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Literature / May Day Eve

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"May Day Eve", published 1947, is a short story by English-language Filipino author, and National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin. It remains one of his best-known works, frequently adapted, anthologised and taught in school, and was most recently compiled in the Penguin Classics collection of his works, The Woman Who Had Two Navels & Tales of the Tropical Gothic, released on the centenary of his birth in 2017. It is also perhaps the story that best exemplifies, at least within Joaquin's body of work, the concept of Filipino Gothic fiction, else known as "Tropical Gothic", as the title of the abovementioned Joaquin collection implies. (It is not, however, explicitly supernatural, and is implied to be perfectly explicable in a rational setting, with all the talk of witches and devils in the mirror simply being metaphors for, well, terrible people.)


At its core, "May Day Eve" is a multi-generational tale following the tumultuous couple of Don Badoy Montiya, cocky, Europe-travelled ilustrado ("intellectual"), and Agueda, his feisty Love Interest and later his cynical wife, over the last half-century of Spanish rule in the Philippines. It checks in on Badoy and Agueda at various points in their life, flashing back and forth between the moment they catch each other's attention in 1847 to the dying embers of their later years, leading up to 1890, with the Philippine Revolution not far off. The story finds them both recounting to their children and grandchildren those early days of their courtship, but the sense of loss, betrayal, and decay in their subsequent relationship has made them both cast that early courtship in a tragic, sinister, and very Gothic light. For they encountered each other through the massive, ancient, carven-framed mirror that remains yet in Agueda's family's house; a mirror that purports to show one's prophesied true love, but which for them only revealed what amounts to their worst nightmares. Badoy saw a terrible witch, Agueda saw the Devil, and yet somehow at the same time they indeed found each other … for that monstrous mirror brought out only the monsters in them both.


The pivotal scene with Agueda seeing the purported Devil's (aka Badoy's) image in the mirror was rendered by Filipina graphic artist Kristina Collantes and selected as the cover art for the 2017 Penguin Classics Joaquin collected edition, but it's been clearly stylised and is technically anachronistic, as the mirror is depicted with Filipinised Art Deco stylings—a style that, of course, wouldn't emerge until the 1920s and 1930s, with the Philippines well under American rule by then. (The looming image of Badoy is also depicted as clean-shaven, when in the story he's implied to have moustaches.) Perhaps that was part of the point, to illustrate that a story like this is largely timeless, considering that the same emotions, superstitions, and prejudices last across generations, as evidenced by a boy in 1890 looking to a mirror to perform the same ritual his grandmother attempted 43 years earlier.


(Warning: spoilers unmarked, because the story in its brevity (ironic given the Purple Prose) pretty much reveals from the beginning that when monsters in the mirror are being spoken of, it's just the lead couple seeing each other as metaphorical monsters.)

"May Day Eve" includes the following tropes:

  • Evil Is Sexy: When Badoy and Agueda recount to their descendants their encounters with each other in front of the mirror, they describe the sight of each other as very physically attractive, whatever their mental demons.
  • Generational Saga: A mini version, with the story touching on the original couple in their youth in the 1840s, on Agueda with her child daughter in an unspecified later year, and finally Don Badoy with his grandson in 1890.
  • Generation Xerox: Don Badoy catches his grandson attempting the same mirror ritual to see his true love's face that both Badoy and Agueda tried in their youth, 43 years earlier, expecting to see each other.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: In particular the background depiction of the night-watchman who steps through the cobblestoned streets outside and calls out the time at intervals: ¡A las doce han dado! ("It's midnight!")
  • Latin Land: Obviously, being a Spanish colony, this applies by default, even if the colony in question is nominally set in Asia. It's even more evident in the upper classes to which people like Badoy and Agueda belong, and the small passages describe the exterior environments as being medieval-esquenote , with cobblestoned streets and night-watchmen calling out the hours in Gratuitous Spanish, of course.
  • Latin Lover: It's never explicitly said that Badoy has any Spanish blood, but in personality he certainly plays a very Latino role (even in grooming, he sports a stereotypically Latino/Hispanic moustache). Justified as the Philippines at this time was still well within Spanish rule, and in the upper classes to which Badoy clearly belongs, Hispanic culture and mannerisms have informed his own sense of machismo—doubly so as he's been able to go to Europe, like the Real Life ilustrado class.
  • Magnificent Moustaches of Mexico: Of the Philippines in this case. Badoy was implied to have them, as Doña Agueda in her later years claims to her daughter that "the Devil" had them. The daughter asks if they were like her father's (i.e., Badoy's), but Agueda, quick to dissociate the two personae in her mind, recalls "the Devil's" moustaches to be dark and elegant, as contrasted with the (then ageing) Badoy's greying, smoke-tainted ones. (Obviously, of course, Past!Badoy would've had darker facial hair and better grooming.)
  • Mirror Monster: Invoked with the Bloody Mary-esque ritual invoked across multiple generations. In 1847, Agueda's friends urge her to call up her true love's face in the mirror, but her family's servant Anastasia warns her that she might see the Devil instead. Decades later, in 1890, Don Badoy catches his grandson attempting the same in the same mirror. Said grandson says his classmates cajoled him to conjure up his own true love's image in the mirror, but warned that he might instead summon a witch who might eat his heart and drink his blood, among other things.
  • Occupiers Out of Our Country: It's mentioned in a throwaway line that in 1890, Don Badoy, despite his age, is actively conspiring with others to begin plotting what will become the Philippine Revolution to throw Spain out—or at the very least, demand more political reform from Madrid, as was much likelier to be demanded by others in the already-privileged ilustrado class like himself.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Invoked with "This is 1847/1890! There are no devils/witches anymore!" (Not literally, at least.)
  • Period Piece: Of course. At the time of its publication in 1947, it hearkens back to a century earlier with Badoy and Agueda's initial courtship happening in 1847, and jumps forward across the decades, but only up to 1890, by which point Agueda is confirmed to have been dead for some time. Joaquin, ever the nostalgic fanboy, had something of a hard-on for the Spanish era (not that it's a bad thing).
  • Purple Prose: Oh so very characteristic of Joaquin's style.
  • Spicy Latina: Likewise with Badoy (see Latin Lover), it's never revealed whether Agueda actually has Spanish blood or how much of it, but as part and parcel of a very Hispanicised Filipino upper class, if she doesn't already have it, she behaves entirely like she does, fierily evading Badoy's cocky flirting and eventually biting him on the hand when he pushes her a little too far.


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