Published in The Sunday Times Magazine (Manila Times), October 1, 2016
What was enthralling about Mina Esguerra’s second installment of the Interim Goddess of Love trilogy is how it retells Filipino myths for millennials who might otherwise be apathetic towards Philippine myths.
In Queen of the Clueless, (Bright Girl Books, 2013) Chapter 1 retells the myth of Malakas and Maganda to talk about the story behind “Maganda’s Regret,” a large painting that protagonist Hannah Maquiling visits with her human date, Robbie Carlos. The painting shows “a beautiful woman, in a plain white dress, standing over a lush, green landscape. She was looking back at something, off to the side, away from the beautiful forest. She looked sad.”
Obviously exasperated at the college kids’ ignorance about the story of Malakas and Maganda, the jolly tour guide Uncle John tells the Tagalog’s version of the creation myth. Here, Maganda’s beauty is portrayed as temptation that causes disturbance in nature. The God of the Sea attempts to lure her away from Malakas. It is worth pointing out that “Maganda was enthralled by him, the God of the Sea. She visited him every day, and he did his best to lure her away from Malakas and be with him instead.” Only Bathala’s divine intervention stop what might have been a forbidden affair between Maganda and the God of the Sea.
It’s a simple enough myth. However, in Hannah’s universe where deities walk the campus of Ford River College and Hannah herself is Goddess of Love, albeit on an interim basis, this myth becomes a backstory that informs the existence of Diego, the God of the Sea, and the complex face of love that Hannah has to deal with in this installment of her story.
Love, obligation, freedom
Since this book presumed that readers are familiar with Hannah’s universe given the first book, the “Queen of the Clueless” tries to explore the aspects of love after the first stage of infatuation. Hannah’s project is her friend Sol, who is trying hard to make her relationship with Neil work. Neil however turns out to be a manipulative kleptomaniac – quite literally so, since he gains the magical ability to manipulate people’s minds and make them do his bidding. Even without the ability to control Sol though, she stays with Neil like she is required to, as if it is her responsibility to do so.
This book’s exploration of love as an obligation, like Maganda’s love for Malakas, and Sol’s love for Neil, allows it to ask questions that are more complex than usual for this genre. If love is an obligation, is it a form of betrayal to let go? How should people know what is real love if the idea of ending the current relationship, and finding a new one, is never entertained?
Like counterpoint to Sol, Hannah is flitting from dating the human Robbie to kissing the God of the Sea Diego, even as she continues to pine for Quin, the God of the Sun. There are no indications that Quin will ever return Hannah’s feelings, and in flashes of dreams she witnesses Quin expressing love to an unknown woman. The real Quin meanwhile has never shown love for Hannah beyond what is necessary or expected.
As such, flirting with Robbie, and flitting between boys, teaches her that one can let go of unrequited love. Similarly, Sol learns that one can free herself from the feelings of obligation for Neil and finally let go.
Why not complexity?
In the process of telling this story, what one notices is Sol’s ability to be immune to the Gods’ machinations, which seems too convenient for comfort, like a literary device used to make the telling of the story easier.
Because were Sol not immune to the Gods’ manipulation, if she were not given that immunity shield against Hannah’s powers as interim Goddess of Love, it would have forced the narrative to make Hannah’s character more complex, where her role as divinity would contradict her existence as human. If Hannah could influence Sol as Goddess, the human in Hannah would see how her divinity changes the way she communicates the humans around her, and how would that in effect change her own notions of divinity?
Readers will be forced to see the part of her humanity that Hannah might lose as she chooses the divine, and vice versa. By making Sol immune to Hannah’s divine powers, the novel lost the opportunity to present a more complicated and complex view of Hannah’s humanity.
Which would, in the end, also speak of our own humanity. It will speak about how we deal with the people around us, given notions of control and manipulation, responsibility, and commitment. All that, in the midst of hormones and love!
It’s important to be reminded that Queen of the Clueless is still a romance novel after all.
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