Destiny of Empty Caskets

This critical reflection on Soledad’s Sister (Anvil 2008), second novel of Jose Dalisay was written as final paper for Professor Maria Celeste Coscolluela’s Comparative Literature class at UP. (2008)

Paez doesn’t appear on any road map, but it occupies as enduring a place in the Filipino imagination as Tondo or Rosales. Because Paez is in fact Pais, a microcosm of the Philippine country.

Like Andres Cristobal Cruz for Tondo in and “Ang Tondo man may Langit din” or F. Sionil Jose for Rosales in his Rosales Saga, Jose Dalisay gave Paez as his fictionalized alternate for a typical burgeoning provincial town—where the characters, Walter and Rory dwell in the now, 2008. It is not directly implied that the characters here are characters that we know, but they could be anyone you know and these are things that may happen to you.

The similarities with people and places we know go only so far. For both Walter and Rory succeed as idealized types; they correspond to cherished images of small-town Philippines. Paez, by contrast, comes to life stone by stone, house by house, street-corner by street-corner; the lives of its inhabitants may be as strained and aching as any to be found in Tondo or Rosales, and yet they have the eccentric magnificence of the irreducible: none of them could be mistaken for anyone else, few of them could be extrapolated into archetype. This is perhaps because Paez was neither invented nor contrived. It was a lost place which arose by an act of reclamation out of the rubble of memory.

In every genre of Philippine Literature, we are challenged to give a voice or a story to the imminent reality of the Global Pinoy. Scholars in the field of literature would often note why there are not enough novels about OFWs when it remains a real and relevant topic as when Carlos Bulosan wrote his autobiography “America is in the heart” (UWP 1946).

Jose Dalisay’s novel can be linked to changes happening with contemporary issues, it can be traced to popular revival of …… This article considers the historical context in which the novel was written and suggests that “Soledad’s Sister” presents an early critique of the OFW situation by referencing the neo-colonial traces of the Filipino life.

Randy David in his article “Love in the time of Migration” has said that these things (tragic OFW stories) no longer shock us. The improbable has become typical. (David, 2008) With this in mind, I argue that Soledad represents a cultural moment in which the perceived decline of concern over the national issues it represents inspired resurgence in its literary value. To readers of today, the medley of neo-colonial ferment in stock characters, popular culture and psychology in Soledad came as an appealing antidote to rationalized construction and study of the novel. It takes time for certain things to become relevant in the novel.

Even to Killing time in a warm place (1992), Dalisay’s rather dark-realist or “dry-eyed realist” (in Dalisay’s own words) version of the Martial law era, which is told through the voice of Noel Ilustre Bulaong, is anchored in the present reality. There has been little change from the reality of that novel to this one. The narrative drift travels through familiar social and literary territory from the city to the countryside, which could be read as “Paez 30 years ago.” In effect, with succeeding novels of a single author who seem to tackle the same milieu over a period of time, we can not distinguish the difference, but simply naming it and not really pointing out what it is, but to say that we name this “reality” pertains to an occurring, furthermore, pervading event in the lives of the characters.

And I think this is where combinations of the Jungian Archetypes are put in place, Soledad’s story all together is basically a string of situational archetypes that fit perfectly in the kind of cognition that ideal readers would naturally have over a story. In addition to that, the novel presents us with no definite conclusion, only “the quest and the unhealable wound,” literary historians would identify (Stevens, 2006). Was Dalisay harking back to a more distant past when he touched subtly on facts of our nations colonial past—the slave tradition, the inferiority imposed by our colonizers? He was able to recognize that there were universal patterns in all stories and mythologies regardless of culture or historical period and hypothesized that part of the human mind contained a collective unconscious shared by all members of the human species, a sort of universal, primal memory.

Just as well, in this short novel, which the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize has brought out to publication, the novels and stories which have Paez as their setting display a particular, almost indefinable liveliness that would interest its non-Filipino readers.

