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Literature / The Order of Melkizedek

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A 1966 murder-mystery novella from the acclaimed Filipino English-language author, and National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin.

In the midst of The '60s, United Nations functionary Isidro "Sid" Estiva, middle of three children by different mothers, comes down from New York City to the Philippines, and especially to Manila, land of his birth, where at the airport, instructed for some reason to hold up a toothbrush as a sign to his recipients, he's accosted by thugs, bundled into a taxi, beaten and stripped of his clothes and stranded in a cemetery. He's rescued by de facto divorcée Sonya Borja who later gives him a lift to the new elite suburbs in Makati, where he's reunited with his half-sisters Adela and Guia—the elder former is the sensible matron owner of the house, and the younger latter's identified several times with different cultural crowds in her past short life, seeking always to find a new group where she feels she might really belong.

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Inquiring as to the cause of his brutal reception, Sid learns that, quite by accident, he's gotten mixed up in the recruitment process for a shadowy, if charismatic, Cult calling itself the "Order of Melkizedek", whose stated purpose is to put a radically modern, but also uniquely native, spin on Christian proselytism by infusing it with indigenous imagery and open festivities in ways still alien or anathema to the Catholic establishment, itself still reeling in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and all its reforms now in the process of implementation. Guia, in fact, has already fallen in with the cult, calling herself Sister Guia and going on the road with fellow sisters performing their own interpretations of Christian services. But the various investigators into the cult (including, inevitably, Sid) eventually cobble together their observations: it holes up by default in a bombed-out former convent in Citadel City Intramuros; it has a tendency to vanish to the unworthy, the sceptical and the suspicious; and it's led by a tall, limping, long-bob-haired minister who may or may not be the latest reincarnation in a long line of cult leaders stretching far into the Philippine past, using the guises of The Three Wise Men (the current one calls himself Father Melchor, and he's had a Gaspar and a Baltazar for predecessors, naturally), but who also goes by Melkizedek, after a prophet mentioned early on in The Bible, and it's in this guise that he lures in his followers, many of whom are women from well-to-do backgrounds (Guia herself being one of them).

