Being About Her: Soledad’s Sister

Jose Dalisay’s novel Soledad’s Sister (2008) attracts crime fiction fans (such as myself) with its premise: The body of a woman identified as Aurora V. Cabahug arrives at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from Jeddah, but the real Aurora is very much alive in a distant town. A body turns up, as it usually happens in conventional murder mysteries, except that it is in a casket and the handlers at the airport are oblivious to the fact that it has been violated. Or they may have assumed it to be just “one of over 600 overseas Filipino workers who return as corpses to this airport every year,” but they could care less: Their only concern is to do their job, which is to store the body in the warehouse until it is claimed by relatives.

The “case” falls into the hands of a policeman, Walter Zamora, who traces the real Aurora and informs her of the body bearing her name. Aurora reckons that the body belongs to Soledad, her sister, who had used Aurora’s name in order to secure a job in Saudi Arabia. Walter and Aurora travel to Manila to claim the body. Here, as the background of the two characters are slowly being revealed to the reader (mostly through flashbacks to their own memories), and as it is manifested that the novel will not involve or revolve around any investigation of any crime, the detective/crime fiction form ends and the realist Filipino novel in English begins.

The scholar Carl Malmgren describes the crime story as involving a pursuit or a quest, a quest for knowledge. Its basic narrative formula is that someone is looking for someone or something—which, in nearly every case, is the person guilty of the crime. And so although Soledad’s Sister purports to be a detective novel, as Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo mentions in a recent lecture, it does not follow this formula, the goal of which “is a clear and certain establishment of guilt for a specific crime” (Cawelti).

Malmgren identifies the pursuit of an agent and the discovery of truth as “the two powerful engines driving crime narratives.” The agent in Soledad’s Sister—Walter—pursues personal redemption more than anything else, having been left by his wife and child and having drifted away from his immediate family. Also, there is no “truth” that is being discovered in the novel, in the manner that “the truth” is sought in conventional crime fiction. There is no attempt to identify a crime or a criminal. The reader—and the characters themselves—can only surmise what had happened to Soledad abroad; can only guess who or what killed her.

In Soledad’s Sister, as with other similar works, specifically Nick Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows (1983) and perhaps Edith Tiempo’s The Builder (2003), certain elements of the genre are just borrowed to function as “a device for exploring the novel’s central concern, which is not crime so much as the relationships among the characters, personal dislocation and alienation, hybridity, colonialism, the problems besetting the nation, etc.” (Hidalgo). The main issues being discussed in Soledad’s Sister, I think, are the same issues that most Filipino novels, in whatever language, have long wrestled with: poverty, injustice, the pursuit of the good life, as well as of a sense of belonging (to family). This sense of belonging inevitably relates to the question of identity, which inevitably relates to the matter of—as is explored in novels like Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado (2010) and Luna Sicat Cleto’s Mga Prodigal (2010)—the nation in the age of diaspora.

On the way home, the casket gets lost when a common criminal steals the van that Walter and Aurora used to transport it. The criminal throws the casket into the river, and accidentally drowns along with it. And then comes the final chapter, which is related by the omniscient narrator (and not by the detective or the criminal confessing how he did it): In the rich kingdom in the desert, Soledad becomes a maid to a royal family and, one day, accompanies another maid to rendezvous with an Arabian lover. How things got awry—how Soledad’s body ended up floating lifeless at the harbor—is never revealed. And then the novel says no more. The reader is left to hope that Aurora will also work abroad, after resolving that “I am not my sister: what she failed to do, I will; and what she did, I will do better.” That Walter will do find and reconnect with his mother and sister, with whom he and Aurora will presumably spend the time while the van and body are being searched for. That Walter and Aurora might even hook up together.

But perhaps it does not matter, what happens to Walter or Aurora, for the novel is not about them, but is about Soledad, who only happens to be the victim of a crime.

John Cawelti names the four main character roles in mystery fiction as the victim, criminal, detective, and “those threatened by the crime but incapable of solving it.” The victim is unimportant except when his or her body appears, thus turning the wheels of the story: “The unknown quantity is inserted into the narrative and the quest for knowledge begins” (Malmgren). In Soledad’s Sister, which is a mystery story of sorts, the criminal is rendered invisible and the investigator is relegated to being a secondary character. Meanwhile, the life and personality of the victim are provided in detail, and not with clues but through narrative techniques (such as the flashbacks). This veers away from the usual crime story where the victim is a minor character and where the only details of her life that are deemed significant are those that might help in establishing the motive of the crime.

The last scene involves a dialogue between an assistant coroner, Ahmed, and his girlfriend Nadia, in Jeddah:

“So what happened? Who was she? Was she a prostitute? A runaway? … Was she raped, Ahmed? How did they do it?”

“I don’t know. … In cases like this—unless they happen to be royals or people of consequence—we keep the body for three days, and let them go.”

“Just like that?” Nadia said, looking up.

Ahmed sighed, with an exaggerated sweep of the arm that he knew would brush the tips of Nadia’s hair. “Just like that.”

In the novel, Dalisay puts flesh and blood to an otherwise mere statistic, and in the process tells the story of the Philippines where there are not enough jobs; where people steal or kidnap or whore for money; where Filipinos, indeed, leave their country for a better life. The author focuses the narrative on the victim, giving her more importance than the agent or her sister; more importance than the crime itself or its solution. So it is with startling irony that the novel ends and begins with descriptions of utter disregard for the body, this body whose dreams of an improved life at home were quashed by its brutal death in a foreign land. This body, in fact, shouldn’t be called an it. She has a name, and the fact that the title of the novel refers to her sister as her sister is a simple recognition, or reckoning, of the kind of justice that she and million other Filipinos deserve, but is as yet unattainable, except perhaps in conventional crime novels.

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