White Man, Black Dog

09 September 1998

Book Review: The Tesseract by Alex Garland, Viking 1998, 226 pages

Judging from the mixed reviews that the British writer Alex Garland’s second novel is reaping, “The Tesseract” is not quite the sensational success that his debut bestseller “The Beach” was in ’96. But “The Tesseract” is no less (if not more) important (and sophisticated) a piece of writing, a must-read for thinking Filipinos, both as a dark cryptic thriller set in Manila and as a young white dude’s fictional-metaphorical abstract of the Filipino predicament in the image of a tesseract.

Garland’s tesseract is a three-dimensional crucifix, an unraveling into three dimensions (height, length, width) of an imaginary four-dimensional cube (or “hypercube”) that is beyond ordinary apprehension, much as the plot of “The Tesseract” is an unraveling into three-stories-that-collapse- into-one grippingly violent tale of life, love, and death in the Philippines that is beyond grasp unless viewed in the light of our colonial history (the fourth dimension is time), if we would only turn on the light and see.

But Garland doesn’t make it easy to see. He is such a tersely descriptive and engaged storyteller, it is easier to get caught up in the three synchronous stories unfolding and racing to and fro and crashing into each other, never mind the cryptic clues that dot the sometimes strange yet mostly familiar landscapes, never mind, even, the “hindi ba” for “hindi pa”.

The first story is Sean’s, a British sailor whose captain lost his life for refusing to pay protection money to the Filipino tyrant Don Pepe, the same Don Pepe he is to see in a few hours, minutes, seconds. He had hoped to meet in an Ermita bar, perhaps Penguin? but Don Pepe insisted he stay where he is, at Hotel Patay, in an abandoned district of Manila that has streets named Sakit, Sugat, Sayang. Rather than be killed – he knows what “Patay” means – Sean literally jumps the gun on the Don, pumps him with bullets, then runs for his life. Teroy and Jojo, bodyguard and driver, give chase, the first without a second thought, the last with some reluctance, remembering stories told him about Don Pepe who hated to be touched (off with the hands of anyone who dared) and who never sired a child for fear of diluting further the faintly mestizo blood now bubbling from his mouth. The chase takes them out of the deserted district into a slum area where Sean is baptized in an open sewer and emerges filthy and black, the object of curiousity of two streetkids cruising. Don Pepe’s men dog his tracks, the streetkids tailing them, all the way out of the slums into a middle-class neighborhood. Eventually the shit-covered foreigner loses steam and enters the yard of the nearest house where lives Rosa, a doctor.

The second story is Rosa’s, once a provincial beauty foolish enough to fall for Lito, a cute fisherman with a deformed torso, (“like a chocolate bar”). But her mother Corazon would have none of Lito, much less of a deformed grandchild, and would give up none of her dreams for Rosa, specially medical school that a rich uncle was eager to fund. The dutiful daughter, Rosa wrenched herself from Lito and Barrio Sarap, became a doctor, married Sonny, settled down in a Manila suburb, and had two children, Lita and Ralph. Ralph was just a baby when Rosa’s father, Doming, died. The funeral in Sarap was a nightmare. Separated from Sonny by the crowd, Rosa and her baby were confronted at the graveyard by spurned lover Lito who proceeded to transform Ralph into his image, chest eaten by acid, and then to wash and soothe the screaming baby as though he were the father. Like Doming who once survived a dynamite explosion and made it home on autopilot, Rosa and her family survived the pain of Ralph’s rebirth. Waiting now for Sonny, she remembers, and wonders still, what it was she was being saved from when she moved to Manila.

The third story is Vincente’s and Totoy’s, the streetkids tailing the chase. Cente came to Manila with his father five years ago. Within the day his father had disappeared, just never came back from an errand. For a year or so, Cente didn’t speak a word, mutely casing, and surviving, the streets. Until he met Totoy, also 13 but smaller, streetsmart in a sadder way, his mother a drug addict, whore, and pimp. Totoy won’t let her sell his body but he sells his dreams and fantasies, as Cente does, to Alfredo, a rich scholar doing research on Filipino street children, tracking their sleeping dreams over time. Cente is Alfredo’s star dreamer, his dreams startling, his notions of self (“I’m just me.”) unsettling, and his questions about hell and paradise (pricked by an Irish priest’s soup-kitchen lectures) confounding. As confounding as Alfredo’s wife jumping from their penthouse balcony.

