‘In the Country,’ by Mia Alvar
By J. R. RAMAKRISHNAN
The New York Times
Mia Alvar Credit Deborah Lopez
In Tagalog movies, the bida, or hero, battles the kontrabida, or villain, for the affections of a beautiful woman. As his family cheers at the bida’s victory in the opening story of “In the Country,” Steve, a Filipino expat on a visit home, reflects: “The script had succumbed, in the end, to our demands.
”As in a good Tagalog movie, twists abound in Mia Alvar’s debut collection. But Alvar’s finely wrought shocks, delivered in exacting prose, reverberate without easy resolution. In “The Kontrabida,” she denies Steve the demanded conclusion. While the drugs he smuggled from New York for his dying father provide a relief of sorts, Steve is forced into reconsidering who’s who in his family’s own melodrama.
Worlds continue to be upended as Alvar’s characters move among the Philippines, the Persian Gulf and the United States. The Manila-born, New York-based author offers deft portraits of transnational wanderers, blessed and cursed with mobility. When connection is sought or arrives unbidden, the bonds turn out to be brief and terribly disruptive. In “Shadow Families,” the wives of engineers, doctors and diplomats stationed in Bahrain offer food, hand-me-downs and matchmaking services to fellow Filipinos who work as katulong, or helpers. Their smug noblesse oblige, hilariously conveyed by Alvar through the royal “we,” cracks with the arrival of the temptress Baby, who accepts their generosity but refuses to be cowed by it.
In “The Virgin of Monte Ramon,” the bullied Danny, who uses a wheelchair, finds solace in the appearance of Annelise, the indio daughter of a laundress, only to have the shaky ground of his identity collapse. At least Danny and Annelise enjoy a fleeting respite. Most of Alvar’s characters have to contend with more troubled fates.
In the “Manilachusetts” setting of “Old Girl,” an exiled Filipino senator, “Dad,” decides to run the Boston Marathon. He’s utterly unprepared, so his wife, “Mommy,” steps in to help, as she always has. Soon, Mommy reveals that Dad has a different significance in Manila: “Hero. Freedom Fighter. Prisoner of conscience.” In real life, Dad is Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., and Mommy is a self-declared plain housewife who’ll end up as president, Corazon, or “Cory".
Alvar’s incursion into Filipino politics recalls Jessica Hagedorn’s novel “Dogeaters,” and Miguel Syjuco’s “Ilustrado.” But stylistically, Alvar’s elegant examination of the political wife is reminiscent of the long-suffering spouses and familial enablers of political men in Nadine Gordimer’s fiction. When Dad begins training, Mommy is saddled with ferrying their youngest child to school: “That’s been his one job, in the mushroom-colored Chevrolet Caprice he has all to himself. (She and the children share a blue Dodge Diplomat.)” The parentheses almost tell the whole story.
After the earlier stories’ gripping tension, the muted pace of the novella “In the Country,” told through date-stamped vignettes, is initially jarring, then thoroughly heartbreaking. In 1971, Milagros Sandoval, a nurse, meets the reporter Jaime (Jim) Reyes at a strike she has organized to protest unfair wages. Jim asks her if she’s considered migration for better prospects. Milagros replies, “Your mother gets sick, you don’t leave her for a healthier mother.
”Their bond is sealed, but mommy Philippines is unwell. President Ferdinand Marcos clings to power, and dissent lands Jim in prison. Through elaborate signals during visits, Milagros takes dictation from Jim so that he may continue publishing articles. Alvar zigzags from Jim’s imprisonment to his release to the return of Marcos’s challenger, Ninoy Aquino. As tragedy interrupts Aquino’s comeback and seeps into the Reyes home, Milagros makes a displacing choice, echoing the decisions that set the collection’s other characters in motion. Clearly a writer with enchanting powers, Alvar wills us to crisscross the globe with them all over again.
IN THE COUNTRY
By Mia Alvar
347 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.
By J. R. RAMAKRISHNAN
The New York Times