A collection of short stories and a play by Joaquin (1917-2004), one of the Philippines’ leading writers in English, who finds passion and melodrama in the nation’s colonial and Catholic history.
The first story, “Three Generations,” tells of a young man who defies his father first by choosing the priesthood over a law career and then by reuniting his pining grandfather with a young woman. It hints at the “tropical gothic” of the title but is more conventional than most of the collection. Ghosts, saints, and visions are common as Joaquin (Gotita de Dragon and Other Stories, 2014, etc.) moves among folklore, legend, and even some sci-fi. In “Cándido’s Apocalypse,” a teenage boy alienated from his family and life in general begins to see people without clothing and then without flesh. In an entertaining quasi-mystery that begins with a crucial toothbrush (“The Order of Melkizedek”), siblings’ efforts to rescue their sister from a cult center on a Rasputin-like figure who reappears over many centuries. In “The Summer Solstice,” a religious festival’s wild dancing turns one woman into a sort of a pagan queen in her husband’s bemused eyes. One of the two navels may not exist in the tortuous, episodic title story as it shifts between Hong Kong and Manila and touches on exile, failed revolution, WWII, and Filipinos’ uncommon musical gifts. The play that closes the collection (“A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”) shows two spinster sisters trying to hold on to a once-vibrant and grand old house. Their survival may depend on selling their father’s final work of art, a painting of Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, from the ruins of Troy. The drama is rich in themes but rather dreary and heavy-handed.
Steeped in Filipino history and culture, Joaquin's work is a welcome discovery.