On a recent trip to the island municipality of Perez, Quezon, I brought along a copy of Tiempo Muerto, Caroline Hau’s newly-published first novel (Ateneo de Manila Press). As the outrigger boat headed to Alabat island from Atimonan, away from the towering presence of Mt. Banahaw, my mind was brought to the fictional island of Banwa—where sugar plantations and a huge ancestral home lay under the shadow of Mt. Balaan.
The book actually starts off on another island—Singapore—where two of its main characters have lived very different lives. A longtime OFW, Racel works as a yaya to a wealthy couple’s child, while Lia is wife of the island’s crazy rich scions, and mother to an increasingly-estranged daughter. Rachel comes home to Manila, and then to Banwa, to look for her missing mother, while Lia, recently divorced, revisits the same places to look for her dear childhood yaya.
The two women’s quests inevitably intersect as they were actually searching for the same person, Nanay Alma, who was also responsible for two women having shared childhood memories despite their different backgrounds and feelings of estrangement.
More fantastic literature:
- Review: Ocean Vuong's debut novel will take you to the edge of love
- Q&A w/ Caroline Hau: “Maybe that’s what good novels do—shed light on what we’ve yet to fully understand”
- Rethinking the ‘noble green savage:’ why being indigenous doesn’t always mean nature’s protector
- Encounter: Acclaimed Fil-Am writer Elaine Castillo on 'white gaze,' and writing to move on
As the story unfolds, the reader is introduced to different lifeworlds, each of which comprise an invaluable thread in our national experience. “We foreign workers are like ghosts. We are visible and invisible, inside and outside, there and not there,” Racel says, breathing life and insight to millions of Filipinos working overseas.
For her part, Lia’s story offers a portrait of an elite Filipino family with its excesses, conflicts, and scandals; of feudal wealth built on land-grabbing, political accommodation, and oppression. In many ways, Lia is no exception in having lived a life of privilege, but her progressive education from a certain “state university” allows her to think differently—and ultimately see her family in a different light.
And then there are the poor inhabitants of Banwa, with their seasons of hunger, their eternal vulnerability to typhoons, famines, and volcanic eruptions. Perpetually in debt to the ruling Agalon family, they have remained poor, unable to escape the cycle that binds them to the land. Nanay Alma dreamt of a better life for Racel, but she ended up “only with a higher pay and in a different country.” Meanwhile, amid plans to convert Banwa into a luxury resort, its inhabitants seem as marginalized as their ancestors have been (incidentally, a ‘Banwa Private Island’ luxury resort just opened in Palawan months ago).
Finally, there are the rebels, like the woman named Tina who would hold classes at the foot of Mt. Balaan, giving Racel and her friends a real education, allowing them for the first time to ask questions like “Why are our parents unable to pay back the debts they owe to the landlord?” Tina would lend books like Noli Me Tangere to Racel, but the children’s season of learning would come to end when Tina surfaced in the beach one day as a “broken doll missing its head.” Clearly a symbol of revolution in the novel (its last eruption was in 1899), Mount Balaan is a volcano “that can explode anytime.”
Written with sparse, lucid prose and a subdued love story that reminds me of Yukio Mishima’s own island opus The Sound of Waves, the novel clearly imagines the Philippines as its community of readers, with allusions to Martial Law and the Commonwealth, as well as references to mythologies and folklore. It speaks to our authoritarian time, to the violence in Negros, to the killings all over the country, and of course, to the unequal tenant-landlord relations that is at the heart of why—as Racel and her childhood friends asked Teacher Tina—they were poor. Like the ghosts that never go away in the novel, these historical injustices may yet haunt their perpetrators.
Moreover, the novel shows the intertwined lives of the very rich and the very poor in the society, how the former needs the latter as much as—if not even more—that the other way around. While the profound inequality is poignantly expressed (for instance, Lia’s doll house costing PHP 500 at a time when workers were paid 60 centavos a day), so is the universal search for love, loss, purpose, and belonging. Like the Biblical Leah and Rachel, Lia and Racel emerge as sisters whose divergent circumstances do not preclude the possibility of understanding, respect, and even solidarity.
Furthermore, the novel endows its characters with the capacity to resist their oppressive circumstances in ways explicit and implicit, as with the enigmatic Nanay Alma. Ultimately, Racel and Lia—spoiler alert—don’t find her, but they find a part of themselves in the island, including the possibility of a new future.
As Racel says: “So long as the mountain stands, there is hope.”