Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

24 April 2012

(Novel) The Woman With Two Navels by: Nick Joaquin

(Reaction) National Identity as Illustrated and Explored Through Personal Crisis by: Antonio Conejos

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Woman with two navels can be read as a personal story of how a young woman reconciles the contradictions of her past forges her own identity. In turn, this personal journey is a reflection of how the Philippines also reconciles its own turbulent history (Spanish, then suddenly American, followed by a brief interlude of Japanese) and begins to form a unique identity of its own. Both the personal and national narratives are preoccupied with the concerns of the past.

The story of Connie

Simply put, Connie Escobar is one troubled young lady. She hates her origins - she despises her parents. Thus as a child she ran away from home out of shame from her father's past (a doctor who performed abortions) and his present (a purported corrupt politician). She is even more explicit in her condemnation of her mother, I'm your vanity and your malice and your cruelty and your lust. I'm the fruit of all the evil you carry in you.

Connie's marriage, her first attempt as an adult to escape from her past, ends in failure. Marriage commonly is seen as a new beginning, a separation from one's family to begin a separate life. However in Connie's case her marriage is just a continuation of the corrupt past. Macho, her haciendero husband, turns out to be the former lover of her mother.

This repulsion from her past takes on in her mind a physical manifestation; her two navels. Significantly, this is further proof of her warped origins. Where normal people have only one navel, and hence one mother, Connie sees herself as a confused product of at least two different sources.

Ultimately Connie cannot run from her past. To escape it she must defeat it, destroy it. She realizes this when Pepe Monson confirms for her whether she has two navels or not. The reader is never told the result of this examination but after it Connie rushes off to see Fr. Tony; one can conjecture perhaps for absolution.

Asking someone to prove or disprove her two navels is Connie's way of squarely facing her past; of casting a critical eye and impassioned eye on her warped origins. It is this action which allows her to move beyond these twisted origins. This reconciliation with the past takes the form of 3 dreamline/fantasy sequences with 3 key figures. Connie's father, mother and husband all appear to her and all 3 pass away on notes of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Note that Connie's reconciliation of the past is inherently destructive. All 3 figures must die in order that she may live. Moreover, the destruction of the past is elemental; each person's death is linked with a basic element of nature: Macho with earth, Concha with water and Manolo (Connie's father) with air. Connie's past is literally coming apart, destroyed component by component.

The story of Las Islas Filipinas

Connie, in confronting her past (and destroying it), also confronts the unresolved, broken, past of the young Filipino nation. Specifically, it is the old generation of Filipinos raised under Spanish colonial era that she (someone born in the American era) has come to reconcile with. (The changing cultural affects are clearly seen in the names of mother and daughter. Concha, born under Spanish rule is named Conchita. Connie, born under the American period, carries an appropriately anglicized version of the name Concha.)

Indeed, this impetus to pay homage to the old generation is precisely why Connie chose to seek out Pepe. In his words, For it now seemed inevitable that she should have come - to close a circle, to end a history... I have the strongest feeling it was Father she was looking for, all this time.

For of course the embodiment of this lost, final generation born under Spanish rule is the old Dr. Monson, the faithful revolutionary who fought at Tirad Pass, who suffered in exile while his nascent republic languished under the new colonial rulers - the Americans. Dr. Monson's generation, once lauded with so much hope, became unmoored from all they knew upon the arrival of the Americans.

This dissipation of vitality and energy, the loss of promise and potential of the culminating generation born under Spanish rule is also vividly described in relation to Concha's first husband, Esteban Borromeo. The future of which they had so happily babbled had turned into a dead end... Not from these protagonists, with their fine manners and classical vocabularies, would evolve the mind of the following generation, which was actually to speak in another tongue. A people that had got as far as Baudelaire in one language was being returned to the ABC's of another language and the young men writing in the 1900s would find that their sons could not read them. The fathers spoke European, the sons would speak American.

Dr. Monson also keenly feels the break in history caused by the arrival of the Americans. He is divorced from the present, he literally cannot fathom what has become of his beloved country. Thus he is rendered speechless and dumb by his short visit to Manila and voluntarily withdraws back to exile in Hong Kong. This voluntarily return to exile is a tacit admission that the Philippines under the Americans is not the home country he recognized and fought for against the Spaniards.

The two estranged generations meet in the climax of the novel. Connie seeks forgiveness for abandoning Dr. Monson's generation while Dr. Monon seeks forgiveness for abandoning the present (Connie's) generation. She felt his hand blessing her and knelt up and crept to his breast and he flung his arms about her and embraced her, embracing in her the grief of all the generations he had failed to know, whose passion he had refused to share. Kneeling clapsed in each other's arms, in a foreign land, the young girl and the old man mutely implored each other's forgiveness.

After this mutual absolution, Dr. Monson realizes that the Republic which he fought for is not dead, that he had not failed in his duties. For the Republic, the Philippines, lives on in his sons, in the next generation (even though this generation was born and raised under a culture foreign to him). It had not been lost... Here it was before him (and he strove to rise to salute it) in the faces of his sons... He had saved it... Here he was, home at last.

Note though that, just like in Connie's personal life, the reconciliation of the national identity with its past is also inherently destructive. Dr. Monson's generation must make way, pass the torch as it were, to Connie's. This is explicitly noted by Concha who wishes to be by Dr. Monson in his final hours, I should be there... to watch the last of my world pass away. The final reconciliation with the past, the final act of destruction, is Concha's own death. Thus is the last of the past wiped away, and Connie (as well as the Philippine national identity) can begin a future.

Review:

Joaquin's prose, so sonorous and passionate in short stories, becomes melodramatically tawdry in novel form. Connie, the erstwhile heroine is best described in varying shades of neurosis, melodrama (this is really the most apt word for the entire novel) and self loathing. In fact none of the women in Woman With Two Navels have many redeeming qualities. (This by itself could be an interesting study.) Accompanying these false notes is how contrived the dialogue now reads to modern ears.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Joaquin's short stories; May Day Eve being one of my favorite. That's why this novel was so disappointing for me. It seems to have all the elements that make Joaquin great, strong female protagonist juxtaposed with the preoccupation of national identity, but the whole just doesn't cohere well.

As such, my vote for great Filipino novel in English is still Gamalinda's Empire of Memory.

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