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White Lady, Black Christ

'White Lady, Black Christ': A triumph of a cross-cultural thriller

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 14, 2021 4:00 am

At some point in Charlson Ong’s new novel, White Lady, Black Christ, a European researcher who’s one of the principal characters registers his insight:

“Roger was stunned. For centuries, white people, like his uncle Gerard, had roamed the earth to preach the white God to colored peoples. Now, Gerard might have gone native, and the black Christ had now come to an unbelieving Europe. It was a closed loop. The empire was preaching back.”

Roger Geisler is a Swedish anthropologist whose friendship with a Filipina colleague at New York University leads to a deepening interest, eventually an obsession, with the Black Nazarene — “the 400-year-old, black-toned, cross-bearing, genuflecting Christ housed in Quiapo Church, in the heart of downtown Manila, the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno.”

He discovers that his uncle, Fr. Gerard de Bruyne (sometimes spelled as Gerald), had preceded him long ago in the Philippines, in Baguio where he was assigned, until he disappears.

It’s quite a cast of characters that Ong parades in this inventive, complex narrative.

Since this novel is a mystery thriller, we’ll have to avoid spoilers. But we’ll have to add that another principal character, in fact a central one, is a Filipino-American whose father was a black man employed in Clark who abandoned him and his mother.

Unlike Roger who had wanted to participate in crucifixion rites in Holy Week, but was convinced not to, Jose Crenshaw does have himself crucified for a number of years, as Roger witnesses once. He is also an ex-cop who went AWOL and became a healer, then the head of the Brotherhood of the Black Nazarene (BBN). Jose Crenshaw a.k.a. Tata Peping assumes the personification of the Black Nazareno. He is the Black Christ in the title.

The White Lady is another mysterious character, at least initially since she’s lost her memory. She’s also bi-racial, with a foreign priest for a father and an Ifugao mother who dies while she’s an infant.

Her father “indiginizes” himself as the “white Igorot” or “white warrior” who indulges in traditional beheadings. The infant is raised by Bagiw Mahiwo, the daughter of a mumbaki or Cordilleran shaman, who becomes Maria. Her adopted daughter, baptized as Emily Mahiwo, becomes the White Lady.

It’s quite a cast of characters that Ong parades in this inventive, complex narrative.

Among the other major characters are Dr. Chester Limhuatco the conservative heart surgeon, his adventurous if lovelorn daughter Carmen, Fr. Jaguar Jimenez who assists Fr. Dimalanta as parish priest of Quiapo Church and loves to tool around in a Harley-Davidson, Basilio Ambahan the son of a Cofradia pioneer, Brother Vergel “the shadow,” Manito the disciple, Dr. Anna Duran, and Jefferson Po, Dr. Chester’s former schoolmate at a Greenhills school.

“Chester was briefly reminded of how many local Chinese families who named their kids — after U.S. Presidents or trademarks; he himself might have been named after his father’s favorite brand of cigarettes. Well, better than Camel, he thought to himself and felt some consolation.”

Ong masterfully weaves these stories around curious mysteries that are also wrapped in pop culture and contemporary lore.

A couple of Europeans (from academe and the church), a Fil-Am and Fil-European, and two Chinoys are at the heart of the story that also epitomizes the cross-cultural influences that have marked the Pinoy for centuries, before they joined the empire that preached back.

The Pinoys include Fr. Jaguar the hip priest, Basilio who has been a mariner and musician abroad, Bro. Vergel the hitman, Manito the manic loyalist for incendiary causes, including EDSA 3. Basilio distributes yellow balloons with laughing gas from atop the carroza during a Traslacion on January 9. They are all interesting characters with individual back stories.

Ong masterfully weaves these stories around curious mysteries that are also wrapped in pop culture and contemporary lore.

There’s the tragic stampede when hundreds of devotees compete for entry into a TV special airing, the legend of the Balete White Lady, brotherhood initiation rites inside caves, Martial Law, the Lapiang Malaya massacre, Erap and EDSA 3, porn video, Texas fighting cocks, transvestites, references to celebrities, movies, popular songs, Rolando Tinio’s translation into Filipino of The Lady is a Tramp, and mention of “the ‘armpit of Manila’ that Belen could remember of Quiapo per some poet.”

Ong was obviously enjoying himself with this romp of a page-turner.

“At city hall, Maria registered her child as Emily Olivia Mahiwo, born in Baguio City, August 21, 1983. She thought it was a good day to be born.”

There’s side-swipe history, and there’s inscrutable humor.

““Yours?’ Chester asked. ‘The baby?’

“Then they stared at each other as if simultaneously hitting on an answer in Math class. ‘No!’ Jefferson growled, disdain written all over his face….”

But at times the large number of characters weighs down a scene whenever they all get together spontaneously at some arbitrary place, to plot on how to save someone or prevent an unpleasant consequence. They have to break up into units for particularized repartees and polemics, resulting in a messy melee.  

And when the Pope himself joins the parade, it almost turns in a Keystone Cops routine — as a wild stretch, though, a tunnel from Paco Church to the Nunciature is well-imagined.

Ong is more capable with sober insights, as on how someone who has suffered and endured pain becomes a healer. Or when he observes:

Horror vacuii. Filipinos were supposedly afraid of empty space and tended to fill it with clutter. Chester rather thought, from what he had seen from relatives and friends, that they feared slipping back to poverty and hoarding assuaged such fears.”

Then there’s clear-cut prose that’s all of a polish:

“There was this door in her mind’s screen, the color of burnt wood, with the head of a tiger wrapped around a serpent, staring at her. She could feel its roughness. If she pushed with all might, she might force it open; then everything could make sense, all the hidden pieces revealed, like in a magician’s workshop. But every time she held the knob, she would freeze, then tremble. She would back off and return to the pleasant quiet of the room where she had awoken. It was an unfamiliar but safe place.”

As one of our most highly decorated writers, Charlson Ong has authored three previous novels and several collections of short stories. His latest novel is the first release of the revived Milflores Publishing, Inc., started decades ago by the writer and publisher Antonio Hidalgo, and recently taken over by Andrea Pasion-Flores. 

This last note can’t be helped: Less than salutary copyreading raises the brow over styling inconsistencies with regards proper hyphenation and italics, and even renders a few passages syntactically fitful if not incoherent.

Thankfully, Charlson Ong’s novel remains a triumph of a thriller.