05 July 2011


Option 12: Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquin
(Visit the new Giveaways page to learn how you could win this book!)

"They're pagans, or want to be: all those who come here?"

"Oh, no. They only want to be healed, they come for the miracle. But I don't mind. In one way or another I am reviving anito worship among them. Which is not hard really since the old religion still lives in them, however deeply submerged. I have only to stir a bit to make it rise back to the surface. But maybe, yes, they are all pagans already, or again, without knowing it. They may go home Christians but their Christianity will be even more pagan than before. It shouldn't be long before they realise what they really are and shed all the vestiges of what they thought they were. The old religion is coming back, Mr. Henson, to undo four hundred years of history."

For the second year in a row, my June-into-July Giveaway ends on the kind of glorious note you could only get from a Nick Joaquin novel. (At least the Reading Project part ends for me. The Get a Free Book from Enbrethiliel part--which is what everyone else cares about--will not run its course until Friday.)

Having said that, be aware that this is a high note unlike any you've heard before (which I say not to be condescending, but to reflect the fact that it was a high note unlike any I've heard before). If Merlinda Bobis (author of Option 11: Banana Tree Summer) is correct about the same things tasting different on everyone's tongues, then this might be a real shock to your unsuspecting palate. Heck, even I find it a bit difficult to swallow.

. . . From the doorway emerged the Dakilang Dalaga, spilling down the steps to the lawn. There they lined up in twos. There were twelve of them, all a golden brown . . .

"They're picked for their
kayumanggi colour?" asked Jack.

"And their Malay features. If they're too fair, they have to get tanned. It was one of Nenita Coogan's heartaches: that she didn't tan deeply enough."

"Isn't that another kind of false face?"

"False? On a Filipino?" . . .

In one sense, it is the mysterious death of Nenita Coogan--she who was forever trying to see through false faces, including her own--which sets our story in motion. She rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, when all she wanted was to be accepted as one of them, and amateur sleuth Jack Henson soon finds that her death is not half as much of a puzzle as her life.

In another sense, Nenita's death is just another false face. Something is going on here that involves everyone from the highest-ranking officials in government to the poorest of their constituents, and at least one person is willing to kill to make sure nothing gets in its way.

And if you're now excitedly thinking that Cave and Shadows sounds like a Murder Mystery Thriller . . . I almost hate to disappoint you with what it's actually about. =P

Joaquin, too, is trying to see what is behind a false face--that with which the Philippines has been engaging the world; and he peels back many layers of geography, history, journalism, and even legend to get to what only folk memory is left to remember. Forget 400 years of Catholicism; the Philippines is pagan in body and soul, and the old religion of the anitos, the nature spirits, refuses to remain buried for much longer.

Cave and Shadows is less a Thriller than--believe it or not--Inspirational Fiction. (!!!) And if you've ever wondered what Inspirationals would be like if the author's idea of a happy ending involved more characters converted to paganism than to Christianity, then this is your book!

And yet . . . whatever the characters do and wherever the narrator's sympathies seem to lie, Nick Joaquin himself was not a pagan. He was a Catholic, who once admitted to feeling the call to religious life (which the needs of secular life did not allow him to answer) and who had a deep devotion to Mary all his days. He was also a fervent nationalist, which one can see in his portrayal of paganism as a patriotic impulse and Catholicism as a colonial import. Cave and Shadows is hardly condemnation of the Church he would never have considered leaving, but it is a love letter to a nation he believed was beautiful, although she had never properly shown her face.

You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you don't mind having your most sacred and deeply-held beliefs challenged by a real master of writing.

Image Source: Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquin


Lesa said...

funny, I was just thinking yesterday about pagans being converted-- well, rethinking, since it is something I've pondered often because the whole idea always bugs me. this book is a contender for me-- I like the idea of peeling away layers to get to the 'folk memory'.

Lesa said...

I was just reading about the food book and saw the last line and had to come back to read the last line here-- don't know how I missed it.
Yeah, this book would suit me.

Laurie said...

This looks fascinating, E! May I enter into your give-away for this novel?
Looking forward to another "Word & Question" session too!

