The premise of “Cubao Ilalim” is highly intriguing: What if the characters in “Ibong Adarna,” the classic we all know, were real, immortal and still holding court in a world parallel to ours? What if the kingdom of Berbanya existed “below” Cubao and directly influenced events happening “above”? The saga of its kings, princes and princesses continuing to this day, to be resolved by their current descendants—could this be possible?
Tony Perez—fictionist, playwright, visual artist and founder of the psychic group called The Spirit Questors—makes it easy for us to believe it. In “Cubao Ilalim: Unang Aklat” (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, Quezon City, 2021), he introduces us to his alter ego, Mang Jony, a writer and expert on magic, who investigates the mysterious disappearance of young men who all have a distinct birthmark that appears when they turn 21.
He finds out that they are claimed by Rey Morales, the incarnation of Ibong Adarna’s Haring Salermo. Mang Jony gathers friends and uses his knowledge of Philippine magic to mount a rescue operation. Along the way, he meets and is aided by Prinsipe Juan, Princesa Maria Blanca and other members of the court of Berbanya. All these events take place at Araneta Center, Broadway, P. Tuazon, Ermin Garcia Street and other places anyone who’s been to Cubao would know. The familiarity of the setting and Tony Perez’s effortless, evocative writing allows readers to lose themselves in the story.
The everyday-ness of the language makes this a highly accessible book: young adults unused to reading in Filipino will enjoy it, too.
“Cubao Ilalim: Unang Aklat,” originally an online novel, was included in Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino’s recent efforts to “create a library for citizens that promotes and highlights Filipino language competency as well as native language as a language of development and discovery.” That a novel written in colloquial Filipino nevertheless meets the agency’s high standards is no surprise: Tony Perez’s “Tatlong Paglalakbay” trilogy of plays (“Bombita,” “Biyaheng Timog” and “Sa North Diversion Road”) have made his stature as one of our great playwrights permanent.
What’s interesting is that the “Cubao Ilalim” novels were intended to be adapted for television. As Perez notes on his personal blog: “The work is a trilogy, and this is its first part. It is the complete antithesis of my earlier novel ‘Cubao Crossing,’ which is an experimentation in 100-percent characterization. I think that it is safe for me to say that ‘Cubao Ilalim’ is an experimentation in 100-percent plot. The minimal characterization was originally to allow for flexibility in casting, and the swift series of events originally designed to avoid dragging and over-interpolated episodes. ‘Unang Aklat,’ as a matter of fact, is good for 30 episodes, or two full seasons.”
In this, Perez overachieves. The action is nonstop and leaves readers in high anticipation of the next book which is currently being printed by KWF Publications. It tempts one to reread the original and find out what happens next in Ibong Adarna. That this master of Philippine magic has kept this classic alive to help us understand society today is magical, indeed. —CONTRIBUTED INQ
Available at the KWF office at University of the Philippines-Diliman and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.