By Korinna Pia A. Saavedra
Photo & images courtesy of Wincy Ong
The year is 1888 and Jose Rizal had made his way to London after visiting the United States. He was to annotate Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (1609) after considering it “necessary to invoke the testimony of an illustrious Spaniard who governed the destinies of the Philippines in the beginning of her new era and witnessed the last moments of our ancient nationality.”
His annotations were meant to clarify and add details, to refute statements where necessary, and to confirm others as checked against other sources.
It was unclear how long he had been working on Sucesos, but it is said that he spent many a day poring over its pages and reading the old histories of his country, that is, aside from the many other books available on Philippine history. And between that and his many activities, he seemed to be enjoying himself in London. However, it was barely a year later when he decided to leave London for Paris in March of 1889, leaving behind Gettie Beckett with whom he had had a serious relationship, in order to pursue his mission.
The timing could not have been more coincidental. Here is a well-travelled man with surgical knowledge, an intellectual and foreigner.
Enter speculation, speculative fiction and, to be more precise, alternate history.
I spoke to Wincy Ong, author of the recently published short story anthology, Tales for a Rainy Season, that carries The Opthalmologist’s Case, a story that takes on Rizal althist on an indie ride of his making.
So…Sherlock vs. Rizal?
“Sherlock has the lead; (he’s got) home court advantage since it is happening in London in 1887 and Rizal was interred in the British Library at the time.”
This was in answer to the question—what could happen if the story continued and we’re looking at Rizal and Sherlock butting heads as it were in this What If scenario?
It’s Rizal without the whitewashing.
“Rizal was an illustrado, a coño of the time. He had the opportunity to travel. I was fascinated.… In terms of brains, who would be smarter?”
There was also the similarity between the two characters in terms of intellectual acumen and, to contextualize the obra, perhaps even in arrogance.
“You know that Rizal wrote with biting sarcasm.”
Leaps of Faith
Tales for a Rainy Season was a leap of faith, Ong says. “I had to push myself. My wife told me to write it because someone might beat you to it.
“Writing a horror story is tough. I have a day job. Truth be told, we’re living in a developing country and we can’t afford to be a full time writer, and you need a day job that pays the bills and then you have to have something that could save your soul.
If Ong were to meet with Ripperologists, what is the one question he would ask them?
“I don’t think Rizal did it. It’s fun to think about it, but I really don’t think so. I would ask—were there actual interviews by Scotland Yard? Did they take in Rizal and interview him? And is there a transcript of that interview?
“During the time, Scotland Yard was interviewing suspects left and right, and the possibility of having Rizal taken in for questioning is intriguing.”
Ong’s thoughts and words
Based on your work thus far (Tales for a Rainy Season, San Lazaro), you seem to be more drawn to working dark themes, thrillers, and the paranormal… Is this a conscious choice?
Ong: Yes! I’ve always (loved) a good spooky story. I grew up reading all things horror. And now with the Internet, I’m always on Reddit looking for the next great story hook or I’m always watching horror movie reviews on YouTube. It’s a great time to be a horror fan.
There’s always something about thrillers and the paranormal that I connect to on a visceral level. You know it’s an exciting read when one sentence after another hook you, and you want to reach the last page to finally see the puzzle pieces fit together.
One thing I realized after finishing my book is that the horror that happens in your brain is when you start connecting the dots. That’s the time when you get the goosebumps.
Do you think it will always be this tone/genre for you?
It’s funny that you asked this because the two films I write and directed San Lazaro and Overtime were intended to be straight-up thrillers, but by accident, they ended up as horror-adjacent black comedies.
I think there’s always been a comedian inside me, and most of my readers have told me that some of the parts in my book make them laugh, which is quite strange for a horror anthology.
But yes, I can see myself writing science fiction, if not horror. But the horror genre has always been my first love.
The theory of “Rizal as Jack the Ripper” mentioned first in Ambeth Ocampo’s article/column—can you share what your initial reaction to this was?
It’s actually the first article that you’ll be reading on his seminal book, Rizal Without the Overcoat. And when I first saw the title, something about it grabbed me.
At school, we’ve been taught that Rizal was this hyper-patriotic, super-intellectual hero. But upon reading more about his life, he was a rather complex person. He was actually kind of an eccentric—a rather strange man.
I had to write something about his exploits in Europe when he studied there. And hence, the idea of him meeting Sherlock Holmes in London struck me.
How important was research to The Opthalmologist’s Case?
I did a ton of research, but it didn’t feel like work at all. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes so I only needed to fact-check some details on the Internet. With the Rizal and the Jack the Ripper parts, it had to be intensive as there were lots of gaps in my knowledge.
But of course, I didn’t want historical accuracy to get in the way of a spooky detective story, so I took some liberties also.
All in all, it was like I got to know Sherlock, Watson and Rizal intimately. They’ve become my close friends in the three months that I wrote The Ophthalmologist’s Case.
Alternate History and Bare Bones
The subgenre is not on its first ride in Asia, but its bare bones speak to the generations within which it has taken root. The Opthalmologist’s Case dares readers to go outside their socmed box and discover history for what it is: questions that have been answered, its blanks looking for brilliant questions to own them.
And Tales for a Rainy Season? Pick it up, digest it well and laugh with us and, yes, support more local authors. There is always something about finding a quiet corner, rain or not, and being absorbed into the plotlines of an intriguing train of thought, after all. Meld, while you’re at it—althist has planted its seeds in you.
Image credits: Photo & images courtesy of Wincy Ong