Synopsis from Amazon.com:
“Certain things are better kept than said. . . .
But certain things you have to find out now. . . .”
On the tumultuous streets of Manila, where the earth is as brown as a tamarind leaf and the pungent smells of vinegar and mashed peppers fill the air, where seasons shift between scorching sun and torrential rain, eleven-year-old Gringo strives to make sense of his family and a world that is growing increasingly harsher before his young eyes.
There is Gringo’s older brother, Pipo, wise beyond his years, a flamboyant, defiant youth and the three-time winner of the sequined Miss Unibers contest; Daddy Groovie, whiling away his days with other hang-about men, out of work and wilting like a guava, clinging to the hope of someday joining his sister in Nuyork; Gringo’s mother, Estrella, moving through their ramshackle home, holding her emotions tight as a fist, which she often clenches in anger after curfew covers the neighborhood in a burst of dark; and Ninang Rola, wise godmother of words, who confides in Gringo a shocking secret from the past–and sets the stage for the profound events to come, in which no one will remain untouched by the jagged pieces of a shattered dream.
As Gringo learns; shame is passed down through generations, but so is the life-changing power of blood ties and enduring love.
In this lush, richly poetic novel of grinding hardship and resilient triumph, of selfless sacrifice and searing revelation, Bino A. Realuyo brings the teeming world of 1970s brilliantly to life. While mapping a young boy’s awakening to adulthood in dazzling often unexpected ways, The Umbrella Country subtly works sweet magic.
There is a tendency among expatriates to romanticize their homeland; I certainly understand such an impulse, being of the Filipino diaspora myself. Bino Realuyo does exactly this in and attempts to exorcise his past and his origins. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing; the expatriate experience is rich, ever-evolving, and certainly deserves to be chronicled. However, it may be that more time needs to pass before the author can deliver his ideas in a more cohesive way.
The Umbrella Country is set in the Philippines against the backdrop of martial law, although the turbulence of that time is hardly felt and explored in the book. The book is narrated by Gringo, whose family is festering with poverty and bitterness. His father, Daddy Groovie, is a violent drunkard whose anger’s most frequent target is Pipo, Gringo’s older brother, whose secret homosexuality is becoming increasingly obvious. Their mother, Estrella, is silent and impenetrable, and the boys come to resent her indifference to her husband’s sadistic attacks. Ninang Rola, the boys’ godmother, provides them with the comfort their mother cannot impart, although Ninang Rola is not without her own secrets.
The Umbrella Country is a rather basic coming-of-age story, although Mr. Realuyo tries very hard to make it something more. In an interview included in the book, Mr. Realuyo states,
I am … trying to explore the strange and very complex nature of family bonds amid poverty and sometimes violent circumstances, while telling the quiet story of the Philippines during its most turbulent period. [The book is] also a coming-of-age for the country and all the characters.
Tolstoy wrote that “all happy families are happy alike, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way,” but it seems that Mr. Realuyo didn’t get the memo, as he employs the many trite staples of both coming-of-age literature and ethnic literature – drunken father, silent mother, family secrets – and fails to spin anything new out of them. Using a child as a narrator is an ineffective choice; Gringo is far too precious and self-consciously lyrical to be credible as an eleven-year-old and, like all the other characters in this novel, is not so much a character as he is a mouthpiece.
Nowhere in the novel is there an indication of the Philippines “coming of age.” Mr. Realuyo’s skill as a writer is outweighed by his pretentiousness. Certainly, an inventive author can make numerous parallels between the oppression of the marcos dictatorship and the volatility of a violent household, but Mr. Realuyo fails to do that here.
To compare, F. Sionil Jose’s Rosales Novels details the Filipino uprising during the Spanish and American eras and further explores the formation of the Filipino identity by examining the brutality of the Marcos regime. Lualhati Bautista’s celebrated novel, Dekada ‘70, depicts the turmoil suffered by a middle-class family, the Bartolomes, when martial law was declared, as citizens were forced to question their place within society and within their own families. Dekada ‘70 illustrates both the quiet but bitter evolution of the family and the forceful insurrection of a country coming into its own. (Regrettably, Dekada ‘70 has, to my knowledge, never been translated to English.) That Mr. Realuyo’s novel is touted as a new, important voice when F. Sionil Jose and Lualhati Bautista have given far more accomplished and more compassionate depictions of the family and the Philippines is a disservice to the aforementioned writers and to their readers. Mr. Realuyo simplifies the complexity of both the Philippines and the family in crisis with his pedestrian, gimmicky writing, offering nothing more than the self-righteous moral superiority of the exile.