Review and Musings Upon Finishing Nick Joaquin’s ‘May Day Eve.’
I have just read Nick Joaquin’s ‘May Day Eve.’ It’s a short story written in 1947. I didn’t get much of the plot, as it was deliberately confusing. I only got that there was this mirror and there was this girl, and she was told this urban legend about asking the mirror during midnight about who she’ll marry one day, and then the next moment she’s in front of the mirror, and then she’s old and telling the story to this young boy who is her child, and there was symmetry of events because her husband also asked the mirror when he was younger, or was this another person? I can’t remember, there were a lot of typos on the text which I read, and again the story was deliberately non-linear, and thus confusing. What I really liked was the atmosphere, both the psychology of the characters, and the setting of the story. It was dark and dream-like. There was the use of an urban legend, there were repetition of events and stories. The same urban legend, although in a modified form was told to the young boy who then asked the mirror for the face of the girl whom he would marry someday. Also, I like that there were only snippets of larger things that were presented, hints at some greater events happening at the background. The detail of the crier during the night shouting the hour is interesting. Agueda and the male character both live in the same house? Are they related? What is the connection between them that they both live in the same house with other people. That older lady who told Agueda the urban legend about the mirror also lived with her in that house. There were also other girls who lived in that house. I liked that the story tells that the young men went to Europe, and that the local girls felt they couldn’t compare to the more fiesty Seville girls, or the more classy Parisian girls, stuff like that. It connects the story to Europe, old Europe, where the Gothic trope came from.
The story has been described as ‘magic realism’. But another way to understand the story is to say that it is weird and supernatural, or fantastic. Literary academic folks would also use the term ‘speculative’ but these aren’t nothing new. The tone for example of the story is reminiscent of Gothic horror fiction of the type written by the Americans Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce. The use of the urban legend superstition ritual is folksy in a way. Gabriel Garcia Marquez also writes like this. I think the term is ‘folkloric.’ Is it folklore when the setting is urban, and not the countryside? rural places? non-city? I think it is. The story could also be understood as some sort of ghost story. What is the ghost here? Maybe something metaphorical, like the ghost of optimism. Optimism and kindness and youth died, replaced by its ghost, it’s mirror image, a mirage, a shadow, an echo something that pales in comparison to the real thing. Agueda as old lady isn’t the same person any more as Agueda the young girl. She is described as mean and hard-hearted. I like the part where within all that hardness and sadness and misery, she told the story to her child about the Devil which appeared to her, and she described the Devil in beautiful terms, like a lover, full of beauty and all things which she seemed to have lost through time until that moment when she is speaking to her child.
I think I may have now discovered a new favorite writer in English – Nick Joaquin. Our interests, I think are more aligned. For the longest time, which is to say, until now since I read his stories more than fifteen years ago, my favorite Filipino writer in English was Carlos Bulosan. I wrote a term paper on the guy. I liked his prose, which was social realist and called for justice to the working class and the poor and the migrants and vagabonds in 1930s United States. Joaquin seems to focus more on the fantastic, something that I feel isn’t discussed much in the literary history of the country. In high school you’re just taught about the ancient epics, then some Tagalog short stories, which are usually social realist, the novels Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, those huge pillars of Philippine literary architecture, are more or less social realist. A lot of the writings in the Philippines seem to be really political and social-realist.
Overall, the reading of the story was spurred on by my desire to read more local stuff. To connect to the literary scene in the country. The main problem is that I have little to no access to these writings.