A tour-de-force of memory and history
It’s always difficult to bring the past to life, especially when one doesn’t have any written documents to draw on, only stories told within the family circle and passed on from one generation to the next. Yet Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta manages to do this admirably in her new novel Assembling Alice.
In an interview for Penguin SEA, Katigbak-Lacuesta says the book is about her “maternal grandmother, one of the first female Filipino journalists. She grew up during the Commonwealth period. She survived the Japanese occupation, the Second World War, and the aftermath of the liberation of Manila.
“Essentially, these are stories I grew up hearing and I tried to tell it as coherently as I could by weaving a clear narrative through all the anecdotes I’ve heard over the years,” she says.
The ‘Alice’ of the book’s title is Alice Feria, a hazel-eyed pianist who aids the resistance during the war and suffers loss, deprivation, and sorrow. But it is also a story of love, and the three men who loved Alice – Haruki, a Japanese spy; Burt Winn, an American soldier; and Ding Obordo, a member of the Philippine basketball team in the 1936 Olympics.
Alice first meets Haruki at the home of her friend Linang, where he is a gardener. He loves her from afar but hesitates to approach her; he has a bigger game to play. There is a touching scene where they complete a haiku together. Later, as a Japanese officer, he saves Alice from certain death in a dungeon, and leaves her life completely.
Linang, who has her eye on Ding, invites Alice to a gathering he’s also invited to. Unfortunately for Linang, Ding falls in love with Alice, they marry, and adopt a son. Father and son die in a fire set by the Japanese; only Alice survives after a young neighbor pulls her out. She is a grieving widow playing piano for wealthy friends when Burt meets and falls for her, hard.
Other characters tell their stories in a complex weaving of perspectives: Salvacion, Alice’s aunt who is a mother to her; Felix, her absent father; Zipper, conductor of the orchestra for which Alice plays; and others whose diverse viewpoints give a comprehensive view of Alice, her life, and her environment.
Through it all, we see the figure of Alice, steadfast in her love of country and family, willing to sacrifice her life to uphold the principles she holds sacred.
Katigbak-Lacuesta has described her work as “biofiction,” a term defined by Kevin Coss, writing for the University of Minnesota, as “literature with a protagonist named after a real-life person, and the author fictionalizes that historical figure in order to show a common theme between otherwise unlike things or to convey a larger meaning, such as for social commentary.”
In the case of ‘Alice,’ the protagonist is actually the historical person, and the social commentary is related to nation-building, which is important to Alice and impels her to become a journalist after the war. Several of her editorials written for the magazine The Filipino Home Companion are included in the book.
In the book’s epilogue, Katigbak-Lacuesta relates her fascination with the grandmother she never met. The novel is the author’s brave and determined project to bring her grandmother back to life, to build a world in which Alice still breathes, lives, and loves — Alice who survived a Japanese officer’s wrath, Alice who was pulled from a burning house, Alice who went on to have children and grandchildren, among them the author herself.
Katigbak-Lacuesta’s use of language is masterful. The author of several books of poetry, she brings a lyrical quality to her prose that makes this book a tremendous delight to read. Consider this paragraph about Burt Winn assessing Alice’s appearance:
“He sees looseness in her dress, but they have all been through hunger and do not quite belong to their clothes. This time, he does not see that morning’s blue softly shrouding her. He sees her hazel eyes, the thin arcs of her brows, her hair falling to just below her nape. Alice smiles at her hosts abstractedly. She is here but she isn’t here, Burt thinks to himself.”
In Assembling Alice, Katigbak-Lacuesta not only succeeds in telling a charming and engaging tale, she also creates a touching work of historical fiction that portrays in warm and loving detail the lives of real people. This is memory fleshed and animated by imagination, to create an entirely new tale that in turn will create memories for readers.
This novel is precious on many levels. I believe it is destined to become a Filipino modern classic.
For comment and feedback, you may reach the author on Facebook and Twitter: @DrJennyO
By Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta
228 pages, Penguin Random House SEA
P995.00 for pre-order at Good Intentions Books (Facebook page); also available at major bookstores.