10 July 2015


Option 36: "The Summer Solstice" and Other Stories by Nick Joaquin
(See the Giveaways page for more details or scroll down for the Rafflecopter)

"But how can they believe such things?" demanded Dona Lupeng of her husband as they drove in the open carriage through the pastoral countryside that was the arrabal of Paco in the 1850s.

Don Paeng, drowsily stroking his moustaches, his eyes closed against the hot light, merely shrugged.

"And you should have seen that Entoy," continued his wife. "You know how the brute treats her: she cannot say a word but he thrashes her. But this morning he stood meek as a lamb while she screamed and screamed. He seemed actually in awe of her, do you know. Actually
afraid of her!"

-- from "The Summer Solstice"

It turns out that my rule that all books that make the Giveaway Pool should deserve to be there and not just be my little indulgences is secondary to my rule that Giveaway "Month" should always end with Nick Joaquin. If I were a better curator, I'd bundle this book with another collection of his short stories, which is Option #18. And perhaps I'll still do that! If you win the giveaway, do you want to bet that I will? ;-)

This book should really be entitled "The Summer Solstice", One Other Short Story, and a Novella. This trio come with no introduction, just a generic essay on the author's background. But having finally read the novella, I want to shake the hand of the editor who put it with the other two. For what they all have in common--which you can only really see when they are all together--is a sense of a lost past. And that's very, very Joaquin.

The Mass of St. Sylvestre

. . . And just as soon as the Liberation Forces opened the Walled City to the public, I went to see what war had left us of our heritage from four centuries. Nothing had been left--except the oldest and most priceless jewel of all: St. Augustine's . . .

It broke Nick Joaquin's heart to see his beloved Manila reduced to rubble at the end of World War II--and to watch his fellow Manilenos pack up and leave rather than rebuild. If his talents had lain in engineering, he might have laid brick upon brick with his own two hands, to make all her old buildings rise again. Instead, what he did was write a story that shows us just what was shattered among the stones: a Christian inheritance that was also communion among the living and the dead, and the power of Christian rites over the primitive pagan magicks. But was this really history . . . or is it all just a nostalgic dream?

For totally predictable reasons, this is my favourite story of the three--and it isn't even a proper story. Not so much a plot as a legend and an anecdote just big enough to rub together, it has nonetheless everything I look for when I am in the mood for Fantasy.

The Summer Solstice

. . . she wondered peevishly what the braggarts were being so cocky about? For this arrogance, this pride, this bluff male health of theirs was (she told herself) founded on the impregnable virtue of generations of good women. The boobies were so sure of themselves because they were so sure of their wives. "All the sisters being virtuous, all the brothers are brave," thought Dona Lupeng, with a bitterness that rather surprised her. Women had built it up: the poise of the male. Ah, and women could destroy it too!

This is probably Joaquin's most famous short story, and I tend to think of it as a timeless classic; but during this rereading, I couldn't help seeing how 1960s it is. Working as a journalist during that decade, Joaquin would have seen firsthand many of the tensions between new feminist thought and traditional Philippine society, as well as the upheavals wrought by Vatican II in one of the most conservative Catholic countries in the world. His embedding both in a story set over a century earlier means that he didn't find them merely modern trends, but just the latest forms of conflicts that we have always had with us. Conflicts that may also be the key to the Filipino character. But if there is indeed a battle between the sexes, and more controversially, between Catholic faith and pagan instinct, which side should get to win?

The Summer Solstice was a Reading for Believers pick in February 2011. It became relevant again thanks to a pagan attack on Christianity in December 2013. Joaquin's sympathies may be quite feminist, but I find that I side with the mostly male devotees of St. John the Baptist.

The Order of Melkizedek

"I found myself going back, no longer to the prophet but to Father Melchor. It seemed to make sense, what he said--that nationalism was not a political, but a spiritual problem. Our people had to be renewed in spirit. They were not really political, they had no political ideas . . . But they were deeply religious in the sense they believed in magical forces. And the nationalist movement could reach them only if it came in the guise of religion, a magical nature religion, but with the Christian forms familiar to them."

The proper Joaquin book for this year's giveaway, when I've been reading about Filipinos abroad, is the Singapore-set Woman Who Had Two Navels (which is Option #6); but The Order of Melkizedek fits anyway, thanks to the protagonist being a "balikbayan" (returned native). And my favourite part of the whole story is that the source of Sid Estiva's culture shock is the "barrio fiesta" buffet served up to welcome him back: "Remembering the steak and barbecue parties of the fifties, Sid felt he was heaping his plate with the culinary equivalent of the antique Virgin in [the] portico." And I can't believe I "forgot" that what my generation takes for granted as traditional Filipino food is mostly rediscovered Filipino food: if it were not for the great cultural revival of the 1960s, in which we scrambled to come up with some kind of national identity, books like A Taste of Home (which is Option #35!) would never have been written!

What it means to be Filipino is a major theme of The Order of Melkizedek, but Joaquin forms the answer not in the bright light of history, where we remembered how we used to sing, to dance, to cook, and to dress . . . but in the shadows of pre-history, which is where we forgot how we used to worship.

One reason it took me so long to get to this story was that I first started it right after reading Joaquin's novel Cave and Shadows (which is Option #12), and The Order of Melkizedek felt too much like the "first draft" of the later work. Having finally finished it, I can say that the novella does contain all the seeds of the novel, but that it's also a totally different story. Sadly, it's definitely much rougher writing than I usually expect from Joaquin. I'm guessing that all the time he didn't spend polishing this was time he spent on Cave and Shadows. A pity.

And now let's tie them all together . . . Ultimately, what happens in The Order of Melkizedek is as much a fantasy as what happens in The Mass of St. Sylvestre: two dreams that rise with the moon every Summer Solstice, to clash again as they have for 400 years, only to fade at the next sunrise. In the light of day, what do we choose to believe?

You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you are committed to reading everything Nick Joaquin has ever written.

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Image Source: "The Summer Solstice" and Other Stories by Nick Joaquin

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