05 October 2013

Manila Noir

Manila Noir, edited by Jessica Hagedorn (Akashic Books, 2013; Anvil, 2013)

"I like to think of Manila as a woman of mystery, the ultimate femme fatale. Sexy, complicated, and tainted by a dark and painful past, she's not to be trusted." In her introduction to Manila Noir, a collection of stories, Jessica Hagedorn found a convenient metaphor for the nation's capital. The "dark and painful past" she referred to was that of years of colonialism and foreign occupation and the attendant cultural, political, social, and economic degradation. It is easy to reject this kind of metaphors for its tendency to oversimplify history; for any one metaphor, another one can be proposed and there really is no lack of them in novels set in Manila. The stories in Manila Noir seemed to skirt around this simplification. Although an argument could be made for the existence of femme fatale characters in certain stories ("The Professor's Wife" by Jose Dalisay, "A Human Right" by Rosario Cruz-Lucero, "Desire" by Marianne Villanueva), an argument could also be made for their rejection of traditional portrayal of a cosmopolitan femme fatale. The female characters in these stories were not originally from Manila, their dark past obtaining from outside the metropolis, in the countryside, and the city was there to offer them refuge and freedom from the "narrowing" provincial confines. In some stories, the city marked the end of their journey, the consummation of erotic fantasies, sexual desires, sincere acts of murder.

There was enough material here to subvert Hagedorn's conception of Manila as femme fatale. The theoretical schools would have ample time to interpret some stories using feminist, post-colonial, and queer theories. In "Comforter of the Afflicted" by F. H. Batacan, a Jesuit priest – the same lead as in the writer's previous crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles – investigates the murder of a woman who not only had her own shadowy past but was also entangled in the lives of other women running away from the past. The deconstruction of the motive to a murder of another woman was at the center of "Darling, You Can Count on Me" by Eric Gamalinda. It was based on the actual infamous murder of Lucila Lalu in 1967, a case that gripped the imagination of the nation for the unbelievable twists and turns in the story. The story was a version of truth no less bizaare than reality but no less truthful than the poetry of its precise telling. Gamalinda is a very fine writer.

Her neck is long and white, and her laughter gurgles out warm and rippling like water, like she's choking on her own laughter. He drops the knife. He inches closer to her, closer to the source of that mysterious sound.


He slips her shoe off and takes her foot in his hand, the way the prince did with Cinderella. He tells her it feels like he's taking a rose, small and delicate, in his hand, and if he catches her with another boy again he's going to snap that foot off, like a flower.

The weight of history was not a burden but an opportunity for playful exploration of alternative histories, alternate realities, and alternating correspondences in "The Unintended" by Gina Apostol. It was a brilliant story framed by different types of translation, also featuring the characters Magsalin and Estrella Espejo, two of the feisty annotators of Apostol's heavily footnoted novel The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. The preponderance of film references provides the writer with the materials to question the authenticity of these films in the language department (how certain subtitled dialogues were conveyed in a language different from what it was supposed to be). The film as a translation medium was still part of the running theme.

The Unintended is a hypothetical unfinished movie about 1901 wartime massacre in Samar Island. It can also be a reference to "the Intended", Kurtz's mourning fiancee in the signature novel of colonialism Heart of Darkness. The movie was a companion to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, a modern adaptation of the Conrad novella about the Vietnam War which was filmed on location in Philippines. (With the presence in the story of the fictional film director's daughter, the real film-false film correspondence can be extended to the real director's real daughter Sofia Coppola directing Lost in Translation. The translation/adaptation angle was further refracted by the story's setting of Ali Mall, the site that became a commemorative place of Muhammad Ali's successful heavyweight title fight against Joe Frazier in 1975.) The investigation of history was very like a movie.

