Friday, July 10, 2009

The Solemn Lantern Maker by Merlinda Bobis

(My notes after reading this novel in one night).

I read somewhere that the novel was invented for the entertainment of folks whose bland lives needed to be spiced up with adventure. In other words, reading a novel is a form of passive adventure for those who like theirs on the couch.

But the mind is a trickster. What it reads seeps through to the heart, to the soul, and then to the skin as goosebumps, to the throat as parched thirst, to the heart as quickened beat, to the eyes as tears. The body participates in the story and asks questions. Small ones. Big ones.

Who are these people whose lives intersected in a squalid squatter area of MetroManila?

Noland, the solemn lantern maker. No land. What dispossessed people of their land? What is this history? Whose history? Theirs? - those who came to these shores hundreds of years ago or 50 years ago?

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be an American tourist in the tropics? Why did Cate Burns choose the Philippines to flee a marriage gone sour? How does David Lane, Iraq and Afghan war veteran, begin to put together his wholeness when his memory is crowded by the faces of women in Fallujah? What does "come home" mean? Home from Iraq, he is reassigned to the Philippines as part of the Balikatan program. He is hated here, too, by anti-imperialists but the US Consul assures him that they are doing the Philippines a favor in spite of its ungrateful sectors.

Like the movie Crash, it all comes together at an intersection of a busy street, a few days before Christmas. The lantern vendors were vying for customers. And then there is a shoot-out, as it turns out, politically motivated. An enemy erased by a political ambition. In the crossfire, an American tourist is scraped by a bullet and falls into the lantern vendor's cart. Two boys hide her and rushes her back to the squatter area to hide her and nurse her back to health.

Noland imagines she is an angel. An angel is sent from heaven. The other boy, more pragmatic, sees her only as a white American. If they save her, maybe she will offer them a reward. Americans are rich. Perhaps this is the gift they've been waiting for - an angel who will save them from their hell on earth. They dream of a future.

Noland is mute. His silence is a container for horrors that can't be told. I have a story you don't know.

There are stories and there are official stories. The stories of the squatter folks are full of their search for hope, for luck, for a way out of cardboard box huts, fetid creeks. But Noland's stories are carved out of the promise of stars, of angels, of wishes that will be granted one day.

The official stories are spun out of political imperatives and ambitions from the local to the global authorities. Official story-makers invent cults, terrorist plots -- all hinting, not too subtly, at attempts to harm Americans in a post-9/11 world.

So an American tourist happens to be at the scene of a local crime and becomes part of an international political sport. Cate Burns pleads with her own Consul to disengage the story from its official version. She was not the victim of a cult or a terrorist plot, she's only a tourist who is saved by a mute boy and his mother. No one wants the unofficial story.

Elvis and Bobby Cool ply their trade at the red light district where foreign men come for their pedophiliac adventures. Where people are starving, they sell their bodies to foreign men and the pimp is always prowling for younger recruits. Elvis is determined to protect Noland from this fate. Bobby Cool is determined to prove him wrong.

***Reading this novel, a part of me shivers. There are large silences in this novel and maybe we only need glimpses to shield the story from the eyes of voyeurs. Be frugal where life is fragile.
Merlinda weaves a tale of power in this novel. For those who can embrace the Nolands of this world, even the Elvis, Bobby Cool, Nena - Noland's mother, Cate Burns, David Lane -- often requires a deepening silence and a heart large enough for grief and perhaps later...healing.

I feel the invitation of entrainment.

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