There’s no reason why R. Zamora Linmark shouldn’t shoot for the Great Philippine Novel in his ambitious and wide-ranging new book, Leche, even if it’s told from the perspective of a balikbayan, returning to the Philippines after 13 years. The fact that there may be anywhere from 8.2 to 11 million Filipinos overseas – about 10 percent of the Filipino population – surely makes it an “authentic” Filipino stance from which to write. Two of the greatest chroniclers of the Filipino experience, N.V.M. Gonzalez and Bienvenido Santos, wrote from this same vantage point of in-betweenness, after all. Part linear journey of discovery, part fractured travelogue and history lesson, Leche brilliantly milks (ahem) those forms. (Yes, I can get away with that pun because I’m Filipino — see more below.)
I do drop the A-word (“authentic”) above, and put it in quotation marks, not to stir up old and rather exhausted debates about representation, but because it’s the primary concern of Leche’s main character, Vince de los Reyes. (Previous readers of Linmark will recognize Vince as the shy, newly-arrived immigrant in Rolling the R’s, from 1997.) Our returnee Vince – or Vincent, or Vicente, or Vincente, depending on who’s mispronouncing it – plunges into the chaotic swirl of Metro Manila and discovers, to his shock, that he no longer feels at home in the heat and humidity. It doesn’t matter that he lives in Hawai’i and checks the “Filipino” box when filling up — sorry, I meant “filling out” — census forms.
Throughout the novel are sections called “Tourist Tips,” enumerating bits of advice that vary between the commonplace (“The best way to get around Manila is by taxi”) to the oddly gnomic (“It’s not unusual for a salesperson to ask you about your marital status”) to the wry (“Manila is very rich in air pollution”) — but it’s the word “tourist” that’s most telling. How can one, after all, be a tourist in one’s own homeland? Vince is stung by his tour guide’s casual reference, in conversation, to “you Americans” and “we Filipinos;” how is it that he can be alienated from his own people, when the only identity he knows is of being Filipino?
And this leads Linmark onto some perilously well-trodden paths; this is, after all, the stuff of freshman-level essays on Filipino identity and Pilipino Cultural Nights. But it should be said that these are also some of the concerns of the Great American Novel, of immigrant American writers similarly searching for a place called home. In Leche, the magic is all in the execution: a jauntily digressive omniscient narrator whispering in the wings (and sometimes, disconcertingly possessing minor characters), postcards and ironic commentary, ecstatic leaps into poetic diction.
From the start, Linmark situates the reader squarely in this process of homecoming, much like Miguel Syjuco’s protagonist near the beginning of Ilustrado: the balikbayan boxes at the departure area, the applause upon landing, the insanity at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The act of homecoming is fraught with both logistical and symbolic anxiety: will Customs ask to open my boxes? Will I recognize my family from the throngs of well-wishers? Is this really home?
His precise observations about departure and homecoming at the beginning of the novel set the tone for the rest of the novel. Linmark’s descriptions of the maelstrom that is Manila rings wonderfully true throughout. There’s a fantastic section, for instance, about the Philippine jeepney, which is depicted on the book’s cover, and its driver who has “[transformed] himself into a Hindu god with three eyes and eight hands.”
One of Leche’s set pieces, for instance, is an imagined talk show interview between Vince and the former Presidential daughter and actress (do I put that in quotation marks as well?), Kris Aquino. (This Kris, bless her, never leaves the house without Solzhenitsyn in her gym bag, to read while stuck in traffic.) My first reaction upon reading it was that it must be a real transcript; Linmark just nails the dialogue, full of hilarious malapropisms and English that’s very slightly “off,” at first glance. (Such linguistic wit is also one of the hallmarks of the book, for the humor, one might say, is genuinely Filipino: full of awkward puns, and sometimes breathtakingly inappropriate.) But one can also read the interview transcript, in conjunction with Linmark’s poetry, for instance, as a reclaiming of the colonizer’s language. It’s not English as American newscasters know it.
And it’s this same off-kilter relationship to the “real,” whatever “real English” may be, that characterizes Leche. Real-life presidents and minor celebrities appear, sometimes as “the real thing,” sometimes as barely-disguised versions of themselves. (Ninotchka Rosca, I’m sure, recognized herself in a cameo.) For instance, the Leche of the title – “milk,” literally, but also an imprecation, and a different kind of bodily fluid altogether – is an underground cabaret and sex club that’s also orphanage, museum, and Presidential whorehouse rolled into one, and Linmark uses this as an effective metaphor to explore the uneasy (or, to be more precise, easy) relationship between the sacred and the lurid, the political and the religious, the indigenous and the colonial, that exists in the Philippines. But is this place based on reality? In the Philippines, it may very well be. To the reader, it all seems so surreal, but as one character scolds Vince: “There’s nothing surreal about Manila. It’s only surreal because Manila’s no longer part of your world.” Sur-real, then, in the strict etymology of the word, as Linmark’s fragmented narrative mirrors the country as refracted through colonialism and Hollywood.
Leche is not quite the playful, riotous explosion that was Linmark’s debut novel, Rolling the R’s; in that work, you could feel this sense of a joyful and barely controlled rebelling against the constraints of the narrative form and perhaps even the English language itself. (Although I must remind myself, and should be chastened, by the fact that my praise above also has to do with my unfamiliarity with Pidgin. I’m very guilty of exoticizing here.)
Leche is, in a sense, somewhat more restrained and sober (especially in combination with its emotionally shattering ending), but no less adventurous or ambitious. It’s a novel mostly set in Manila, and perhaps one instantly recognizable to the Filipino reader — but, as the omniscient travel guide tells us, “Your Manila is only one of the hundreds of millions of versions.” Linmark’s version is well worth visiting.
[Also cross-posted on Goodreads.]
Update: Looks like Barb and I were reading the same book over the weekend; read her first write-up on the novel, then her general thoughts on Filipino ethnicity and literature.