Sunday, November 26, 2023




The Maps of Camarines by Maryanne Moll

(Penguin SEA, 2023)



Plot is not the only asset of this novel. Philosophy is also well presented. 


Maryanne Moll’s The Maps of Camarines tells the story and eventual downfall of three powerful and wealthy haciendero clans in a fictional province in the Philippines. That the families’ wealth hides secrets of deceit, greed, and corruption shouldn’t be a surprise—as many sages have noted across the centuries, Power corrupts. In Moll’s debut novel, generations of bad behavior inevitably come to some calamity that harm them as their victims wreak vengeance, but then (depressingly) the cycle just continues. By “continues,” the cycle doesn’t educate the families’ protagonists to behave better because they “chose to favour their warm beds and full stomachs and pleasant conversation over facing the horrors of the past.”


The story is an old one, but refreshed by Moll’s interesting idea of how maps become foretellings, e.g. if a detail on a map disappears, its referenced reality also disappears. 

What elevates this novel is the quality of its writing. It is essayistic and it likely could stand more actual dialogue. But the details are vividly described, thus enhancing the writing’s primary asset: philosophy.


Specifically, I’m a sucker for turning elements of a particular narrative into a generalized observations steeped in wisdom, e.g.

“And that was how, at seven-years-old, at the birth of her very first secret, Assumpta was inducted into the Arguelleses’s long-standing family tenet that secrets were necessary for life and for the world to go on as destined.” (4)


“Choose sadness over pain. Pain makes you ugly, but there can be beauty in sadness.”  (153)

The above statement is followed by another zinger: 

“It was only after her mother had left the bedroom that Esperanza realized that neither of them ever mentioned love.” (153)

The limits of love is a topic that has generated and will continue to generate tomes of musings for as long as humanity exists. Moll explores it with poignancy. Here are some example which are simply delicious:

“… it was Guadalupe who had more wiles, hidden under her apparent piety, and thus had more choices in life open to her, and more power in her hands. / Guadalupe, in her quiet, introspective way, knew this as well. “ (13)


“By virtue of that marriage, Amparo had become a Monsantillo and lived in the Monsantillo house until the very last of her days. / Nothing was known about her happiness.” (41)

Why is the word “happiness” used instead of, say, her “life”? But I like the word choice—it adds a frisson and causes one to pause and wonder.

I was also charmed (perhaps in a perverse way but nonetheless charmed) by the statement

“But in time, as part of its destiny, the once-happy house had been made to witness corruption, and had been thus corrupted against its will.” (25)

Oh, that “house”! It can be replaced, sadly, with too many other words—like “country” or “culture” or, indeed, “family.” The concept can be applied to what afflicts Filipinos, such affliction being part of what the novel addresses—that is, as Filipinos have been forced to witness the acts of despicable politicians, have they (or many among them) been corrupted against their will? Can that effect be seen in how accepted bribes have become a normal part of election campaigns? Or how a majority can deem acceptable assigning the presidency to a member of a dictator's family that had profiteered from the country's assets? Using the novel's characters, the problematic issue is not simply rich, elite families doing what they need to do to hold on to power, but the people accepting they have the right to that power (until, of course, certain sectors of the population rebel). One can go on...


I mentioned the word “poignancy” earlier, and Moll possesses an admirable facility for mining this state. Consider these excerpts:

“‘You need to adjust your dreams to your situation, hija,’ Margarita said gently as she resumed brushing Esperanza’s hair. ‘Shouldn’t it be other way around?’ Esperanza asked plaintively, now looking at her mother through the mirror. ‘Adjust our situation to our dreams?’

‘No,’ Margarita replied firmly. ‘You cannot make your dreams come true unless your entire environment allows it.’”

Here’s another arresting example: 

“She felt a deep sob forming in her chest, which slowly rose into her throat like a giant bubble that felt like it was choking her, and she could not breathe so she inadvertently opened her mouth and grimaced, her face contorting in a pain that wasn’t anywhere in her body but was everywhere in her soul.” (195)

Such fine writing. I hope the writing helps draws attention to and maintains attention to its themes. For while not a feel-good story, it may be—especially for Filipinos—required reading. Oligarchism is one of the world’s great ailments, and the Philippines is not different from other areas of the planet in suffering from it. As The Maps of Camarines bluntly states, “the tradition of these [oligarchical] families who never actually apologize for anything [is to] project their torment on to their houses and their lands.”

However, the oligarchy cannot survive without those propping it up. Life's terrain would improve if, after reading this novel, we redraw the oligarchy's map.


Eileen R. Tabios has released over 70 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in 10 countries and cyberspace. In 2023 she released the poetry collection Because I Love You, I Become War; an autobiography, The Inventor; and a flash fiction collection collaboration with harry k stammer, Getting To One. Translated into 13 languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More information is at

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