When Cory Aquino, backed by the uprising of the Filipino people’s “yellow power,” vanquished Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, my in-laws lived in Manila. My father-in-law worked for an NGO, teaching management concepts to outlying village leaders. Though he had translators, he learned Tagalog and in between his rural postings, roved the streets of Manila for hours to soak in the culture and life of the common man. I toured Manila in 1986, and though it was a mere few weeks, I’ll never forget the heat mixed with the warmth of the people, the poverty, the ripe markets with risers of saint and Jesus of Prague statues wrapped in plastic, the flowering and fruitful trees, the artful and gaseous jeepneys, and the lush azure grottos of Pangsanjan.
So it was with anticipation that I read Lucia Orth’s novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, and it was with great pleasure to find myself immersed not only in the vivid and authentic display of place, people and culture, but also the politics and bitterness of the oppressive last years of the Marcos regime. Told through several points of view, the story follows two main characters: a young Filipino from Negros, Doming, whose father is murdered by the military in a wrenching and beautifully wrought opening scene; and Rue, the wife of a governmental attaché who researches a hybrid rice that will withstand borer larvae. Despite the heat of the country both politically and literally, both characters are frozen by their pasts, “some exile of the heart,” and they move through life brushing against unfulfilled longings and desires, recognizing the pull, but neither succumbing to it nor understanding how it might lead to their salvation. For Doming, “To be constantly watching and evaluating, not fully participating, was a way for a man to not have to engage in life.” And for Rue, a memory from her childhood of finding a geode exemplifies the difficulty of her struggle such that she looks at her own opening of the heart as if it were a miracle: “She expertly split the stone with the rock hammer and chisel [her father] had given her. Then she breathed in the air from eons ago, looked at the dark crystals lining the hollow core, now exposed. There was some miracle to her in letting the air out, and exposing to light a place hidden for a million years, the now-open geode. It had opened like the round earth itself being cleaved.”
While Orth’s prose is sometimes bumpy, her apt use of analogy and creative metaphors enrich the story, drawing a thematic undercurrent of all that is unsaid and all the more misunderstood in the culture, especially by the Americans with their own U.S. government-imposed selfish agendas. Rue’s work with the larvae and Doming’s work as her husband’s driver are prime examples of how Orth uses metaphor to skillfully construct a complex story with an equally complex history, and U.S. complicity in the worst of it. “Perhaps people and nations lurch along according to fate, and . . . fate is made by what the general had for lunch and whether his bowels moved that morning.”
The trajectory of history drives the plot, making all the more compelling the story of these two characters and many endearing others who have key roles—a story that unfolds subtly and with effective restraint. As the complexity of the relationships advance and the characters change, so too does the brutality of the regime and its vast network of cronyism advance, a cock fight of blood and gambling to stay at the top of the heap. With this book, Orth exposes the little-known inside workings of Marcos’ dictatorship with a riveting story about love, loss, sisterhood, brotherhood, mysticism, class struggle, oppression, the price of complacency and above all, the irrepressible spirit of a people, and of hope.
No remuneration of any kind received for this posting.