The Third Infinitive.
Lakshmi Gill was born in Manila, the third daughter of an Indian businessman-philosopher and a Spanish-Filipina mestiza. She was brought up in upper-middle-class comfort and educated in the Philippines, then later in the United States and Canada. The autobiographical book The Third Infinitive is an account of her early years in the Philippines, where she and her sisters - Sis One and Sis Two - attended Maryknoll College, a convent school run by Maryknoll nuns. The childhood memories of education at Maryknoll provide the framework for Lakshmi's quest for ethnic, national, and personal identity. This is a bildungsroman, much like Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the perceptive reader will find many parallels between the protagonists of the two works. Joyce's Ireland is not unlike the Philippines of the 1950s and 1960s. Neither is Jazz very different from Stephen Dedalus.
The publisher says that the setting of Gill's novel is
. . . Manila in the 1950s. The war is over; memories of the Japanese occupation are fresh; America entices. Elvis is King, and James Dean a sweet daydream, but the nuns at the Maryknoll Catholic school lay down the discipline. This is the world of Jazz, Sis One and Sis Two, three daughters of a man who is a former Indian nationalist and his Filipina wife. The exciting, fast-changing and tumultous life of a modernizing Asian country is brought to us in this impressionistic view of young Jazz that is laced with the benefit of ironic hindsight. As the three girls come of age, and their innocent privileged world is transformed, the conflicts of ethnic, national and personal identity come to the fore, and they choose their separate ways, all intimately related to the Catholic ethos of service, charity, knowledge and love.
Gill uses three strands to hold the novel together. The first is the autobiographical reflections of the young Jazz as she questions and reflects on the meaning of existence. this "memories of childhood" theme is perhaps the most delightful quality of the novel, as Gill talks about Elvis, pencil skirts, Dirk Bogarde, and The Catcher in the Rye, about growing up in a convent school, shaving her legs, admiring her sisters' boyfriends, and the streaks of rebellion in a young girl's life.
The second structural theme of the book is the Battle of Balaclava and the charge of the Light Brigade. This is obviously Gill's recollection of Tennyson's poem, memorized as an elocution piece at Maryknoll. The novel is divided into four parts, with one of the military orders of Lord Raglan to the Light Brigade as the theme of each part. The orders and their tragic conclusion provide the framework for Gill's account of growing up in Manila. For those familiar with the context of the Catholic convent school and its influence on young Filipinas, there is another interpretation of the title. A careful reading of the text reveals that Gill is also using the Catholic phrase "To know, love, and serve God" as the three infinitives and the third theme of her novel, The third and perhaps most important infinitive for the convent-school girl is "to serve God."
Gill's book may defy classification as a novel (one reviewer says that "it fails as a novel because it has no plot. just a retelling of circumstances"), but it is the retelling of those circumstances through the eyes of an intellectual and perceptive teenager that makes The Third Infinitive the success that it is. It is a masterful account of a young girl's growing up in an alien world - cultural, religious, nationalistic, and personal. Convent-school graduates will find many echoes of their school days here. "Veterans" of the 1950s and 1960s will revel in the nostalgia of the author's memories. All readers will discover many insights into the trials and tribulations of adolescence, its dreams, its hopes, its questioning, its rebellion: "This life a theater we well may call, where every actor must perform with art; Or laugh it through and make a farce of all. Or learn to bear with grace the tragic part" (Palladas).
Lakshmi Gill is at work on a second novel. We can look forward to more of her passionate insights on life and growing up amid the ethnic, national, and personal conflicts of an alien world.
Joseph A. Galdon, S.J. Ateneo de Manila University