PSF6 Review: “The Big Man” by Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On October - 27 - 2011

This post is a part of our story-by-story review of Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 6. You can see the introductory post, and our disclaimers here. Bold font is Mia Tijam, everything else is Paolo Chikiamco.

— The title? It just made me shrug. What do you think of it?

[Pao: A nice play on words, since that's a common term in basketball.]

Gutierrez’s story has been the most well received by readers so far (it recently won first place in the coveted Palanca Awards, in the Short Story in English category) and there is a lot to like in the story.

I see why this one won the Palanca. The crafting of the story is right up that award’s alley. It has that polished/smart/epic feel to it and brought median reverberations of Douglas Candano and Pocholo Goitia stories. If it is the most well received by readers then it’s because the whole thing just flows (right after you get into the groove of it by page 3) on the readability radar.

As an old-school PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) fan–I started way back during the Tanduay-Ginebra feud, when my Mom worked at La Tondeña and I wouldn’t shake Robert Jaworski’s hand even if I was paid to–I appreciated the level of research that went into the story.

I’m not a basketball fan though I remember that period. And it’s good that the detailing in the story provides that grounding in history… And this story is way better than the Ronald Cruz basketball mascot story in PSF 4.

That degree of detail helped immerse readers in this alternative Philippines, and on a more mundane level, the world of the PBA, which may as well be a secondary world to quite a few readers nowadays, considering the dip in the league’s popularity in recent years.

— Haha, yeah, it sure made me feel my aging in this alternative Philippines. And in real-time Philippines, Big Bird is a PBA player.

I also appreciate the feat Gutierrez was able to achieve in making a story about a kapre basketball player be about basketball, and not about the existence of kapres.

Definitely the story puts all those lectures I attended on sports writing when I was in high school in mind. So, hey, kids who are in the sports writing category in the Secondary Schools Press Conference— You can write speculative fiction and win a Palanca someday! Yay!

It brought also to mind how non-spec readers who love basketball would appreciate this story (Paging Leo Malapo! Paging Leo Malapo! The book is available in Fully Booked for 350 pesos! Buy now!)

The fantasy becomes the idea of a Filipino player in the NBA, not the reality of a mythical creature–or as the story put it: “Sure, the kapre is real, but is he for real?” This helps create the normalization of the fantastic that is important to an immersive, secondary world fantasy (and that’s the kind of story I think that “The Big Man” is, even if it’s ostensibly set in our world), but the manner by which this technique is deployed here is also one of the problems I had with the story: “The Big Man” normalizes the kapre by bracketing its supernatural qualities, precisely what makes the kapre a fantasy, and placing them aside.

— Tadadun…There goes the bomb!

We’re not told much about kapres in general, something that the story contextualizes, but it’s nonetheless notable that we are told just enough to strip the kapres of practically all of their supernatural qualities except possibly for their height (and even that is rendered natural by comparison to humans who are taller than the protagonist).

The “kapre” as that pinch of salt or pepper (or can even be mayonnaise) in the story.  I was thinking that maybe the writer didn’t know how to get away with incorporating the kapre’s being into the story so shun it. Or maybe the writer heard that there is that code of silence observed by people who know the kapre’s origins and if one breaks it then the person would be taken by a kapre and hidden in its ear forever. Hala.

The populace initially greets the existence of a kapre with skepticism, but then, as the story goes, “the jeering died down and settled into hushed speculation–only it wasn’t about Bolado’s roots” but about whether he was a good basketball player. It’s not just that Bolado’s nature as a kapre is (eventually) taken for granted… as far as “The Big Man” is concerned, it doesn’t matter at all if Bolado is a kapre.

— Kasi nga the story is not about the kapre: it’s about the myth of the Filipino NBA Player. (Man, I’m hearing Smokey Mountain’s Not all the world is America…The world is where you are…) And intrinsically of basketball as one of the three B’s that make up the pop-cultural blood of our country (including Boxing and Beauty Pageants).

While I do have other qualms with the story (the length; the sentences in the early segments)—

— Man it is long and that can be felt in pages 1-2-3…

I think it’s that shunting aside of the fantastic which gave me the most problems. Yes, “The Big Man” is, at its heart, a specific sub-genre of the sports story (“The Underdog Almost Makes It”), but to my mind it could have retained that focus without minimizing the fantastic. It’s not that Bolado needed to lurk in trees or smoke tobacco, but the story could have gone into greater depth with regard to the non-sports consequences of the sudden emergence of a heretofore undiscovered class of being, or at least, an undiscovered community of humans.

Uh, Counsel? Kapre is technically not human.

[Pao: Yeah, but Bolado was clearly a "person" in the eyes of the Philippine and American governments, so he was being treated as a human.]

—- Ah! Somebody should write a story someday soon about how “person” is defined, something with legalese in relation to mythical creatures’ rights and whatnot…Throw that in with the lot of robot rights, clone rights, android rights, zombie rights…

But the story does not engage these larger issues, even when they would impinge on the world of sports: For instance, charges that question the kapre’s status as a “Filipino male” are dismissed “expectedly”, we are told-­-but it’s strange that such would be a foregone conclusion in an organization that previously dealt with the “Fil-Sham” nationality scandal (as referenced in the story itself). It seems reasonable to assume that if the kapres as a people are so hard to find that, even after Bolado has achieved Pacquiao-like status, their actual home remains a mystery, then these people would not be in the government systems, and nationality would be hard to prove. Issues that would force the story to treat Bolado as anything other than a really tall man are brushed aside, and that’s a shame. The story completely remolded Bolado from “kapre to serviceable big man”, and while there are many things to laud about the story, I think it lost a bit of magic (pun intended) in the process.

And so case closed. It’s a strong opening story for the volume. But seriously what’s up with the last line? Another pun on the Fil-Sham thing? The New Yorker, Philippines 2010? New Yorker in Cubao? Why not just use Rogue Magazine or even maybe GMA News Online? That would have been punny hee-hee-hee. And would you read the story again? I won’t.

[Pao: Maybe. There are techniques I think I can learn from it. I've already read this story more than I have any other PSF story though, simply because I was trying to figure out why I was in the minority about it.]

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.

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