I’m usually the kind of person who spends months reading a single book. To me, every chapter should be savored like a new dish. Each scene, each sensation a flavor in my mouth.
Which is why Celine Gaño’s first novel, Querna Dose, took me months to digest. The bits of reviews at the back hoped for some promise, and I wasn’t the least bit disappointed.
I was instantly hooked in the first chapter. It just feels like a punch in the face.
Taking place in a Filipino province, the story revolves around Father Art, a priest who brought himself in a tricky spot after murdering an errand boy. The poignant story revolves around his abrupt yet sudden change of environment, from church to prison. The book is named after the crammed prison cell Farther Art was sentenced to stay in (the Spanish roughly translates to cell no. 12, as most prisons in the Philippines adopt a Spanish sorting system).
Since it’s a piece of Philippine literature, the novel’s written in Tagalog. This is one of the reasons I was spending months trying to articulate my thoughts in Tagalog just to bring justice to this wonderful work.
Nope. I just couldn’t do it. It’s so brutal and so realistic, it feels like you’re beaten up like a rag doll in every page. How every chapter’s like a short writ of film in your head that lingers even in your sleep. I carried this book around in school, sneaking my way through short snippets in lunch hours and dinner times. But I was careful with it. Really careful. I didn’t want to be the kind of person to rush my reading. I wanted to take my time. Slowly. Surely. I didn’t want it to end in just 3 days. I wanted the story to carry me around like a pocketbook of adventure.
It’s basically just…imagery of blood and toilet water in your face. The way Gaño just depicts every single detail makes the whole story feel like a painting and an indie film all on its own. But it’s raw enough for you to feel the cultural atmosphere. You can smell the cigarettes. You can feel the grime. You can feel the growing tension of prison conflict in your spine. It’s all just dirt and broken glass and suspense all wrapped up in one beautiful piece of fiction. It’s a unique mix of murder, religion and serious character development- and it’s contemporary.
The thing is, it’s rare to find a brutal book these days in the Philippines. I haven’t picked up a book like this since Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada 70, a story that revolves around a modern family’s life during the times of Martial Law; and that says something.
But that’s historical. These days, it’s sappy fiction. The usual template of a rich boy and a poor girl falling in love is bound to make a book sell in this country- not that I’m antagonizing it, though. It’s just that finding a jem this brutal and realistic is rare- and definitely worthwhile.
The elements I like most about this book is the fact that the writing doesn’t try too hard to paint a picture in your head. It’s not perfect, the characters aren’t perfect templates and are all complex enough to be relatable. Father Art comes off as a pompous, religious-minded individual who cares only about the prestige in his place and rarely about his people. But as the story goes on, you can genuinely see that he starts to care. I like how Gaño related the story to a bible verse that translates to healing the spiritually sick. How the religious and rich don’t need as much healing as those who hunger in prison cells looking for redemption. I think that really wraps up the story nicely. It really does.
Another element I’d love to bring up is the fact that the author doesn’t force her writing to the reader. The style’s just right, and you can tell that Gaño spent a considerable amount of time with researching for this book because you get a pleasant array of surprises as the chapters go on. There’s a tennis court in prison? A store? Prison actually sounds like a small community rather than a purgatory for prisoners- and I love how she illustrated that here.
It’s probably the reason why this review’s a bit too overdue. I bought this book months ago with a hint of curiosity and eagerness to blog about it, thinking that I could finish my first enthusiastic book review in less than three days. Obviously, I was just fooling myself.
The only thing I didn’t like about it, though, were the legal terms she used- specifically in the third chapter. There’s a bit where the judge sentences Father Art to about 40 years in prison on account of murder. But the way the judge deliberated it wasn’t proper and applicable in an actual courtroom. If I was a judge, I’d automatically sentence Father Art to a lifetime in prison- the judicial equivalent of 40 years on account of murder. But it’s a small nitpick. Unless the reader has background knowledge on politics and the judicial system, it wouldn’t be that much of a bother.
I think my points stand clear in this piece of work. I love it! If I’d rate it, I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars ’cause it hits home for me. But if gory, socially realistic fiction isn’t to your taste, I wouldn’t recommend this book. But it is DEFINITELY worth the read.
Honestly, I’m looking forward to what Celine Gaño has in store for the world of Filipino literature. Kudos to having such a wonderful first shot at writing a novel! I’m more than excited for more!