CP Goes to the Philippines: Mia Alvar’s In the Country (review)

BRINGING IN THE EVIDENCE by NOEL KING

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Mia Alvar, In the Country (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). 347pp.

“I actually didn’t know I was writing a book about class and labor until almost every review described it that way.” – Mia Alvar quoted in Sophie Nguyen’s Conversation with Mia Alvar ‘00 in Harvard Magazine (7th August, 2015)

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Reading through this hugely impressive debut collection of stories set variously in the Philippines, Bahrain, and the USA, I found myself recalling a moment in the mid-1960s, from my early teens in Newcastle, NSW, Australia, when my mother was driving me to a Saturday morning football game in our 1950 F.J. Holden. The car had come with my stepfather, a carpenter-joiner whom my mother had married in 1961 after raising two boys as a single, widowed, working mum over a period of eight years.

For whatever reason, aged twelve or so, I had suddenly become strongly aware of class difference and social status while living a very happy, working class life, safe, carefree, sporty. I said to my mother that morning that since we were a bit early there was no need to drop me exactly at the sports oval (where much newer cars would be dropping off my teammates), just somewhere nearby would be fine. Of course she wouldn’t hear of that and drove me precisely where I needed to be.

A few years later we acquired a second-hand 1964 Holden E.H. Hydramatic, a much more impressive vehicle, and from then on I was very happy to be dropped off anywhere in our car. Years later the F.J. Holden would become a collectors’ car (as would the E.H. in a later period) but that retro-fetish moment had yet to arrive and the F.J. was just a very old car.

In the Country caused me to wonder, at what age do these debilitating class and status attitudes set in? Alvar’s stories explore, in superb prose, sundry awkward emotional moments of embarrassment and evasion, difficult issues concerning social class, the value and dignity of one’s occupation – whatever form of work is entailed – and one’s sense of self, with legitimate senses of pride and achievement coming up against overweening delusional pride and misconceptions of self. The stories probe questions of honour, respect and filial duty and the precise circumstances under which a person’s presumed constant attitude of obligation to family might reasonably be expected to be normative, and under what circumstances it might be withdrawn.

The stories are totally accomplished at all levels, from the micro ‘level of the sentence,’ as practitioners and some literary critics like to phrase it, and at the more macro level of narrative through-line, deft complications of plotting, gradual revelations of back-story, astute temporal shifts, all concerning an array of utterly engaging characters from all social levels. Alvar’s stories show her to be a perfect deployer of what Roland Barthes once called “le petit fait vrai,” the small, emblematic, quotidian detail that results in what we used to call “the realistic-effect” (to prove that we knew writing was a representational system composed of various codes and conventions that had various ways of luring us in to a fictional world.) As they bring to life their varied characters and locales, the stories also recall the great phrase Jean-Luc Godard once used to describe what he felt was the obligation of film, whether fictional or documentary, an act of “bringing in the evidence.”

Among the wonderful array of characters and narrators on offer in In the Country are: a US white Wonder Bread model visiting the Philippines for a photography shoot, recalling her time with a half Filipino fellow model flatmate who has died; male overseas Filipino workers in Bahrain; a prominent political Filipino figure working in the US as a public service official. In every story sharp dialogue exchanges see confrontations played out and invidious truths told, but equally often we encounter a character’s private, unstated thoughts, reproaches, observations. Accusations are held back out of a given character’s sense of family loyalty and remembered rules of “bienséance.” In these cases, the reader becomes the only person privy to a character’s capacity for self-control, and ability to grudgingly bite the tongue in order to allow a social milieu’s traditional protocols of respect, deference, and politeness to be upheld. In these instances devastating moments of critique and revelation are not uttered to another character who monumentally deserves a serve for delusional, self-obsessed behaviour. In “The Virgin of Monte Ramon,” the mother self-presents as a Filipino version of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, or perhaps the Maggie Smith character in Gosford Park, that familiar image of someone who has known better, more wealthy, fêted, beautiful days, and has absolutely no interest in cutting her cloth to suit her current straitened economic circumstances. In this story, the heart-breaking revelation of the real circumstances that caused the condition of the wheelchair-confined young male narrator, the tragic, distant, historical event that has blighted this family and which underpins the grotesque daily household façade, comes from the long-suffering, selfless G.P. Dr Delacruz who, for decades, has tried to help this household and its occupants. All his young life our narrator has recognised that “it was not so easy to name my status. How should I explain the fine house, and the servants who were sometimes paid in bowls or jewels to maintain it?” Of Dr Delacruz, he says, “I felt sure that he knew the truth but was too gallant to expose my mother.”

Into this lonely boy’s compromised life comes an angel named Annelise, the daughter whose mother, also named Annelise, has been doing domestic work in his house. The Annelise family comes from a nearby ravine shantytown, which has no electricity. Young Annelise saves the young lad from his loneliness and provides him with a vision of how to survive in the face of everyday jokes about his crippled body. She also surprises him and all their classmates by not bowing to Sister Carol’s chastising of her for her classroom behaviour: “I’d never heard a child speak to adults with such boldness, or stand almost with pride while being disciplined.” This image of a strong, young female whose courage and eloquence seem way beyond her years, is reported to us by this more demure, infinitely less self-assertive male friend. And, come story’s end, their friendship endures.

