On Soledad’s Sister: Unsaid, Untold

by Andrea Macalino

▶︎ I’ll start this (non)review by saying that I want to write about Gina Apostol’s Gun Dealers’ Daughter, but as I have not yet gathered my thoughts into coherence about it, I’ll delay (once again!) and talk about a more recent read, even if it’s likely considered a “classic” in the canon these days.

When I think of Soledad’s Sister by Butch Dalisay, I think of a school bag slung over my shoulder, a list of books to read for the semester, the hustle outside the glass doors — out into the sunshine, the busy street — so analogous is it with my university days. But there’s a kind of freedom in reading a book everyone tells you is canon, reading it because you can, and because you know every curriculum has its limits.

Ah, but precisely: this novel is premised on what the reader doesn’t know.

A coffin arrives in Manila, you are told, and from the get-go it’s a disaster veiled in what looks to be orderly logistics. But what captivates in the novel is not the mystery that the dead body has been mislabeled Aurora V. Cabahug’s — who is, in fact, Soledad’s sister, alive and well — but the language in which the author deftly describes the crudeness of life, which outlines not vulgarity, but rather simplicity. It is not that life is reduced to physical needs, but rather that life is defined by the concrete and the puddles and the karaoke bar as much as the inner turmoil of never understanding a family member.

When the crate arrived, Al had just finished his supper of fish in black bean sauce, two cups of rice, a glass of watery coffee, and a banana, taken in the outdoor stall just beyond the airport fence. One of the new helpers, a girl from Ozamis, has blushed when he mentioned something about a Sunday walk at the Luneta, and how relaxing and cheap it was to spend the night on the grass, like many couples did. I’ll give her a week, he thought, picking the fish out of his teeth—or was it the gummy young banana—as he strode through the gate toward the cargo warehouse (Dalisay 6-7).

In reading novels, we are told that suspension of disbelief is a must. What they don’t tell you, but which you suspect anyway, is that suspension is always more difficult when the setting is your own. When a novel shuttles between Manila, Hong Kong, and Jeddah, but pivots in its attempt to solve mystery in the small town of Paez, talking about the construction of a village named after a mayor’s wife and then a play between Bagumbayan and “bayani,” the multiplication of its phases, its cheap architecture, and even when the narrative winds its way to nineties EDSA, nothing of it is romanticized.

Interestingly, the novel is easily mistaken for the hundred-odd takes into the lives of the OFW: the plight, the struggles, the families left behind, the bodies shipped back in boxes, neither luggage nor package. And while its mystery looks to be how Soledad, taking the name of her sister Aurora, met her demise, the tragedy is in the unnamed space the latter occupies, that ever-fragile, long-winded pause between thinking up a goal and achieving it, stuck as one is in a pale imitation of success (in the case of Aurora, or Rory, a cabaret-cum-bar complete with a DJ, karaoke, and GROs.

It was a little past six <…> indeed he Flame Tree was home to a good many of these gentlemen, for whom dinner was achieved by ordering several platefuls of diced pig’s cheeks or tuna sashimi, washed down with a few cases of San Miguel. Rory got a kick out of pretending before newcomers that she was just one of the girls, and a particularly hardworking one at that. Her name was on the bill outside the bar, but it was a tiny sign that had become more than shopworn over the past three months. Few people made the connection between the routinary “Tonite’s Queen of Song Ms. Rory Cabahug” of the white plastic letters (with the broken right leg in the second ‘A’), punched into velvet backing like a funeral announcement, and the slim, pale woman who left her guests feeling that she had known them all their lives but that they would never know her with the same unnerving confidence (Dalisay 37-38).

These little tragedies are what make the story tangible, hold the disbelief at bay. The entire novel is told not only in different places, from different points of view, but from different points in time, all without taking leave of the present timeline, where Rory Cabahug and her less-than-a-white-knight policeman Walter G. Zamora fetch a body, lose it, and discover, with the reader, that what is at stake is more than the act of reclaiming a body, a name, but blood ties, relocation, identity.

In the end, the novel (re)turns to what it has only apparently promised you from its first word: Soledad in the name of Aurora, well and alive, just before death. But more a glimpse into a narrative than an actual narrative itself, she disappears, elusive. After all the details, after the suspension of disbelief, the unraveling of character pasts and segues into car theft and various petty crimes in the metro, the novel shows, incidentally, not just a mystery, but becomes a mystery in itself.

Now if only I, as reader, could reconcile myself to and appreciate this path. ***

Andrea Macalino is a graduate student of Comparative Literature. This was published in her blog in March 2013.