PALH Book Reviews

 

Hopeful, not happy: The Centennial Literary Prize-winning novels in English

 

A Book Review

By Vicente G. Groyon III

 

 

My Sad Republic

By Eric Gamalinda

2000. Philippine Centennial Commission and the University of the Philippines Press in cooperation with the UP Creative Writing Center.

6" x 9.25"; 392 pp.

 

An Embarrassment of Riches

By Charlson Ong

2000. Philippine Centennial Commission and the University of the Philippines Press in cooperation with the UP Creative Writing Center.

6" x 9.25"; 425 pp.

 

Voyeurs & Savages

By Alfred A. Yuson

1998. Anvil Publishing, Inc.

6" x 9", 220 pp.

 

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Literary contests are heaven-sent boons for creative writers in the Philippines, offering the chance of not only recognition and acclaim, but also financial rewards greater than the usual honoraria given for publication. In a country where fictionists, poets, and dramatists must justify their output and take on other jobs to cover living expenses, such contests thereby serve as effective spurs to literary production. Many shelved projects are suddenly dusted off and miraculously completed to meet a contest deadline.

The Centennial Literary Prize庸irst suggested by Senator Blas F. Ople and endorsed by then-President Joseph Estrada耀ent waves of excitement through the literary community when it was announced in 1998. Less attention was paid to its stated purpose (commemorating the centenary of Philippine independence) than its purse: One million pesos to each of the first prize winners in two divisions (for English and Filipino), each composed of five categories (novel, essay, drama, epic poetry, and screenplay). The less fortunate second and third prize winners would walk away with three-quarters of a million and half a million pesos, respectively. Such impressive bounty was unheard of, when the country's most prestigious contest葉he Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature幼ould boast only of a piddling fraction of these sums as its top prize.

The Centennial contest's emphasis on length also promoted the scarcer literary forms. Surviving in a tropical developing country is not conducive to the commitment of time and effort required for producing a lengthy work like a novel, prompting more than a few people to note that "we are a country of short story writers." The publication of a Philippine novel is an event made momentous by its rarity.

Furthermore, the contemporary Filipino novelist labors under the long, deep shadows cast by Jose Rizal's double whammyNoli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Given the reverence and deference accorded the national hero, perhaps our fictionists can only hope to echo his achievements but never surpass them: "It's good, but it's no Noli."

The Centennial Literary Prize yielded three new novels in English. One of them was on bookstore shelves even before the winners were announced, and the two others were published roughly a year after. Taken together, and considering the circumstances of their production and recognition, they offer a literary assessment of how far the Philippines has come in its journey towards nationhood. Perhaps they also indicate how far the Filipino novel has come since Rizal.

 

Everybody loves a show

Readers of Alfred A. Yuson's fiction have eagerly awaited a follow-up to his 1987 feat, Great Philippine Jungle Energy Caf. That novel novel, difficult and exhilarating in equal measure, took daring risks with language and narrative, performing storytelling tricks and experiments like so many illusions in a traveling magician's repertoire. Yuson's prose is noteworthy for its dexterity and precision with language and its muy macho earthiness and sensuality.

Voyeurs & Savages satisfies on both counts, bringing readers to familiar Yuson ground. It deploys a subdued version of the technique he used to great effect in his first novel葉hat of shuttling back and forth across time and space without the benefit of transitory devices. Here he weaves together the lives and concerns of Filipinos and Americans who participated in the exhibition of Filipino tribes and cultures at the St. Louis World Exposition of 1904, and their descendants who comfortably straddle several cultures in the late 1990s.

The tension between surveyor and surveyed, colonizer and colonized, is the novel's central theme. Filipinos and Americans observe each other, and themselves, engaging in private and public acts of self-gratification and humiliation. The question of who is watching who is rendered moot here, for everyone gets a turn behind the scrutinizing lens. Kankanai tribesmen on display stare right back at the Expo visitors, and what moral injustice may have been done to members of the Philippine exhibit is matched over time熔ne of the major characters is a Filipino graduate student cum historian who mentally annotates American commentary on the exhibit with de rigueur postmodern irony.

