The Mambabarang in Our Midst: Pre-Hispanic Ma’I in Wing of the Locust
Joel Donato Ching Jacob’s presents a rare achievement in Filipino writing in English. The Asian Book Award winner deviates from the tired path taken by so many would-be texts that attempted to reimagine pre-Hispanic Philippines. Wing of the Locust avoided the pitfalls of romanticizing the Filipino precolonial past by utilizing alternative geography and cultural coordinates to defamiliarize and bisect what we think we know of our past. The novel follows a linear progression, pregnant with poetic language and devices, and yet maintains a general readability that ensures accessibility to a large span of readers in the Philippines and elsewhere.
Where other Filipino novels heave, gasp and strain, Wing of the Locust dances with ease, especially in its use of universally understandable premises and concepts anchored to both modern and pre-Hispanic Filipino histories, beliefs, social relations, and practices. What’s even more surprising is how well the narrative structure works in (re)introducing familiar concepts such as diwa and utang na loob.
The novel does not attempt to neutralize the complexities of these cultural artifacts. In fact, like the deuteragonist Muhen, the novel makes every effort to slow down time and sit on the ground with the reader as someone summons giant fleas or someone else gets stabbed with a curved blade. Wing of the Locust is a riveting journey down fresh and terrifying terrains, untouched by modernity, where the mysterious Angat are forbidden from entering the barangays unguarded and a race of half-giant men and women freely mingle with the people of Ma’I.
Preserving the Art
The story of Wing of the Locust begins in the rice paddies of Ma’I, where protagonist Tuan’s mother Mabunyi is kneed-deep in the mud. It is the beginning of the rice planting season, and as custom to the people of Ma’I, it is the women who should drive the seeds for the first time for a better harvest. Ma’I follows a specific social hierarchy where the Datu’s family and the Maharlika are at the top, and freemen and slaves occupy the lower rungs.
The protagonist, a young, scrawny, boy belongs to the class of alipin who are not allowed to possess property but are allowed in certain circumstances to buy their freedom, so that they would belong to themselves, and not to another master. Ultimately, everyone serves the Datu, and the various societal classes are distinguishable by what they possess — or not. A series of events causes Tuan to reveal part of his growing power, and he is whisked away by Muhen, the mambabarang.
Within the lore of Wing of the Locust, the mambabarang possesses multiple arcane masteries that few understand. Muhen’s skills, however, are indispensable as the mambabarang not only fends off plagues of insects (that are probably caused by neighboring kingdoms) but also acts as a physician and even surgeon when the situation calls for it. While the mambabarang is described as an individual who occupies a higher position than common alipin, Muhen remains a part of the slave class in Ma’I society, but he is granted privileges such as owning property and the ability to buy and sell other alipin as he sees fit.
In one chapter, where an Angat spy finds his hut, we discover that he can also kill his alipin/ apprentice if Muhen finds the act necessary. While the Datu of Ma’I does not hide his disdain for having to accommodate the mambabarang, we also see that he honors the agreement and treats Muhen with the necessary dignity because the kingdom requires his services.
Central to the project of the Wing of the Locust is the idea of practice as a means of preservation. While Muhen maintains a steady hand in teaching his apprentice, he also reveals in bits and pieces the cost of preservation of the art of being a mambabarang. Muhen’s disfigured face, which happens to be on the cover of the book, invites the reader to interrogate the concepts of adversity and sacrifice in the name of the preservation of art, and a way of life.
How much are we willing to give to ensure that a part of our culture doesn’t wither and die, like the locusts that rise from the ground and appear, as if by magic, from the air? The novel uses a variety of Filipino terms throughout the story, including diwa, which involves not just belief or consciousness (as in subjective consciousness of a person) but also a larger collective consciousness that acts as a precursor to a growing, organized culture.
The World of Tuan
Tuan lives in a world where nature and what we would call ‘magic’ and the rest of Ma’I society coexist. The mambabarang are at the center of it all, as they possess the ability to ‘hear the music’ or what could likely be the natural language of this universe. Part of the art of pambabarang is to hear and directly understand what insects have to say in different situations. Certain passages in the novel allude to it.
To understand this universal language is to control nature, as is the case when a man controls a carabao for field work. Without the handler’s own ‘power’ or understanding of carabao behavior, the beast can easily trample a person. The novel describes several layers of the art — practical skills (like peeling seeds and drying items found when you walk through the forest) and arcane, magical skills (like using parts of your body as a home of insects). The suspension of medical logic as well as its partial usage (as in the case of Muhen operating on a woman who had to give birth via C-section) transpires throughout the novel.
What about the supernatural? Again, within the universe of Ma’I and its surrounding kingdoms, the existence of creatures like the sigbin is not considered supernatural or unusual — they’re mostly nuisances that people have to handle as part of their day to day lives.
This coexistence is one of the principal achievements of Wing of the Locust, as the fantastic and ‘the real’ are knit tightly as one. The people of Ma’I are more interested in what lay beyond the lake, as social relations between kingdoms are mostly competitive and wars are waged on the depletion of resources, intrigue, and the encroachment of territory. And once again, it is the mambabarang who treads gently from barangay to barangay, secretly shaping the interplay of forces of all the kingdoms.