Filipino writer Merlinda Bobis’ The Solemn Lantern Maker is a revealing novel of complex simplicity.
All of the issues it covers – poverty, US imperialist domination, land struggles, child prostitution, political corruption –are simple because the question of right and wrong can be so clearly defined and answered; at the same time, they are incredibly complex because of their interrelationship and the social scaffolding of ideologies based on ruling class ideas that obfuscate, conceal, prolong and deny.
Noland is a ten year old slum dweller who makes and sells paper lanterns. Six days before Christmas he and a friend witness a shooting and rescue an unconscious American woman. Noland and his reluctant mother – who senses trouble – care for the woman whilst the world goes crazy around them. Ignorant of the woman’s whereabouts, US officials conclude that she must be the victim of a terrorist kidnapping.
The subsequent narrative unfolds over the days leading to Christmas. The simplicity of the narrative structure – 112 episodes spread over 206 pages –belies the complex entanglement that wraps itself around both Noland and the woman he has rescued.
Caught up in the story are Noland’s friend, Elvis, who is pimped to foreign businessmen, but who nevertheless is able to look down on “street kids” because at least he can say he “works”; courageous journalist Eugene Costa, investigating corrupt Senator “Good Boy” Buracher; and US Colonel David Lane, still reeling from a tour of duty in Iraq.
This story has its own cinematic quality based on images of the stars and angels with which Noland has festooned his tiny dwelling place. Perhaps, like Babel, with which it shares a common thematic platform, it might one day be filmed.
At a launch of the book in Adelaide’s Imprints Bookshop recently, I asked Merlinda to sign her book for me.
“Just something short, like ‘For the unity of the peoples of the Philippines and Australia in their joint struggle against US imperialism and for world peace, national sovereignty, independence and socialism,’” I suggested, with only a little suggestion of humour.
But Merlinda knew why she had written her book, and what she wanted it to do, so she wrote “In solidarity against the master narrative – and let’s keep telling the small, human frame.”
(I’m reminded of the final verse of Guantanamera, the Jose Marti lines: “With the poor people of the earth, I want to share my fate; the small streams of the mountains, give me more pleasure than the sea.”)
Like Babel, the actions of a child in The Solemn Lantern Maker are taken to be a terrorist act because that is what the master narrators, the US imperialists and their henchmen, require in order to prolong their oppression and to deny liberation to the poor. Like Babel, the stories of the poor - the blank and stick figure frames of an unfinished cartoon - are the stories of the real world, and it is the author’s/artist’s job to reveal them and bring them to life.
The ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas of every class society. But the poor have their own voice despite their apparent muteness.
Merlinda’s book is part of that voice, and a contribution to injecting a different set of ideas, a new social consciousness, into our understanding of poverty and its associated evils.
It takes away another small part of the social scaffolding that holds imperialism in place.