The novel unfolds in short, almost episodic chapters, each one playing on the theme of observation. There is no plot in the conventional sense of the term, but Yuson manages a dramatic build-up and release in the ways the past and present are juxtaposed and recalled, each coming to bear upon and commenting on the other.

Bloodlines help link the novel's storylines. History scholar Meynard Aguinaldo is a grand nephew of General Emilio Aguinaldo, whose revolution is dissected by Cornelius James and rest of the American team sent to visit the Mountain Province and select specimens for the exhibit. The Kankanai chieftain Lakay Tomlo (baptized Antonio) foresees his daughter's marriage to the Mountain Province guide Wilson Cangbay and how their own daughter becomes an Olongapo bargirl who bears a black serviceman a son, Carlos. The hulking, homosexual Carlos becomes bodyguard and henchman to Meynard's father, the opportunistic con artist, pimp, and entrepreneur Armando, who builds a beach resort where the rooms are riddled with two-way mirrors, through which he observes his guests copulating. Meynard dates James's granddaughter Rowena, even brings her on vacation to the resort, where they are not spared Armando's peeping.

However, it is Meynard who acts as the novel's unifying sensibility as he researches on Philippine-American relations, specifically the Expo and the Centennial hubbub in Manila and in the Filipino communities in the United States. Through him, we are made privy to articles, letters, pamphlets, brochures, e-mail, and other ephemera that serve as historical documents. Filipinos may have been relentlessly and inhumanely observed by Expo visitors (a real death in the tribe and the subsequent wake are treated as nothing more than quaint displays of ritual), but Meynard熔mnipotent consciousness of the present, shifting between both worlds擁s allowed the final say.

A large portion of the novel is given to generous quotes of the documents that Meynard pores over, interspersed with his semi-scholarly digressions and asides. The documents' factuality and actuality are beside the point; much of the narrative momentum in the book's second half is driven by the guilty pleasure of reading someone else's letters and e-mail. Yuson thereby adds another layer of savage voyeurism熔ne that effectively includes the reader.

The novel's most memorable image comes from the elaborate violation of privacy perpetrated by Armando (later referred to as 'Lolo Mando'). His resort, the Blue Wave, is composed of nine wings extending from a circular central lobby. The entire structure hides a system of false walls and secret corridors that provide access to the lavish two-way mirrors (manufactured by one of his companies in Zambales) installed in all the suites. He lurks in these airconditioned passageways, tallying the number of couples he has watched having sex. His compulsion is never explained擁t simply is, and appears to have been the ultimate, unarticulated goal of all his business ventures. Its preposterousness and implausibility is perhaps the most concrete expression of Yuson's thesis葉hat we like to watch, and we live to watch.

Voyeurs & Savages is the slimmest among the three winners預n advantage, given that it uses the voyeuristic impulse to sustain interest and develop the narrative. The vignettes and images etched in each of the novel's chapters cohere only in the most abstract, intellectual way. They suggest overlapping spheres of past and present, Filipino and American, observer and observed, domination and subordination. The novel itself forms the intersection of those spheres.

 

 

 

The metaphysical nation

Charlson Ong's first novel is set on Victorianas, a fictional island west of the Philippines and features characters, situations, and places recognizable to Filipino readers. Dubbed a "'shadow' Philippines", Victorianas has the misfortune of developing as a nation along tracks parallel to that of its larger, more prominent neighbor.

What strikes the reader in the first few chapters is the distinct air of foreignness that permeates the novel, despite the familiar, if renamed, elements. The effect of Ong's fictionalization of recent Philippine history borders on the surreal謡hat is real and plausible (if local newspapers are to be believed) becomes fantastic and unlikely. Perhaps Ong's recasting of the Philippines distances Filipino readers, giving them a better opportunity to observe and identify the absurdities of contemporary Philippine life.

