As a bar room skylark, Charlson Ong can pretty much handle the microphone with the ease and flair of a Grammy winner. As a novelist, I will let his laurels speak for themselves.
As a short story writer, Charlson breaks the mold of convention by summoning the poet deep down within him, and the visual artist, too, for those glimmering attempts to paint in words some of the most beautiful scenes and lines ever to grace a book.
Crime and suspense, as well as myth and folk ballads–these are the images that make up Charlson Ong’s 2016 collection of short fiction, Of That Other Country We Now Speak and Other Stories. After publishing three collections of short fiction, this latest volume tops the others with its unmistakable literary sheen.
You have got to hand it to Charlson Ong to tug at the heartstrings with every line, and bring the reader to places and traces of the past that appear ever more relevant today than they were then. The dream-like portraits and simulacres of memories bring to mind Charlson’s old country, the land of his grandmother, that place where dragons play in rivers and the moon shines from an earthen jar.
His story, “Of That Other Country We Now Speak,” holds some of the most mesmerizing lines ever to grace the pages of a book.
“Of that other country we now speak. And land of yellow earth and blue sky where a golden emperor once ruled. My grandmother lived in that land. In the mornings she bathed in a river where a green dragon once played, where a sad poet drowned reaching for the moon one night. But my grandmother had stolen the moon. She had scooped the moon in a wooden bowl and hidden it inside an earthen jar where it remains to this day. It is the curse of the poor poet that has plagued our family ever since, that has followed us across rivers and oceans.”
Eleven stories make up this volume of short fiction, each one a jab into the labyrinthine byways of exemplary storytelling. His genius at crafting mythos and make it feel and sound too real is a skill rarely found in fantasy fiction writing. To some, fabulist stories remain as fantasy. For Charlson Ong, fantasy is reality, what with the scents, colors, and textures one feels that are found in each page.
As the back cover blurb says, “Here is fiction sensual and sophisticated, rich and robust. Here is fiction worthy of its calling.”
In his second story, “The Bearer of Swords,” Charlson dives ever deeper into the concept of evil, and dared set into words what he saw:
“I tell no lies. Lies are the devil’s nightsongs. The devil sees all. He sits in a corner chewing on the marrow of aborted fetuses. I can smell him at night, the odor of burnt carcasses and manure. When he breathes heavily, when he is in fear, black smoke rises from his crown which makes you retch blood. He leaves behind marks of his hoofs and claws, soot from hell that no amount of washing can clean. Although sometimes they appear as an infant’s foot prints which make you so happy.”
And this is one of Charlson Ong’s most endearing quality as a storyteller, that he can express his character’s mind with the magic of a clairvoyant, at once beautiful and spellbinding.
In his “And Heaven in a Wildflower,” a borrowed line from poet William Blake, Charlson Ong writes:
“She wore her sadness like a dress retrieved from another age. ‘Sadness becomes you,’ he wanted to say to her who knelt at the pew in front of his, ‘never turn your back on sadness, there is no beauty without sadness…’ but he could only say, ‘God never asks what you cannot give.’ She looked at him with a strange light in his eyes. ‘Are you a priest,’ she asked. ‘I wear my priestliness like sin,’ the man thought to himself. ‘Yes,’ he wanted to say, ‘In my heart I have never stopped being one. It was what I was born to do,’ but he could only say, ‘No, it was never for me.’”
Charlson Ong, I am proud to say, stands right up there with some of the world’s most famous storytellers and prose stylists, the Russian Vladimir Nabokov being one of them, and Hungarian fictionist Péter Nádas, the other.
In his books, Charlson Ong writes no Derridian cliché, none of the heavy, disagreeable notions to appear intelligent in the crafting of a story. Astonishing is the fact that Charlson, despite his influences, has remained true to his voice, the same voice he employed in the writing of his novels An Embarassment of Riches, Bayaga: A Song of War and Blue Angel, White Shadow.
He takes a scene from his imagination and carefully weaves a fabulous mirror-image of the same, often better, clearer and more enchanting than what he previously saw. With every line the reader is forced to take a deep breath, if not for the thrill of the plot, then the pleasure of the telling.
He is one of a handful who can take the workaday scenes and reshape it into the masterpiece that is was meant to be.
“Running down the street, Jake found himself chasing a scent. He realized that his dream was true, that she had taken away his heart, that he would never stop running until he found her garden and before then, he would have to love with all the courage and abandon of the heartless.”
A native of magic and stark realism, Charlson Ong moves about his world, at once imagined and crafted by genius, with relative ease, so much so that every excursion into his realm is a rewarding experience. None so wise has ever crafted a story the way Charlson does. This puts him in the pantheon as one of the great authors of our time.
Of That Other Country We Now Speak and Other Stories is published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2016.