April 14, 2019
GOOGLE “coral cove” and you will get a list of resorts offering beautiful views and tranquil spaces. In Coral Cove and Other Stories (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House; 160 pages; 2017), the latest short-fiction collection of award-winning author Angelo R. Lacuesta, you will get those — from Batangas to Boracay, Davao to Macau. But in reading the 11 stories in it, readers would be wise to be vigilant.
A passage from one of those stories, “Pacific Paradise,” pretty much sums up what you can expect from the book: “She wondered if she had known somehow that something like this would happen on the day her marriage began, or when she opened her eyes that dark morning.”
“She” is Maricar, who is taking a three-day break in a resort, where she unexpectedly meets high-school friend Carmen, her husband Arnold and their friend Ronald. The resort, Lacuesta emphasizes, has become a last option for vacationers. And much like the resort, dissatisfied mother-of-two Maricar has lost her youthful enthusiasm and is now a “shadow of her former self.” While there, she makes a last-minute decision to recapture life: have an affair.
Infidelity occurs in a number of Lacuesta’s stories. In “Spacer,” a story about overseas Filipinos working in casinos in Macau, it springs out of loneliness. In “Errand,” it is unsurprising for a tottering politician. In “The Debt,” it is the currency that greases the rise — and fall — of a man named Leroy.
It is in that last story that Lacuesta again shows why he is a master storyteller. It is one familiar to Filipinos — of people coming into money, by hook or by crook, and spending it all in one go as if there was no tomorrow, as if there was no debt to pay, as if one were not poor. Lacuesta tells it as it is, mocking us (me, anyway) into thinking life is such — it is desperate and we have to do desperate things to continue living a desperate life.
“It’s always a good thing to owe a little,” Leroy’s mother — who was buried right in their own backyard for lack of money — once told him. He may or may not believe her, but he certainly lives up to it. Leroy makes a precarious living as a fixer. If your driver’s license has expired or is about to, you can call him or he will call you. In exchange for grease money, he will get your license renewed with the help of two female government employees with whom he sleeps with and bribes with gifts. He later sinks into debt and never got out of it, even as he starts earning more than enough from collecting kotong as a traffic enforcer.
The elegance and casualness of the violence in Lacuesta’s stories leaves one breathless, and none more so in “Siren.” Reading this brings to mind a Twilight Zone episode, about genetic evil and such. The story unfolds like a typical melodrama. There is Anna, the not-so-pampered only child of an ordinary employee and homemaker who think they are worth more than what they are — a middle-class family. There is also Clara, their young housemaid with a penchant for radio dramas. A particular favorite of hers focuses on a couple on the run for a crime they did not commit.
Anna gets a birthday gift from her father: a bicycle horn instead of the wished-for bicycle. It makes three sounds, including the sound of a police siren. Her mother dresses up for the occasion wearing her South Sea pearls — an “investment,” she says. But these go missing the next day, resulting in Clara getting blamed and Anna getting what she desires.
In “Not Like Us,” violence is a weapon one wields to stay in power. The protagonist, Mike Santos, learns this a little too late, despite his sophistication. He returns to the country of his birth — after he and his family fled to America after Martial Law was declared — to work as an energy consultant. Here, he meets Joey, a lawmaker, and gets an invitation to the latter’s resort in Batangas. On the way there, they pick up Joey’s girl Lala. But Joey’s wife Erin makes a surprise visit to the resort. The legislator asks Mike to pretend to be with Lala, but it is a wasted effort, as Erin already knows. In any case, Mike gets a little too close to Lala and that’s where everything begins and ends.
Using evocative language, Lacuesta ekes out more violence in “The Witness,” “Sparrow” and “Fossil.” But it is the title story that takes the cake. Here, the author veers into Terminator territory. The protaganist co-developed an app called the “Randomaiser,” so named because it is a game of chance in which a press of a button could make the user gain or lose something small or big.
Randomaiser makes loads of money for the protaganist and his two co-creators, but it develops a taste for killing, all on its own. But despite the horror the app perpetrates, life goes on; people, unaware of this, continue to go to Megamall. Our protaganist eventually gets his own prize.
That, perhaps, reveals the strength of the entire collection. It ascertains that life will persist amid, despite and because of the violence. A Lacuesta story tells us that life is the prize itself, and it is worth clawing on to. Take the risk; read him to taste life.
Coral Cove and Other Stories costs P350 and is available in the UST Publishing House bookshop and leading bookstores.
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