Melmoth in Manila

The British writer Sarah Perry is no stranger to the Philippines. In 2004, she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for her essay, “A Little Unexpected,” about the time she and her husband spent living in Cubao and traveling to Taal, Bicol, and Banaue.

Perry writes with humor, insight, and affection about eating balut inside Jollibee and getting a taste of the characteristic Filipino frankness about one’s looks and weight (the first full phrase of Tagalog she learns is “Mataba, pero maganda, di ba?” which Perry helpfully translates into English as “Blimey! She’s fat! Nice-looking, though.”).

Perry takes in the sight of well-to-do Filipino matrons in fur coats, plump children in tow, swanning about the air-conditioned lake of Shangri-la Mall while poverty and sickness stalk the slums. She navigates the complexities and subtleties of Filipino politesse, etiquette, and delicadeza, shocking members of her choir when she scolds the Pastor and watching women in their forties giggle and smear cake on each other at a wedding.

Her encounters with people and places force her to revise repeatedly her mental picture and understanding of this country. How does one account for the fact that “the overriding smell of the squatter areas — or at least the one that lingered with us as we took the rickshaw home — was not of rising drains or stale food, but of soap powder?”

“How,” writes Perry, “can I explain, then, that I also found in these places a great deal of stoic happiness and a resolute capacity for enjoyment that now seems to me to be the most defining Filipino characteristic?”

That Manila left a strong impression on Perry is evident as well in her latest novel, Melmoth. Inspired by Charles Maturin’s classic Gothic novel (published in 1820) about the titular wanderer who barters his soul for an extra hundred and fifty years of life and spends his final days on earth searching for people he can tempt into losing their souls, Perry adds her own twist to the story by turning Melmoth into a wraith of a woman who bears witness not only to the cruelty, suffering, and destruction that humans are capable of visiting upon each other, but also the human longing and capacity for redemption.

The protagonist of this novel, thick with jackdaws, is Helen Franklin, a British expat working as a translator in Prague. Through her friendship with a scholar named Karel and his wife Thea, Franklin learns of the existence of Melmotka (also known as  Melmotte), who is doomed to walk the earth on bloody feet and tries to tempt others into joining her in her lonesome travels.

Melmoth appears before a variety of people who are caught in moments of intense personal crisis and political, religious, and ethnic conflict: a Czech schoolboy of German ancestry, whose self-loathing goads him into spurning the friendship of his Jewish neighbors and, worse, denouncing them to the Nazis and causing them to be sent to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt; a young English girl facing prosecution for her Protestant beliefs during the reign of the Tudor queen, “Bloody” Mary; and a bureaucrat of the Ottoman empire whose paperwork rationalizes and sets in motion the genocide of the Armenians.

Melmoth is a figure of damnation and remonstrance. Yet she, too, is witness to multiple acts of courage and self-sacrifice, as when students protest the detention and deportation of Muslim asylum seekers. Even Josef Hoffman, the schoolboy, surprises himself in the act of trying to save the life of another man.

Only late in the novel do we find out why Melmoth is haunting Helen Franklin. For Helen, too, nurses her own guilt at something she had done in Manila, and it was in Manila that Melmoth first appeared before her.

It turns out that Helen had assumed the role of Angel of Mercy and engaged in an act of euthanasia, honoring the request of a Filipina named Rosa, who had been badly injured in an acid attack by a spurned lover, to die. Rosa implores Helen: “Hayaan mo akong mamatay” (Let me die). Through her Filipino boyfriend, Arnel, a trainee at a drugstore, Helen obtains enough Fentanyl to administer the fatal dose, only to see Arnel arrested and jailed for stealing the drug and for Helen’s mercy killing.

The Philippines, with its jarring juxtaposition of beauty and danger, wealth and poverty, neatness and squalor, Catholic ritual and folk belief in spirits and monsters, lends itself to Gothic storytelling. National Artist Nick Joaquin’s short fiction, collected in the aptly titled volume Tropical Gothic (1972), similarly plays on familiar tropes of imprisonment (literal and metaphorical), tyranny, hauntings, and secrets.

Perry’s Manila–the ubiquitous tabo dipper and plastic bucket at bath time; an infected cockroach bite; the liberal if at times awkward sprinkling of “di ba’s” at the tail-end of conversations; the Filipino propensity for turning strangers into kin by calling them “Ate” and “Kuya”– is keenly observed and eloquently evoked without being patronizing, a world and an aeon apart from Dan Brown’s badly written and superficial treatment of Manila as one of the “gates of hell” in his novel, Inferno (2013). Too, Perry refuses to give way to despair, and the novel ends with Arnel showing up in Prague (though how a Filipino with a criminal record is able to obtain a visa to go abroad is a mystery in itself).

Melmoth’s injunction to “Look!” and not turn away from the horrors and sorrows of everyday life is directed not only at its characters, but most important, at the reader. I would like to think that the novel is also Perry’s way of paying homage to the countries she has traveled to and learned to love.


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