The story begins with a casket arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, bearing the body of a woman manifested as “Aurora V. Cabahug”—one of over 600 overseas Filipino workers who return as corpses to this airport every year. The real Aurora, however, is very much alive, a karaoke-bar singer in Paez; the woman in the box must be her sister Soledad who used Rory’s identity to secure a job in Saudi Arabia. No one knows for sure how the woman died; the body bears signs of foul play and abuse, and now waits to be claimed at the airport. A Paez policeman, Walter is ordered the drive out to Manila to pick up the body accompanied by Rory. Both Walter and Rory, who vaguely know each other, find their own lives redefined by the sudden return of the dead: Walter has been left by his wife and son for new life in England; Rory feels herself standing on the brink of great prospects, ambitions that her sister never achieved. Somewhere on its long way home, the body gets stolen. (Back cover notes)

From the back cover summary of the book one may deduce the ordinariness of the characters presented, as they are a product of very ordinary situations of our countrymen but when written in fiction brings to life a gripping universal drama of man versus society.

Mitigating Circumstances

The mitigating circumstances in this novel are not to be confused as literary devices. I am talking about it in terms of what if these characters were actual persons (and they could very well be). Each character carries with him an accompanying or accessory conditionevent, or fact that (though not constituting a justification or excuse of his situation can be considered to lower the  degree of culpability or liability of the person’s doing) (Law Dictionary)  Such circumstances may include family or personal situations.

All the characters in this novel, if not all novels, can justify that they are all victims of mitigating circumstances that eventually excuse them from the being entirely responsible to their own actions.  Such is Rory and Walter, who may seem victims of the choices they made and the life they have led as a consequence.

But they are not.

Existing social structures have preset the conditions of our lives before everything else. It is said that we come and go in this world for a specific purpose and in that specific purpose bears also a specific situation, we can never be born the same in another place and time. Birth according Astrology is never accidental. In Astrology, the belief is that an individual’s life is influenced by the geocentric positions of the sunmoon, and planets in the sky or below the horizon at the moment of birth, a natal chart can be used to calculate using the exact time, date, and place of birth in order to try and interpret these cyclical influences on a person’s life. (Beck)

Astrology and the authorship of a novel are very much the same in this respect. A writer does not put in a character, much more put in two characters together without overlapping contexts that would make it possible for their worlds to meet in the universe of the story.

Walter found himself in Paez from Manila, by way of romantic indiscretion and string of bad luck. (Lacuesta, 2008) Bessie, his wife, taking their son along with her, left him for England shortly after this. This storyline shows how society had a grip on Walter’s life early on. The policeman’s idealistic imprudence becomes his chip on the shoulder so much so that as changed man in a far-off town, prudence becomes his mantra. He was transferred by his Task Force commander to Paez, which is basically a demotion, after not being able to remit the ransom money in a kidnapping raid in Davao City.  Lacuesta’s all-praises review of Soledad’s sister, points out the exactitude of Dalisay in fleshing out his characters that it is able to give more than just archetypal details and actually write something closer to life, like a policeman and his insecurities about weight and age. Walter is an instant example of such kind of precision in the language and detail of the writer (Inquirer, 2008)

Much like Paez, being just about any town in the Philippines, Soledad’s Sister, is a story that could have been reality for the millions of OFW families who have sent fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers into the Filipino mass departure to slave for foreigners just to make ends meet.

Dalisay also talks about the demilitarization of the Police, which also, aside from change in ranks and administration style also means that policemen can be thrown in far-off places, unfamiliar territories according to the wiles of the person in command. Used to before, policemen were assigned to the towns where they lived. This difficult policy of our national police, makes Walter an estranghero in Paez, a man whose sense of the world outside Paez, sets him apart (25) and who has been mildly tolerated or vaguely resented stranger (26)even though he has already spent a substantial number of years enough to know the entrails of the town.

Because of this mix of contrast and commonalities in the characters of Walter and Rory, they share the same affinity with places in the city when they eventually went out of town. One such place is Roxas Boulevard, to which they both identify a feeling of lost, in all the meanings of the word.


