KASAMA Vol. 12 No. 1 / January-February-March 1998 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

a review by DEBORAH WALL of Arlene Chai's second novel

Eating Fire and Drinking Water

Published by Random House, Sydney 1996

What a pleasant surprise for me to get a present over the Christmas break, a book, Eating Fire and Drinking Water written by an 'Australian bestseller' author born in the Philippines, Arlene J. Chai.

Chai's first novel, The Last Time I saw Mother (published in the US and the UK) is described as 'an Australian bestseller'. Indeed there seems to be a growing interest today in books produced by NESB writers in Australia, reflecting the emergence from the margins, at last, of overseas born writers.

There is a freshness about this book in the way Chai writes. Perhaps one could say that Filipino thinking process is illustrated by her distinctly Filipino style of writing, a style that integrates a kind of fatalism, a type of raw spirituality, a sense of paradox within life's mystery. As an example:

I sought to find a pattern, a deeper purpose, for, at the time, the events I am about to recount seemed random and arbitrary. The reporter in me, you see, insists there is order in the universe. And my own life attests to this. Besides, to deny the existence or order means to believe in a world of permanent chaos. And I find such a concept unacceptable.

So if there is a message to be found in this tale, it is this: there is sense... a plan behind everything that happens.

And again:

How was I to know that this fire in a street I had never been to would somehow eat away at my life's invisible boundaries so that into it would come rushing names and faces which until then were unknown to me?

Surrounding the intrigue that unfolds as one reads Chai's novel is the characterisation of familiar figures of the late sixties and early seventies in the Philippines, such as those of the store-owner, Charlie the Chinaman; student activists; the Defence Minister - 'Butcher of the South'; Judge Romero Jimeneq - 'the Hanging Judge'; Don Miguel Pellicer - the sugar baron; the senator and his mistress; and 'El Presidente' and Madam. Just reading this list makes me feel the characters come alive in a play composed of disparate but related vignettes. It is hard to figure out whether these characters are mere stereotypes or true-to-life. My verdict is: they are both

To work with such a plot is unarguably an arduous task for what a challenge it is indeed to make all these individual stories somehow link up with the narrator's discovery of her real identity. To succeed in doing this displays Chai's craft as a writer. For to tie them all in and succeed and subsume the characters and the political story of El Presidente's terror regime as mere background and setting to a personal story, that of a waif brought up by nuns in an orphanage, is no mean feat.

 The central character, Clara, discovers the identity of her own mother in the course of her investigation of what was meant to be only a routine story. This mysterious woman in black, the 'widow' who comes across as a mentally unstable character experiences stigmata (inexplicable hand/wrist bleeding reminiscent of Jesus' injuries on the cross). That small bit of information is only by the by. This is merely to indicate that she is somewhat spiritual or has spiritual experiences. No further development in that sense of the character there.

 Her routine assignment also leads her to find the identity of a father who is missing in her life, the Don who has made her a 'bastard' when he put family obligations and prestige above his attachment to a loved one.

Thus the truism behind her editor's words that 'There is no such thing as a small story' Clara began to realize after her own personal biography enigmatically links up with a seemingly ordinary fire coverage in a Manila street, Calle de Leon.

Quite apart from the political and emotional intrigue in the background, there were other powerful emotional moments. At the time Clara met her mother, she confronted her with the statement:

 I am Clara. The child you gave away, - and she continued almost dispassionately, - People are always making choices. Choosing consciously or choosing by default, but choosing nevertheless. Why did you choose to do this? What drove you to it? I want to know your mind at the moment of choosing.

So this novel is essentially a story about relationships. Certain details may stretch credibility a little, but in general I believe Eating Fire and Drinking Water succeeded to create an atmosphere which could only be drawn from the legacy of another culturally and politically diverse country, the Philippines, during Ferdinand Marcos' (El Presidente) twenty years of neo-colonial rule. Such a novel could only be written by one intimately familiar with this background.

I could say more but that would spoil the fun. I think the book is definitely worth a read.