After the generation of Nick Joaquin and of Ninotchka Rosca, Charlson Ong was a “promising young writer” of the 1980s. The promise has since been fulfilled, with three collections of short stories and three novels, many of which have won awards. The author emerged as an unofficial spokesperson of the Chinoy experience in the Philippines, with its nuances and complexities.
The title story in “Of that Other Country We Now Speak (UP Press, 2016) blends myth with reality and is quite enchanting it its own way, the prose flowing like the river which is a central symbolism in the lyrical tale.
Jeffrey, a Manila-born Chinese, recalls a haunting folk tale told by his grandmother, about a sad poet in the old country who was “reaching for the moon. ” But his beloved had stolen the moon and hidden it in an earthen jar.
The narrator has a wife whom he does not get along with and a daughter wrapped in solitude.
By travelling to the places mentioned in the legend, Jeffrey hopes to save his daughter from her obsession with computer games and her self-imposed silence.
“Bearer of Swords” is a somber story of the clash of cultures, to be more precise, a clash between religions, Christian fundamentalism against Buddhist serenity which brings about tragedy in a divided household of three generations.
In “Days of Darkness, White Nights,” we are in the world of smart, educated Manilans, Pinoys and Chinoys, who speak English, have children in exclusive Catholic colleges, are well-off, and all that jazz.
The year 2000 is fast approaching. And the protagonist, Rey, a banking loan officer who has played fast and loose with the women in his life and, as well, with the funds entrusted to him, awaits his fate amid predictions that the world is coming to an end
In “The Electric Man,” we see Ong in a comic vein, for once. The darkness has lifted, if only for a while. The narrator, Martin, has an “electric man” to fix his meter so he and his wife can substantially cut down on the electric bill, which is considerable. But the electric man turns out to be a woman and Martin is strangely attracted to her. And she has a thankless marriage, and a lesbian partner. And one thing leads to another.
Tense, troubled marriages appear part of the scenario in Ong’s fiction. In “Heaven in a Wild Flower, ” inspired by the memorable verse of William Blake, we have Jake, an ex-priest in a loveless civil marriage who conceives a passion for Anita who, in turn, is vulnerable to the machinations of a charming American pastor of a sinister evangelical cult, thus opening the floodgates of a violent confrontation.
In “The Dog Trainer” unfolds another complicated set of relationships à la Charlson Ong. Nory is from an old family in the South who goes astray in the way of rich brats and ends up being a trainer of Dennis the Doberman, who is trained to kill. He carries on with the heiress Anne, whose dissolute husband covets half of her wealth.
Watching jealously from the sidelines is the narrator Frankie, an accountant (again) who has the hots for Anna and who has a shrewish “old crone” for a wife.
The situation is ripe for a crime, the perfect crime. Actually, two crimes.
The collection begins and ends with a legend. The boy Camilo, son of a fisherman, steals the eggs of a female pawikan (marine turtle) and attributes the deaths of his parents at sea to this forbidden theft.
Camilo develops a phobia against the sea, avoids it, but decades later, married and a professional, he is lured by the “song of the turtle” whom he believes is out to kill him. But a mystical experience proves otherwise, and the end is heartwarming.
In the hands of practitioners like Charlson Ong, the Filipino short story in English, which had a Golden Age in the years before martial law, is alive and well. —CONTRIBUTED