Manila Noir

manilanoirMost Americans know nothing about life in the Philippines, except when events there are played out on the international stage — like the fall of the dictatorial Marcos regime back in the late 1980s. MANILA NOIR, the latest collection in Akashic Books’ series of original anthologies, gives us a glimpse of life in the collective island country’s huge capital city, Manila, and why it is such a perfect setting for noir short stories.
 
“Manila is a city of survivors, schemers, and dreamers … a city of extremes,” observes editor Jessica Hagedorn in her introduction. “Where the rich live in posh enclaves, guarded by men with guns. Where the poor improvise homes out of wood, tin, and cardboard and live by their wits.”

These extremes, and how they permeate the lives of the varied Manila residents, provide the setting and subject for the stories in this surprisingly strong and impressive collection.

The extremes are perhaps most notable in Lysley Tenorio’s “Aviary,” where a gang of poor youths extract revenge on the Greenbelt Mall in Malasti; an enclosed, mega-shopping center that bears a sign on the entrance stating, “Poor People & Other Disturbing Realities Strictly Prohibited.”
 
The title of Lourd de Veyra’s “Satan Has Already Bought U” is an acronym for shabu, Filipino slang for crystal meth. Two street dealers recall the violent realities of their lives in Project 2, Quezon City, while getting high on their own supply.
 
The standout selection is the graphic story “Trese: Thirteen Stations.” Writer Budjette Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo bring their popular TRESE comic series to a wider audience in a stunning horror-mystery in which Alexandra Trese uses her ability to communicate with the underworld to find out why ghosts are transported after midnight on the busy Metrostar Express commuter train, and to stop a group of aswang — fearsome vampire-like creatures. Tan’s story imaginatively combines ancient beliefs with contemporary political corruption; highlighted by Baldisimo’s nightmare-inspired illustrations.
 
On a quieter but equally resonating note, Marianne Villanueva’s “Desire” tells the story of a desperate man running from his former life and the woman carrying his child, while struggling with the desires he can hardly control. In “Old Money,” a story by the collection’s editor, a young man is ordered to return to Manila from Southern California by the aunt who controls the family’s money. He obeys, and returns to a life of drug dealing, deception and eventually murder.
 
Following the NOIR series format, the biographies and photos of authors of the 14 original stories are featured in the final pages. Unless you are already familiar with fiction by Filipino authors, the names highlighted on the cover — and indeed the title itself — will not be enough to attract you to this collection.
 
Seek it out anyway, as it is among the most moving, effective and altogether noir entry in the entire series. You might find yourself looking for other works by these authors, especially in the case of Tan and Baldisimo. —Alan Cranis

Buy it at Amazon.

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