Yet what becomes clearer as the novel progresses is that its foreignness comes from the pointed absence or reduction of Spanish/European influence. Victorianas is a cosmopolitan, Americanized Asian country. None of the operatic gloom of the Old World, of Catholicism; none of the exoticized folk beliefs and practices. It is a melting pot of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Malay, and, yes, mestizo cultures預n amalgam signifying "Filipino" more accurately than idealized images of barrio swains and lasses posing with carabaos in a ricefield.

Ong has commented publicly that in recent years, Philippine fictionists in English have looked increasingly to Latin American writing for cues on rendering our hybrid culture, and that in this novel his goal was a clearly Southeast Asian perspective. The novel's initial foreignness only indicates how Western images of ourselves have become more familiar and acceptable. Ong's project is to reclaim the ways in which Filipinos depict themselves. In Victorianas, he appears to have concretized the metaphysical in-between nation that Chinese Filipinos constitute in Philippine society. The imaginary island can be read as a metaphor for the racial gap that continues to exist, and for the difficulty of defining "Filipino".

An Embarrassment of Riches may be described as a political thriller with a strong satirical slant. With this fictional island-nation, Ong is free to parody Philippine current events and celebrities and herd them to logical, if bizarre, extremes, as though Filipinos had lost their sense of hiya and delicadeza and given full sway to their desires. The plot progresses at the pace of a jeepney rattling down a busy street, swerving to maintain momentum and slowing down long enough to allow passengers to jump on or off.

The storyline follows a pattern familiar to Filipino readers預 young man, exiled from Victorianas, returns home to learn of the unsavory circumstances of his father's death. It immediately recalls Crisostomo Ibarra's own travails upon his return from Europe. The similarity ends there, for Ong's Jeffrey Kennedy Tantivo casts himself as an urbane, self-aware, savvy romantic with none of the starry-eyed idealism of Rizal's alter-ego. Jeffrey narrates the novel with equal parts of glib wit and earnestness, but we get the impression that he may be more nave than he appears to be.

He is summoned back to Victorianas by an old friend and fellow Trekkie, Jennifer Suarez Sy, who needs him to help manage her presidential campaign. Victorianas dictator General Azurin has died of unknown causes, and the government is in limbo. JaySy, as she is popularly known, feels it is time for her generation (the twenty- to thirtysomethings) to begin taking an active part in shaping the island-nation's history. Jeffrey seizes on the opportunity to end his exile and to determine the true cause of his father's death and burial. Almost immediately after his arrival he is swept up in the tumultuous world of Victorianas politics.

It is the standard Campbellian hero's journey, and here the magic balm that will revive the ailing kingdom is the promise of change and development represented by JaySy, who mixes business savvy with hip GenX pragmatism. Pop and New Age propel her presidential campaign, among whose key elements are a theme song and a music video, even if Ong shades her with Maoist tendencies揺er philosophy of development is laid out in a "Blue Book" distributed to her followers, and the atmosphere of her educational facility, Liberation Camp, recalls the Cultural Revolution of China. Her GenX pack are ultimately undone by their own squabbling and the machinations of the older generation, whose influence and agenda continue to operate in politics and society.

Ong's Victorianas includes the most colorful elements of recent Philippine history, renamed and hyperbolized. Brother Mike Verano, powerful, charismatic preacher and healer with a checkered past (and jacket) leads the rabid Victorianas Moral Restoration Army, resorting to violence for the cause of morality. Megalomalla, the cornerstone of the Sy empire, threatens to become the center of life on Victorianas in its drive to provide people everything they need under one huge, multi-wing roof, and becomes the downfall of JaySy's short-lived presidency when she decides to hold office in its heavily guarded, high-tech confines rather than the vulnerable presidential palace, Castila Blanca. Alfonso Ong, rich and shady, builds an alternative city of the future on his own island off the coast of Victorianas, even as he struggles against his deteriorating health. The array of characters and personal histories soon begins to suggest a magic 3-D poster, out of which a hidden object threatens to materialize.

Jeffrey navigates through this world cautiously, if clumsily, dodging grenades, bombs, and ambushes in every other chapter, and proving more gullible than he thinks he is. In the whodunit subplot of the novel, Jeffrey falls for various explanations for his father's death fed to him by an assortment of dubious characters without bothering to seek evidence. By the time the truth is finally revealed and the matter resolved, we continue to believe that another, more fantastic ending is forthcoming.

