbor many interpretations, many individual readings and tellings, of fortune and literary meanings. As a variation of the Socratic allegory, the philosophy proceeded to its dark conclusions. Along the walls of the cave, the shadows conjured confusion and mystery such that the viewers of these dark images could not distinguish the shadows from the objects that cast them.

The cave became the canvas in which the novelist projected his own portraits of shadows, characters like trapped animals, darkened by their savage capabilities and blinded by their own appetites and desires. Shadows that were like figments of one's susceptible beliefs, readily accepted as rock-hard beliefs, but ultimately hollow and easily ground. They were fooled by perverse forms reality takes, the objects dissolving into their petty projections.

The characters' shadowy attitudes reflect our own inherited failings, our national defects. This is the un-reality we cannot face and yet we must do so to escape it. As the dying words of a female mystic in the novel put it: "All only shadows in a cave ... Oh, fly me outside!"

A note on the prose. Joaquín was a poet and he wrote in beautifully observed sentences ("The kneeling light was also examining the purple thread in their plaid, the curl of bead or shell, the jewelry of white buds in dark hair, the throb of gold in the flesh."). He was one of the best Filipino stylists in the English language. Even with descriptions that were somehow excessive or accessorized with bourgeois accoutrement, he was an original at the level of the sentence. His writing breathed and throbbed in quick flashes, like gold in the flesh.

Review copy courtesy of Anvil Publishing and Honey of Coffeespoons.


  1. I'm saddened by the thought that I have read so few Filipiniana (mostly have read poetry) but have always meant to read Joaquin. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Terrific review, Rise, exactly the kind I most like reading, of a work I'd most likely never otherwise learn about.

  3. Claire, it's never too late, as they say. Joaquin is very worthwhile. I see myself reading a lot from his backlist.

    Scott, you know what to do should a copy land on your desk. :p

  4. Can mystics really exist in our hard-nosed age? Or as the English 17th century mystic Sir T.B. phrases Plato's famous image-

    A Dialogue between two Infants in the womb concerning the state of this world, might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next, whereof methinks we yet discourse in Plato's den, and are but Embryon Philosophers.

  5. Kevin, the babies talking in the womb is a nice rephrasing of the allegory. They are twins perhaps? :D We can only hope that one of them is born to follow in Master Yoda's footsteps. Or better yet, grow into a philosopher-king.