The title, at once dislocated and removed, is a tantalizing articulation of the story's tragicomic problem: a casket unceremoniously arrives from Jeddah carrying the corpse of a Filipina identified by the label on the crate as Aurora M. Cabahug, mysteriously certified by the Jeddah authorities as having died from "drowning."
Uniting the body with the grieving family should be a simple thing, except that there is no one to claim her at the airport, and the woman in the box is not, in fact, who the label claims she is.
But even before that misunderstanding surfaces Filipino bureaucracy and SOP take over.
A missive calling for next of kin is sent to Paez, the woman's hometown, a backwater five or six hours by car Manila. Here the real Aurora M. Cabahug lives, and languishes ? she sings nightly at the Flame Tree, a KTV nightclub frequented by cops, the town's vice mayor, and the occasional gaggle of Koreans passing through.
But if "Aurora" the corpse is aimless and nameless, Rory, younger sister of the titular woman, who has never set foot much beyond the leafy borders of Paez, is still caught in the Filipino dream, drunk on her raw, God-given talent and flush with wonder about the world beyond.
The unglamorous task of reuniting the two sisters and their split identities falls on SPO2 Walter G. Zamora, a lonely cop who knows Rory to be alive: he remembers her during that one visit to the Flame Tree. Walter is himself a victim of circumstance, having found himself in Paez from Manila, by way of romantic indiscretion and a string of bad luck.
Most significantly, Walter is a good cop, and the last time we saw a believably good cop was in Auraeus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, where Victor, the object of Maximo's affection, appeared a bit too green and soft to become much more than a clever plot device.
Precision play is perhaps precisely where Philippine prose has one over cinema. We see that Walter is not that green?and not that soft-hearted either. "He had just turned thirty-eight," Dalisay describes him "?an age that was neither here nor there, but at which point, with most lives, the future should have emerged with a certain clarity, an invitation to hurry and grab a hold of some great last chances."
In writing him so, Dalisay performs an important trick?not just on our literary senses, but also on our Pinoy sensibilities. Why not a Pinoy cop who can suffer the mundane depths of worrying about the weight and waste of his age? It's a tough trick, but if anyone can do it, Dalisay can.
He even places his policeman in the role of a classical hero, charges him with an actual quest and requisitions an ungainly mount for him (a pre-FX Tamaraw that, true to the discipline and economy in the author's most celebrated short stories, later finds its own significance). He asks you to note his clumsy attempts at chivalry, his trademark emotional scar, the stray cat he befriends and now tends to like a child in his apartment. In fact, even the most jaded reader will perhaps find himself, despite himself, aching to see Walter find some love.
As soon as he enlists our empathy, you breathlessly follow him (you can almost hear the author smile broadly to himself) as he drives Soledad's sister from Paez to various points in Manila, with stops in Hong Kong and Jeddah, where the dead Soledad's itinerant memory takes us.
Though the frame story takes place over only three days, the separate accounts of each of the main characters tightly bridge plot and points of view, so that the novel easily gains scope and momentum as the van and its strange cargo of bedfellows covers more ground toward Manila?and many unexpected parts within.
In the hustle of events that follows in the great city, Rory's strange reunion turns into a strange separation; Walter's unscheduled homecoming becomes a puzzle and a chase; Soledad's character sheds mystery and gains motivation; and a series of outside and past happenings and forces comes to a head, across a clever convergence of timeframes, crime scenes and cityscapes.
With its illusions of quick employment and easy money, it is of course the city that has lured millions of Filipinos out of small towns like Paez. In the novel, it is Dalisay's prose that lures us to stop and stare?whether it's Hong Kong, its harbor lights "like white letters on a black page" or Jeddah and its "stream of kaleidoscopic and cacophonic impressions."
But what Dalisay makes us share most are his sharp observations on the bright, dark city of Manila itself, its vast, seeming omniscience, its near-complete sentience, where "the people themselves all seemed to know where they were going, or how they were expected to act in this massively choreographed, painstakingly produced performance, the pedestrians sure of step even with cellular phones glued to their ears, the motorists puffing blithely away on their cigarettes and tapping their fingers on their dashboards in tune to some muted radio, staring a hundred meters ahead."
