Reading Lower MythsPosted: September 8, 2013
And R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril is off and running! A few days ago I finished the first book that I committed to, Eliza Victoria’s Lower Myths.
I heard about this Filipina author a while back, from Nancy Cudis at The Memoriter. Nancy’s review was actually about a different collection of short stories, A Bottle of Storm Clouds, which Nancy liked a lot. At the time, that collection seemed to only be available in the Philippines (it’s available as an ebook now), but I found Lower Myths as an ebook on Amazon, so I thought I’d check it out. The two novellas in Lower Myths promised to weave Filipino folkloric motifs into stories of contemporary life. Yes!
Oddly, though, I was never able to start the book. Partly because other books and stories came along and called to me; partly because every time I started, I’d decide that I was too tired to read. I know Readers (with a capital R) aren’t supposed to admit that, but it happens, at least to me. So I’d put down the e-reader and go watch a rerun of Columbo or Star Trek instead.
With this year’s R.I.P., I decided — it’s time.
Now, this isn’t entirely a book blog, and I don’t style myself a book reviewer. Like The Believer, I only discuss books and stories that I like. No, more than like; stories that have something so cool about them — plot idea, characters, language — that I feel compelled to share that coolness with the world. Honestly, if I hadn’t committed to this book for R.I.P., I wouldn’t be writing about it.
So I’m just going to concentrate on one episode in the second novella, “The Very Last Case of Messrs. Aristotel and Arkimedes Magtanggol, Attorneys-at-Law,” a scene that I did like a lot, and think is worth sharing. The protagonists of this scene are Jason and Kenneth, two young boys with an American father and a Filipina mother. The family splits its time between Makati, Manila, for most of the year, and South Carolina for the summer. This year, however, they’ve gone back to the rural village in Cagayan where the boys’ mother grew up.
Jason and Kenneth are really into playing lawyer, and they’ve taught the other children in the village all about plaintiffs and defendants, and how to pepper their conversations with “Objection!” and “No further questions” (all the parents must have loved that). During their stay, seven year old Margarita disappears from a playground while playing with her friends. No one saw what happened. Everyone is convinced that she was stolen by the kapre — a large, black, hairy, tree-dwelling, cigar-smoking, ape or man-like creature — who lives in the balite (banyan) tree near the playground.
After Margarita’s disappearance, no children in the town ever wanted to play in that area again, leaving behind a silence punctuated only by a soft breeze whispering through the swings and the seesaws, making the rusty metal sob and cry, like so many dying babies.
Jason and his brother are American enough to not really believe in supernatural creatures. And what would a kapre want with a little girl, anyway? So the two of them talk the other children into holding a trial for the kapre under the balite tree, complete with a judge and a jury and another little girl to play the part of Margarita, as witness for the prosecution. Jason and Kenneth are the lawyers for the defense.
Margarita is played by a girl named Mary Alice, from the hoity-toity part of town (Margarita is poor). Mary Alice does her best to incriminate the kapre, but her innate snobbery gets in the way. As she tells the court about her (that is, Margarita’s) abduction, she complains that Margarita’s friends should have seen what had happened: they were close enough that she could smell their terrible cheap perfume.
Really? The lawyers for the defense wonder. How she could have noticed the perfume over the stench of the kapre’s always-lit cigars? Mary Alice can’t answer, and the kapre is acquitted.
About a week after the game, Margarita’s body emerged near the bank of the river, her face smashed by something hard and relentless, her body touched in places girls as young as her shouldn’t be touched. Two nights later, her father borrowed a gun from a close friend and shot a man living two barrios away. It just became clear to him and to everyone else that a kapre wouldn’t leave such marks on a body.
I liked this little episode. I liked watching the children playing their version of Perry Mason. I wanted to know more about the dynamics among the kids; I wanted to know more about that village, where abduction by tree-demon seemed like a plausible explanation for a missing child. Maybe the idea that men are more monstrous than monsters isn’t a novel one, but I’d happily read an entire short story about it. About that poor innocent kapre, minding his own business in the balite tree. But that wasn’t the story Ms. Victoria wanted to write. I wanted to like the story she did write; truly, there was much about it that was good. But I felt frustrated by promising threads and details that didn’t get flushed out, and irritated by turns of the plot that seemed to exist only so the story could exist. If the boys had been raised mostly in the Philippines, and eventually were abandoned by their American dad, then why did their now single Filipina mom struggle to raise them — in South Carolina?
I’m not giving up on Eliza Victoria yet. On my to-read list is an anthology called Alternative Alamat (Filipino speculative fiction). Ms. Victoria has a story there, too. If I like it, I’ll take a chance on A Bottle of Storm Clouds.