A seemingly timeless festival is happening amidst a war that knows no end.
This was the recurring image of this powerful novel by Ninotchka Rosca. Set in the Marcos era, a time of violence and turmoil, it displays the brutality and beauty of humanity in its cast of colorful characters scattered among the different timelines of Philippine history, from the period of Spanish rule to the American rule.
On the island of K, a party is brewing. A big festival is in progress, and people are coming in droves through a system of motorized boats from different parts of the country, and even out of the country to have their fill of fun and laughter. Crazy dancing, wild beer drinking, and deafening music simultaneously erupt in the once silent streets of the island.
A group of three friends arrive at an island, after much of a hassle of getting a boat to ferry them across. The three friends are Adrian Banyaga, Anna Villaverde, and Eliza Hansen. Adrian is the typical eligible bachelor of the metropolis: smart, handsome, and rich. Anna Villaverde is the silent thinker who has had a torturous brush with the intelligence unit of the military. Eliza Hansen is as beautiful as a woman can be, and has the brain to administer her assets well.
Along with the other tourists who had come to the island, they had wanted to forget about their ordinary lives for a while to just party and be merry. As they danced to the groove of the booming music, they fell deeper into the ravine of political and military activity surrounding the area. The man known as Gueverra has set up a plan to bomb the stage where the governor was set to have his speech. Colonel Amor has captured and drugged Adrian, while Eliza has plotted to kill him for what he has done to Anna.
As the tension rises, the novel turns back in time. It turns back to the origins of the three friends, and how they are related to one another. It narrates mainly of the history of the Villaverdes starting from the union of a Spanish priest and the wife of his cook, until the death of Anna s mom after giving her birth, with her father Carlos Luis out of the country.
The novel then returns to the tension of the present, and the grimly events that are about to be uncovered. True enough, the plan of Gueverra succeeds, setting off a bomb that exploded as the governor was up the stage. Unfortunately, Adrian was afflicted by the bomb and fell into the sad state as his late grandfather Old Andy who used to go around in a wheel chair rambling about. Eliza was dragged away by soldiers, and a few days after the bombing incident, her body has showed up at the beach. Anna was the most fortunate of the trio, getting a job of teaching children up in the mountains, and carrying the child of Adrian.
Violence is splattered allover the novel, like blood seeping out of a salvage victim s body, tattered with bullet holes. Man often creates conflict wherever he goes, and when he is bored with hunting down animals, fellow man is a more challenging conquest. From the dark and dangerous jungles where the guerillas used to lay hidden and wait for the time to attack, to the bombing of the stage where the governor was about to give his speech, there is no escaping of the stench of death brought about by conflict.
When Manolo said They re fighting back , mentioning the oppressed people who were picking up stones and whatever weapons they could lay their hands on to use against the military, one could not help but think about more bloodshed and the dead bodies of those people.
Another disturbing matter is exhibited in the novel: the capacity of humans to lie and hide things from each other. It is unnerving, how things could seem so different in just a few seconds after learning the truth. The truth is often concealed or not told because they are not meant to for the risk of making a scandal or disturbing a peaceful relationship. However, there are those truths that are better off to be told, entailing a risk and danger be taken for the hopeful good or justice that will be done.
Maya s betrayal of her husband Don Carlos Lucas remained to be a secret until the later years of the latter, when their son Carlos Luis looked more like a certain German alchemist called Hans who used to be the Don s partner aroused doubt in the woman s sincerity. Maya, one lonely night, went up to the German s room and found him there naked. Having without the practice of intercourse for a while, the woman lusted for the manliness of the German and they first made love that night, which continued on for a long time until the German left, fearing for his life if the Don discovers his infidelity for Maya was pregnant with his child.
Hans also betrayed Don Carlos by giving the latter s notebooks containing the secret formula of the Four Roses Gin to the rivaling Capuchin monks in the alcohol business. The German was horrified of the ensuing wrath of Carlos Luis from finding out that the alchemist did not have any progress at all with his beer-making experiment. He imagined the Don voraciously demanding from him the money spent on his lodging and experiments, and worse yet, ordering for him to be killed. The pressure came upon him so much that he turned to the Capuchin monks who he thought would help him out of the situation. The monks tricked him and he still was not able to produce beer for his partner. This was only discovered when the American officials later on told Carlos Lucas to stop producing his gin in response to the complaint of the monks using his notebook as evidence of a forbidden food chemical present in the Four Roses Gin, allaying the suspicions of the elder Maya about the German.
Old Andy, Adrian s grandfather, also seemed to have a secret which was soon heard about when Colonel Amor related to Adrian Old Andy s suspicious activity of collecting Philippine war artifacts from the Spanish period to the present one. Adrian was shocked by this knowledge, not imagining his seemingly senile grandfather to have agents roam around collecting these materials, giving orders from the house through phone, which unfortunately was being monitored the colonel s agents, and how innocent he was of what was going on around him. This was one of the reasons why the colonel had abducted him. But realizing Adrian knew nothing at all, the colonel stopped the questioning on this particular subject and moved on.
Manolo showed up after the explosion to his wife Anna, who thought of him long dead. The picture that was shown to her when she was detained was not her husband s after all. It was someone made to look like Manolo, specially crafted by Colonel Amor. Manolo had spilled to the military after all, giving the locations of several rebel encampments, except for an address in Hong Kong where arms where being shipped. They talked for a while until the sound of Raphael coming closer to where they were sitting edged Manolo to ready his gun. Anna killed Manolo before he knew what was getting to him, for he was probably becoming an animal again, ready to kill her friend Raphael, and as an instinctual move, coupled with the thought of Manolo swaying from their rebel cause, she slashed him fatally with her knife.
Another surprise came in the form of the transvestite, who had come to be as one of the foremost party people of the island, wearing extravagant costumes that made the children poke at him and joining the other transvestites in their parading. Eliza found out from him that he was a professor at Manila and was quite manly when he did not have his costumes on. A surprising development in his character is observed later on when he is seen taking out a weapon from underneath his costume. It invariably turns out that he was just putting on a fa ade, and there was a deeper agenda to his being in the festival at that time besides partying and parading. It would come as to no surprise if his presence there were related to the assault planned by Gueverra.
The novel is filled with these imaginative and intriguing characters, contributing to the dark mood of the rich story that serves as a record of the history of the Philippines, from which Ninotchka Rosca spared no dark details in telling.