Still, there is a special warm and fuzzy feeling touchingly reserved for the town and the townsfolk of Paez, so that pages set in its confines somehow acquire the gauze and veneer of a 1950s romance, furnished with all the right elements: the virgin chanteuse, the hard-boiled cop, the old songs laden with flowers and moonlight and promises.
But while Paez makes for a quick and simple stand-in for that photo-album town many of us alternately cannot imagine to have lived in and secretly long to return to, this reviewer chooses to interpret the place as the dusty origin and never-forgotten hometown of the modern Filipino heart. And there lies one of the most engaging attributes of Soledad's Sister.
It stands firm and true however the reader might choose to see it?as a tale exquisitely formed and told, or as a page turner full of real grit and glitter. Almost unbelievably, and quite reassuringly, the book stands quite well and handsomely on both legs in all of its 194 pages. Its slenderness, which may be seen by some as a bit too slim, is in fact what points us to its most singular and most difficult accomplishments: deceiving simplicity and breathtaking restraint.
Seasoned readers will be immensely satisfied by these discoveries in Soledad's Sister. And practicing writers will do well to note them, if at least to learn what separates the truly meaningful story from the ordinary anecdote or flight of fancy, and what distinguishes the writer who is being true, from the writer who is merely being creative, or, shamefully, self-promoting.
I suspect it is the novel's simplicity and verbal restraint that also allows Dalisay to introduce his vulnerable characters without fear. Why not, indeed, a Pinoy cop who can restore some love and bring back some faith in ?Pinoy cops? I don't know if even the most speculative fictionist will go that far, but with this sublime novel, with its invisible, careful style, the author does farther than most of us have ? Filipinos, not just writers? in restoring our forgiveness for, and our faith in our own Filipino hearts.
The Full-Daylight Part
But that's just the gauzy, shiny leg of the novel. The fun part is actually the functional, full-daylight part?where Dalisay's clear prose and sure handling allow him to deliver rich, layered material to the reader's mind without piling on the adjectives (or worse, adverbs).
When adobo, binagoongan and dalag sa mustasa are dished out, almost in their raw transliterated form, presumably for the non-Filipino audience, the transparency of the ingredients, curiously enough, only gives the Pinoy reader more direct access to his personal experience of the dish?just the way his mother (or his housekeeper, or considering the state of reading in our country, his caregiver) cooked it.
When Dalisay introduces Nicomedes Panganiban, an old hotel piano player-turned-momentary gurô/guru who would, early on, provide a soft sustained note of hope for Rory (and the gratified reader), we also see, and are almost sure, that the "nails immaculately trimmed and polished by the girls at the barber shop" and "the slicked-back hair, which may have been thinning but was dyed absolutely black" may have also belonged to that other master of the art, that other Nick?Joaquin.
Perhaps it's wishful thinking to search for anybody you know in a novel, but Soledad's Sister is, after all, a wishful biography, a list of things that may really happen to real people you may know.
Toward the end of the novel, these things that happen perform a grand choreography, massive and minute, bared further and further toward the end, constantly testing the author's heroic literary restraint. This restraint is perhaps how the novel's slim scale outwits the reader to think it a simple tale. To me that is the author's most fascinating trick of all.
After all, you could list a lot of curious, interesting and prose-worthy things about the life of the OFW, from the most embarrassing personal detail to the most dramatic economic observation. After all, there are 8 to 10 million Pinoys out there. You could crowd us with relevant, surprising, self-gratifying data until the last of those millions comes home?or stops returning. You could write a zillion stories, with all kinds of granularity, that will make you feel rewarded for writing your work, or your reader believe he is rewarded by reading it.
It is these hundreds of things that seem to alternately inform and caution Dalisay every step of the way, so that so much is hidden, and so much revealed?but only in the circumstances he chooses to explore, and repeat: a name is repurposed; a person comes home; a crime is committed.
Soledad, the book's first victim, is also its last, and if she is anonymous, faceless and nameless in the beginning, she is also in the end. The quests for identity, solace and escape remain the same, and for the same people. The novel begins and ends quietly, and simply, with the Filipino alone?in a crowd, in a city, in death, out of nowhere, in history. The sweep and the thrill and the movement that you feel when you read it?that's the Filipino in you stirring, claiming Soledad's Sister as your own.
Its short-listing for the 1st Man Asia Literary Prize is gravy.