 

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Mia Alvar. Photo by Michael Lionstar

If in some of these stories it is the reader alone who learns the true shape of diegetic events by eavesdropping on the heroically repressed, exasperated thoughts and musings of thoroughly honourable, hardworking souls, happily, on other occasions these same Filipino rules of politesse are challenged forcefully, often by feisty young women who have no time whatsoever for unearned expectations of the continuance of inter-generational power relations, familial or non-familial, nor for the domineering, even abusive, expectation that an institutional arrangement (as in the classroom teaching situation alluded to above) should always prevail on its own terms. History has taught this younger generation that there is nothing to be gained from continuing obeisance, as this remark from “Shadow Families” indicates: “Our mothers’ sad, hard lives had taught us just how much a man’s good looks and silky voice were worth.”

“Legends of the White Lady” tells the story of two flatmate friends and models, alluded to earlier, who travel from New York to Manila on a job. The Manila setting allows all kinds of conversations working from the white female US model’s perspective that presumes anyone living in Manila would jump at the chance to blow that town and go Stateside, only to find these unthinking first-world expectations contradicted at almost every point.

Each of Alvar’s stories establishes some sort of dialogue – muted or explicit – between the Philippines and an overseas setting (Bahrain, US). Where is the right place to be? If you go to the US, as so many university educated Filipinos have done on various US scholarships (Fulbrights, etc), what is your relation to the politics and culture of the land you have left? “Old Girl” presents a portrait of a supportive, indulgent, clear-eyed wife of a Filipino public servant who has been given a job in the US, far from the political uncertainties of the Philippines. While they and their children clearly benefit from the privilege and safety of this first-world posting, a conversation with the home country remains, stated and unstated, about the thought of return, a wondering whether any authentic Filipino cultural-political life could be lived outside one’s country of origin. For much of the story the husband is training to run a marathon at an age when he shouldn’t be running anywhere and eventually he is diverted from this self-imposed grand-standing desire, but not before all the family has been drawn into this vanity, prompting the wonderful wife to muse, “She’s thinking how a marathon is like a marriage: the long haul, the ups and downs, the tests of endurance and faith, the humbling, undiscovered country.”

Among the other stories we have a terrific, sad scrutiny of a Filipino male’s situation working in Bahrain, a man whose sexual drive and slightly reckless way of being in the world is always threatening his safety anywhere, but certainly in a country which has strict rules about such matters. “Esmeralda” is a beautiful story, told in second-person against the tragedy that was 9/11. It outlines a brief encounter, an equal exchange of erotic, emotional, intellectual simpatico-ness achieved in an unequal context where a Filipino cleaning woman is working in the Twin Tower offices of a businessman whose wife is dying of cancer. The two find a brief and profound tenderness together. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was told in second-person and I suspect McInerney got that idea from the start of Don DeLillo’s Running Dog as much as from any then-contemporary beer commercial. McInerney reviewed some of DeLillo’s early novels, up to the publication of White Noise and so he would have been drawn to the opening sentences of Running Dog: “You won’t find ordinary people here. Not after dark, on these streets, under the ancient warehouse canopies. Of course you know this. This is the point. It’s why you’re here, obviously.”

The title story of In the Country visits one of the major topics and challenges of contemporary Philippine writing, the era of the Marcos regime, martial law, student protests, arrests, imprisonments, deaths. Alvar’s story focuses on the question of the extent to which one can always oppose all things tyrannical and draconian, continuing to act on the lifetime-held, second-nature convictions of a male investigative journalist when such political activism could put one’s wife and child at risk. It was precisely this political-investigative-journalist persona that initially attracted the young female Communications student, leading to their living together and having a butterball son, and later a daughter, together. Alvar’s perfectly orchestrated temporal shifts back and forward move the reader around different years (1986, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985) from this defining moment in Philippine political history and across this couple’s long relationship until an absolutely devastating conclusion is handed down.

New York writer Jane DeLynn once said the way she worked her way into a new novel was by experimenting with phrases and word clusters until she eventually found “sentences that can lead me someplace.” In Mia Alvar’s collection of stories we encounter beautiful sentences that have enabled this writer to range across a compelling array of locales pertaining to Filipino experience as overseas workers, as diasporically displaced, as economic migrants/émigrés, and as Filipinos who did not leave, who stayed on, stayed at home. With these sentences Alvar has found, abundantly, a way to take her readers to some very confronting psycho-geographical places, unflinchingly presenting the myriad difficulties – personal, social-political, sexual, economic – of life in these locales.

French historian Michel de Certeau once used the phrase, “arts de faire,” which carried the two meanings of an art or craft of making-creating, and also an art of getting by/making do. It is as if Mia Alvar has created a fictional universe in which those two meanings occupy the centre of the everyday lives of her characters. But the final miracle of this collection is that, while always respecting the realities of these oftentimes hard, sad, troubled lives and their social contexts, the author does not allow the last word be one of despair and miserablism. Instead we encounter an array of beguiling, admirable characters who have found ways of surviving and prevailing.

This compelling debut so fully displays the writer’s remarkable talents for all aspects of storytelling that readers of In the Country will really be hanging out for Alvar’s next collection of stories or her first novel.

See also: Noelani Piters, The Rumpus Interview with Mia Alvar, The Rumpus (July 29th, 2015)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

 

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