LITERATURE

Book review: In ‘Wounded Little Gods,’ a beautiful depiction of Philippine mythology

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"Spirits used to roam the town of Heridos," goes the first line of Eliza Victoria's "Wounded Little Gods." In the novel, Regina, who was born and raised in the small town, befriends a colleague, Diana, who disappears and leaves her with a strange map filled with Diana's handwriting.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Three moments in recent memory have made me tear up for weird reasons: Han Solo’s return to the Millennium Falcon in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the introduction of the cabinet in Jerrold Tarog’s "Heneral Luna," and Rodrigo Duterte dropping some casual Bisaya during this year’s SONA, and it not being a big deal. I’m still unsure about the exact reasons I was so incredibly affected. But my suspicion is that it’s because they were indicators that something went unbelievably right in the world: Han Solo does belong in his ship, our heroes do deserve good portrayals in cinema, and, yes, Bisaya as a language deserves to be viewed as normal and everyday — it doesn’t matter whose mouth it comes from. I was probably overcome by disbelief — that, in the chaos of this world, some things are as they should be.

I share these instances because I felt the same way about a particular part of Eliza Victoria’s new book, “Wounded Little Gods.” At one point in the novel, after the author had hit her stride, she began a sequence of introductions: Mapulon, Amihan, Hukluban — Filipino deities who took form in the book. They spoke; they had distinguishable personality traits; they were believable and powerful and deeply flawed. In short, they were all brought to life by a gifted writer. I couldn’t believe it took me 28 years to find fiction with such a beautiful and relatively accurate depiction of the mythology of the motherland. It was a wonderful feeling — magic, frisson. And I feel like it will take up a nice little space in my head for a long time to come.

Of course, this is not to say that the book has zero faults. It had a bunch. The beginning was a post-long weekend Monday morning: clear as day, but overbearingly blunt and dreary. The narration could have benefited from two bottles of Cobra — some signal that the author was not just rushing to get to the good parts, and to begin developing the more interesting characters. In fact, re-reading the book, I found no compelling reason to care for the supposed main character Regina. It was almost like Choose Your Own Adventure, the way the protagonist’s facelessness invites you to assign her your own attributes — your own life. She was almost a main character in the early Final Fantasy games — strong, important, but completely mute and vanilla. I began a back-and-forth with myself: Perhaps this was the author’s intention, and that actually works out eventually, but then that still doesn’t excuse Regina’s faux-snarky and off-tune asides that were jarring withdrawals from immersion in the story.

After the author had hit her stride, she began a sequence of introductions: Mapulon, Amihan, Hukluban — Filipino deities who took form in the book. They spoke; they had distinguishable personality traits; they were believable and powerful and deeply flawed.

This, however, is where my amateur hour complaints end. The redemption found in the heart of this short novel is unquestionable. Towards the end of “Wounded Little Gods,” I was thinking of a knot — tied elaborately and maybe even clumsily, but all for a grand and deserved unraveling. I enjoyed the book the way one enjoys the collapse of a kingdom of dominoes. After a significant turning point in the plot, the build-up makes some sort of twisted sense. It was strange, suddenly caring about characters that I felt were under-characterized — which might be an indicator that, maybe, I just need to read it again.

I wasn’t disappointed. Victoria reminded me again why I’m a massive fan of her writing. This book had moments where the author managed to raise simple plot events to the level of high literature — finding the wisdom in the unbelievable, transforming plot points into aphorisms. It even almost explains Regina’s lack of character growth — because maybe she isn’t supposed to grow, maybe her entire character is a suggestion, and that it is we who must pay attention, who must do the growing.

“Wounded Little Gods” is a short book, which makes the slow exposition absolutely bearable. And redemption can be found in just about every other thing: in the thrilling wild goose chase of a second half, in the startling universal insight in unexpected pockets of plot, in the subject matter, which sheds light on such a rich part of Philippine culture, and in the masterful prose of one of the most promising and prolific writers in the country.

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"Wounded Little Gods" (Visprint) is available in Fully Booked, National Book Store, and Powerbooks.