As the novel reflects a facet of our society, a society of laborers and estranged people, we are also confronted with an escalating frustration and melancholy in seeing this reflection and asking, what’s wrong? And what drives the story aside from the situation of a policeman and bar singer together in one jeep if they’re not sleeping with each other?  The writer must’ve tried very hard not to make this a love story. And maybe that’s why Soledad’s body had to get lost.

And in that body getting lost, the novel ushers in a glimpse of the life of the less-fortunate Overseas Filipino, currently termed by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in the euphoric and almost mocking term as the Overseas Filipino Investor as if monetary remittance was the only thing they contributed. Money sent by OFWs back to the Philippines is a major factor in the country’s economy, amounting to more than US$10 billion in 2005. (BSP) This makes the country the fourth largest recipient of foreign remittances behind IndiaChina, and Mexico. The amount represents 13.5% of the Philippines’ GDP, the largest in proportion to the domestic economy among the four countries mentioned. Overseas Filipinos sent $15.9 billion worth of remittances to the Philippines in 2008, up from the $14.4 billion in 2007 and $13 billion in 2006.

I think, herein lies, the achievement in this novel. Soledad’s sister meets us head-on with the enormity of the marginalized sector, the not much talked about characters who are not raging teen-agers and who do not sip coffee in Starbucks and study in UP kind of characters made by younger writers (the type which Dalisay himself portrayed in his first novel). With regards to authorship, Dalisay infuses clear and vibrant details of each character: Walter’s morning rituals, the 75cc Suzuki motorcycle that he rides and the details of his house and his former life.

Both Walter and Rory had the same thing in common, probably both being from the other side of things.

They were not a natural pair though, as one would think a policeman and bar girl would fit together like Bong Revilla and Assunta de Rossi in a B-rated Pinoy movie. They represent a contrast in society, one of crime and order, an enduring image in the plot, obviously since it began with an impression of a crime.

Soledad and the Overseas Filipino

Soledad Cabahug is remembered not only through Rory but also through Nathan, the product of a repressive sexual relationship with the 15-year old son of her Hongkong employer, Hedison Lau. Nathan is a representation of the relationship between the Philippines and the first world countries that employs our labor force, a relationship which has become a state of mind as well as a problematic liaison. For the two year old, Nathan, Soledad does not exist other than sustaining life for him abroad, she is as good as dead to him since birth.

Dalisay has always been able to relate to stories of Filipinos abroad, himself experiencing the same thing as part-timer during his student days as a Fulbright scholar in the University of Illinois. Beside these novels, he published, Old-timer and other stories (Ashphodel 1984), the feature story being one of an old-timer, a Filipino immigrant to the US during the American Occupation. This novel culminates over years of exhausting stories of diaspora, his plays Madilim ang gabi sa laot at iba pang dula ng ligaw na pag-ibig (UP Press, 1993) also reflects this unfailing plotline, that the fiction Dalisay set here feels somewhat contrived, something he has already done before in a different genre. It may be the effect of re-reading them in sequence among the more powerful narratives in Soledad’s Sister, Walter and Rory’s story are to be admired in the way that both appear calculated to appeal to the rather predictable taste of its readers.

Dalisay’s charming second novel is a comedy of tragedies.

Over 18 years earlier, in Killing Time, Dalisay’s narrator starts by refusing to see the bigger picture, the scheme of things. This sounds admirably straightforward for an auto-biographical novel. In Soledad the exceptional clarity of his prose and the surface calmness of his narrative stance do give a constant impression of experience seeping into the fiction writing. He seems a quiet sort of writer, certain in his authorial civility, just to a mistake, unfashionably rigorous, even finicky, perhaps in the end a bit too buttoned-up; an image of dusty calmness haunts his humor.

The appearance of this novel should cement that image for good. To read Dalisay’s two novels in it’s entirety, one book after the other in the order of their appearance, is to gain a vivid awareness of Filipino life in its smallest, most telling details over the course of nearly half a century, from the plight of a teen-ager confronting the evils of his time to the speechless sorrow of an abandoned sister on a provincial town. But it is also to encounter a sense of loss of such irreversible and persistent intensity as to be almost beyond the telling. It is not an ambitious novel so to speak but the merits are noteworthy.

