“Only the sounds told stories.” — Charlson Ong
It is less likely for a Filipino to trip over a riveting crime story unless it’s authored by either Arthur Conan Doyle (The Collected Sherlock Holmes Short Stories, 1887-1927 ) and John le Carré (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, 1974), or the more recent Mario Puzo of The Godfather fame and John Grisham, author of The Firm (1991). Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Witness to the Prosecution had given many an insomniac reader more sleepless nights, and who can forget Valdimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading?
But, as expected, things do turn for the better for fans of crime stories. Distinguished Filipino novelist Charlson Ong—whom National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin once wrote as Chinatown’s Homer—breaks the momentum of literary human-condition-kind-of-tales to offer a suspenseful literary package: A compelling crime novel with all the trimmings of a Robert Ludlum thriller.
In his latest book, Blue Angel, White Shadow, Charlson Ong takes the pen from Mario Puzo, so to speak, to ink a labyrinthine plot thick with mystery and deceit, kicking off with the death of a twenty-five-year-old lounge singer named Laurice Saldiaga.
Set in historic Chinatown, the tale zigzags from Binondo’s Blue Angel Café and Bar into the ragtag lives of a city mayor, a psychic journalist, a dyslexic piano player, a hair-trigger pit bull owner, a sax musician, and the Police Chief. Here is Charlson in his imaginative best, weaving a suspenseful yet easy-read storyline that leaves the reader guessing till the end.
Charlson Ong, known for his novels Embarrassment of Riches and Banyaga, often gives tribute to the lives and loves, losses and laurels of the Chinese-Pinoy. Master, too, of the short story, his collection Men of the East opens the all-too-often-locked-doors of Chinatown for the reading public, offering a quick yet lyrical peek into that all-too-secretive and wondrous place.
The easy flow of language in Blue Angel, White Shadow doesn’t make it any less a piece of good literature. Charlson, obviously familiar with the lyricism often attributed to writers like Marcel Proust, Albert Camus and Vladimir Nabokov, losses himself every so often in the roundabout penning of a crime plot to the quiet call and hug of the poetic Muse:
“He learned by listening. He listened to everything: the passage of wind, the fall of water, the rustle of paper, the call of cicadas, chirping of crickets; to the music that reverberated around him like an ocean of sound: thumping, blasting, careening, caressing, never ceasing, never resting even while he slept. And the sounds turned to shapes inside him, turned into color and grace. Chopin was light blue and round; Debussy, yellow and square; Tsaikovsky, deep red; Abelardo, ecru; Sinatra’s singing, always the lighter shade of green. Only the sounds made sense. Only the sounds spoke to him. Only the sounds told stories.”
Notwithstanding the suspense that seems to ooze in every chapter, and the kind of twisting and heaving of plot to highlight literary texture, Charlson never losses sight of the art of telling a tale. His is a manner of storytelling that is tacit to the bone, no unwarranted bursts and rancour—frolicsome at times, yet always kind to its characters—mysterious but in full control, made all the more lifelike and genuine by convincing dialogue.
It would have seemed odd for Charlson to merely pen a story for the sake of accruing suspense. Suspense, as with conflicts in masterfully crafted literature, is what gives any tale its edge. Here is a writer who is abreast with the psychology of penning an absorbing mystery novel, needless to say.
How Charlson penned his story with the mind to lend deeper context to the more problematic and complex stuff of which Filipino and Filipino-Chinese societies are linked begs noticing. The corruption in high levels of authority, the economics and sociology of human existence are all but denied their participation over the lives of characters scrounging for answers.
Charlson writes his tale of crime with a philosopher’s hat, but sans the exile of one who spends his days locked in a room. He knows Philippine society far from some highchair writer’s roundabout ways, and is unequivocally unafraid to look at it squarely in the face.
Charlson Ong’s Blue Angel, White Shadow is published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.
JOEL PABLO SALUD is the chief editor of the Philippines Graphic magazine, the country’s top newsweekly publication under the ALC Group of Publications, which include the BusinessMirror. He is with the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and regularly writes literary reviews as a member of the Manila Critics Circle.