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  • Aerith and Bob: Guia herself is a one-person example, vacillating in her various personality phases from "Steve", to "Ginny", to "Gigi", to "Guiang", not to mention "Guia" itself, her birth name.
  • Arc Symbol: The Order's sort-of "logo" and its chosen sacred image, the Sign of the Milky Seed—a sheaf of grain dripping from the tip, one of the most Freudian depictions of God since ancient fertility idols were a thing.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Zig-zagged: the Order itself attempts to subvert this with its adoption of very unconventional, un-traditionally-Catholic forms of worship, drawing on post-Vatican II reforms, pop culture and music (including The Beatles' songs), and indigenous Filipino festivals and imagery), but—at least according to Guia—it is still aiming to get endorsement from the Vatican itself.
    • Another subversion in Adela who mentions in passing that her mother was Aglipayan (i.e., a member of the Philippine Independent Church, founded by the Revolutionary cleric Gregorio Aglipay, basically the local equivalent of the Church of England).
  • Coitus Ensues: Between Sid and Sonya Borja more than halfway into the story, when Sid's over at Sonya's house for a Christmas dinner involving just the two of them, and after Sonya lights a bonfire in the yard.
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  • Downer Ending: As far as Guia is concerned. She was about to get away from the cult (and also from her half-siblings' attempts to control her) but another, recovering ex-member literally shoots down her hope at redemption by shooting her dead.
  • Eureka Moment: Sonya Borja eventually gets the clever play on words on the card meant for Fr Lao: "The Sign of the Milky Seed, Deck 6" = "Milki-zeed-deck" = Melkizedek.
  • Hope Spot: At the end of the story, Guia is just about freed from the cult's clutches, with her siblings jockeying to get her into (what they think is) a more well-adjusted, "normal" life, and even Guia herself makes heard her wishes to strike out on her own (again) … And then Fr Lao shows up at the door and shoots her twice, seeing her as only an evil, whorish character.
  • Karma Houdini: Whoever this Prophet Melkizedek is, he and his predecessors (or earlier incarnations?) always manage to elude legitimate authorities. The Baltazar in 1900 escaped the clutches of American colonial troops, for one, and in the present, Melchor similarly manages to escape the Constabulary raid on his cult.
  • Macguffin: Several. The toothbrush Sid holds up as a (mistaken) sign of identification for the Order's recruiters, and the card pointing out the directions to the Sign of the Milky Seed, intended for Fr Lao, Sid's fellow passenger on the plane. Sid ends up placing the toothbrush as a votive offering in the Salem House shrine in Intramuros after Guia's death and funeral.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Leans more toward the mundane side, this being a sort of crime story, but a lot of characters wonder if it's not possible after all that a centuries-old minister with long hair and a forehead birthmark has been subverting Christian gospel in their midst all this time.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Lampshaded with Santiago Ferrer, Adela's husband, who when he assists in the Constabulary's arrest of one of the Order's thugs, is directly compared to his saintly namesake, Santiago Matamoros—St James, Slayer of Moors note . This being the Philippines, he probably was literally named after the saint.
    • There is a fort in Intramuros named Fort Nuestra Señora de Guia, from which Guia was presumably named. It might be the fort in which the Order holes up. In Real Life its best-known structure is the distinctive concentric rings of the Baluarte de San Diego.
  • Latin Land: It's The '60s now, so most of the obvious trappings of this trope are fading out of urban Manila, giving way to an intensely Americanising (but simultaneously indigenising) landscape and culturescape, but many traces remain stubbornly, or else are being revived:
    • Santiago's club, for one, is done up in a sort-of late-Spanish-colonial style, a restored bahay na bato (local stone-based house) with a lot of Catholic statuary and imagery, though many of these are carved in indigenous styles.
    • The ruins of Intramuros, the early-Spanish-colonial Citadel City formerly containing the colony's capital and largely obliterated by American shelling in World War II, are the setting of Salem House, the Order's headquarters.
    • Then of course, there's all the central question of the continuing relevance of Catholicism—the most obvious Spanish introduction—to a modernising urban Philippine society. Plus, a lot of characters still have explicitly Hispanic-Catholic names ("Sid", simply short for "Isidro"; "Adela"; "Guia"; "Santiago").
  • Motor Mouth: Guia can be this at times particularly when rambling to Sid through all the "personality phases" she went through with various crowds—from young writers, to beatnik bikers, to advertising & P.R. types à la Mad Men, to radical nationalists and precolonialists, and finally, to the Order.
  • Mystery Cult: The Order itself. A lot of its operations and ultimate motives are known only to the most loyal and the inner circle; though outsiders know fair bits here and there, few of them have the full picture.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Sid is stranded without his clothes in a cemetery after a couple of thugs question and beat him up. Sonya Borja can't quite control her giggling when she arrives and sees him for the first time.
  • Naked First Impression: Sid's Establishing Character Moment, to Sonya Borja.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Santiago and Sid get the Philippine Constabulary to assist them in rescuing Fr Lao and Guia from Fr Melchor's influence. Fr Lao, who's since gotten a spiritual second wind, picks the rescue as his moment to demonstrate his reacceptance of God by murdering a cult member whom he sees as emblematic of harlotry and evil—Guia.
  • Number of the Beast: The entry point for the cult is in room 666 in a modern building in Manila's Quiapo district note . The cult seems to have hurriedly vacated it by the time Sid shows up to investigate however.
  • Occupiers out of Our Country: Guia's "Guiang" phase as a radical nationalist who joined marches against the U.S. embassy and military bases, and the (U.S.-controlled, oligarch-led) Philippine Congress.
  • Really Gets Around: The Estivas' late father (whose formal portrait looms down on visitors in Adela's house), which explains why all his children have different mothers. Although he didn't have relations with them all simultaneously, but in succession, only moving on to the next wife when widowed of the current.
  • Really 700 Years Old: The jocose theory of several people as to the Prophet Melkizedek's identity—the same physical attributes have been recurrently witnessed since almost the beginning of Spanish rule in the late 1500s, when a similar leader invoked precolonial deities in rising against the conquistadores—though they often shrug it off and say that well, the consistency of appearances across centuries was most likely faked, it would be easy to do so. Still …
  • Red Scare: It's set in the Cold War, so of course. It comes home to affect Sid's colleague Etoy Banaag and his wife; when he's invited to speak in New York, university authorities discover his nationalist leanings and almost get him fired on suspicions of being a Communist. Mrs Banaag is understandably pissed, writing protests to anyone who'll listen.
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: All the reincarnations of Melkizedek (barring the very first, nameless, pre-Christian one, who invoked precolonial gods in his rebellion against the Spanish conquistadores in the late 1500s) are named after The Three Wise Men who visited the newborn Jesus in the manger in The Bible, in order:
    • Gaspar, who led an uprising in the 1680s to return his people to native religion;
    • Baltazar, who proclaimed a "New Jerusalem" in the province of Pangasinan in the middle of the Philippine-American War, but who in 1900 saw his cult broken up by American colonial troops, who had several cult leaders imprisoned or hanged;
    • and Melchor, the current version, who sports a normal suit and tie instead of a clerical collar during The '60s and uses imagery and methods drawn both from the then-current Vatican II and the rediscovery of indigenous Filipino culture, in order to entice modern women into his own following.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: As Sid's threading his way through arrivals out of Manila airport, he catches glimpses of a foreign, white, celebrity of some sort being mobbed (and not in a good way) as he crawls his way to departures—a clear allusion to The Beatles being thrown out of the country by then-First Lady Imelda Marcos, the hottest piece of current events in the Philippines at the time (the story was written and published in 1966).
  • Rule of Three: The three Estiva children, and the three described iterations of Melkizedek, each named for one of the Three Kings who visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem (not including the very first iteration, the precolonial datu or chief who rose up against the first wave of Spanish colonisers, more directly invoking indigenous deities in the process).
  • Sinister Minister: The Order's leader itself, the titular Prophet Melkizedek. In particular, the then-current (i.e., 1960s) iteration, Fr Melchor by name, is accused of sending the thugs to beat up Sid and murder the taxi driver who knew too much, as well as running a cult that—to give an example of the more outrageous theories—even practices things like Human Sacrifice, and in the end, appears to be indirectly responsible for Guia's death, as her joining it in the first place makes her a target for The Fundamentalist Fr Lao—who, for the single act of murdering Guia, himself ends up also qualifying for this trope.
  • The '60s: See Unintentional Period Piece.
  • The "The" Title
  • Twisted Christmas: It's mostly background detail (odd considering just how central Christmas is to mainstream Catholic-Filipino culture), but the whole story takes place around the couple or so weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year (of 1966 or 1967?), and Guia is shot dead in the middle of it. The holidays are still hinted to be ongoing outside during the aftermath, when Sid retreats up into his office out of shock.
  • Unintentional Period Piece: The novella is dripping to brimming to bursting with icons of The '60s, including The Beatles, bits of period fashion, New Wave cinema and Beat poetry, and—especially relevant to the story—the modernising reforms of Vatican II, which upended a whole lot of staid, Latin-heavy Roman Catholic traditions.


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