BY LUCIA ENRIQUEZ
In a conversation I had with Peter Bacho, he said that figuring out our place in history presents the surest existential problem. And so this defines the problem of Rico Divina, the lead character in Bacho’s latest novel, “Entrys” (University of Hawaii Press, 2005). Divina, a young Filipino-Indian American, or “Indipino,” faces fights with history and his own nature on the way to adulthood and self-fulfillment. All throughout, unseen and incomprehensible forces thwart his ability to find meaning.
Two narratives are told, one from a third person perspective, another from Divina’s diary entries. At first they present complementary portrayals, with Divina’s rough but passioned writing style contrasting with straightforward storytelling. The story intensifies when the narratives begin to contradict each other. Divina sees writing as a way out of a problematic and uneducated background. As he figures his way out through language, he finds a beauty and elegance in literary forms, but also a troubling trend as we find him concocting an unreliable account, ignoring and contradicting what happens around him.
Divina grapples with demons beyond the written page, beyond language. Though his writing becomes more elegant, his life does not. He harbors an essential frustration that comes out in violence. From hints in the novel, it seems rooted in feelings of abandonment by his father, racism in his boyhood environment, and pressure put on minorities to sign up for the military during the Vietnam War.
In Vietnam, Divina experiences his first bout with the surreal when his unit gets ambushed, and in a paroxysm of aggression, lets loose a grisly response. How much he comprehends or acknowledges what he did, we don’t know. We hear the aftermath only through a third person, a fellow Marine named Mel: “There was this one Marine. He was in a gully, off on the edge, so we didn’t see ‘im right away … And I just come across ‘im, at first all’s I can see’s this blade, risin’ and plunging’ down, again and again, and I slowly approach, and this kid, he’s maybe nineteen, small, wiry, dark brown — Filipino, nah, Indian, maybe Mexican— he’s there in that gully just covered with NVA bodies — maybe eight or ten — and he’s hackin’ away, and he’s screamin’ and singin’ and callin’ for some dude named Jerome, his partner I guess, and I tell ‘im to stop, and he don’t hear me.”
Sent to the hospital and discharged, Divina begins civilian life, but is normal only on the surface. Vietnam continues to haunt him, and the disconnect between his mental state and his behavior becomes more glaring. Though capable of passion and of feeling, Divina seems unaffected by the impact his own violence on others, or for that matter, on his own humanity. Back in Seattle, he attacks a former teacher’s boyfriend when he encounters them together on the street.
Women play intriguing, complicated roles that mirror Divina’s stages of awareness. Ms. Andrews, his writing teacher in high school, singles him out in class and comes on to him. Marites, a Filipina convent school girl he meets after Vietnam, proves to be something else in bed. Wynona, a Mandan Indian, takes him on an otherworldly journey — physical and spiritual. Carmen, a Filipina immigrant, becomes a cultural and intellectual puzzle who surprises him with chameleon-like ability to channel different cultures.
Divina’s relationship with Wynona is the most crucial. She saves him in an altercation in a bar in San Francisco, but gets him unwittingly involved in a difficulty with her own past. Stalked by Frank, her abusive ex-husband, she calls on Divina to help her bury him after she thought she had killed Frank in self-defense. They drive the unconscious body from San Francisco to Markleeville, near Nevada. But right before filling in the grave, Frank surprisingly awakens. Divina instinctively responds the same way he did in Vietnam, and ends up doing Frank in for good.
The stain of Frank’s death then falls on Divina. A healing ceremony to banish this stain, conducted by Wynona’s uncle Bernard, gets bungled when Rico steps outside a ceremonial circle. The transgression ends up contributing to the fracture of Divina’s world, and affects the rest of his life.
This book, a significant addition to Bacho’s body of work, provides a compelling revisitation of the 70s as seen through the eyes of a cultural minority. With nuanced yet gripping storytelling, we follow the moves of characters rarely portrayed in mainstream literature. Bacho’s understanding of politics, and the intricate cultural contexts represented: Filipino, American Indian, American, give the characters depth as they grapple with forces against which they attempt to create their identity.