Situated after the Philippine-American War, Erwin Castillo's The Firewalkers reads part-saga, part-Philippine history lesson. It hovers on the edges of magical realism and fantasy but underneath the lyricism is a severely political thread. This particular edition is actually composed of two stories: the titular work and a shorter tale called The Watch of La Diane. What intrigues me about both is how they were rooted in two different milieux but were able to evoke the same probing questions on Filipino identity.
There was a sharp awareness of setting (a small town called Lakambaga in Cavite) in The Firewalkers, where police sergeant Gabriel Diego -- always referred to in the story by his full name -- finds himself in the middle of American troops and Philippine revolutionaries. There are numerous colorful characters that dance in and out of the story -- a cowboy named Apache Kid and his tiger; a traveling actor and his held ransom by guerillas, even a man who can make smoke from his fingers -- yet in this typically festive Pinoy fanfare, it is not hard to keep track of Gabriel Diego. He remains on the outside of both parties: treated like a lackey by his colonial superiors while the revolutionaries, led by his own relatives, seem to want little to do with him. Yet as police sergeant, he is essential to them, especially when a dark and mystical Beast is on the loose.
I really loved the rich and descriptive language used in The Firewalkers. Its ending was one of the most powerful that I've read in recent times, so fierce and poetic, a mantra I wanted to keep for myself. Mr Castillo's craft is even more evident in his second story. I think it is The Watch of La Diane's relatively contemporary setting that makes the poetry stand out in relief, juxtaposing image against image, scene against scene, one aspect of the Filipino migrant against another. The first person POV here is chaotic: 'The boy Rizal will have seen a couple of Sasquatch playing on the slope of the Makiling one rainy morning (p104).' Beautiful: 'And sadness, undecipherable, meaningless, breaks the winter down (p97).' (Also, for a completely shallow reason: I rejoiced when it mentioned my hometown briefly.) Still, that shouldn't take away from how strong and effective the language really is in the earlier story.
I don't think any review that I write can do The Firewalkers justice so forgive me if this one feels rather inadequate. My only hope is that you'll get yourself a copy; I found mine at Powerbooks for only P130.00. It's a small price to pay for a piece of quietly transforming Philippine literature.