Although the novel is set in the mid-1990s and was completed in 1998, it eerily foreshadows the political upheaval that marked the passage of the "true millennium". Reading Ong's narrative is like having an extended d駛 vu experience, but one that is comforting rather than unsettling, because fiction requires logical denouements様uxuries not available for the unfortunate who must live in the real world.

Embarrassment is the only novel among the three winners that does not deal directly with the events leading to the declaration of Philippine independence in 1898. However, its contemporary and fictional setting emphasizes the fact that revolution, idealism, and staggering towards nationhood are the recurrent motifs of Philippine history. Ong's novel addresses the theme of the contest, but from the other end of the Centennial century, revealing that not much has changed in one hundred years.

 

Of love, nationalism, and other demons

Loosely based on the life of an enigmatic revolutionary leader from the Visayas, My Sad Republic is aptly encapsulated on the back cover blurb: "Love, obsession, loss and revolution". Because it features a historical figure as protagonist, readers may be tempted to read it as a novelization of history, but author Eric Gamalinda cautiously explains in an afterword that he took liberties with the mysterious life of the Pope of Negros in the interest of pursuing a metaphor for the equally obscure Filipino-American war. In doing so, Gamalinda veers dangerously close to trivializing Papa Isio, reducing his nationalistic fervor to unrequited desire. Love, obsession, loss and revolution, in that order.

A standard love triangle lies at the heart of My Sad Republic. Dionisio Magbuela (or Seguela; historical accounts are uncertain on this), peasant and healer, vies for the affection of Asuncion de Urquiza, Doa Madrigal's ward, with Tomas Agustin, mestizo soldier in the Spanish army. Asuncion is an orphan, the bastard of a Spanish matador and a young woman of the Madrigal household. Tomas believes his kind to be the future of the Philippines, after three centuries of Spanish mismanagement. Isio dreams of a return to pre-colonial life. Their archetypal conflicts constitute the central plot of the novel.

Isio's reputation as a healer and mystic brings him to the attention of the eccentric Doa Madrigal, on whose plantation he finds work. She grants him regular audiences in her mansion, during which he becomes acquainted with Asuncion in a chapter that recalls scenes from Great Expectations. He also crosses paths with Tomas, a young guardia civil assigned to the area, and their mutual antagonism is established. Tomas's background makes him a natural match for the headstrong Asuncion, even if she is drawn to Isio. Tomas takes her by force, and she bears him a son, thereby ensuring her perpetual separation from Isio. The boy Felipe later tries to meld Tomas's and Isio's contradictory visions of the future. Asuncion's marriage to Tomas coincides with the appearance of Isio's stigmata and his realization that he has been called to restore Negros to the Negrenses. He remains obsessed with Asuncion, and Gamalinda implies that this drives Isio's revolutionary efforts more than anything else.

This artistic decision may be said to have precursors in Philippine literature, even in Rizal, as in the plotline that runs through both of his novels involving Ibarra/Simoun and Maria Clara, and Isagani's fateful decision at the climax of El Filibusterismo (which Charlson Ong riffs on in the climax of his own work). The phrase "my sad republic" comes from another Filipino classic, Francisco Baltazar's Florante at Laura, where romantic love and nationalism are intertwined. Gamalinda's freestyle approach to the rendering of historical events and figures is bound to pique Negrosanons and historians. Papa Isio is still revered on that island, even by those who have only cursory knowledge of him, thanks to a revival of interest spearheaded the mid-1990s by Negrense dance and drama artists.

The complexity of Papa Isio's story lies in his completely pro-Negrosanon stance. His cause was founded on two beliefs: that Negros should be rid of foreigners, and that the land should be returned to its rightful owners, the native farmers. Thus while he enjoyed the support of the lower classes, he antagonized the wealthy revolutionary hacenderos, even if they shared a common hatred for Spain. It may be said that there were two fronts actively opposing Spanish rule葉he mass-based revolution led by Isio, and the ilustrado contingent with its connections to the revolutionary movement in Manila.

