Angelo R. Lacuesta, Coral Cove and Other Stories, University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2017. 155 pgs.
With Angelo R. Lacuesta’s new collection of eleven short stories, it does not take the reader long to see why this Filipino author has received the numerous awards listed on the back of the book.
The majority of stories are set in the Philippines, whose presence is so strongly felt that it almost becomes a character. Its tumultuous history is rendered at one point as “Spanish times and then American times and then Japanese times” followed by “just hard times,” which are the Martial Law years and the following period of economic and political uncertainty. However, history, in another character’s parlance, is “a bunch of true and fake things” not easily disentangled from each other, and it is no coincidence that the last story ends with local folk legends about terrifying kapre (a tree giant) and bangungot (an evil spirit), legends that some might find more persuasive than historical facts.
The controversial relationship between fact and fiction evolves into a related theme—original vs. copy. The titular story starts and ends with the image of a shopping mall packed with customers, and throughout the book, the reader now and then stumbles upon the universal, hence familiar, language of consumerism. Brands of shoes, watches and clothes are narratives that reveal the characters’ identities and worldviews: you are what you buy. The reader discovers a rich palette, from originals to high-quality fakes to downright trash identified by a minuscule detail carefully planted by the author—a misspelled brand name printed in glistening letters on a girl’s t-shirt.
Language thus becomes the undercurrent of the entire collection. It is also a powerful tool in the author’s hands. Being extremely cautious about and delicate with words himself, Lacuesta, either by implication or directly through his protagonists, questions the meanings of the floating signifiers of the entrepreneurial realm: ownership, potential, upbeat, growth track, fundamentals.
Through the hotchpotch of abstract buzzwords, endless acronyms, generic female names, indistinguishable cover letters (“a copy of a copy of a copy … copied and pasted”) and counterfeited goods, one finds it hard to discern anything genuine and truly essential. The rush for wealth and power results in continuous adultery or the invention of an app which goes berserk, becoming the twenty-first century analogue of Frankenstein’s monster, and in the epicentre of this rush, there are a number of arresting flashes: an unborn child, a bike the daughter does not get for her birthday, regions of extreme poverty suddenly spotted from a landing plane. Not all is darkness, however, and two flickers of light emerge when the first story ends with a hope for future happiness and the last one with the childhood memory of a lullaby.
Written in English, this book is evidently aimed at an international audience. It ends with a glossary explaining Filipino words Lacuesta deliberately leaves untranslated in the stories. These words—not italicised in contrast with entrepreneurial catchwords, and hence more visually integrated into the text—not only remind the reader of the author’s origins or prompt characters’ childhood memories, but also contribute to concise verbal portraits. There is exquisite irony behind the use of a tiny particle, “the horrific honorific po,” indicating either the speaker’s social status or the addressee’s age, or behind the image of a decrepit Filipino who when sober is pathetically feeble and speaks only Bisaya switching to English and bragging about the pre-war times when drunk.
Another field of Lacuesta’s writerly interest is time. The anticlimactic detective story of a quantum scientist testing the principle according to which events occur simultaneously perfectly illustrates the temporal matrix Lacuesta artfully employs. Passages about individual memories or the country’s past smoothly intermingle with those set in the fluid present, and dreams are superimposed on reality, which results in a confusing temporal maze one finds hard to exit. Moreover, the stories seem to lack an exit altogether. They are devoid of any dénouement, even in the story that appears to be detective fiction, which leaves the reader with an uneasy sense of incompleteness. She assumes, as it were, the role of Jorge from “Encounter,” half-expecting a UFO’s arrival, not seeing it and, in the end, observing an orange glow in the sky, which might be the sign of aliens but might as well be nothing more than the rising sun.
Lacuesta once remarked, “I like to think that the short story is a Filipino form.” The Philippines is a country of over 7,000 islands. If one is to agree that a country’s geography affects its citizens’ way of thinking and writing, then a collection of short stories would seem the literary equivalent of an archipelago, where islands have the ambivalent status of being both isolated entities and parts of the whole. Each story in Coral Cove makes sense as an individual piece, but the whole collection, viewed from above, demonstrates certain patterns tying the stories together. A short phrase early in the collection unexpectedly resurfaces, verbatim, on its last pages, or two different characters separated by several stories are “baptised” with the same surname. Seemingly random, these details nevertheless trigger a round of re-reading in search for some stability among the anticlimactic plots and blurred timelines, under the country’s omnipresent heat.
Lacuesta’s stories are no easy reading, and are not designed to be, but they are worth every effort the reader makes.
Natalia Delazari is an MPhil candidate in English Literary Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her current research interests include narratology and twentieth-century literature, primarily Vladimir Nabokov. She is also a freelance English-Russian translator. When not working, she finds pleasure in traveling, photography, and experimental cooking.