PSF6 Review: “A Smell of Mothballs” by Maria Elena Paterno

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On February - 2 - 2012

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.

Except for a jolting transition after the 3rd paragraph on the first page and “dull thud” making my bell wince, I found the story smooth, short, and sweet. There were still cliché phrases but this story showed when such articulation is just appropriate like in the usage of “woke with a start” or “…looked at him uncomprehendingly”. Because to do otherwise would make the story’s language suddenly turning verbose. Though the latter is still kind of making me wince given that it is an isolated line and therefore draws implied significance.

What I enjoyed craft-wise in this story was the ability of the author to hone in on very specific environmental/sensory details in order to give more reality and particularity to a scene. “…[s]troked the space between the inside of the elbow and the surgical tape that held the tube down…” If you’ve been in the hospital much/recently, you know exactly where that spot is. Another: “There was a smell of old coffee beans and spiders lurking in corners.” (I’d like to think that last is intentionally ambiguous.)

Man you haven’t been to old houses in the provinces much, huh? There’s a smell exactly like that in bodegas (or what we call in Bicol as zaguan). Can also be smelled in old aparadors. Think of the smell of old spiders as a thicker smell of dust, add that smell of coffeebeans, et voila! C’est par la:  It doesn’t make you sneeze.

[Pao: Our “ancestral home”, so to speak, is on a farm. I guess the spider smell was overpowered by the chicken poop, er, coop.]

One thing that bothered me about the opening scene–I’ve mentioned this before–is the non-identification of the POV character with a proper noun until the third paragraph. As I said, maybe it’s a bias from my time in the slush fields, but if basic information is withheld from me, I expect it to have been done for a reason, and there didn’t seem to be any need not to just say “So Simeon woke with a start…” (And I don’t think you sacrifice in media res by a clear identity.)

Double-checked that. The way I see it, if proper noun were used in the first paragraph, the beginning would lose that sensation of emerging from sleep. The use of proper noun would make the POV too conscious, because as it is the POV’s panning from internal subconscious to waking to groggy alertness.

[Pao: Ah, I see your point. But then why not introduce it in the second paragraph? Protagonist seems fully aware by then.]

Another thing was that the “search” scenes in the house seemed a bit too blow-by-blow to me (particularly the last paragraph on the first page), but that’s likely just because it stands in contrast to most of the rest of the story. It increased tension in a way that didn’t seem to be warranted by the emotional state of the POV character at the time–there was no indication that he believed he’d find anything ominous there.

—  Dude, it’s the device used to move the story along.

[Pao: But there are other styles that would have been less jarring, and achieve the same level of progression. For me it was like a movie entering slow-motion for no real reason.]

Anyway, I think this is a children’s story for all ages and I’m liking reading children’s stories nowadays. Maybe it’s having children in the family that makes me want to read stories which I can read to/with them (because apparently Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or Spinoza’s Ethics or even the confessional poets are not recommended reading for toddlers hahahaha.) I once asked my elder niece to read Gemino H. Abad’s “Discourse on Language” last year before she turned 5. She struggled over the word “susurrus” and asked what it (all) meant. I told her that it’s a question of most people.

I don’t know if you’re the best or most sadistic Aunt ever. Or both.


I haven’t tried reading “Go The Fuck To Sleep” to/with a kid though. Maybe I should hahaha.

Just use the Samuel L. Jackson version. Shaft!

Haha now Shaft is swinging that purple light saber in my head.

Anyway I’m thinking that my 7 and 6-year-old pamangkids would be interested to read Paterno’s story.

I actually don’t know if I’d consider this a children’s story myself. I’ve always found the Star Maiden myth to gloss over some pretty important issues regarding coercion, and while the story sidesteps them a bit by adding an (initial) element of voluntariness, there’s still enough of the original myth left for me to put this firmly in the adult realm.

Well, my almost-4-year-old niece was watching Easy A with me last Christmas and she told me that I should wear that A so that I get a boyfriend. So I’m gonna wait for the day Meia turns 4 and she would say “Wazzup bitches!” Seriously, the children of 2020 are little adults nowadays, good luck to you daddy-yo haha.

[Pao: Oh, she can be an adult whenever she wants. As long as she does it in her safe little bubble. :) ]

Anyway, I like how the story’s language had a balance between short expositions and longer descriptions as the story moved along. It showed the experience of the author when it comes to crafting narration according to breaths or when it comes to sustaining the attention of the eye/mind.

Except for what I felt was over-description in the scene I mentioned, I agree with you on this. The story reads like it was written with confidence.

The beginning alone would hook in the reader, beautiful opening line of an in media res. This one’s memorable though it cannot beat yet that (opening) line of “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to kill a beautiful boy.” I forget the title/author of that story.

I like the image it gives, but I think it’d have been better split in two, but that’s just a stylistic quirk.

I like how the son’s character was crafted with restraint— especially given that supposedly emotional mother&son scene on page 59— and how this restraint was shown throughout the story.

Yes, the author did a good job of portraying emotion without descending into pure sentiment, but there were times (the last page) that this restraint came at the cost of dialogue that sounded rehearsed/unnatural, somewhat stilted.

Ano ba, drama nga eh.

[Pao: Sure, I get that, but the dialogue didn’t seem natural to me, coming form someone in that position/emotional state. Too filled with information/reflection rather than emotion--this could have been contextualized to make it seem natural for the protag, but it just didn’t seem that way to me here.]

And I don’t know why Simeon felt the need to suddenly explain his vocation–but, ah, I think you have something to say about that…

Me? Nah, not really hahaha.

Just that the whole time I was reading the story I was going “Aaaaawwwww…” and then came my “…Crap!” when the son revealed that he was a film maker. Another “Protagonist is Artist” story. St. Jude save me from more of those. (My mother will be so happy that I’m calling on a saint haha.) Because it’s just really going against my desire for the “Great Filipino Story in English” that does NOT have the writer/painter/musician/any “artist” as the model/symbol/savior/protagonist of the Filipino Narrative.

Why can’t he just be a guy, just a guy na puedeng tubero, bank teller, security guard na naging call center agent, manong sweet driver lover, can even be a franchise owner of 7-11 who was an ex-seaman, and not have to be “special” that way? Somebody that the reading mass would really be able to identify with, that would represent the Real in the Speculative.

I see where you’re coming from, and it’s a very common thing, but I don’t see that as a bad thing per se, especially given that a more basic question to ask would be if the story was at all being aimed at “the reading mass” or at any sort of specific audience even, because without that consideration, then there’s really no great negative to sticking with that particular trope.

Ay, tsk, yun lang. Norvasc! Valium! On with the Speculative Revolution!


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