Thursday, 14 March 2013

Short Story Review | The Song of the Body Cartographer by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

The trouble with ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer,’ is my opinion, is that it’s just too short to get its point across.

At the outset, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz introduces us to Siren and Inyanna, class-cross’d lovers in a world of windbeasts, where emotional programmers are able to remap the human animal:
The Matriarchy had sent Inyanna to Siren with an express command. For all that Siren was one of the common, she had been and still was the best body cartographer in all of Ayudan. She could have become Qa’ta if she wished, but she’d always cherished the freedom that came with being common and no matter that being Qa’ta came with privileges, she couldn’t bear to leave her carefree life behind.

Inyanna was Timor’an–more than that she was gifted with insight and with the Matriarch’s blood. She would ascend to the Matriarch’s place if she could prove herself in flight. And there lay the heart of the problem–Inyanna was meant to fly and yet she could not.
What follows, in a succession of short scenes, is equal parts a chronicle of Siren’s attempts to enable Inyanna to fly as the rest of her kind can, and an account of the rise and fall, or the fall and rise, of a strange but beautiful relationship.

On the sentence level, at least, ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ is sublime. The author’s soaring prose is practically poetry in motion—that she is a Clarion West graduate comes as no surprise—and whatever its other issues, this is an undeniably evocative short.

But from the climax at the start to the bittersweet resolution come the conclusion, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz seems keen to the reader on the back foot, and unsurprisingly, this proves problematic. ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ boasts enough world-building to warrant a novel, characters that seem to have stepped out of something far larger, and though it does end, in a sense, on the whole, it reads more like an isolated excerpt than a whole story.

For instance, there’s an overwhelming volume of terminology, complete with the deliberately placed apostrophes we see so much of in high fantasy: see qa’ta and qi’ma, pillor’ak and Timor’an. Meanwhile one’s sense of setting is fragmented at best, and the narrative—which I should stress does come together eventually—is so overstuffed with invention and imagination that its focus feels fleeting:
Siren adjusted the gaze on the machine. The cocoon was one she’d had made after a visit to the Veils. She had watched the stoic Nahipan as they went about their business and had observed a cocoon which was put to use at certain intervals of the day. 
Drawing closer, she had been surprised to see that the cocoon uncovered extraneous layers, laying bare the cords of muscle and the line of nerves underneath. 
Fascinated by the cocoon, she’d obtained permission from the Nahipan’s chief technician and with his help she had managed to recreate a facsimile in Lower Ayudan.
Ultimately, I was not surprised to read, per the story’s postscript, that ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ is inspired by the surrealist artwork embedded above—namely ‘Creation of the Birds’ by Remedios Vario—nor latterly that it was in fact extracted from Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s current work in progress.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s other shorts—let me especially recommend ‘Of the Liwat’ang Yawa, the Litok-litok and their Prey,’ which you can read for free here—and indeed I appreciated the potential of ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer.’ I’m just not quite convinced Rochita Loenen-Ruiz realises it here, but perhaps she will in the forthcoming novel this nominee is but a small part of.


'The Song of the Body Cartographer' was published in Philippine Genre Stories in June 2012. You can read it for free here.

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