Alfred A Yuson’s The Music Child was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize at a time when the prize was for unpublished manuscripts. Although the finished novel took the better part of a decade to finally emerge, The Music Child and the Mahjong Queen exemplifies the Prize’s objective of facilitating the publication of new and eye-opening Asian fiction.
The child in question is Luisito, born and raised in the rainforest, alongside the Maligta, an aboriginal group who play instruments strung with specially-prepared human hair. Luisito does doesn’t speak but rather sings with an unworldly tone and an ability to mimic everything from the sound of the sea to operas stars from recordings. He can improvise and innovate: “He’d turn a score by Wagner upside down and make a sport of it.” Luisito is a prodigy, singing literally from birth, a sort of vocal Mozart.
Luisito is orphaned in an armed raid by commercial loggers encroaching on the Maligta’s lands. Traumatized, he is taken under the wing of an academic who had known of him; the boy is mute and when he regains his voice, it is to speak, not to sing. He maintains his ability to mimic and entrance everyone around him, from children to adults. He is some years later passed to a colleague in Japan who shepherds him through high school. Luisito throughout displays a wide-eyed innocence, absorbing sounds and radiating goodwill.
Luisito took me to the waterfall and mocked it with his own song, an echo that drowned its source. He hooted as an owl and clucked as a gecko, then merged these sounds into a playful nocturnal syncopation.
The mahjong queen of the title is the subject of a second narrative, that of a Filipino teenager, daughter of a healer, who cannot be beaten at the game as angels speak to her through her fingers. Vilma goes on to national and regional fame and fortune and, inevitably, these two worldly angels meet. The connecting skeleton through the narrative is an American journalist, Lawrence Blume, a reflection, perhaps, of Yuson’s day job.
There is a strong streak of magic realism in The Music Child. But this is combined with its opposite, an American directness and the two are wrapped up in an entirely Asian story. Yuson creates a world which mixes spirituality and innocence with worldliness and where faith and tradition coexist with modernity and reality. Tagalog, Spanish and Japanese dot the dialogue while American and Asian cultures swirl around each other.
While most of this relatively short novel—it clocks in at about 150 pages—is straightforward prose narrative, Yuson also experiments at the intersection of poetry, prose and theatre: the denouement is a rendition of Luisito’s “Islands of Words”, a poetic suite reproduced within the text.
The Music Child is also a story about the magic of sound: music, of course—everything from the Beatles to Leoncavallo and de Falla and are referenced—but also the music to be found in the sound of the sea or city. When Luisito recovers his singing voice with a rendition of Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5”, one can only respond “of course!”—it is hard to think to think of another piece of music that better typifies the human voice as pure sound.
There is darkness in the novel, but it ends with a “Coda” that is a paean to hope as Luisito and Vilma meet. “Then take my hands. Touch my fingers,” she tells him. “Do you feel the flowers?”