VERONICA MONTES Reviews
The Descartes Highlands by Eric Gamalinda
(Akashic Books, Brooklyn, 2015)
The Lost Boys
I was sitting in a burger joint when I first cracked the spine of Eric Gamalinda’s novel, The Descartes Highlands. Inexplicably, restaurant management had decided that vertigo-inducing zydeco music was the perfect accompaniment to the high calorie fare. I happened to disagree, but I have to admit zydeco music was the perfect accompaniment to the first seven pages of The Descartes Highlands, where in short order we discover that a child has been sold to a stranger for thirty thousand dollars; a woman learns she is infertile and is then abandoned by her lover; a young girl suffers fits of hysteria and must be sedated to receive an abortion; and Manila, “a city used to constant erasure,” is bludgeoned by a tropical storm.
Take a deep breath; I did.
An armature of three voices provides the framework for The Descartes Highlands: that of two brothers (unknown to each other for the first half of the novel) born on the same day to different Filipina mothers, and their reckless, disillusioned father. The brothers are, in fact, human trafficking victims disguised as international adoptees, and their adoptive parents are fully complicit in the crime. None of this bodes well for Jordan and Mathieu, whose harrowing origins are reflected in the course of their lives. Like their biological father, the brothers are freefalling through an existence marked by absence, unstable relationships, ugliness, half-truths. Are they better off in their adoptive countries of the US and France than they would have been in the Philippines? Have they been “saved” by their parents? Both seem to think so.
Gamalinda dedicates his novel to his family. “Especially to my mother,” the inscription reads, “who taught me to write fearlessly.” He does indeed write fearlessly in The Descartes Highlands, where he stares down startling, discomfiting images and renders them in rich, unflinching prose. This storytelling stayed with me, even when I would have preferred that it leave me alone for a bit. I can’t forget the dog who is castrated in flagrante delicto, then left howling in pain and running in circles while his amused assailant looks on. Or the tender, deeply sad glimpses we’re given of co-dependent Jordan as he tends to his injured mother, a victim of the right-wing lunatics who firebombed her abortion clinic. It took many attempts for me to make it through a scene in which a prisoner, himself a rapist, experiences unspeakable sexual abuse at the hands of his captors.
There were moments I felt claustrophobic while reading this novel—as if I were trapped in an echo chamber of misery. But as challenging as I found the darker aspects, I was compelled to keep reading by the strength of the writing (it’s not for nothing that Gamalinda is the recipient of the Philippine National Book Award, a Palanca Memorial Award, and a Philippine Centennial Prize), and a palpable need to learn what becomes of Jordan and Mathieu.
At the end of it all, I kept returning to Jordan, whose collection of coping mechanisms includes stepping outside of himself and existing in the third person. “‘Then I can think of myself as maybe a character in a film,’” he explains to his lover, “‘in a story that maybe I can create myself.’” Is this, then, how we pull ourselves out of our sinkholes? Jordan and his father cite the Descartes Highlands, where the Apollo 16 moon rover left behind tracks that will remain for a million years. By telling our stories—the most difficult ones, the painful, ugly ones—we leave our own tracks behind: proof that we were once here, that we once mattered. It’s not quite hope, but I’ll take it.
Veronica Montes is a fiction writer. Her works include the collaborative novel ANGELICA'S DAUGHTERS written with Nadine Sarreal, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Erma Cuizon and Susan Evangelista.