The Tesseract by Alex Garland

Riverhead Trade (January 10, 2000),288 pages

Reading ‘The Beach’ (also by Garland) was what made me get The Tesseract. Being a fan of Southeast Asian set novels, and knowing that Garland is a master of the “Backpacker’s Culture”, I knew from the start that The Tesseract will not disappoint.

This book is no beach culture.It is set in the heart of Manila, in a seedy hotel along Roxas Boulevard. Garland describes the smallest of details of Manila with the precision expected only from one who has lived in Manila itself::

At eleven-fifteen he’d stood up to leave and walked towaed the exit, where the blue uniformed McDonald’s security guard had obligingly lowered his stockless shotgun and held the door open. Or obligingly held the door open and lowered his stockless shotgun. Either way, one blast of the scorched air and had Spun on his heels and marched back inside.

But cool as it was in McDonald’s, after a couple of hours Sean could feel the edges of his mind starting to fray. It wasn’t the obsessive wiping and washing and ashtray removing so much as the sprawling children’s party that had commandeered half the seating area. Overweight kids with sulky faces and stripy sailor shirts, shouting at their nannies. No more than eight or nine, most of them, and already groomed for a life in politics. Why did this tubby elite choose to celebrate in a hamburger joint, Sean had wondered as he burst a balloon that had been bounced in his face. The sound made a dozen adult heads turn, and one of the minders reaching under his barong tagalog to the bulge in his waistband. Time to go.

While The Beach has both its plot/climax and raw narration to offer, The Tesseract’s gem is its fast but just right rhythm, and the way it unfolds how the characters of 3 separate ‘stories’ are interrelated, hence the title ‘The Tesseract’. Take six cubes and arrange them into the shape of a crucifix, at the point where the cross is made. Thats the tesseract.

 

Sean the English seaman and Don Pepe, the aristocratic mestizo. Corazon, Rosa and her children. Rosa and Lito. Totoy and Vicente. All of their stories are presented independently but in the end they all climax in a common joint.

I also liked particularly how Garland personified Don Pepe, (a Spanish mestizo with assistant thugs). The author even knows the concept (and the word) of “sip-sip”–an irritating trait in the Philippine Society. This Don, who also has the mindset of most elite Filipinos, cannot seem to get enough of the irritating habit of uselessly comparing the Philippines to the countries theyve been to:

“There are no churches in the Philippines. No houses of God, only huts. Iglesia ni Christo? Its an insult! In Spain there are churches. Real churches. here, you have only huts.”

Here, you have only. Here, you have only.

But neither Don Pepe’s father nor grandfather had ever been to Spain. Don Pepe himself had been just once. In December of the previous year. Five days in Madrid, and two days in San Sebastian, the hometown of his ancestors. The one thing Spanish about Don Pepe was his blood, and you had simply to look at him to see that it was mixed. NOt that anybody would ever dare to mention it.

Although it is far from the focus of the novel, I cannot help but enjoy how Garland also excellently caught how Filipinos talk to foreigners:

“We’ve cooperated for years, Don Pepe”

“Yes, for years. So I think you know the way I work”.

Alan opened his mouth to say something, but changed his mind. He hadn’t expected to talk the mestizo around.

“What can I say, Alan? This is life. Mahirap talaga.”

“Yeah,” Alan said tiredly. ‘Talaga”

The edges of the mestizo curled upward. “Talaga? Your Pilipino is improbing.”

“Improbing?”

“Getting, ano, better all the time. Ebery time we meet, better still”

“Oh”

“And, eh, what about your prend here? He can speak Tagalog?”

“Sean”?

“Yes,” said the Don, turning in his seat, turning the shoulders of Teroy and Bubot with him as if the men were connected by a thread. “Mr.Sean, can you speak Tagalog?”

Sean stiffened. He had almost relaxed listening to the argument, and the sudden shift of attention had caught him by surprise.

“Eeh, can you eben speak English?”

“Yes I can speak English,” Sean quickly replied, but not Filipino.”

“Not Pilipino”

“Hindi pa po”

Don Pepe’s eyes lit up. “Hindi pa? Hindi pa? How can you say hindipa? I say , can you speak Tagalog, and you say no…in Tagalog! So you can speak, di ba?”

“Conte lang po.”

“Aah! Only little hah? Still, anyway, its good you try. Bery good dat you try.”

A heart breaking part, which made me remember those High School days of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Don Pepe was making rounds in his Argentinian horse in his hacienda, and one of his workers accidentally stained the Don’s slacks, and it was immediately understood that this worker’s hand has to be cut off:

Sir, if I could buy you some new trousers. Several pairs, all silk, several colors…”

“Dont be ridiculous. You couldnt possibly afford it.”

“I have savings that might be used for…”

“You seem to be missing the point. It isnt the trousers, its principle. I know you understand that.”

Fat Boy stared blankly at his fingers. “Sir, please, a moment. If I am cut now, I will die from bleeding. if you permit it, at least let them be cut off tonight. We can light a fire and heat an iron and the wound can be properly sealed”

“Youre a physician?”

“Sir, please!” Fat-Boy’s voice was breaking. “I would not recover if my hands were cut off here.”

Don Pepe considered this for a few moments , tugging thoughtfully at the loose folds of skin under his chin.

“Very well. I shall not be able to watch because I have an engagement tonight. Aaah, diginitaries from abroad. But tomorrow, I shall check on you. Oh, and if you try to escape, I’ll feed your family to your own dogs.”

“Yes, sir”

The next day, as promised, Don Pepe came to check up on Fat-Boy, who was convalescing in his hut, tended by his wife and Panding himself ( the co-worker assigned to cut off his hand). The master took a brief look at the feverish bloodied figure, and shook his head. “Hands,” he said. “I said hands. Not hand.”

Fat boy did not survive the second amputation.

He also had a beautiful way of presenting how a person such as the Don would be remembered on his death:

Don Pepe’s mouth was red and dry where a bubble of blood had popped over his lips, his eyes were rolled up in their sockets, and his fingers curled into claws.

In the Spanish town of San Sebastian, a restaurant ownder recalled the memory of the rudest customer he had ever served, an old man with an unplaceable accent and a linen suit that looked as out of time as his silver matchstick holder. In Quezon province, the young nephew of a Manila dockworker shuddered at a story about red mists and machetes. In Negros, a cemetary caretaker shone his flashlight on the graffiti covered walls of an old Kastila mausoleum. In an Ayala Alabang mansion, six Dobermans licked their paws and listened for the sound of a Mercedes engine.

Its also pleasing to know that although Garland also touched on the provincial life in Infanta, Quezon, he didnt stick to the usual Maria Clara stereotype that most foreign authors, and even Filipino authors cast on the female characters.

I found out that there’s been a movie adaptation produced, the movie altered a whole lot of details. It was set in Bangkok (maybe Manila wasnt exotic enough or marketable enough?), and a female assasin character (not present in the book) was wedged in…perhaps to add a sex factor to it.

Here’s the movie poster. Directed by some dude named Oxide Pang. That’s what you get for tampering with a fantastic novel. A B-grade “Chuck Norris” type of film.

 

Alex Garland as pictured in the back of the book.

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