The arrival of the Americans complicated matters: while they helped to topple the Spanish government in the Philippines, Isio could not see his island colonized by another foreign power. The hacenderos found their interests furthered by the Americans, and lost no time in arranging for the island to fall under American rule. Isio found his twin causes reviled anew; he and his followers were back to fighting two united enemies.

Gamalinda treads lightly in his rendering of Isio's revolt and the Filipino-American war. All his characters羊ich, poor, hero, villain, Filipino, Spanish, American (especially American)預re allowed to be sympathetic. Perhaps his most striking addition is the passage in which Isio encounters a copy of the United States Declaration of Independence. Discovered in the unlikely possession of a Spanish friar, Isio deciphers the document despite the interference of the good father, who insists on a pro-Catholic translation. Isio naturally is drawn to the high-flown ideals represented by the document, allowing him to believe that the Americans will understand what he is fighting for.

Isio and his nemesis, Captain James Smith, are brought together in this story, the better for them to forge a friendship that will be tested when Isio turns against American authority. It is a hokey dramatic device, and works against what could have been an honest portrayal of one of Philippine history's most colorful nationalists.

Instead, Gamalinda fashions a symphony on all his favorite themes: love in its spiritual and erotic aspects, mysticism and the occult, the exotic and the transcendental. He has much to play with hereIsio's cult was founded on folk Catholicism, and his followers were said to use amulets that imparted invisibility and imperviousness to bullets and blades. Gamalinda's models are the reader-friendly magical realists of Latin America, particularly Marquez and Borges; their influence acts as a stance from which to regard Philippine history. The lush, vivid world that emerges from the pages of My Sad Republic panders to a Western sensibility, one that requires logic, reason, and order. It tames the messiness and inscrutability of the Filipino mindset, rendering it accessible, palatable, but diminished.

And yet Gamalinda's skill as a fictionist remains undeniable. Republic is his fourth novel, and he combines a poet's deft handling of concrete imagery with the firm authority of a storyteller in full control of his craft. It is perhaps the novelist's aiming for the universal that relegates history to a backdrop for men and women struggling with their inner demons and passions. This sacrifice is demonstrated by the several minor characters whom he personalizes with histories, dialogue, and thoughts and opinions, but pointedly refuses to name. They are introduced, and we are captivated as they enact their roles before the author leads them offstage and draws the curtain on their departure.

Oddly, his most memorable character is the novel's least remarkable: Martinez, Isio's doggedly loyal, sensible, and practical right hand manages to steal the show while plodding on as a foil to Isio's neuroses.

The novel's prose slips only when Gamalinda's authorial voice intrudes on the narrative, addressing the reader only in the latter half of the book, but the device is used to maximum effect in the final passage, where the narrator springs a surprise on the reader and brings the novel to a resonant close.

 

History and sadness

The concept of nostalgia suggests that examining the past always brings regret預 longing for better things, either in the past, or in the present. This exercise of commemorating the Centennial through the novel emphasizes the persistence of specific concerns and dilemmas over one hundred years. Those who look back will find inevitable parallels between the then and the now. In the case of the Philippines, such parallels can only cause sadness.

Voyeurs & Savages ends with a charming storytelling session between grandfather and granddaughter that bridges five generations and one century. An Embarrassment of Riches ends with its narrator-hero back in exile but with a renewed sense of identity and "awaiting a certain daybreak". The last sentence of My Sad Republic links past, present, and future with a giddy faith in the power of storytelling.

It has perhaps become the Filipino fictionist's obligation to look to the future despite the dismal reports in the preceding pages of his narrative. Rizal learned this lesson and tempered the darkness that closes the Noli with the promise expressed in the final chapter of the Fili. With a history of conflict, uncertainty, and bad judgments to work with, the Filipino realist can find solace only in the future. For Filipino novelist, there are no happy endings, only hopeful ones.

 

  • This review first appeared in Ideya Vol. 3 No.1, September 2001

 

 

 

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