Enbrethiliel said...


Lesa -- Conversion actually bugs me, too, especially as a literary device--and this review almost became all about the conversions in this novel, which are surprisingly not a turn-off. I know I've read too many books in which a character's conversion just "miraculously" fixes everything, and I find that as much of a cop out as any ex machina device. So one thing about Cave and Shadows that really blows me away is that none of the conversions (whether from Freemasonry to Catholicism or from Catholicism to paganism) are literal like that. They're metaphors for something else! =D

And folk memory was one of Joaquin's fascinations. =)

Laurie -- Sure! =D You made it just in time, too. It closes on Thursday!

Just leave a comment here that expresses interest in entering, and that will count as your first entry: June Giveaway

Yes, I know you're already expressing interest here, but since everyone else did it, you might as well join the party over there, too. ;-)

Lesa said...

It is conversion as a result of invasion/colonization that bothers me in real life and in books. And all the other bad stuff that goes along with it-- like ripping away a people's culture and language ect ect. It has been on my mind lately from reading Alice Walker's Color Purple and Temple of My Familiar which partially take place in Africa.

Lesa said...

Are the metaphors obvious enough for readers who don't read analytically to pick up on?

Enbrethiliel said...


Lesa, the issues you raise are fantastic--but I think I'm now in danger of getting up on my soapbox and becoming a huge bore! =P

I think the first thing to note is that Joaquin himself isn't bothered by the conversion of the first natives to meet the Spaniards. He is, however, willing to be inspired by the theory that modern Filipinos are Catholics on the surface only and still truly pagan underneath. Hence the kind of reversal of history he presents here. According to that thesis, one never actually rips away a culture (and in the Philippines' case, we retained the language, too!); it remains buried under the surface, waiting for some upheaval to bring it to light. And boy, does Cave and Shadows deliver on the upheavals!

I wouldn't say the metaphors are "obvious," but they're certainly very rich and unexpected. I mean, anyone can create some two-dimensional allegory (I'm looking at you, Jose Rizal. And I dislike your novels so much that I'm not even going to tell Lesa what you're doing in this reply to her.), but Joaquin's story can be read both as an allegory or as a completely realistic novel.

It's exactly like what we get in Historicals, when characters get to represent whole groups of people or popular movements, but also maintain their own three-dimensional integrity.

Which is to say: analytical reading not required! =)

Lesa said...

Oh no, it is all very interesting- thanks for explaining. If you knew how much I love learning about everything (I'd be a perpetual student if I could), you'd know how much I enjoy your blog.

The historical novel analogy makes sense. Knowing the real history helps with getting the metaphors though.

Enbrethiliel said...


I agree that knowing the history makes a difference. I'm sure there is a way to read great American Historicals like Gone with the Wind allegorically, but of course most of it would fly over my non-American head! =P Thanks to other readers who have shared their thoughts online, I now know that Ashley could be said to represent the "Old South" and Rhett the "New South," which adds an extra dimension to Scarlett's feelings for the two men. Everything else, on the other hand, is a mystery! But the best part is that Gone with the Wind is also a great realistic novel that we can read for the characters and the conflicts! =)

And now I'm probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but if you've seen the movie The Mission, you're probably more set for this novel than you know. =P (The Mission and Cave and Shadows are actually nothing alike--but darn it, I've been thinking about them together for the past few days, anyway! The film is the history of conversion from paganism to Christianity; the novel is a dream of conversion from Christianity to paganism. All they really have in common is the Spanish colonial overlay, but my mind can work with that. =P)

Lesa said...

Yes, I googled and I'm almost sure I've seen The Mission.

Great analogy with GWTW! I started W&P last Jan-- didn't get past book 1-- I'm thinking I need to become more familiar with the Russian history when I start it again then maybe I will pick up some allegories.

Enbrethiliel said...


War and Peace is another great example! I once heard it described as "the Russian Pride and Prejudice" (ROFL, right?)--but that seems pretty apt. It's just that instead of universal concepts such as pride and prejudice, we get ideas that were influential during a period of Russia's history.