07 July 2011


Character Connection 30

This will be the last post having anything to do with this year's Philippine Literature Giveaway (which I don't want to keep calling the "June Giveaway" this far into July).

I was actually going to write about someone else from this novel, but changed my mind after Lesa and I started discussing the metaphors in this realistic novel. Today I feature a character who does double-duty as both a symbol and a three-dimensional human being.

Nenita Coogan
Cave and Shadows
by Nick Joaquin

"Then it wasn't a shock? I mean, being told she was the daughter of a priest?"

". . . it was [her mother] who got a shock--from how the girl reacted."


"Her face, according to Alfreda, simply glowed with wonder. And for weeks she couldn't take her eyes off her father. He and Alfreda must have felt relieved it went off that harmlessly. They weren't so happy about what followed: Nenita going around bragging that her father was a priest. And being scolded for that only bewildered the girl. She had been made to understand that Mommy and Daddy were being so noble in telling her he was a priest. Why was it naughty if she told the truth herself?"

The first thing worth pointing out is this character's name. Nenita: very Filipina, in that old-school Spanish way. Coogan: decidedly American to the Filipino ear, even if it is Irish. East and West come together in her name as they come together in Philippine culture--or at least, Philippine culture as we find it in the early days of the turbulent 1970s.

To add to what you've already gathered from the excerpt, Nenita is the daughter of a laicised Jesuit priest and one of his former university students, who was herself committed--or as we sacramental ones like say, married--to her first husband at the time they eloped. (It's really kind of hilarious . . . especially when taken as Joaquin's statement on what happened to the Catholic Church in the Philippines when American missionaries started replacing the Spanish friars. A totally metaphorical statement, I should add. =P) Her parents' union being such a scandal, they choose to raise her in the States; and there she grows up another happy and perfectly content American girl . . . until they drop that bombshell out of nowhere on her.

From that moment, Nenita becomes convinced that everyone is hiding behind some sort of false face. If her father is really a priest wearing the mask of a mild-mannered salesman, then who knows who everyone else really is underneath the personae they project to the world? The possibilities are endless, and Nenita sets out to uncover them all. Soon her discoveries--which she always shares with everyone else--make the neighbours so angry that her family has to move. That's not enough to stop Nenita, though, and after less than a year in their new town, the Coogans find themselves having to pack up and leave again. At their wits' end, they decide to send her to live with some friends in the Philippines while they think of what to do next.

But what is there to do when Nenita is driven not by malice, but by love? She isn't out to prove that people are hypocrites; she truly believes that their secret inner lives are just as rich and worth knowing as their respectable public personae. But if you are, say, a well-known and widely admired woman who left her politician husband after learning that his bodyguards double as assassins, you wouldn't want Nenita blabbing to the world that you have fantasies about those very bodyguards that involve your now-cold marital bed. Things like that. Even if they're true. Heck, especially if they're true. And you won't care that she's really on your side when it comes to a woman's right to her own fantasies.

(Why is this post so hilarious to write? LOL!)

To conclude this (relatively) spoiler-free look at her character, we need to play Choose Your Own Genre. For there are at least two ways to read Cave and Shadows. Pull out your Secret Decoder Rings (You still have them, right?) and play along!

If you want to read Cave and Shadows as Literary Fiction with strong Thriller elements, use your Secret Decoder Ring on this paragraph . . .

By the time the novel begins, the curious, perceptive and totally tactless Nenita Coogan is dead. And Jack Henson, the man whom her mother dumped for their teacher Father Coogan, is the only one who can crack the case of the last dark secret she discovered and the person who was willing to bury her with it.

If you want to read Cave and Shadows as an allegory of Filipino identity, use your Secret Decoder Ring on this paragraph . . .

And now that I've spilled one very juicy tidbit (not a spoiler, I swear!), you've probably forgotten that first point about Nenita: that she is, in her strange half-Filipina, half-American way, a perfect emblem of the Philippines in the early 1970s, when the whole country was accused of wearing a false face: a Catholic mask over a pagan visage. For it is Nenita who is wearing the falsest face of all. But don't think I'm accusing her of anything by saying that: she has always been the first to admit it and the one most distressed by her inability to learn her own secrets.

Image Source: Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquin


IntrovertedJen said...

I'm so proud--I remembered how to use my secret decoder ring!

I can't imagine how I would handle that kind of revelation. Something would definitely change, but I think I would take the self-absorbed broody route, not the peeking-into-other-people's secrets route.

Syrin said...

This book just sounds so fascinating. This is another one I definitely want to read.

Lesa said...

Well, maybe not discuss-- more like you expound and I nod and try to keep up. ;o)

Yeah, I'd probably read it as a thriller and miss all the metaphors especially since I'm so unfamiliar with the history of the Phillipines.

This book sounds more intriguing each time you write about it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Jen -- A revelation like that would change something dramatically, wouldn't it? It's almost as if they tell Nenita that she is actually adopted! She has to rethink her whole idea of who she is.

I think most of us would take the self-absorbed, broody route--or maybe the rebellious, angry route. Nenita's reaction is quite radical and makes her a trifle unbelievable as a character. But since she is dead when the novel begins and all we know of her are what other characters have already filtered through their own perceptions, Joaquin can be forgiven for that. (Heck, he probably intended it that way!)

Syrin -- I'm still fascinated, and I'm the one who's already "done" with it! And I haven't even mentioned the fact that one of Joaquin's predictions in this novel, which he wrote in 1982, might be said to have come true in real life, in 1986! ;-)

Lesa -- Believe me, it's a real discussion! =) I only seem to carry more of the weight.