15 December 2018

Rosario de Guzman Lingat's stories of women and desire

The Locked Door and Other Stories by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, translated from Tagalog by Soledad S. Reyes (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2017)

For years translator Soledad S. Reyes had been curating the literary production of Rosario de Guzman Lingat (1924-1997): three novels translated into English, numerous essays on the writer, a critical biography, and critical editions of novels and anthologies of stories in Tagalog. Her latest contribution was a selection and translation of stories from Lingat's prodigious body of work. In her introduction to her translation, Reyes said that "the role played by the female protagonist" was her overriding criterion in assembling the anthology. At the height of her literary powers, Lingat was suddenly afflicted by the "Bartleby syndrome", a sickness of writers first described in Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas. She just stopped writing and became a full time housewife.

Lingat's career flowered in the 1960s and 1970s, but even at the height of her popularity, this lovely and highly accomplished woman remained shy and reticent, toiled hard at her stories in between chores as a mother and wife. Indeed, she had no room of her own into which she could withdraw to perfect her craft. Instead, she savored the few precious moments when, having done the cooking and the laundry and having tucked the children in bed, she could be by herself and lose herself in her inner world. She abruptly turned her back on her writing career when she felt that she was no longer getting the professional respect that she deserved.

Reyes's resuscitation of interest into the works of Lingat was commendable. In 2013 alone she came out with translations of three major novels of the writer: The Cloak of God, The Death of Summer, and What Now, Ricky? The present collection of 16 short stories was culled from two anthologies: Si Juan Beterano at Iba Pang Kuwento (1996) and Sa Bukangliwayway ng Isang Kalayaan at Iba Pang Kuwento (2003).

The female protagonists in The Locked Door and Other Stories were either harboring a secret or trying to uncover one. They were either victims of a crime or a witness to one. The stories began calmly but atmospherically, progressing in a silent arc, and terminating in an epiphany, a surprise revelation, or a cathartic ending. In "Estero", for example, a perfect setting was chosen to dramatize a woman's sexual awakening.

To get to their house, she had to cross a wooden bridge that spanned the foul-smelling estero, with its fetid, black, thick water swarming with mosquitoes and other ugly denizens skittering on the surface and plunging into the murky depth. She would cover her nose with a handkerchief as she passed the bridge, enough to bring on the rude catcalls and taunts from the good-for-nothing habitués who, like the mosquitoes and other slimy creatures inhabiting the estero, had entwined themselves around the edges and on the planks of the bridge.

That was such an efficient paragraph to start a story. The few words were not wasted in a story devoted to the main character Sidra's tentative steps to "plunge" into forbidden desire, here crudely represented by the estero. Even the figures of the bystanders in the wooden bridge metamorphosed into the image of mosquitoes and slimy creatures in the background. Sidra, who developed an attraction to Brando, one of the "good-for-nothing habitués", could not decide if she would allow herself to be swayed by her feelings. Even if she was tempted to succumb to the advances made by Brando, she kept her cold distance even as she made signals that she was interested in him. Her grandmother, who lived with her, "drummed into her head, since her childhood, that she must never go to the estero, and not even look at it."

"Bad people live there," her grandmother said. "Women of ill-repute. If I had not been born here and if I had not expressed my wish to die here, we would have packed up and abandoned this place. These people are not from here. One morning, the estero was crawling with those makeshift shanties that seemed to have mushroomed overnight."

After dousing cold water on Brando's overt sexual invitations, Sidra decided one evening to visit Brando's shanty along the dirty estero, only to discover Brando was with another woman. She instantly fled the scene.

Her world crumbled. She shivered uncontrollably. Her whole body had retreated even before her mind made any decision. Breathing heavily, she swiftly took off, blood rushing to her face ...

Back in her room she made a sudden discovery: "It dawned on her that she had lost her slippers, as she hastily fled the shanty and her feet had been smeared with the fetid, foul-smelling mud from the estero."

The elliptical arc of the story was hardly representative of Lingat's style. In this story, however, the dirty setting of the estero functioned as an effective metaphor and image of Sidra's descent into the erotic.

The "locked door" of the title story was another representation of hidden desire. But the image was shrouded in horror and mystery. Like skeletons in the closet, the family secrets contained in the locked door were damaging, precisely because there literally was a skeleton in the closet! In an old country house, two spinsters and their father lived were visited by the brother and son who just married. The wife, walking around the spacious house, was bound to discover an ancient crime in the hidden corners and locked doors. The story was almost a variation of old Gothic novels.

In "The Diary of a Woman", sexual desire was once again upended when one man who raped a woman after knocking her unconscious, discovered, upon reading her diary, that she was infected by HIV by her former lover. Irony was such a potent tool in the stories.

With horror-stricken eyes, he stared at the woman on the bed. Her eyes were open. Her sorrowful gaze was fixed on him.

"We chose the manner of our death, Darmo. We should die happy!"

But not all desires in the stories were repressed and not all cruel expression of desires were rewarded with death-like chagrin. In "The Nocturnal Delights of Mrs. Javelosa", the protagonist experienced an alternative form of sexual liberation from her night swimming in the open sea, her only way of coping with the transgressions of her philandering husband. It was perhaps the very image of freedom and empowerment that Lingat's women characters were striving for.

The night was humid. Even the wind wafted by the ocean was warm. The sounds of the ocean intoned a supplication. The night surrounding her was in deep, uninterrupted sleep.

She stirred, removed her slippers, took off her robe and left her thin nightgown on the swing. The warmth of the wind caressed her body and she felt a sense of liberation. She took some steps, unhurriedly, and bared her lovely nakedness to the shimmering light from the moon.
The wet sand was cold, but the water kissing her feet was warm. The stars twinkled at the waves madly racing to graze her feet. She followed the dancing bubbles as the waves rapturously rose and ebbed, as if desperate to possess her. She succumbed to the waves passionately devouring her body, and reveled in their rhythmical cadence. The caressing touch that overpowered her was blissfully warm and it drove away the groaning sound of the universe.

Amid the groaning sound of the universe, Mrs. Javelosa, like Lingat's other women characters, navigated and "soldiered on" in life, according to the translator, "armed only with a strength and resolve that flow from within". Soledad S. Reyes in fact gave a very cogent introduction and thematic analysis to the collection she meticulously assembled and translated. She was spot on in saying that "Lingat's world is inhabited by characters whose fierce struggles takes place in their world. whose pain is rooted in their own personal errors of judgment and inability to understand their own place in a definite community". The conflicts in her characters' inner world only served to heighten the images and surfaces constituting their outer world.

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