For Dalisay, the outcome of death was an intrusion of sense of the past.  There was nothing sentimental in this device; he could certainly wax nostalgic but he was no chronicler of nostalgia. His excavations of the past are often tender but more often they are hard and pitiless. Whenever he applies the flashback, he does so the way a damaged witness might return to the scene of an accident. It is as though by tracing the faded blood-stains, by touching the shifting sands of Saudi or touching the metal from where a tricycle had once been attached to a motorcycle, he can somehow reconstruct the full shock of all that befell his characters. This has the added effect of casting his depiction of small-town Philippines at present and his lost, alienated characters in an unexpected light. In the isolation of Paez, everyone seems to be aware of the world outside them as if the entire earth hovered at the edge of town, every one waiting at the very edge of a future which has long since passed; everything is burdened with what might be termed a wicked anticipation for letters, remittances and wooden boxes of the dead.

The story moves through a sequence of recollections, the same device Dalisay used in his first novel. We get to know the characters mainly through revelations of their pasts. The narrative moves forward as it blends in the historical backdrop and intimate memories of the author and other characters.

So they say, Killing time was Dalisay’s own reconciliation of his long-held demons; it may go some way towards explaining why his separation from the revolutionary movement left so enduring a scar: Dalisay would return and frequently write about this in his blog. It was a loss which, by his own admission, simultaneously distressed him and formed him as a writer. But the concern that informs Soledad’s Sister is personal in a larger sense as well, as if the death of Soledad was a larger death. In their quiet way, his novels, although tragicomic are modern elegies for a lost nation.

Walter’s grief for his father is reflected in the grief Rory felt for her sister. Again and again Walter moves through the rooms of his past life like a recording ghost; there’s something at once poignant in his exactitude. The precise placement of the lost objects of the past—not only the furniture in his house but the view from drinking beer on the balcony of Mountain Park Hotel in Baguio—loom with a melancholy of being so ordinary; the death of a sister, the death of a father; the loss of significance and meaning of life and memory.

The odd thing was that now, when Walter went back to the events in his life, and tried to walk through it, he made mistakes. It was sometimes necessary for him to rearrange events and place emotion exactly before he could remember the way it used to be. Only by recovering the smallest details of the unchangeable pasts could the lives he had missed be summoned back.

Of course, as Dalisay knew all too well, nothing, and least of all words, can actually redeem the characters of their fate, hence the kind of ending we are told. If the sheer impossibility of redemption gives his work its distinctive poignancy, it also allows him punches of funniness at certain moments.

One of his favorite devices is to speak ideas in terms of how objects are capable of, the figurines and the thermos, speak indirectly in parts of his narrative. A kept figurine Rory finds in her mothers dresser adds to a scene of great tension (the figurine is too hard and foreign), a scene which eventually shows the kind of relationship that Rory and Soli had.  She was surprised in learning that something so marvelous could exist in that big house full of lizards and spiders. The figurines became parting gifts from their mother, and they appear here the same way they appear in the gifts given to Jesus by the wise men, they foreshadowed the events in the lives of those who received it. Soli who received the figurine of the nurse would be caretaker of aging men and women and royal children as an OFW while Rory who received the music box would be a karaoke bar singer.

As this suggests, for Dalisay the key to the story of the past was to be found also in objects that we keep, like antique dressers and figurines—that very Filipino way of keeping sentimental occasions. As we find in archives, in local histories or yellowing newspapers, a conversation through material objects that reflect the Filipino psyche can also be found in non-descript objects. Another thing that figures in the novel is the substantial injection of local popular culture. He drew on all of these in his fiction as a pattern of the past, not scattered facts, which gave it meaning. And for that only story would serve. In Soledad’s Sister, what we, or at any rate what the author, refers to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of story-telling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.

