Option 20: A Season of Grace by N.V.M. Gonzalez
(See the Giveaways page for more information)
Man and woman were walking one morning in the sun down a trail that cut across the bed of the empty river Alag.
The woman carried a baby, using a hammock slung over her shoulder. The cloth was the same piece of catcha which last night had served as her little one's blanket. The baby whimpered inside the hammock-pack: the woman couldn't seem to make him quiet. The man said:
"Why don't you fix it, Sabel, so that it will not hurt?" He wanted to add: "Is it heavy like a yoke?" But he realised that she looked pretty enough with that hammock-pack; it was quite an ornament.
There is something about the young married couple Doro and Sabel Agnas which call to mind Adam and Eve after the Fall. For Doro, too, has been cursed to earn his bread by toil and sweat; Isabel, cursed to bear the pains of childbirth. This is true for all of us, of course, but it is more evident in some lives than in others--and extremely evident here. Nothing short of an earth-shattering miracle will change the fact that their lives will be almost unbearably hard.
I actually had my copy of A Season of Grace for two years before I could bear to read it to the end. The first time I tried, Doro and Sabel seemed so miserable and so helpless--against both nature and some human scum neighbours--that I feared the novel would turn into an epic pity-fest. I probably still wouldn't have read this book had I not just finished Juan M. Flavier's Doctor to the Barrios (Option 19 in the Giveaway!) and drawn the strength of hope from it. I used to see the plight of thousands of Philippine farmers as a purgatory they would never escape; now I see that although it bears some resemblance to a prison, it is easier to bust out of than I thought.
Unless, of course, some of us turn jailer on each other . . .
"You know where the rice sack is?" Epe Ruda asked . . . "And over there is the small can I use for measuring out the rice . . . Remember that nine measures make a ganta."
Tiaga caught on. "There's a way of measuring--the thumb thrust in, this way. A little farther in, really . . ." And she raised her big, gnarled thumb. "Then you can tilt the can a little also . . . And put down whatever the firewood-cutters use as part of their account, don't you?" She was surprised to hear that this he did not do. "You should. From now on, you should . . . I thought you want to save something like a ganta or two every day that you measure out rice for the men . . . You can make more profit that way if you want."
The relatively better off couple Epe and Tiaga Ruda seem to have found a way to cushion the full blow of the Fall (at least until death); but their idea of cheating its curse is tied up with their business model of cheating their neighbours. I really, really hate them. But perhaps it is too simple to say that their low morals and cunning are the only things standing in the way of a truly happy ending.
If it were indeed N.V.M. Gonzalez's intention to draw a scriptural parallel, then it is to his credit that he isn't obvious about it. The narrative does not linger over Doro at work in the fields or over Sabel in the pangs of childbirth. It can do panoramic sweeps of the greater picture . . . or show the whole in the details of a seemingly insignificant event. Take the rituals that come after a birth: the special broths that a new mother must drink and the ceremony of her first bath after the event . . .
My mother and one of her friends have shared similar stories about older women who all but barricaded the bathrooms to keep their younger counterparts from showering too soon. One friend said that her own mother, not knowing her daughter had managed to sneak an early bath, boiled some guava leaves in the only water her daughter was allowed to use for a week. The ungrateful girl poured the cloudy liquid down the drain each time. =P
These Baby Boomer Filipinas like to laugh at the "backwards" practices their generation were the first to shake off . . . but do they ever wonder whether they lost something by being "modernised"? Now, I don't blame any woman who has sweated and bled through childbirth for not waiting to get herself clean again. But I believe that the loss of such rituals, and what they teach us about our bodies and about the earth, underlines our modern inability to see ourselves as fallen. And it is a blindness which often turns us into Epe and Tiaga Rudas.
Finally, a word of warning about the prose: Gonzalez once said, "I write in Tagalog . . . using English words"--and I can think of no better description of his style. He can be difficult to understand, even for someone who speaks both Tagalog and English well. And the people he has based his characters on are those who normally have no voice in our world. It makes sense that when we finally hear them speak, we struggle a little to understand, even when they're speaking as plainly as they can.
You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you have the patience it takes to hear an unfamiliar voice tell an honest, unadorned story.
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