Books Reviews

‘The Woman Who Had Two Navels’ by Nick Joaquin reviewed

By: Kimberth D. Obeso

There are numerous historical novels around the globe. Well-known published historical masterpieces include A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, War, and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Historical novels written by a female author include The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.    

Filipinos are avid readers of those aforesaid books written by Western writers. They are not conscious that historical fictions are at par with their foreign counterparts. Take for example the Filipino historical writers, Jose Rizal and F. Sionel Jose.  Rizal is widely known for his novel Noli Me Tangere and its sequel El Filibusterismo. F. Sionel is best known for his masterpiece Po-on. These novels deal with social enlightenment and colonialism experienced by the Filipinos. Further, these writers have captured and unfolded the malady of Philippine society. Another Filipino novelist who captivates historical signification is Nick Joaquin. In Sarvia’s words, Joaquin is one of the celebrated authors who leads and inspires the Filipino writers to produce literary works in English (29).  Pablo (190) ventures to say that Joaquin’s paramount goal is not only to motivate  Filipino readers but also to hearten individuals all over the world to utilize literature as an instrument to delineate the happenings of the past to find to answer and cure to the circumstances in the present. Suarez (20) deduces that  Joaquin’s novel “conceptualizes Philippine nationalism in a way that illustrates the ideals attached to the young nation, especially where gender and sexuality are concerned—primarily, the nation is to be won, defended, developed, and cultivated by a fraternal order.” In fact, he is awarded as the National Artist of the Philippines for literature.

Joaquin is the author of The Woman Who Had Two Navels.  This novel entails Philippine patriotism and manhood. Filipino readers consider this novel as one of the Philippine classic books. Joaquin is not only a novelist but also a poet, playwright, essayist, and biographer. His other literary works largely adhere on Philippine culture and heritage.

His novel is narrated by a third person narrator and is divided into five chapters: Chapter 1 (Paco), Chapter 2 (Macho), Chapter 3 (La Vidal), Chapter 4 (The Chinese Moon) and Chapter 5 (Doctor Monson).  This novel recounts the story of Connie Escobar, an elite woman who is hallucinating and deeming that she has two navels. She holds a supposition that she can only be mended by an aberrant person. With her eccentric endeavor, she consulted a horse doctor instead of a medical practitioner. This certain scenario provokes textual ambiguity. On a related note, Suarez (20) goes on elaborating that the event in the fictional narrative makes reader to interrogate:  Why does she consult a veterinarian when she is not an animal? One of the characteristic of this book, which reviewers and critics will consider its downside, is the author’s characterization of the protagonist. Bernad infers that  the hallucinating demeanor of the main character leads to the deformation of philosophical vantage of the story (61). For Pablo (190), this novel, on the other hand, is a “vivid picture of moral decadence.”

Although most of his masterpieces are written in English language, he still writes with local color. He makes his novel a clear-cut reflection of the tradition, belief, and dialect of the Filipinos.  In historical fiction, the setting portrays genuine condition in the period of history. The opening scene of the story takes place in Hong Kong. Perhaps, Joaquin uses this place to delineate historic linkage between Hong Kong and the Philippines. Tracking the Philippine history, Emilio Aguinaldo, a revolutionary leader during the Spanish colonial era, agreed to an armistice of Biak-na-Bato. In exchange for amnesty and democratic reform, he and his compatriots concurred to surrender their arms and accepted expatriation to Hong Kong. More so, in his self-imposed exile,  Rizal befriended many educated people in Hong Kong. In fact, many critics and reviewers consider Joaquin as the forerunner of the historical ideals of Rizal.     

Joaquin follows the typical style of many historical fictionists. The events in the story are true to the people living in the Philippines. He portrays realistic details that convey the social concerns and manners of the past era. In fact, this type of fiction remains eminent all over the world. Constantino testifies that his novel is a journey of self-actualization (639). She further elaborates that his novel depicts and echoes the heroic conduct of men.

In historical fiction, in addition, the plot of the story is based on a genuine event in the period of history. The scenario when Connie comes to visit an extraordinary person to surgically remove her second navel limns local identity and reality. Akin to Connie’s bearing, Filipinos tend to pamper and gamble on speculative things. In fact, the colonial mentality is still very influential to the psyche of the Filipinos. This mentality resembles and interconnects with the disposition of the lead character. Like Connie, most of the Filipinos, if not all,  deem that a foreign medical doctor is better than the local one.

