(A Book Review of Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels)
In 1955, Nick Joaquin left the Philippines on a Rockefeller creative writing grant taking him to countries such as Spain, the United States, and Mexico. This two-year sojourn gave birth to his first novel inspired by an earlier, shorter work, The Woman Who Had Two Navels, published in 1961 having won the very first Harry Stonehill award.
A historic novel now considered a seminal work in Philippine Literature, it revolves on the lives of Filipino emigrants living in Hong Kong centering on the story of Connie Escobar, a woman who indulges and deludes herself as having two belly buttons/navels so as to set herself apart and seen as somehow special by others. She confers this secret to Doctor Pepe Monson, a horse veterinarian, son of a former Filipino businessman and revolutionary in self-imposed exile terrified to deal with the trials of post war independence. As the book progresses we meet these characters at muted wars with themselves and, as if serving like a mirror reflecting Joaquin’s experiences prior his travels and composition of the novel, it portrays their struggle to keep their identity amidst different cultural point of views.
I’m sure this novel’s odd title, the point of inquiry and fascination of anyone who had either merely read it on the front cover or read the book through, is what excites anyone’s curiosity: how can someone have two navels and what are the reasons concerning it? Is it because of an anatomical or genetic anomaly here unto now unheard of? Or it is an outright lie from someone’s disjointed view of reality? In a stroke I will call nothing short of brilliant, Joaquin paints an efficient literary device, a catalyst from which to springboard questions pertaining to nationalism amidst the heavy influence and heritage of past colonial masters, society’s collapse wrought by past wars, and the Filipino identity as it basks in its new-found freedom.
Aside from the occasional critical essays I’ve encountered (I still particularly recall his colorful essay about Nora Aunor which I read ages ago in our college’s Introduction to Film subject), it’s like encountering an all too different Nick Joaquin in the pages of this novel. Getting into the novel requires a huge amount of comprehension and perception in the part of the reader, and in no pretension whatsoever, it is truly a difficult read; I lumbered through the first part myself. Yet carried on I did and I’m quite delighted by the pay off. If I’m ever qualified to make suggestions as how to read the book, I say take it in stride, like a leisurely walk on the battlements of Intramuros paying the utmost attention to the cobbled stones you walk upon, the brick work of the structure, the sun that illuminates the place with an unfathomable wonder and the location’s sense of history. Joaquin’s prose is intricate, at times profoundly confusing and has this surreal quality as if entering upon a dream at once overwhelms and likewise gratifies in ways that words can’t quite express; with eloquently beautiful scenes, imagery and flashbacks similar to viewing sepia-tinted pictures, it makes reader wax poetic about the past, of a Philippines in its youthful glow in its erstwhile glory during a time when the epithet The Pearl of the Orient rings true.
The Woman Who Had Two Navels is a many-layered, chaotic and less-than-prefect novel that taunts out universal paradoxes of truth and falsehood, illusion and reality, past and present by paralleling it to the characters and reader’s inner turmoil and puts it in the context of the Filipino’s search for identity. In Nick Joaquin’s view, we must look at the past with the consciousness need of engaging the present world in its own terms.