16 June 2012


Locus Focus: Take Seventy-Six!

This month's "Foreign Shores" challenge is a bit of misnomer. June is actually the only time in the year that Locus Focus goes local (Say those last four words really fast, ten times!)--but that's just for me. Most of my readers are "foreigners" for whom Philippine settings are strange, exotic places they may never get to see.

Moreover, I am the only one "going local." I'm still inviting people to grab the badge and write up their own Locus Focus post, but I hope that anyone who does will pick places from countries foreign to him. Join up this week and leave the link in the combox, and I'll edit this post to embed it at the end and link to it again at the beginning of next week's post. =)

Today, I feature a setting from a book that is not in the June Giveaway pool. I started this novel early this month, fully intending to make it one of the prizes, but changed my mind after I was done reading. It's a good novel. I just didn't love it enough to give it one of the six new slots I have each year. Read the post and let me know if you think I made the right decision. Does the following setting sound like a place you'd like to visit in a book?

Mount Mayon
The Volcano
by Bienvenido N. Santos

"Senor Americano, listen to me . . . Look at that beautiful mountain. In the years you have been here you have seen it explode twice and seen the destruction it has caused, but even at its worst it was magnificent, awesome in its grandeur. What happens? Why does it explode? I'll tell you. Listen to me. This volcano can never be leveled to the ground or bombed out of existence. Nothing can destroy it except its own strength. In one mighty explosion, shattering, final, level itself to the ground, or sink below the earth, smoulder, perhaps die. I say perhaps because it may not die completely. Some life may yet remain that will spark another eruption after many years. Like cancer . . ."

-- The Spaniard Don Vicente to the American Paul Hunter

A Filipino reader would get the allusion instantly: the Philippines was first colonised by Spain and then taken over by the Americans. (We would also be occupied by the Japanese, but although The Volcano is set partly during World War II, there is no comparable Japanese voice among the characters.) So it is significant that an "old school" Spanish landowner who has elected to remain in a post-colonial Philippines has become good friends with one of the new American missionaries. And even more significant that both are stumped by the same volcano.

Mount Mayon
(And the partially buried bell tower of the Franciscan church destroyed in the 1814 eruption)

The Mayon volcano is famous for its perfect cone shape, which regular eruptions through the centuries have only seemed to refine. Don Vicente hints that this landmark is key to understanding the Bikolanos who live in its shadow, inasmuch as they have always lived in its shadow, never thinking of settling anywhere else.

If pressed, the natives give reasons that are not really reasons, citing, for instance, the benefits of farming certain crops in lava-rich soil--the crops they have sown and reaped for generations. (Circles within circles! Decennial eruptions and yearly harvests!) The truth of the matter is that they don't mind it . . . Perhaps they even like it. What the bemused American Paul Hunter calls the Bikolanos' "way of looking disaster in the face and smiling" may be a "lava-rich" trait!

I am reminded of another mystery of tribe and topography, last year's first Foreign Shores feature: Ifugao from The God Stealer by F. Sionil Jose. (See Locus Focus: Take Fifty-Five!) Why is it, Jose's own American visitor wonders, that the Ifugao people went to all that trouble to carve rice paddies out of mountains, when miles and miles of plains were available for plowing and tilling just beyond the steep slopes? Or to be more general about it, why would anyone choose to live in such "cruel" places, when "kinder" lands have long been available for the taking?

Don Vicente suggests that over three centuries of Spanish rule have not made a dent in either Bikol--where a volcanic eruption wipes the slate clean every ten years--or the rest of the Philippines. And he tells Paul Hunter that none of the American efforts will amount to anything as well.

This was an intriguing thought for Bienvenido N. Santos to publish in 1986, forty odd years after the end of American rule and nearly a century since the end of Spanish rule, when many Filipinos were convinced that we had been "Westernised" beyond hope. It remains an intriguing thought today.

Image Sources: a) The Volcano by Bienvenido N. Santos, b) Mount Mayon

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