Magdalena by Cecilia Brainard
(PlainView Press, Austin, TX, 2002)
[First published in the now offline "Babaylan Speaks" column sponsored by Meritage Press.]
Whenever I hear the phrase “war novel,” I expect a huge tome. War, after all, is a huge topic. Cecilia Brainard’s latest novel, Magdalena, is a war novel, but a slim book (relative to many Russian or the James Michener type of approaches). However, Cecilia’s more minimalistic – and “poetic” – approach is as effective as books that might be double the size of her 162 pages. For her style of writing makes war reverberate profoundly by engaging the reader to fill in the gaps of what are not explicitly stated -- in the same way that a reader reads the distilled text of a poem.
Magdalena presents the stories of three generations of women in the Philippines against the backdrops of the Philippine American War, World War II and the Vietnam War. So, this isn’t just a war novel but a three-war novel! But Cecilia doesn’t spoonfeed extensively-drawn out narratives about the horrors of those wars. She relies instead on offering intimate personal profiles of individual characters. I call Cecilia’s approach “poetic” partly in how she links her characters to the war backdrops through implication and resonance rather than the more blunt approach of traditional story-telling.
I found this structure to be the novel’s primary strength. A reader can go to the encyclopedia to learn more (technical) details about the war. But a reader only can feel the effects of war through the intimate details from the lives of the people populating this novel -– Juana, Magdalena, Luisa, Estrella and others. Fortunately, Cecilia writes character profiles with a compassionate eye; in doing so, she compels the reader to respond with similar compassion.
Another way to describe the novel’s structure is “fragmentary” in the sense that each chapter often works as a stand-alone shard. If these shards are to be glued together to form a whole picture, it is the reader who must do so by engaging proactively in the reading of this story. Cecilia’s approach even can be seen metaphorically through the very effective use of black and white images interspersed throughout the book as well as on the cover. The photos offer a welcome dimension to how the reader might engage with the story. The black-and-white images are snippets, in the same way that the chapters are, from a larger tale. And yet the gaps that result from such snippets only emphasize the losses that are ultimately the subject of Magdalena.
I keep focusing on the novel’s form because I think it is a difficult one to pull off. Ultimately, I think Cecilia’s writing structure succeeds due to how she created a sense of sadness that – and this is critical – never slips throughout her 162 pages. It is a sensibility engendered by the slow tango of loss with desire, and desire with loss. The consistency of this mood hangs like a gauzy veil across each page – one reads through this gauze, transparent but still a veil. Ultimately, this mood, if felt by the open-minded reader, becomes the source for the glue that will hold this novel together and prevents it from falling apart.
I always enjoy seeing how artists continue to develop. Having read many of Cecilia’s earlier works, I know – and admire – how this already experienced writer clearly pushed herself and her craft to create this book. As a result, Magdalena also makes me look forward to what next – and how next -- Cecilia will write.
Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released about 40 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her most recent are THE CONNOISSEUR OF ALLEYS (Marsh Hawk Press, 2016) and INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems and New 1996-1915 (Dos Madres Press, 2015). More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com