June 09, 2019
WHEN the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones“ (“GoT”) aired its finale recently, much was made over episode writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ decision to “subvert expectations.” They served plot twists that some fans tagged as “lazy.” Some “GoT” devotees were so aghast that they started a petition to pressure HBO into producing a “GoT” Season 8 remake. Over 1.5 million people signed that petition. While that number may not be enough to persuade HBO to oblige them, it drives home the fact that one has to be a competent writer to succeed in subverting expectations.
Award-winning writer Charlson Ong’s stories are not set in the series’ fictional continent of Westeros, but he can teach Benioff and Weiss a lot about subverting expectations the right way. In Of That Other Country We Now Speak and Other Stories (University of the Philippines Press; 139 pages; 2016), Ong does this through 11 tales featuring lost and bewildered men who manage to do surprising acts of damnation and redemption — or a combination of both.
Ong’s masterful prose has an elegiac effect, and that is initially what encourages you to keep turning the pages. Before you know it, you’ve already invested a lot of emotions in the characters that inhabit these tales. You’re transported to the world that they are in and you get inside their heads.
In the title story, the lead character Jeffrey Lim — a Chinese-Filipino man who wants to help his daughter by confronting private and ancestral ghosts — recalls his clan’s mythical tale. He muses: “Of that other country we now speak. And land of yellow earth and blue sky where a golden emperor once ruled. My grandmother lived in that land. In the mornings she bathed in a river where a green dragon once played, where a sad poet drowned reaching for the moon one night. But my grandmother had stolen the moon. She had scooped the moon in a wooden bowl and hidden it inside an earthen jar, where it remains to this day. It is the curse of the poor poet that has plagued our family ever since, that has followed us across rivers and oceans.”
Jeffrey thinks that the family curse has struck his daughter Katrina. He notes: “But she is only nine, I think to myself, our daughter is just a child. One day, her solitude will be called madness. One day, she will be so far deep inside herself no one can reach her.” Out of despair for his daughter, Jeffrey ditches logic and travels all the way back to China to see if there’s some sort of cure for her. His wife Agnes suspects that he just wants to go on a trip so he could cheat on her. But, of course, Jeffrey doesn’t. He’s so torn up about his daughter’s condition that he’s willing to chase myths for her, never mind if people call him crazy.
In “The Electric Man,” Ong shares the story of a family man named Martin Hudson Yap who befriends the title character. Martin relates: “The Electric Man was a woman. That was the first and last thing about him/her. She can’t be a woman, I thought, at first, women don’t do this sort of thing. Women cheat with their bosses, not on them. The day I run into a woman who’d sell out the company store is the day I leave this sorry country, I used to tell myself. But it was night time when I first saw her. Later than night, it was three in the morning: the witching hour, the switching hour.”
As it turns out, The Electric Man is a woman named Georgina — nicknamed “Jojo” — who is estranged from her electrician-husband who works for the power company. Jojo’s soon-to-be-ex-husband taught her how to turn back the electric meters so people would not pay astronomical fees to the power company. Martin later finds out that Jojo got into the illegal trade so she could save money to buy a piece of land in Palawan, where she could move with her partner Melanie. Martin is so fascinated by Jojo’s predicament that he agrees to let her borrow some cash so she could fulfill her dream. Then again, the happy ending doesn’t happen so easily. You have to read it to believe it.
While Martin is somewhat conflicted about doing something illegal, the lead character in “The Dog Trainer,” Francis Alosbanos, doesn’t seem too bothered by the crimes he commits. What’s unsettling is that Ong manages to make you root for this character, even if he’s no saint. Francis, an accountant, conspires with a dog trainer named Norey to get rid of the opportunistic husband of Anna Zuloaga. Both Francis and Norey happen to love Anna. It doesn’t make a difference to them if she doesn’t love them back the way they want to be loved back, they just want her to be happy. So, they use dogs to help them commit the perfect crime.
Francis, though, is the only homicidal sociopath in Ong’s tales. Most of the lead characters are men who are simply trying to do the right thing. In “The Vet,” an exasperated and cranky Dr. San Diego is forced to provide informal counseling over the phone to a Mr. Legazpi. While the latter claims to be falling apart because he’s worried that his daughter’s dog (named “Google,” no less) would go blind, it’s really he who’s in need of someone to talk to. Dr. San Diego summons the strength to be kind to Mr. Legazpi, even if all he wants to do is hang up and get some sleep.
Then, in “Throw Away Day,” Chris, who starts out as a mildly annoying pseudo-douchebag, teams up with a doctor named Andrei to run a temporary haven for impoverished kids in Malate. “I don’t know where all of this is going and if I should apply for some kind of government license,” confesses Chris. Selflessness is something new to him. It’s a pity that his wife Doris had to leave him so he could come to his senses.
There is no doubt that Ong excels in representing the Tsinoy experience in his fiction. However, his stories travel to a whole new level of awesome when he grabs a wonderfully wild plot and just runs with it. We don’t really care where he runs to. We’re all just going to follow him, no questions asked, because we want to know what happens next.
Of That Other Country We Now Speak and Other Stories costs P250 and is available in leading bookstores.
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