Debut novel is a family saga of grandeur and greed | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Debut novel is a family saga of grandeur and greed the map of camarines
Author Maryanne Moll —CONTRIBUTED IMAGES
Debut novel is a family saga of grandeur and greed the map of camarines
Author Maryanne Moll —CONTRIBUTED IMAGES

Family sagas are among the most fascinating stories: from the House of Atreus to Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits,” we are riveted by the fortunes of families through the ages. Is it because we glimpse what should be kept private—the struggles and secrets, loves and lies? Or because family sagas prove that our forebears are the true source of both blessedness and doom?

The fast link of family and fate is memorably demonstrated in Maryanne Moll’s “The Maps of Camarines” (Penguin Books SEA, Singapore, 2023, 214 pages). Moll’s first novel chronicles the intertwined lives of three powerful families—the Arguelleses, the Visballes and the Monsantillos—who dominate the fictional but true-to-life province of Camarines.

The patriarchs were Spanish dons who came to the Philippines armed only with their ability to negotiate, using it to create pacts with friars and promises to land-owning Filipinos that were never kept. The titular maps are the ones drawn and redrawn multiple times over decades, until finally the official map depicted Camarines as the fiefdom of the three clans.

Undercurrents of violence

It is the Arguelleses’ lives—genteel but with undercurrents of violence—that Moll describes painstakingly, with the other families serving as supporting cast. Their lives are fascinating because you know it’s not fiction: hacienda parties were that lavish, the feasts that sumptuous. The grand homes are described in anthropomorphic detail and named accomplices: “providing shelter and seclusion to the evil that unfolded for much of two hundred years.”

Moll, a Palanca Award-winner with several essay and short story collections to her name, wants her novel to help preserve the past. It vibrantly succeeds.

Moll’s descriptive powers truly shine in her faithful description of Filipino Catholic practices such as the Santissimo Rosario and the Semana Santa: older generations will hanker for the good old days while the young will want to experience those Holy Week traditions themselves. There’s also a good dose of magical realism, with several ghosts hinting at an otherworldly horror in the finale. The highlight is Esperanza Arguelles’ debut, a night when the simmering violence finally rises to the surface and the sins of the fathers come to light. Havoc is wreaked not by the dead but by the living.

“’The Maps of Camarines’ is a chronicle of the forces that have and continue to assail Philippine society today, as well as the consequences if they are left to fester in the time to come,” Moll writes, revealing the intentions behind centuries-old traditions as insightfully as the cause of the ongoing fight for land. All through stories of what defines us first and most: family. —CONTRIBUTED INQ

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