The Woman Who Had Two Navels: A very inaccurate synopsis

The Woman Who Had Two Navels, and Tales of the Tropical Gothic, Nick Joaquin, 2017

  • Philippines, #14
  • Paperback, $13.98 from Amazon
  • Read January 2018
  • Rating: 4.5/5

No post about what I read this week because I read almost nothing. I started Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj but I’m only about three pages into it, and I still haven’t quite finished Contes Populaires du Cambodge, du Lao, et du Siam. Not worth writing about. Needless to say I also did not get any time to go to the specialty grocery store and buy ingredients for a Filipino meal. Here’s hoping for more time next week.

New York, 2006

I think that when I added this book to my list, I actually intended to read the novel of the same title instead of this short story collection (how often do authors publish short stories that they then develop into novels with them same title? Off the top of my head I can think of: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and ‘Salem’s Lot). I don’t usually enjoy short story collections very much but I loved this one. The first few stories were kind of uneven, perhaps a little too self-serious, but by the time the title story rolled around, about a quarter of the way through the collection, Joaquin hits his stride with a finely judged balance between absurdity, creepiness, and depth. The stories are always surprising and intriguing and I should really have read them again before writing this review, but I didn’t, so here is a little bit of what I remember from each of the stories, plus what I picked up from skimming it again for twenty minutes before writing this.

Three Generations: This story was in Philippine Short Stories, so I might have read it twice, but I still don’t remember it. It’s about a grandfather, father, and son, and none of them like each other very much.

The Legend of the Dying Wanton: Like, an actual fictional legend, which I have to admire Joaquin for trying but it doesn’t quite come off.

The Summer Solstice: Is this the one about a girl who sees a devil in the mirror behind her but then it turns out she’s having a prophetic vision of her future husband, but then it turns out he’s really horrible so kind of is the devil after all?

May Day Eve: Oh, no, actually it’s this one.

San Francisco, 2015

The Woman Who Had Two Navels: Maybe she has two navels and fled from the Philippines to Hong Kong on the morning of her wedding so that her new husband won’t discover her deformity, or maybe she’s just a pathological liar, like her mother says. Also there’s a jazz musician named Paco.

Guardia de Honor: Expensive jewelry and time travel.

Doña Jerónima: The first sentence of this story is an entire page long.

The Order of Melkizedek: A Filipino guy comes back to Manila after years abroad, carrying only a toothbrush, which he holds up as he goes through customs to show that he doesn’t have any luggage. The toothbrush in his hand causes him to be mistaken for a member of a secret society and hijinks ensue. It reminded me of The Crying of Lot 49, in that a lot of it made very little sense, but in a good way.

New York, 2006

Cándido’s Apocalypse: Like a Philippine Holden Caulfield, Bobby Herida, the protagonist of this story becomes increasingly disillusioned with the phoniness of his society and everyone in it. Except his disillusionment is literal; he begins to see through people, first through their clothes, then through their skins until he sees only skeletons or automatons, which understandably makes him lose his shit a little bit. Unlike good old Holden, however, this revelation ultimately gives Bobby the ability to empathize with those around him, and to have pity for the pathetic charades they have to ceaselessly perform in order to feel good about themselves. At least, I think that was what it was about. I could be misremembering. This story was also notable for being the only time in any of the Philippines books that I read (despite the fact that I read a book called Dogeaters) that anyone actually eats a dog, and it wasn’t how I was expecting; a bunch of teenage boys go out hunting for a dog, catch one, and then barbecue it in a back alley:

A fire had been got going and hte dog, a white one, practically a puppy, had a rope round its neck and whined like mad as Rene Luna pulled at the rope. Then Joey Perez whacked it on the skull with a crowbar; Ricky Gatdula slit the throat with a kitchen knife; Willie Veles caught the blood in a bowl; Pete Henson poured gin in, and everybody had a gulp of the bloody stuff, which was warm and bubbly and salty. Then they burned the hair off the dog and each one cut off his own piece and toasted it on a stick or just threw it into the fire and dug it out as soon as it began to smoke black.

A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino: A play, comprising the last third of the book, that centers around the last work of a famous artist, in which he has painted himself as Anchises, being carried by Aeneas (also a self-portrait) out of a burning Troy. The artist himself never appears onstage, the center of the action being his two aging spinster daughters and the various people who are trying to persuade them to part with the painting. It’s set in 1941 in an old house in Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila that was largely destroyed during World War II. It’s all an extended metaphor for the dying of a certain way of life among the upper class in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century.

New York, 2006

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