There are external and internal conflicts of Joaquin’s masterpiece which mirror the typical dilemma of an ordinary Filipino. One of the external conflicts of the story is  when Connie condemns  her mother after making an affair with Macho Escobar, her husband. She is also ashamed with her father’s ill demeanor. According to some critics, her troubled youth triggers her hallucination. This external conflict evokes Connie’s internal struggle. She could hardly move on from her past. The conflicts of the story analogize  the colonial era to an infirmity. Connie’s belief of second navel (that is, the assumed disease that usually lasts for a long time) serves as a nurturing link between the time of subjugation and to the current situation of the Philippines. Arong (465) declares that “Connie has to face her past and acknowledge its effect on her current ordeal just as the rewriting of Philippine history has to include its Hispanic aspect, because, as the narrative demonstrates, erasing the past (in Connie’s case, burying the trauma) can lead to serious consequences.” Connie’s psychological circumstance, hence, emblematizes the dramatic events in the past. As Gonzalez puts it, The Woman Who Had Two Navels is “…the author’s own disavowal of the interpretation that the two navels represent the double colonization of the Philippines by Spain and the United States…that Connie Vidal’s [maiden name] claim to have two navels is indeed a manifestation against colonization and a cry for an authentic social revolution” (148-149).

Joaquin describes the characters vividly which disclose historical totem. For instance, Doctor Monson is described as a clever and rebellious man. He emigrated from Philippine to Hong Kong to elude from postwar civil issues. He is a perfect emblem of Rizal and Aguinaldo. Connie is described as a liberated and self-centered character. Joaquin utilizes Connie to extend the theme of colonialism. He also delineates picturesquely the atmosphere of the story as illustrated in these lines: “The light fog, always a gleaming sheet a step away, made him feel like Alice, stepping though mirrors. But it wasn’t I who stepped through the mirror, he thought. It was Father and Paco—and the glass broke” (43). According to critics, this scenario is deemed to be a warning that something will happen in the future.  Another characteristic of historical fiction is that the characters’ dialogue mirrors the proficiency and the knowledge of the people in the period of history. Joaquin assures that the characters of his masterpiece speak clearly and efficiently using the manner and the tone of a customary Filipino.

What is fascinating about this book is the presence of the theoretical framework to comprehend the thematic development of the story. Like many other postcolonial works, Joaquin’s novel offers the manner and style of the Asians. Moreover, psychoanalysis can also be used to understand the demeanor of the characters. Connie’s hallucinating temperament is the upshot of his unconscious mind. Moreover, formalistic theory can be used to appreciate the author’s fictional style.  Joaquin makes his characters symbolic. Connie is a signification of a disoriented Filipina. Connie further signifies subjugation abuse of the female gender which then resembles and relates to happenings during the colonial era. His mother, in addition, is an exemplar of a Filipina mother who experienced male abandonment and who yielded defiant children. More so, Joaquin offers a literary technique of flashback. His prodding technique is an effective way of portraying the happening in the past. In this way, readers are caught in the act of reminiscing the memory of the past event. They, therefore, imagine the current Philippine social setting which is the aftereffect of numerous centuries of colonialism. The presence of these literary approaches helps readers to decipher the focal idea of this fictional narrative. Finally, Joaquin deserves acknowledgment for his intrepidity of dramatizing the happening in the days of yore. His book reminds his readers of the significance of the past to decode the current situation of Philippine society.

****

Works Cited

Arong, Marie Rose. “Temporality In Nick Joaqton’s The Wowan Who Had Two Navels.” Kr ofitika          Kultura 30, 2018 pthird-person<http://journals.ateneo.edu/kk/&gt;.

Bernad, Miguel. Bamboo and the Greenwood Tree. Bookmark, 1961.

Constantino, Josefina. “Joaquin: The Woman who had Two Navels.” Philippine Studies vol. 9,  no. 4, 1961 pp. 639–650, http://www.philippinestudies.net

Gonzalez, Gabriel Jose S.J. “Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels Historical            Transformations Bereft of Social Transformation.” UNITAS. pp. 148-168.

Joaquin, Nick. The Woman Who Had Two Navels. Manila: Regal Publishing Co.1972.

Pablo, Lourdes Busuego. “The Spanish Tradition in Nick Joaquin.” Philippine Studies vol. 3, no.        2, 1955, pp. 187–207, http://www.philippinestudies.net.

Sarvia, Illa. “Post-War Philippine Fiction In English.” British library Journal. pp.28-32.

Suarez, Harrod. “The Insolence Of The Filipinas: Mothering Nationalism, Globalization, And      Literature.” Dissertation. University of Minnesota, 2010.

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Kimberth D. Obeso is an avid writer, critic, and reader of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and has publications in Scarlet leaf Review, Ang Suga Publication, Sunstar, and Literary Yard. He also loves reviewing literary masterpieces and writing literary research. Recently, his research articles have appeared in different journals locally and internationally, including Asia Pacific Journal of Education, Arts and Sciences; International Journal of Social Science and Humanities Research; and The American Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences Research.  He graduated from Cebu Normal University and got numerous academic awards. Presently, he is working as a freelance writer and full-time ESL tutor.

Categories: Books Reviews, Literary criticism

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