Review by Tristan Foster
In a recent interview with Amitava Kumar, Michael Ondaatje spoke about the need for multiple voices and various narratives in stories of political or social consequence. ‘You want the politics of any complicated situation to be complicated in a book of fiction or nonfiction,’ Ondaatje said. In an oeuvre that has become increasingly complex, it is a belief that Merlinda Bobis has come to share; her latest novel Fish-Hair Woman is a narrative of knots. Set in Manilla and the village of Iraya, on the surface it is a fictionalised account of events during the civil uprisings of the seventies and eighties that led to dozens of Filipinos who opposed the ruling regime ending up at the bottom of the river. And it is this, but Fish-Hair Woman is many things.
Attracted by revolution, Australian journalist Tony McIntyre visited the Philippines in the 1980s. He fell in love with the country and its people, but, like so many others, disappeared. Now, over a decade later, he makes contact with Luke McIntyre, the son he abandoned. Luke reluctantly flies to Manilla where he is whisked away by his father’s wealthy patron, the missing man himself nowhere to be seen.
It’s this narrative that serves as Fish-Hair Woman’s spine. But at its heart – and in this novel as in all of Bobis’s work, it’s the heart that matters – it is a story about story: the untruths that are sculpted into truths, the myths that lives are built upon and the truths that corrode into myth. Myth and superstition run through the story like rust. But the meta-lesson of omens and old wives tales is that the world is a complex place; mythologising is an attempt at ordering a universe that stubbornly refuses to offer up a reason.
It is out of this same tradition that the novel, the grandmother of storytelling, rises. A novel is an attempt to order and explore, its existence relying on the fact that there is no single, straightforward story. The world is still a complex place. It’s why we need the novel – to remind us that nothing is simple, and to help us find comfort in this notion.
As if to underscore this idea, punctuating Bobis’s novel are clippings about the Iraya case from the Philippine Daily News. They offer some clarity, and give the story some real-world context. But the clippings are small, some cut from the margins, the kind of news-in-brief article that can be scanned in the short moments between bites of toast or jolts of the bus on the morning commute.
Presenting these concise paragraphs alongside Fish-Hair Woman’s elaborate narrative has the effect of making mainstream media’s attempts to grapple with any complex story appear futile. Perhaps pushing the case of multiple murders and government corruption to a page’s edge is an admission of this: a newspaper’s obligation is to skim a story’s top, as it only can. ‘Our sadness very big,’ Pay Inyo, Iraya’s medicine man, says to Luke. Leave it to the novel, a form without pretensions of truth, to attempt to unravel ‘big sadness’, to reach to a story’s heart, because, of all the storytelling mediums, the novel does it best.
‘Why is the past more present than the present, the old stories more acute, more in the flesh?’ Throughout the novel, the past persistently nudges through. “This is the hum of memory,” writes Estrella, the “fish-hair woman”, to the missing Tony. The merging of memory with the present gives the prose the quality of a dream that’s risen in the blue hours of dawn. The reader is asked to hop from the lyrical, Tagalog-peppered storytelling of Estrella to the stiffer prose tracing the stories of the Australians; occasionally the shift is in the space of a few short chapters. The styles are not so disparate from section to section as to appear written by different authors but this tangle of past, present, voice and place makes for challenging literature.
A text of this nature is going to pose challenges for the author, too, and Fish-Hair Woman is not a novel without flaw. At times, sub-stories are dropped and picked up and eventually concluded with little consequence. There are also occasions that the novel trades being poetic for being nebulous, thus losing the momentum it works hard to sustain. It’s at these times that the meandering narrative could have used some knocking into line.
But then there are tales like that of how Bolody, Estrella’s brother, became Belody da Teribol that Bobis gets it just right. Semi-present for most of the story, Bolody appears in full to have his heartbreaking story told. It is in these examinations of life in tiny Iraya that Bobis is at her best, the glow of fireflies all but visible just off the page.
As I was reading my thoughts kept turning to Wide Sargasso Sea. It shares with Jean Rhys’s masterpiece more than just a threat to topple into tragedy, but Fish-Hair Woman takes a wider view. It is a love story, a murder mystery, a story about family and a story about the impact of the kind of self-perpetuating government corruption that so often befalls a country in political turmoil. It’s ambitious and sprawling, and things could quickly go wrong. Fortunately, they don’t. Bobis is a talented, passionate writer who is unafraid of exploring the storytelling potential of the novel.
Spinifex Press, 2012
306 pages, $29.95
Review by Tristan Foster