Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Woman Who Had Two Navels

"Riding home with her father, she heard a cock crowing––a sound that only yesterday, if heard in sleep, would have yielded images of bare feet in brown water, the smell of ripe guavas, the echoes of summer laughter in the country. Now she heard the cry itself, the pure, lonely, urgent cry––and it started no echoes."
- p. 165

All over the country in those days, young men were tending newspapers, writing poems, going in politics, looking for gold mines. The ferment of the Revolution had bred a climate in which poets and artists had political effects... In two swift decades they would find themselves obsolete––discarded and displaced persons gathering in each other's parlors to revile the present and regret the past.
- p. 170


I looked at the list of books I've read in the last two years and felt ashamed for having only included two Filipino authors––national hero Jose Rizal and my best friend, Pam (lol). (Oh, I forgot to include the writer of Ilustrado--09/24/12.) I made a mental note to include more, particularly the classics from the post-war era. I did not do a google search nor asked for recommendations from friends, but for some reason, at the bookstore, I gravitated toward Nick Joaquin's The Woman Who Had Two Navels. What a beautiful case of serendipity it was.

Published in 1961, the novel is set in Hong Kong and revolves around upper-class Filipino families, whose lives took a turn right after the Japanese occupation. (Just how rich are these families? One household employs a Chinese houseboy––in Hong Kong. Those were the days, indeed.)

There is a lot of... erm, navel-gazing on how the Philippines should move forward. The optimism was a no-brainer: given the publication date, which was less than 20 years after the World War II, the Philippines was the second strongest economy in Asia, second only to Japan. (Six years ealier, Joaquin wrote A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino; my similar review here.)

I'm hard-pressed to think of what problems the country must be facing at that time (if there were any), that Joaquin at one point in the novel boldly makes the argument––through a Catholic priest character at that––that committing a mistake is okay, as long as it is done out of free will. In justifying adultery:

"Some people can rise very high only because they have fallen very low. The bigger the crime, the deeper the need for salvation, and the more heroic the repentance. Without sin, there can be no repentance––and, therefore, no upheaval or transfiguration or growth of the spirit."

To which, a straighlaced character quipped, "Then I must be hopeless... I'm certainly not very spectacular as a sinner."

Twenty years later, oh how the government has spectacularly sinned against its people, having declared Martial Law and plunging the Philippine economy to wretched depths. Hence, it was with dark humor that I revisited this quote, still from the same book:

"I don't understand why you men won't honor the labors of women to make themselves lovely. Beauty is a virtue too––or, anyway, a responsibility. A rose that was ugly had disobeyed God."
- Concha Vidal to Father Tony, p. 156


It turned out that the rose's name would be Imelda Marcos.

It's a beautiful, grand novel on the Philippines, complex in its layers and symbolism without resorting to hysterical surrealism or labored language. I'm sure I have barely scratched its surface with this entry.


4 * :

'chelle said...


“Because it is so hard to keep the world going. There is always the temptation to abandon the effort altogether. For there is always the sowing and the harvesting, the building and the reparing, the falling down and the rising up again. Every day, everything has to be done all over again. In our world, it is always monday morning.
- From “The Woman Who Had Two Navels” by Nick Joaquin
one of my favorite quotes of all time is from that book. :D

Jason D. said...


I agree--reading that gave weight to my frustrations, and more. :)

Katrina Atienza said...


Amazing book; I should re-read too. If you're lucky to find a copy, his "A Question of Heroes" is also a good read. He tries to explain why our national heroes did what they did in terms of psychology, motivation, culture, etc. Ang daming gossip! Like, Rizal was super insecure about his height (he keeps on referring to it in his diaries), so may slight Napoleon complex siya. Graciano Lopez Jaena naman was a bohemian in Paris na panay ang party. Sayang I only got to read the book when I worked at a foundation; it was from the chairman's private library .

Jason D. said...


Haha, ChikkaTime, the National Artist way! Will be on the lookout for those, thanks!

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