P is for Pilgrims

Trash - Andy Mulligan

Done for Sockpoppet's 2014 Reading Challenge, P is for Pilgrims.

 

When I was really young, I once read this poem called "Smokey Mountain", I've forgotten the actual contents of the poem but the image haunted me: a mountain of trash so high up that you can't even see the top, how the temperature of its decomposing contents would get so high that the mountain would appear to smoke. Worse still, was the idea of people sifting through the tonnes of accumulated trash, trying to find something worth selling to the junkyard so they can feed their families.

Smokey Mountain was real thing--or was a real thing and it was a dumpsite used in the 90s.


I only know about Smokey Mountain through the books I've read back when I was in elementary school because by the time I was born, Smokey Mountain has long since been discontinued.
It was the images conjured up by the poems and stories I read as a child, however, that prompted me to pick-up Trash.


Because of the cover, I at first thought that they were going to say that it was set in the Philippines. But the flap said that it was set in an "unnamed Third World Country".

 

Within twenty pages, I was reasonably sure it was set in the Philippines. 

 

The author uses places familiar to Filipinos, like Green Hills and McKinley Hills.

Names like Rafael, Jose and Jun-jun are used, Jun-jun being the most telling, since it's not uncommon for a Filipino to have a name consisting of two repeated syllables.

 

The currency is in pesos.

More evidence is scattered throughout the book, but the above made me think that it's safe enough to assume that the story is set in the Philippines.


Though I can see why the author did not want to name the country, because while he knew enough about the Philippines to create a story set in it, I think that he missed the finer points in Philippine politics and culture.

 

Story-wise, the book wasn't very engaging. Set in a place called Behala, which is just a thinly veiled Smokey Mountain, three dumpsite kids find a bag containing P 1,100 and a picture of a man named Jose Angelico, who is the houseboy of a politician.

 

While it seemed exciting at first, the story eventually just dwindled down to three boys talking, to finding a new clue to talking again to finding a new clue again...you get the idea.

There was no heart-pumping, spine-tingling, "Oh my God, will they find out the killer?"

 

It was just, "Meh. Of course they'll find him."

 

This is just one of those times where the writing and the story failed to excite or stir any emotions. It was less mystery and more of a string of clues that don't really make sense and don't really go anywhere. 

 

The characters seemed very interchangeable, too. The story is told through different perspectives but half the time I had to flip over to the beginning of the chapter to see who was who, which was not a good sign.

 

The "voices" of the three protagonists,Rafael, Gardo and Jun-jun did not differ much.

 

There was nothing in the chapters that hinted at the narrator's personality.

 

Whether it was Rafael or the priest or the social worker...it was always Johnny McNoFace to me.

 

There were also some inconsistencies, most predominantly, everyone's knowledge in the English language. 

 

It was noted that Rafael, Jun-jun and Gardo often played truant in school. But all three of them were portrayed as fluent speakers of English, able to switch between Filipino and English without so much as a hitch, as shown when they were speaking to a priest and a social worker, both of whom cannot speak Filipino.

This is extremely unlikely. While learning English is part of the Philippine educational curriculum, it's unlikely that the boys could speak it well.

English is not our first language and like any other language, it has to be spoken often for you to actually become fluent in it. From the sound of it, the boys usually spoke in Tagalog or Filipino (standardized Tagalog) with only a smattering of classes to help them with their English, so it's hard to believe that they can speak English as good as the book implied.

 

There was also the fact that Trash not only attempts to be a mystery story, it also tries to be a commentary on both the social and political climate in the Philippines. It fails miserably on both ends. The book wasn't commenting or criticizing, what it did was draw a line in the sand.
On one side, good. On the other, evil.

Then it just chucked out whatever things could complicate or blur that line.

God, the oversimplification in this book, I just cannot deal.

The messages in this book can be summed up as:

 

politicians = corrupt
white people = good
poverty = bad
but poor people = good


Of course the police was in cahoots with those evil politicians! Because they're evil! Of course they beat children while interrogating them, they're corrupt!

Of course everything in the freaking country was evil! Only the freaking white people were nice!

Everything was just so black and white. The author just kept slapping me upside the head with the umbrella term "corruption", as if it was a magic wand that would make me forget about my questions if he just kept hitting me with it hard enough.

Oh the police kidnapped Rafael, a child, without an arrest warrant? Well, that's OK! It's not like we can do anything about it!

 

 

In 2012, San Juan, squatters fought against policemen (and women) who were trying to evacuate them from their homes.


They were fighting for something that did not even (legally) belong to them in the first place, is it really possible that they will let the police carry away one of theirs without a fight?

 

What about the fact that this could not have gone on without the attention of the media or social media?

 

Philippine politics, while corrupt (as Mulligan is quick to remind us), is extremely dependent on how people see a candidate. Personality politics would be the term for it. As such, politicians and economic elites (who eventually end up as politicians) are careful not to do anything that will make them seem "evil" in the eyes of masses. Even if they bribed the police, it will be easy to connect it to them, as the police were looking for a bag that belonged to one of the politicians.

 

Kidnapping a child is definitely not something you'd do if you're aiming to be beloved by the masses. It's simply not a logical thing for a Philippine politician to do.

 

Another thing is that the social worker, whose name I can't remember, mentioned seeing children in a jail.

 

Children in jail? Please.

 

We don't bother with jails here, we just chuck 'em to the see in hopes of appeasing the great god Cthulhu. 

 

Yeah, the whole we-can't-jail-you-unless-you're-18 thing also applies here.


It seemed that everything about the Philippines just seemed evil for the sake of being evil, without reason or rhyme. The police officers, politicians and authority figures were simply there to be villains, as cartoonish and one-dimensional as the ones on my Saturday morning cartoons.


Trash was just plain trashy, if you'll excuse the pun. Poverty porn and exoticism to the worst degree. With just a dash of white savior complex to complete the deal.

 

The single panda I give this book does not look very happy.