This is my first attempt in joining Read Philippines' Book of the Month for June 2012. I actually voted for this novel, but this book originally published in 2002 has its flaws. I can see that it's not very realistic, nor strictly contextualized in the Philippine setting and this would have explained why most readers of Asian Historical Fiction remained neutral and would prefer the more prominent Ilustrado novel by Syjuco as a recommended text. This book probably needs an editor but it's understandable given the enthusiasm of the author (she tells it like a balikbayan sharing her own adventures from a strange land) in forming a synergy of variable folk and war stories to become a singular novel in the end.
Here are what I notice:
- The title itself. Used by a Filipino patriarch as an analogy of the Second World War to his children, elephants were depicted as the American and Japanese forces while the chickens scampering were pictured as the Filipinos. On the surface it may sound appropriate since elephants are essentially foreign animals to the country just like the Japs and the Americans but the father in the story used an analogy, and I think it's better to use an animal that all children in the war-thorn Manila were familliar like a water buffalo or carabao. There are no elephants in the Philippines, not yet in the zoo during the war thorn era of WWII. I prefer to rephrase what Mang Carlito said in the book like this: "When the buffalos dance, the chickens must be careful." It's much easier (and amusing) to imagine it as a Filipino child.
- Another contextual miscue is the usage of "snow" in a simile. "The evenings in our cordillera village were always deliciously hot, with the scent of the white sampaguita flowers that grew like flakes of snow around our house." The narrator here is a Filipino native in WWII telling a childhood story to Filipino audience, asking them to imagine snow flakes sprouting around the house. The problem is, there's no snow in the Philippines.
- "All Soul's Day, also known as Todos Los Santos, happened on the evening of October 31. Halloween, they call it in the States." What happens on the evening of October 31 is indeed Halloween, and then All Saints Day or Todos Los Santos the following morning of November 1. However, All Souls Day or Araw ng mga Patay, occurs on November 2.
I dont want to elaborate further on some spelling and historical miscues (like the weird prominence of Boracay in 1940s) nor ponder on the "uncharacteristic" breakdown of a revolutionary hero and the sudden fear of bleeding to death when you already killed a lot and can easily kill more human being. But we all know that a coin has two faces and seeing the brighter side of the novel is still a rewarding and probably redeeming act. Reading the fantastic stories full of traditional values like unity and sense of family inspires me more not to let go of the colorful history of my people's race in Asia.
There is no contention that the author Tess Uriza Holthe was inspired by her father's experience as a young boy in this country during the second World War. You can sense her enthusiasm and pride in retelling the folk tales we are all familiar with as Filipinos, and it's admirable. It was an amalgam of stories within a story, sometimes amusing, sometimes inspiring, and also heartbreaking. It's probably the best description of this novel, as it mirrors the collective Filipino and its struggle for independence and sense of national identity from its Asian, Hispanic, and American experience.
My favorite quote from the book: "I do not hide, Alejandro. Remember this day. Remember how everyone fought together. Keep it in your heart, and never let anyone divide us again. As for me, I will try to build something from what remains. My soul needs time to heal. I go now to see where this new peace shall lead us. Please, tell the others goodbye."
Genre: Historical Fiction, Folk Tales, WWII, Anti War Literature
Rating: 3.9 kilos of rice