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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Marga Ortigas shines light on shadow in debut novel 

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When a journalist takes skills honed by decades of reporting the news and applies them to the novel, you can expect a tour-de-force of storytelling, and that’s what Marga Ortigas has done with The House on Calle Sombra: A Parable.

Ortigas is known to most as a broadcast journalist, a tough and determined reporter who has worked for GMA Network, Probe, and international outfits CNN (based in London) and Al Jazeera English. She obtained a master’s degree in literature from the University of Greenwich as a British Council Chevening scholar, and is now pursuing her love of fiction.

Her debut novel traces the fortunes and failures of three generations of a prominent Manila family. The Castillo de Montijos, descended from their patriarch Don Federico, a Spaniard, and his wife Doña Fatimah, the disowned daughter of a Muslim datû, raise their children and grandchildren in a privileged atmosphere that saps the family blood and its fate over time.

‘The House on Calle Sombra: A Parable’ traces the fortunes and failures of three generations of a prominent Manila family

As usual in many Filipino novels, the psychic scars of politics on the country, and the outsize and unscrupulous personalities that wounded it, are reflected in some of the characters featured in ‘Sombra.’

‘The plunderer Amá’ is a former president who imposed martial rule and “[demonized] select ‘enemies of the state,’” and caused years of “illegal abductions, disappearances, and imprisonments.” 

Ortigas writes: “Hundreds of people gone—just like that—because they displeased Amá.”

Meanwhile, the current president, #Durog Marasigan (yes, with the hashtag, as befits a leader who ascended to power by virtue of social media), is engaged in government contract shenanigans with China for a lot of money, enough to set up himself and his family for generations. His face is “gray in patches,” making him look ill. This concerns his mistress—‘Madam’—“We must even out your skin tone, so your health isn’t questioned again.”

Marga Ortigas is a journalist who applies her skills in writing news reports to her novel

These familiar themes set the stage for the action taking place in The Islands. ‘Sombra’ brings to mind the epic sweep of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books, and similarly, numerous strands of narrative are woven to create a complicated story.

To name a few of these threads, there’s the ‘rido’ (clan war) inadvertently caused by Doña Fatimah as a young woman fleeing a rapist; Don Federico’s quest for financial security and status; the manipulations of their daughter Macarena, which later lead to grief; and the follies of their unprincipled son Freddie and his drug-addled son Ricky, who fall afoul of the notorious schemer Tukô and other evildoers.

‘La familia primero: Unida y protegida’(Family first: united and protected) is the Castillo de Montijo motto, and the story revolves around the family members who negotiate their past, construct their present, and strategize their future while seeking to hold the family together.

This scene illustrates the tension between them: “Three generations of Castillos were gathered in potent silence on the matriarch’s veranda…Doña Fatimah steeled her gaze on her daughters. Neither dared speak nor look directly at her. Alma was trying not to stare at Cova’s son. Maca tried not to slap her own son in the face. Núria was dying to pepper them all with questions. The boys tried their best not to look like chumps.” Love and trauma suffuse their interactions, and as they try for a better outcome, they have to fight the forces of their own overwhelming hubris.

‘Sombra’ is well-written and engaging. The use of forms such as broadcast news scripts and social media posts to move the story forward is interesting and breaks up the chunks of expository text and dialogue, which are peppered with words in Filipino and Spanish to delineate different characters.

Marga Ortigas (right, background) posing with Chinese citizens

Ortigas deftly guides the reader through the world she has created that mirrors our own, where ‘family first’ is also everyone’s motto and the means are justified if the end is protection and security for the clan. It’s a worthy debut that sets the stage for a sequel. 

The House on Calle Sombra: A Parable
By Marga Ortigas
2021, 375 pages, tpb
Penguin Books

For comments and feedback, you may reach the author on Facebook and Twitter: @DrJennyO


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