Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review of Victoria Conlu's novel on the Maguindanao Massacre

In 2009, mass burial plots were discovered in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao province on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The burial plots, the result of the cold-blooded massacre of 58 people, deepened the widespread sense held by many Filipinos of the illusion of morality and goodwill among their country’s political class. In trying to calibrate their rational understanding of why anyone would wantonly murder 58 innocent individuals in an orgy of compounded brutality, Filipinos were forced to conduct some soul-searching: was the Maguindanao massacre a product of something integral to the collective Filipino psyche; or was it a structural reflection of a political culture that has become shrouded in violence, corruption, and in a retrogressive cult of familial successionalism?

The massacre took place against the backdrop of an electoral campaign for Maguindanao governor in the 2010 Philippine national elections. In the middle of this politically contentious environment, the display of gratuitous carnage went above and beyond the conventional level of violence that usually mars most national elections in the islands. A localized rivalry between two political clans for dominance in Maguindanao is felt to be the primary cause of the atrocity, the consideration of which lay bare how ruthless, paranoiac, and confrontational provincial Philippine politics can be. Such deadly and rancorous politics can be described in terms as a worse-case Hatfields-versus-McCoy scenario.

Victoria Conlu, a Sacramento-based Filipina American writer, aims a stirringly severe literary intervention at the Maguindanao massacre. In “Portraits of a Massacre,” the fictional town of Tarongoy is comparable to other similarly-sized towns in the Philippines in terms of their modern political cultures and traditions. The subject of localized politics in the Philippines brings up thoughts of patronage, intimidation, vote-buying, and the shedding of blood. You find all of this in Conlu’s novel in her working of the dominant family in Tarongoy which is the family’s namesake.

Inciong Tarongoy, the mayor of Tarongoy, is priming his son Fausto to eventually take up the mantle of the power in the town when his time comes. Inciong’s main political rival is Aldo Armonio, the mayor of the neighboring town. The strong connection between the two leaders is their long friendship and their children’s shared future: Lucy, Aldo’s young daughter, is all but betrothed to Fausto. It is a forthcoming political marriage to be sure, but hints of potential love percolates below the surface of their childhood relationship.

Conlu however supplies us with ominous signs that all is not well with Fausto mentally and emotionally in spite of his bright future as a gifted politician if he were to choose that path. Inciong for his part fails to understand his son’s troubled and contrarian life as a man. The father, as is traditionally the case in the Philippines, is not to be questioned by the son and this spells nothing but hurt and suffering for Fausto who can never be—nor wants to be—the son that his father wants him to be.

Two other characters act as the novel’s first person narrator along with Inciong and Fausto. Migs Cervantes is a freelance journalist. As a courageous and determined reporter, Migs takes the fateful decision to cover the story of the mayoral election in what Conlu generically terms the “Province.” But Migs gets far more than she bargained for as she unwittingly ends up in the middle of the story of the massacre as one of the victims. There is also Lucy Armonio whose tragic misfortune is to be the daughter of the only man capable of stopping Inciong Tarongoy from realizing his self-serving, at-all-cost ambitions. Yael Caacbay meanwhile, is neither an angel nor necessarily a devil in spite of the fact that he is one of the massacre’s paid executioners. It is socio-economic circumstances, not blinding hatred or innate wickedness, that forces Yael to do the unthinkable.

If you had told me that a Filipina American registered nurse—which Victoria Conlu is—with one previous novel to her name could thematically and resonantly write about something as extraordinarily horrific as the Ampatuan massacre, at the very least I would have been somewhat skeptical about its quality. But Conlu, with hauntingly bittersweet prose, comes closer than any other fiction writer in accurately portraying the massacre and its human costs in “Portraits of a Massacre.”


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