25 June 2011


Locus Focus: Take Fifty-Seven!

Today, still in keeping with my June Giveaway and its sort-of complementary Foreign Shores theme, I present another place from a book about to enter the prize pool.

Sadly, it's not the "non-fiction setting" I promised earlier in the week, but it's still pretty good.

(Notice I didn't write "earlier this week." Even I'm not that Orwellian! LOL!)

The Cave
Cave and Shadows
by Nick Joaquin

Jack thought of this great rock looming over this bed of the river in the days when rain forest grew down to the water's edge and only the river was road. From amid the dense green, did the rock rise naked, as innocent of lawn and leaf as of road and roof? What eye had first been drawn to its morning dazzle, its afternoon aureole?

"And behind you," said Miss Lee, turning around, "is the mouth of the cave."

Framed in the porch of stone was the orifice, rose-shaped like a crater and as high as a man. Behind it, double doors that opened inward had been unlocked and pushed ajar by the guard, who stood just inside the entrance, dissolved by his dark blue into a shadow, perhaps the cave's genie, holding a lamp instead of a wand.

Filipinos can be a little obsessed with national identity. The cliche you'll hear most often is that our Catholic culture is merely skin deep--that the friars who brought us the religion only grafted it onto the nature worship they found here and that the root of all our piety is still very pagan. It's similar to the cynical observations of certain thinkers that Catholicism never rooted out ancient beliefs in Europe, but merely "baptised" a lot of its pagan rituals and holy sites. The main difference is that Europe had the thousand-year trial by ordeal that was the Middle Ages: European culture might be post-Christian today, but there's no denying that the Renaissance was a deeply, if decadently Catholic fruit. The Philippines had no such flowering or fruition: we were yanked straight out of an extended version of the Middle Ages into the heyday of Hollywood. And so the charge against Filipino Catholic culture remains.

Please pardon that information dump--and my obvious bias. I had to tell you all that because it is the foundation and fascination of Nick Joaquin's Cave and Shadows.

The cave in the novel is the cause of a dispute between Manila's most devout Catholics and her most passionate neo-pagans. They can't agree on the cave's "identity" any more than they can agree on the country's identity: while the former say that it was once the hermitage of a holy woman known to eighteenth-century Manilenos as the "Hermana Beata," the latter insist that the same woman was really a pagan priestess and that the cave was her shrine. The Catholics want to use it for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; the pagans want to use it for their ritual sacrifice of white chickens. Caught between two increasingly violent groups of "true believers," the mayor has the cave closed, locked up, and put under tight security.

It must be the most unusual "locked room" for a murder mystery, and still, that is what it becomes. One morning, when the cave is opened, everyone is shocked to see the naked body of a young woman is lying on its stone altar. How did she get there? How did she die? What does it all mean?

At the start of the novel, the amateur sleuth whom the girl's mother begs to investigate the mysterious death is sure of only two things. First, that there must be a secret passage into the cave. Second, that the only building close enough to house the other end of the secret passage is the parish's seventeenth-century Catholic church.

But of course.

This Week's Other Locus Focus:

Douglas Adams's Heart of Gold @ Birdie's Nest

Image Source: Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquin

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