By Espie Angelica A. de Leon
An angry old woman who stands by her gate and raises her arm toward the moon every time a baby is born, a cake which suddenly disappears at a party, a little boy’s clothing which repeatedly gets stolen, a strange mother and son who suddenly moves into the neighborhood with the help of the parish priest.
These are some of the mysteries engulfing 17th Street where the book’s main character, seven-year-old Agustin, lives.
These are also the mysteries which draw the reader to Annie Gorra’s work – a slim book of 178 pages, yet voluminous in terms of excitement, themes, and values.
Narrated from the point of view of Agustin, The Mystery on 17th Street tells of life on this strip of land in Cagayan de Oro City, in the Philippines. According to the author who resides in Canada, she used to live on a street actually named 17th Street in the Nazareth district of Cagayan de Oro.
In this delightful tale, the street’s memorable and all-too familiar characters come to life – Agustin, his playmates Noli and Rhuel and their families including Rhuel’s dad Mr. Abellana who uses Perla soap as deodorant, Agustin’s mother Celsa Masipag whose wisdom is inspiring, his father Isayaz Masipag whose integrity is remarkable, the queer old woman Iya Vellit, the poor couple Karrto and Linda, the drunkard Gani, the pretentious balikbayan relative from America, and the many others who reside in 17th Street.
It chronicles their daily routines, their interactions, the highs and lows of their lives, the things they speculate about, the gossips they share, games the children play, their fears, doubts, frailties, and idiosyncracies–told within the context of provincial life peppered with local culture and tradition.
Here, the reader is acquainted with details of a Filipino boy’s rite of passage in the provinces, the regular novenas held inside the homes, and the red carpet type of welcome accorded to balikbayans. The reader will also find examples of the bayanihan spirit prevalent among Filipinos, among others.
Though seen from the eyes of the boy Agustin, it is the character of Vellit who pulls these stories together and provides the central force around which much of the drama unfolds.
Along the way, the mysteries on 17th Street which keep its inhabitants talking and speculating, eventually unravel their hidden truths, indicating to the reader that there is more to a person or an incident than meets the eye.
Indeed, time eventually resolves the mysteries behind Iya Vellit, mother Gasa and her little son Andres, the vanished cake, the stolen clothes, and others, so that the only mysteries that remain are forgiveness, hope, compassion, and integrity. These virtues are the real mysteries residing in the hearts of those inhabiting 17th Street and which guide Agustin all throughout his life, most of all in his work as a theology professor.
With all their colorful neighbors and stories on 17th Street, Agustin later realizes that their lives are intertwined, that people enter your life for a reason.
The turn of events in Gorra’s storytelling is fast and exciting, compelling the reader to keep on turning the pages.
Some elements are predictable though, such as the real identity of Gasa and Andres, and what would become of the baby Belen, born to the poor couple Karrto and Linda.
Meanwhile, the truth behind another mystery – that of the naked man seen running in the street one night—utterly disappoints. I thought to myself while reading that surely, there should be more to the story of this man than what is revealed.
Nevertheless, The Mystery on 17th Street remains to be a notable piece of work, with the author filling the pages with relatable characters, profound insights on life, human nature, and the political system through her beautiful and elegant prose.
Unforgettable and exquisitely written passages abound including those in the conversation between Mr. Masipag who is the editor of the town’s weekly paper and General Rogelio whom he criticizes in his publication.
“That young man ate the bread and drank from the well of the very people he criticized. I took a bite of the fruit and before I knew it, I had eaten the entire thing,” says the General as he sums up how he transformed from a decent and honest member of the military to the commander that he has become.
Another unforgettable passage is the one uttered by Agustin’s mother as she and her son, now an adult, reminisce about a trying episode in their life – one that involved Iya Vellit. “Our trials are periods of nakedness. They reveal us as we are to ourselves and to others,” Mrs.Masipag tells her son.
Still another example of Gorra’s elegant writing is the one referring to Iya Vellit’s state of mind during a difficult phase in her life. “Waiting is hardship,” the passage begins. “Waiting is torture. Time mocks you while you wait; it knows your desperation, so it crawls and moves in slow motion intentionally to mock the person waiting. A turtle is faster than time when you are waiting desperately for something good to happen.”
The book is not all heavy drama though. The author pours humor onto the pages in good doses. This is especially true in the part when Noli’s Auntie Anne and Uncle Buddy are about to arrive from America. To the consternation of his friends, Noli tries hard to speak to them in English in order to practice it, prompting his playmates to taunt him.
When the balikbayans finally arrive, Rhuel’s mom, Mrs. Abellana mocks the “trying hard to be American” Auntie Anne behind her back by imitating the way she speaks.
The Mystery on 17th Street is one of the books written by a Filipino author which I enjoyed reading and which I will recommend to any book lover, especially one who wants a break from reading all those American, European, and Latino authors whose masterpieces flood our bookstores and bestseller lists.
Why not take a break yourself? Instead of reading about the frenetic life of a private investigator in London, the travails of a big time New York businessman, or a geisha in Japan, why not read about something closer to home? How about the story of a seven-year- old boy in a little known street in a province of the Philippines perhaps, whose loving parents and gossip-mongering but helpful neighbors nevertheless help mold him into the man he becomes? Try it.
June 2017 Health and Lifestyle