Romantic and patriotic heroics fill this WWII–set debut: a remarkably rich story about a disparate group of Filipinos thrown together in their struggle to survive the Japanese occupation.
In the basement of a battered house outside Manila, a group of neighbors hides from the Japanese. To pass the time, to ward off fear, perhaps even to offer guidance, the inhabitants take turns telling stories. The first two, about a seller of potions and a fisherman with dark powers, have a magical-realist atmosphere. Then comes a series of tales focused on family that emphasizes human relationships and psychological nuance. The final stories deal with broader issues: racism, and political commitment. These oral fictions, often repetitive and verging on the sentimental, weave through a broader narrative of the group’s wartime trials as battle rages between American and Japanese forces (the “elephants” of the title). Thirteen-year-old Alejandro, sent out to scavenge for food, stays courageously silent when the Japanese briefly detain him. He thinks he sees the local hero and freedom fighter Domingo taken away to be shot. Actually, thanks to Alejandro’s sister Isabelle, Domingo escapes and reconnoiters with his lover Nina and his band of freedom fighters. Meanwhile, Isabelle is imprisoned by the Japanese and raped before Feliciano, previously a Japanese sympathizer, saves her. They all end up back in Alejandro’s parents’ basement, along with Domingo’s wife and children, Feliciano’s rich aunt, a brave young journalist, a seer, an elderly Spanish artist, and his cowardly son, among others. The Japanese eventually discover the group, which is force-marched to a warehouse prison. Domingo’s conflict between allegiance to his family and his political/military obligations gradually takes center stage, but each supporting character’s ethical battle resonates brightly, however briefly, and the author keeps the moral choices each faces too complex to second-guess.
A well-orchestrated chorus of voices that should strike a strong chord with many.