Memory, truth, written on the body
Kalatraban sa Alkawaraan by Niles Jordan Breis
Naga City: Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2021
By Doods M. Santos
Not wanting to waste time standing in a queue, I brought along Niles Jordan Breis’s awarded novel Kalatraban sa Alkawaraan (A Long Wait into the Vanishing) with me to the polling precinct last May 9. I managed to read five pages before I was called in to shade the ballot. Those five pages were enough to get me hooked, and I finished reading the novel that hot humid day.
The book is not a casual read because of the philosophizing, the mysterious mix of folkloric elements, and the blend of Bikol variants.
For the philosophizing, I re-read the novel more closely, taking notes to guide memory. I am familiar with the Bikol mythos and marveled at Breis’s reinvention of its elements. For the Bikol variants, dictionaries such as Jerry Adrados’s Daratangan helped, but I couldn’t find kalatraban, lapradiga, agaring-gingan, sangawalban, and algatrum, apparently either coined or heard from ascendants, recorded only in memory, and preserved like the Santo Entierro in this story.
The novel documents the interlinked destinies of librarian Purita (Purs), her imaginary friend Kikoy and childhood best friend Plas, Purs’ son Sam, and a constabulary officer. Purs’ father is a former activist and desaparecido of 32 years, while her rebel mother was tortured and murdered by the military. The white-eyed Plas also disappeared on the night he and Purs were kidnapped by the rapacious and murderous Col. Bermas, condemned as a butcher even by his post-EDSA counterpart Col. Borromeo. Other characters are Purs’ lovable and wise grandparents and granduncle, and her apolitical intellectual partner Dr. Philip.
The book immerses the reader in such lore as the hairy onglo that causes its victims to itch, the katambay or spirit guardian, the hand-shaped gabi leaf, black dogs, images of saints, incantations, and numerology. A medieval folk religion pervades, with townspeople praying to a miraculously preserved corpse. The countryside setting highlights the tit-for-tat between constabulary and rebels during martial law. The persona states that dagâ (that’s land, not rats, Breis teases the Tagalog) rather than terrorism is the rebellion’s main driver.
The number 32 is a motif, for example, in 32 salivating dogs and the massacre of 32 persons. In the numbers game jueteng, 32 means “kapay” or insane, so the number suggests the insanity of a period in Philippine history, with discourses on remembering and taking sides. The novel records the historical truths of martial law kidnappings, rapes, torture, disappearances, and “salvaging,” the euphemism for Marcosian extrajudicial killings. A new meaning for the number is provided by the occultist granduncle who lauds those who creep (nagkakamang) in the art of war. The image of a taro leaf on the left palm is a second motif. A third motif is body stances, such as looking up (tangad), leaning (kiling), and creeping (kamang), metaphors for perspectives and positions.
The book calls to mind two other novels set in Bikol, Merlinda Bobis’ Fish Hair Woman and Alvin Yapan’s Ang Sandali ng mga Mata, which also deal with the atrocities of martial law. It riffs on contemporary Bikol texts about the tawong lipod, divination, Amang Hinulid, perhaps even Mon Suanoy’s meme of a chapbook Katcher nin Buray. But this novel written in Bikol, its strength, has a more humorous, fantastic, intertextual, and as mentioned, philosophical take on political issues via puzzles and ambiguities.
Memory written on the body and the quest for Truth or kalatraban is the novel’s theme, the latter term explained as “the recognition that I should sometimes trust those who have no conviction that they are worthy of trust, if indeed, doubt is a kind of truth.”
The novel is a deeply intellectual and imaginatively complex dark tale that raises more questions than it answers. Reading it makes me want to inspect the interstices of the novelist’s brain, the way that Joseph Addison dissected a beau’s head.
So much more could be written about the novel using contemporary literary lenses. For example, just as some American movies casually drop the F word, the novel bandies about the B word for female genitals in scenes of oral sex and urination, and the Bikol joke about the odor of dinailan (fermented krill cake). Interestingly enough, the counterpart B for male genitalia never appears in the text. A feminist or queer critique would take note of the ‘vulva monologue’ and problematize: Is there more “to ‘the woman’s part’ than meets the eye”? Other readings would involve identifying the Implied Reader, untangling the mesh of folklore and pop, and Georges Bataille’s transgressive corporeality in the text.
If I were to discuss this in class, I would have students raise questions about characters, cultural artifacts, plot incidents, motifs, and themes, with each question inciting more questions in the deconstructive chain to aporia. I would ask how the characters would fare in the recent past and coming dispensation, both as dark as the 1970s and early 80s. I would also have them research for context, the allusions to El Salvador’s Archbishop Romero, Taleb’s randomness, Kouchner’s Médecins Sans Frontières, Bob Dylan’s shift to the electric guitar, and Carlos Ruiz’s La Sombra del Viento. Many students in this anti-intellectual era, should know these ‘Stranger Things’, along with the truth about the pre-1986 historical period recorded here.
How timely indeed it was for me to have read Kalatraban last May 9, given the infodemic’s role in the 2022 elections. “Infodemic” refers to the rapid spread of information, misinformation, disinformation, and rumors about a problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution. The novel states basic questions about Truth that the Philippines will confront in the next decade when a financial tsunami is expected, and when my generation who struggled through martial law may pass without seeing the dawn.
I can only hope that the people do not forget the folk epistles about bare feet, lamigtis, and those who creep. I also pray that what is divined on the left palm is something we will see on our own children’s palms as well, lest many of our people disappear into Alkawaraan’s void once more.