Even so, when stories recover the past, it stands revealed as a past shot through with artful distortions, cunning hesitancies, and fine-spun fabrications. To rescue the past from oblivion or to redeem the death of Soledad is not simply to call back the exact look and feel of things on a particular day at a particular time and place; it is to conjure up all the painted inflections, all the glosses, with which that moment—unreadable in itself—has become concealed. To make matters worse, the character’s memories delight in erasures. It is the task of the storyteller not only to capture all memory’s rubbed-out marginalia, but also to restore its strategic distortions to the light.

The fiction of flashbacks is the most natural, because in telling the past, the author is placed in a comfortable situation where lying is excusable (i.e. I exactly don’t remember how but). Because for remembrance, with the infinite possibilities that you can wander through, one after another after another, had to be vast enough for all the fallacies we build up to make the past bearable.

Social Classic

Soledad’s sister’s chances of being a social classic as books of the same mold have been, may not be definite as of now. Things like that are judged not by literary merit but by literary endurance. If the expression remains relevant for another half a century or so, then maybe. I’ve always felt that expression in the novel is the author’s own natural and desirable sublimation of his own past. Or putting it most generally, that Dalisay lives in two different worlds: a real one and an unreal, imagined one and the in between is the familiar territory.

That is perhaps why Soledad’s Sister, qualifies for my taste in fiction because it leans towards a fair degree of realism in style and my taste in nonfiction because of my dislike for rigid interpretation, a general fluidity of attitude and a basic sympathy towards a subject, a touch of ordinary humanity, in a phrase. I read a novel because it is able to open up wells in other disciplines concerned with being human. Soledad may have not told my own story, but it has told in part the story of a lot people I know, my father being a former policeman and in that way, it weaves the fabric of a cause for solidarity with my countrymen.

To put it bluntly, what I like about reading Soledad is its lively variety and the views it gave me into past and present time, and lost worlds and cultures I was not formerly interested in. To read Soledad one must indiscriminately allow wherever imagination may take you; the returns, in a literary sense, are infinite, but difficult to categorize.


The concept of alienation abounds both in the novel and its context and it is ironic that with the confusion of identities, we try so hard to place, in both time and space the characters in the story. This obsession stems from the exacting and scientific methods we have applied to literature. To do this is to deny the existence of a much more important aspect of the text, and that is to show what is essential.

SPO2 Walter Zamora has been described as stolidly distant (130). His profession as a policeman has made him indifferent to many things, like a locked up box that contains Soledad and bears only a name tag as reference to what is inside and nothing more. Rory almost forgets that Walter was a policeman if not for his uniform. The author notes, how we no longer met or knew people but only their poor copies and resemblances. (131)

Also, the Globe has gotten a lot smaller for Filipinos who have relatives all over the world, we have made the world our country and wherever we go, we tag along our culture, however blemished, and our state of mind. In her happiness, Soledad could have been in Paez, but she was not. The photograph she sent Rory sought to cover up the real condition of her plight in Dubai.

Several things are yet to be said in this novel; what happened to Walter’s son and wife in England?  The answer to which could form an entire chapter in itself. Ultimately, in the authorship of the novel as in life, the choices we make form the rabbit holes that lead to a great tunnel lying of a grander narrative; the sense and story depends on the offerings of this complex portals we take, but in the scheme of things we are able to touch on whatever falls from the other holes.

Soledad, by any other name is the definition or purpose that has propelled millions of Filipinos to find jobs abroad despite the oppressing conditions. It is the making of an OFW culture that turns a blind eye on atrocious crimes of circumstance or otherwise. The anonymity of a person, the barren countryside of Paez, the woman in the box, may speak to us as the emptiness speaking within our very own identity as a nation.

Works Cited

Beck, R. A Brief History of Ancient Astrology. 2007: Blackwell.

Bulosan, C. (1946). America is in the heart: A personal history. Washington: University of Washington Press.

Dalisay, J. (1992). Killing Time in a warm place. Pasig : Anvil.

Dalisay, J. (2008). Soledad’s Sister. Pasig City: Anvil Fiction.

Lacuesta, S. (2008, July 28). Soledad’s sister, brilliant new novel by Jose Dalisay. Inquirer Arts and Books .

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