I think we are stuck in someone's movie, and the director is still laying out his scraps of script, trying to figure out his ending. He does not have an ending. Everything around him has the possibility of becoming part of his mystery plot—his lost love for his wife, that fly over there licking the sugar on the bun, the clown in the corner playing with a knife, a moment in a mirror store in New York when he sees himself replicated through his camera lens in all the mirrors except he cannot see his eyes, the unanswered questions about a writer's death, the unanswered questions about a country's war, that schoolboy carefully folding a white shirt and tucking it neatly into a paper bag, a heart attack he has in 1977 when his movie is still not done, when it has a beginning and an ending but no idea, and twelve hundred feet of unedited stock, with takes, retakes, and other duplications. That is what we are: twelve hundred feet of unedited stock, doing things over and over, and we are waiting for the cut. But who is the director? What is our wait for? I would like to make a movie in which the spectator understands that she is in a work of someone else's construction and yet as she watches she is devising her own translations for the movie in which she in fact exists.

Apostol is a Borgesian writer. Her ideas about the Argentine writer's politics of postcolonialism and postnationalism are evident in this intertextual and metafictional story.

Perhaps a throwback to Hagedorn's femme fatale idea was the prominence of queer figures in stories such as R. Zamora Linmark's "Cariño Brutal", Jessica Hagedorn's "Old Money", Eric Gamalinda's "Darling, You Can Count on Me", and Jonas Vitman's "Norma from Norman". In the first and last of these stories, the homosexuals dealt with violence inflicted against their humanity. They resisted and, in Vitman's story, even went so far as to fight back, with a thorough and calculated vengeance.
Manila Noir was a collection meant to explore the untold mystery and criminal side of Manila while showcasing the best contemporary Philippine writing. Not all stories succeed. Lysley Tenorio's "Aviary" was an unconvincing adventure of street children fighting against the discriminatory attitude of an elite shopping mall. The story, told in a collective first person "we", had the children speak in a sophisticated language not fit to their age and status. Lourd de Veyra's "Satan Has Already Bought U" was an amusing take on a drug transaction gone wrong, reminiscent of the dialogues-only exposition in Hemingway's "The Killers", but was ultimately just that – amusing. Even the graphic installment of Trese by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo felt a bit stale in the storytelling department although some panels by Kajo were really so freaky, in a cool way. 

Surrealist imagery and language were the strength of stories like "Broken Glass" by Sabina Murray, a tension-filled story about an unlikely death committed in the grounds of a rich household, and "After Midnight" by Angelo R. Lacuesta, about a simple accident told in a distinctive language. (I liked the latter so much I went to buy Lacuesta's story collection, White Elephants.) Language-driven stories like these, like the stories by Apostol, Zamora Linmark, and Gamalinda, were thankfully not immersed in the ghostwritten words of the past. The best stories had moved on, wearing the fresh language and idioms of the present. They unfolded, as in Gamalinda's words, in a transparent dream.

She closes her eyes and imagines it. Through this maze of dilapidated alleys and dead ends, there's nothing but long stretches of desolate highways, cities teeming with anonymous faces, restrooms that stink like a sewer, motels full of bugs where the walls still throb with love's sticky whispers, and always a lot of stations where people come and go. She wonders if he can see it too. Of course he can. Everything is transparent in a dream.


  1. I thought about buying this book. Still thinking. I have lived in Manila area for a long time and I do not find the femme fatale metaphor real illuminating. I enjoyed your excellent post.

  2. Thanks, mel. The good stories outnumber the not-so-good for me. And there's variety in the subject matter and point of view.

  3. Hi, Rise! FFP is discussing this book next year, so I think I'll have to wait a few weeks before I read it.

    I love noir, be it a theme in a movie or book. And I think Manila is the perfect setting for anything noir-ish. I'd say it's about time we have this book! And my friend told me that this book is selling quite fast.

  4. Peter, my guess is that a lot of buyers of the book were attracted to the Trese episode. That certainly clinched the decision for me to get a copy.

  5. But does the anthology not fall into the exoticization of the national capital in consideration for an intended western readership?

  6. Hard for me to say. When I read the editor's intro it felt like that. But "exoticization" is such a loaded word I don't even know how to properly recognize it. Some stories seem exoticized but not entirely in a bad way (e.g., stories by Cruz-Lucero and Apostol), and some just don't work for me it hardly mattered whether they're exoticized or not.