Agueda, by Bambi Harper
1. Bambi was a classmate two semesters ago, so I'd had the privilege of reading a chapter from "Agueda" before its publication a few months ago. That chapter was so properly and cleanly written, and yet so full of detail about the Manila of years long past (the book begins during the twilight years of Spain in the Philippines, the preview chapter I'd read, during the early American regime)-- including details that you don't find in history books, but (are made to seem) plausible (in that chapter, a male American secretary to a high ranking official transforms into the first transvestite courtesan in Manila)--that I simply could not put it down. I'm now halfway through the book, having begun it Sunday morning. I read it before church, during breakfast, at lunch, while snacking at Jollibee, and then at Cibo, even during the 15-minute intermission that bisects Repertory Philippine's staging of Disney's Camp Rock. The little one wanted to chat with her friends instead of sit by me. :)
2. Just at that point where my attention began to flag (the book goes through the tedium of Agueda's young life, including the usual things that happen in fiction to nubile female servants, and the convent-school relationship between Agueda and a friend--(think Ninotchka Rosca)--I am waiting for these events to turn into more than just plot points), the narrative shifts to the man whom I think Agueda will eventually wed. And that man (as well as the world he moves in) is more interesting than Agueda's trysts with an increasingly senile man. Agueda, too, gets a new love interest at this point (who is not the man I was just talking about)--though I can't understand her instantaneous attraction to him (her first encounter is with what I can only describe as his "hairy paw", held out to her in friendship).
3. On the "nubile female's destiny" trope: Bambi was my classmate in a class that was designed to help us explain our "poetics". Her work, she said, was actually allegorical--so that Agueda stood for, well, the Philippines; her master stood for Spain, etc. And so what happens to Agueda is allegorical too. So old school, you say? True. Which is also why I kept reading--because for the most part, the novel doesn't come off as a tired cliche about the Philippines or nationhood. And I credit Bambi's intimate knowledge of the details of life in a Philippines past and her deft handling of narrative for achieving this.
4. There were one or two instances when the point of view seemed to shift quite suddenly, and then return to the dominant POV (I've made a mental note to try to understand why these shifts happened), and I can't quite make out whether things are happening in Bicol or in Manila (which, of course, may very well be my fault, and means I will need to go through the novel a second time). Already I'm quite excited to find out what argument the book is making (all novels are a kind of argument, to me)--and whether the message is worth the trip.
5. But what about the characters, you ask, do you sympathize with them? I did, particularly in the beginning. But I think I'll need to read the rest of the book to give a proper review. I put it aside today with great reluctance (It's Monday, I need to write), but will gladly write more about it after I finish, hopefully soon.