On this night, Cente and Totoy are on U.N. Avenue, playing war games. Armed with “grenades” (a handful of rusty nails) Totoy zeroes in on a passing Honda saloon and “disables” the “enemy tank”. A good choice, they agree, as they take note of the driver speaking to a cellphone: apparently a family man on the way home to his loved ones. Then they run for their lives, and continue to run for the sake of running, until they’ve run so far they find themselves in an unfamiliar district, strangely abandoned, just in time to hear gunshots. The two boys home in on the action, out of the wasteland into the slums nearby where their path crosses the dirty foreigner’s. It is Cente who decides to go on. It’s all too close to his recurrent dream of a running man (his father maybe?) that always stops short of identification and resolution. This running man’s story he would see through to the end. As violently as it began in Hotel Patay the story ends in Rosa’s kitchen with Corazon caught in the crossfire, Teroy emptying his gun into Sean, and Rosa in shock. It’s familiar territory, she’s been here before, in “the aftermath of dynamite”, but she hears her frightened children calling and she snaps to autopilot. Sonny, as usual, arrives too late on the scene. But not too late for Cente and Totoy who recognize the enemy tank. `We’d better go,’ said Totoy quietly as the Honda driver ran past. ‘Rosa?’ yelled the driver. ‘What the hell is going on?’ ‘We’d better,’ Vincente agreed. As they hit the street, they heard a woman’s voice behind them and the driver’s sudden gasp of alarm. ‘God!’ he exclaimed, as if his faith had been punched out of his body. Totoy looked back over his shoulder and Vincente didn’t.

In a sense, the critics are right. It would seem that Garland barely manages to tie the three stories together. It would seem that only the chase connects them and there’s nothing for Cente to get but a sense of figuring unwittingly in a bloody affair. There is nothing for Rosa but the inescapable pattern of violence in her most private life, in Manila or in Sarap. There was nothing for Sean but death — he may as well have died in Hotel Patay.

In another sense, the critics are wrong. There is more to “The Tesseract”. Look beyond the storyline and turn on to the Black Dog. The black dog running in a red mist on the cover. The black dog running through titles: “Black Dog” for Sean’s story, which is also the book’s first chapter. “Black Dog Is Coming” for Rosa’s, midway into the book. And “Black Dog Is Here” for Vincente’s. And what seemed minor and unrelated elements – the black dog (as omen of death) and the red mist (of violent madness) – suddenly connect and throb with meaning. Black is white and white is black. The Black Dog in our lives, the omen of death, is the white man Sean gone mad, killing Filipinos by mistake (Don Pepe wasn’t out to kill him, but to offer him a job) and then running for his life. Unhappily for the white man, he runs out of bullets (or is it, his gun proves useless after falling into the sewer with him?) and the Filipinos prove indefatigable, dog him to the end, and waste him. Happy ending, sort of. Infinitely better than if the white-man-turned-black got away with it.

The question is, does the resolution have to be so violent? Will Rosa never have peace? Amazingly enough, Garland has an answer if you’re looking. Rewind to the “wasteground”, the abandoned district of Manila, site of Hotel Patay and streets named Sugat, Sakit, Sayang, which freaked out Sean and led him to kill, and which spooked the streetkids who were surprised to find themselves lost in Manila.

“…It was confusing to have stumbled across such uninhabited desolation in Manila. Not that desolation was a rarity, but you would find people living in it. Equally confusing, it was clear that the area had once – perhaps even recently – been full of life. The evidence was everywhere, in filth-blackened shop-fronts, peeling fly-posters and busted neon signs. Moreover, peering inside the buildings, bizarre details appeared. Through broken windows, restaurant tables with placemats and beer bottles could be dimly made out. One derelict bar even had a juke-box. It lay on its side, dusty but apparently intact, surrounded by crumpled drink-cans and torn newspaper, like a Japanese treasure chest in a sea of cursed banknotes. It was hard to imagine why such reusable and recyclable assets had been abandoned, rather than expertly stripped. It seemed as if, in the space of one bad hour, the night-life had been chased away.”

There is no such place in Manila, except possibly in a fourth dimension of Garland’s imagination, where past and future fold into the present, as in a science-fiction kind of time-warp zone, and where appearances are deceptive – grim setting for ritual encounters with the white man. To break through the time-barrier, you run, fast as the Black Dog running for his life, fast as Vincente and Totoy running for the sake of running, running as meditation. “They fell into a compromise rhythm that took into account the differences in their sizes and length of stride. While they were running, a roughly equal distance was maintained between their shoulders – or, for that matter, any chosen point on their bodies. Every time one of them looked to the side, he saw his friend in the same space he had been occupying before. In fact, relative to each other’s position, the two boys barely moved at all. But around them, the neighbourhood changed.”

Imagine the strange neighborhood as part of a four-dimensional Manila, Manila as a hypercube, impossible to grasp. Garland’s story begins in such a center and then streaks out in linear fashion, unraveling into real-time, crashing straight into Rosa’s life at the foot of the tesseract that is a three- dimensional crucifix. Fittingly (and ironically) enough, the story’s final spoken word is from the man of the house (Sonny-come-lately). “‘God!’ he exclaimed, as if his faith had been punched out of his body”.

The white man is the cross we bear. How much longer? Who knows, but Garland is saying it can be resolved in real time, in the hell of a world of Sonny and Rosa,though I would think only with deliberate effort on the part of every Sonny and Rosa to get their act together in a common cause.

Fancy gaining such insights from a white dude of 28, young enough to be my son. Perhaps there is something to look forward to, after all, from Generation X.

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