I got Bob Ong’s Ang Mga Kaibigan Ni Mama Susan since last January as a gift for my sister on her 18th birthday. Actually, I was just brainstorming about what to give Olie. Or more like, which book, since I knew that books (and cats) are the things that make her most happy. Then quite coincidental, I chanced upon my friends talking about this new book on Facebook (right on their public walls haha). What intrigued me was that one of them said that she almost didn’t see the scary thing at the back cover. The curious cat that I am, a decision was immediately made. Olie liked Bob Ong and I wanted to see this book plus, it was an advantage that his books were relatively cheaper. 😉 So the moment I got hold of the book, I instantly looked at the back cover. True enough, there was a face hidden behind what seems like a torn part of a journal. If I had not been informed beforehand, I would hardly notice it. Afterwards, I felt a little regretful for spoiling what could probably be the climax of this story. Anyway, I didn’t plan to read the book right away so I was thinking I’d probably forget this little spoiler by then. (Of course I was just fooling myself.)
After months from first seeing the book and hibernating from reading overall, I felt a sudden thirst for books again and my initial prey was Peter Straub’s Koko. After reading a few chapters though, I accidentally left the book at the office and ON A WEEKEND! So I lost appetite. Quite a good thing, Olie visited last weekend and brought along Bob Ong’s book. I almost forgot that I still planned to read this book but naturally, I did not forget the scary face at the back cover, haha. I decided that this was the perfect time to finally give this a try.
As it turned out, the hidden picture did not play a very important role in the story but I learned that the face belonged to Mama Susan. I could have finished the book without ever knowing that she was hiding there at all! The story was written in journal style. I found it cute because personally, I love writing journals and from this premise alone, I already associated myself with the book whatever might be written there.
The first journals introduced the protagonist as a male college student. The time setting was difficult to determine at first although the journal date was 1998-1999. His casual use of words like “potah, ampotah, potek, paker and paksyit” was illustrative of this current generation’s teenagers. Not that young people didn’t use to curse before but they sure would have spelled them differently. I believe that this “creative” style of writing was the influence of the later cell phone domination (Jejemon era if I may say). But the existence of 98 Degrees, Godzilla, Armageddon, Intel Celeron, Tamagotchi, Beeper(!) plus the fact that Nokia 5110 was described as expensive consistently supported the time setting.
Galo, the protagonist, apparently wrote his journals as a school project. This would help the readers understand why he did such a thing because diaries and teenage guys just don’t mix. However, towards the end of the story, Galo actually liked the idea of writing and at some point could be commended as slightly good at it. Based from his entries, it could be depicted that he was struggling with life as a college student living with relatives. His parents abandoned him and he grew up with his grandmother in Tarmanes, a distant province, where much of the story evolved later on.
The first part of the story revolved around Galo’s school life: the typical heartaches, dilemma on projects and exams, struggles of living with his uncle’s family and the constant worry of where to get money for his next tuition fee or allowance. His uncle and his family were fairly kind but despite this fact, it is understandable that Galo still felt embarrassed to ask for help when his funds were running low. In between his routinary student life, Galo also experienced of haunting dreams about an eerie old woman with black skin and unseen face. By and by, Galo received message from Tarmanes that his grandmother was terribly ill. The current tension in his uncle’s house made him decide to finally go while in the middle of the school semester. This was the horrendous part of the story.
Most people find the first part of the story as boring and irrelevant but I believe it is necessary to establish the main character’s person. Personally, I perceive Galo as a profound person because he keeps a journal while most male students of his age couldn’t care less about what goes on with their everyday lives. He could be seen as somewhat emotional too, as he said, “Aaminin ko naiinggit ako, pero hindi sa computer. Sa magulang.” For me, Galo may almost be the good-boy type hiding beneath the typical mischiefs of a young man. So I was a little surprised when at the end, Mama Susan had to condemn him about abandoning a girl after impregnating her among other bad behaviours.
Over all, there were too many questions left after reading this book. The very ending itself left me hanging. Incredible, I thought as I checked cautiously for subsequent pages. That can’t be the ending. But since it was, I thought instead that I might have missed something and started reading the book all over again. A few pages through, I realized perhaps there were no hidden clues just like with other stories that you understand better at second reading. It was just that, plain and simple. Readers were left to speculate and it was a powerful way to categorize the book as “memorable.” There are books remembered for being “good” or “bad.” Nevertheless, they are remembered. That is how it is with this book (being good or bad depending on the reader) and I think it is better than having to be read at all, and then unconsciously buried and forgotten.
Besides the ending, the title of the book made me question why and how. Halfway through at first reading, I kept waiting for any mention of Mama Susan and her friends. And the overall message which Bob Ong might want to convey had been a difficult point for me. Mama Susan and her friends talked about the defects of modern religions but their traditional idea of religion itself was equally sordid if not worst. If Mama Susan indeed wants Galo to learn about righteous living, in my opinion, she failed. A mistake could not be righted by another mistake.
And I could not totally agree with the idea that to counteract total dependence on technology, people must oppose to all kinds of civilization and comforts in living. I say, that the development of knowledge was there for a purpose. If man would not become prisoners of greed and learn to keep in mind that he is above the technology he created, then advancement need not be viewed as evil. On the contrary, dissemination of something good is equally thriving on technology as well.
Other flaws that were glaring at me while I was reading the book include the extraordinary ability of Galo to write down the lengthy recitation of Mama Susan or her friends, considering that their original declamation pieces were of uncommon subject and language. Another was the extremely detailed accounts of their horrifying experiences in Tarmanes. On the verge of hysteria or maybe even death itself, Galo even had the sense to remember every minute detail of what was happening (i.e. Labinlimang metro na lang ang matanda… Sampung metro… Limang metro.) Perhaps if it was I on his shoes, I’d probably be blank about most of it. Also, the existence of the two young children Jezel and Niko seemed out of place. This made too much impracticality in the story. For one thing, Mama Susan took care of them as toddlers? That’s quite handful for an old woman, no, it can not be (speaking from experience with my own set of toddlers, hehe). Then, only to find out that they had no relevant participation towards the end of the story. They both disappeared apparently killed or perhaps consumed by Mama Susan’s friends. But then again if they were to be killed why not before? Why did they have to wait until Galo arrived?
Looking beyond these flaws and endless why’s, I did enjoy the book. What particularly caught my attention was Galo’s realization that someone else had been writing Latin prayers in between his journal entries. In the end, I even thought of finding out what these Latin words mean thinking that they could be clues to what happened to Galo at the end. But as I have said, perhaps there were really no hidden clues, just like the hidden face at the back cover of the book. If I might make a connection by learning out what the foreign words mean, then in Mama Susan’s name, I’ll research these words’ meanings and there better be a connection.
Ong, Bob. (2010) Ang mga kaibigan ni Mama Susan. Brgy. San Roque, Pasay City: Visprint, Inc.