Fabulists and Chroniclers

By Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo


Novels have been a source of great pleasure to me for most of my life. This deep, abiding devotion eventually led to my attempting to write novels myself. And having written them, served to reinforce my fascination with the novel; in effect, gave it another dimension.

I am repeatedly delighted and astonished at the many ways there are of telling stories. Which is just another way of saying that I am constantly delighted and astonished by the many stories writers have to tell. For, of course, what story is told and how it is told are one and the same.

I imagine that painters have the same sort of curiosity about other artists’ paintings, or actors about other actors’ performances-a kind of “specialist’s” interest, one might say. I don’t use the term “specialist” here to mean “expert” (for how could one claim to be an expert after writing just two novels?), but, rather, someone who, by both inclination and training, is more focused on this particular field than on another.

What interests me, then, is the form of the Philippine novel in English, and how it has developed in the last three decades. And in this essay, I shall take a closer look atThe Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café by Alfred A.Yuson (1988, 1996), The Firewalkers by Erwin Castillo (1992, 2003), The Sky Over Dimas by Vicente Garcia Groyon 2003), and Banyaga: A Song of War by Charlson Ong (2006). Three of these novels I have read and taught many times, each time feeling just as curious as when I first encountered them; the last one I am teaching for the first time this semester. And though one was first published in 1988, and one in 2006, I think of the four as “new” novels.

These novels are not “like” each other. In fact, they differ widely. But they have a number of things in common. First there is what, for lack of a better term I shall call “energy,” the result as much of the tremendous vigor and strength of language, and the freshness of the total effect produced by their individual textual strategies.

In the eighties, National Artist Nick Joaquin worried that writing in English would go the way of writing in Spanish.

. After the early 1900s, Philippine writing in Spanish took on a discouraged tone, became a querulous repetition, and sank into mediocrity. Writing in English may go the same way, because it, too, is following the pattern of dropped or evaded challenges. In this new medium an old characteristic of ours is again evident: our timorous preference for work in miniature, work on a small scale. The only literary form in which we have excelled in English is the short story, and we are working it to death. The short story is a good medium for apprentice work; but having mastered it, we must move on to bigger challenges.” (1988, 45)

It would have heartened him to see that Filipino fictionists in English have indeed moved on; that the last decades have seen the publication of many novels; and that the most striking thing about these four particular novels is their abundant energy.

Two of the novels are in the non-realist mode, and two might be described as more or less “realist,” but not in the manner of the earlier realist novels of Stevan Javellana, NVM Gonzalez, Bienvenido Santos, F. Sionil Jose, Linda Ty-Casper, Antonio Enriquez, Edith Tiempo, and Kerima Polotan; or in the manner of younger writer, Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr. and the even younger Katrina Tuvera. Fantasy in one form or the other plays an important role in three of them. In the one novel where it does not, the material is so extravagant as to seem surreal. And yet, the authors seem at pains to ground their narratives in a definite historical time and place, not merely through detailed, concrete description, but through references to actual persons connected with historical events.

Comedy and tragedy freely commingle in all four, as do parody and pathos. Three are much more sexually explicit than is usual in most fiction in English; and sex, though not depicted graphically in the fourth, occupies a large space in the minds of the characters and is often referred to with much hilarity and ribaldry. As do references to other bodily functions, whose absence from earlier novels suggests that these must have been regarded as inappropriate or “vulgar.”

All the novels-even those that are primarily in the realist mode-contain scenes more commonly found in melodrama than in the realist novel: the flamboyance, the gothic detail, the extravagant gesture. On the other hand, given their historical grounding, they obviously have a serious point to make. They resist being read merely as entertainment. And with their large and diverse cast of characters, they resist being read as mere personal history, or even family chronicle. They obviously have something to say about the nation. But they are not saying it grimly or gravely; they’re saying it irreverently, with laughter, and with poetry, and with tears.

Moreover, they are all saying it in remarkably cinematic ways. It is easy to imagine all four translated into Filipino and turned into movies.

The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café is in the same wacky spirit as La Visa Loca, but in costume. The Firewalkers would have been a much more exciting and interesting movie than Sakdal. In fact, the first edition of the Castillo’s novel had a cover that looked like a movie poster ad; and there were rumors when the novel was first released that it was to be filmed, with FPJ, a friend of the author’s, in the title role. The Sky Over Dimas would be a great improvement on Tanging Yaman. AndBanyaga: A Song of War would be a great improvement on the Mano Po series.

Where does this wild, baroque mixture come from? The obvious answer would seem to be marvelous realism, in particular, that brand of it associated with the Latin Americans. And it would probably be safe to assume that, given their particular backgrounds, these novelists are familiar with the novels of the great Latin American “Boom,” and may indeed have been influenced to a certain extent by them.

On the other hand, the late National Artist Nick Joaquin, claimed (as an aside in his famous Ramon Magsaysay Lecture, “Journalism Versus Literature), that his “own magic ‘realism’ antedated the magic realism of the American Latinos.” (Joaquin 1996. In Hidalgo 2005, 228) And one has only to remember that many of his tales-like “May Day Eve,” “The Legend of the Dying Wanton,” and “Doña Geronima”-had been published before 1952, to recognize the truth in his claim. [1]

So, might there not be another, equally powerful, if not more powerful, source? And might that source not be our own literary traditions? The same traditions, perhaps, that shaped Nick Joaquin, who published his folk tale adaptations, Pop Stories for Groovy Kids, in 1981 and his revised folk tales, Joaquinisquerie: Myth a la Mode,in 1983; and Gilda Cordero Fernando, whose retelling of Philippine myths and folktales are to be found in The Soul Book (1992) and A Treasury of Stories(1995) and who translated some Lola Basyang tales in collaboration with Bienvenido Lumbera (The Best of Lola Basyang, 1997).

What, then, are these traditions?

In a provocative essay, “The Philippine Komiks: Text as Containment,” Soledad Reyes has applied Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of “carnival” and the “carnivalesque” to an analysis of the transgressive qualities of Philippine popular culture, including such rites, rituals, and practices as the penitencia and the Moriones festival; thekarnabal, perya, and Santacruzan; and even TV shows like TV Patrol. She has noted the “crazy mixture” of serious devotion and farce, sublimity and earthiness, traditional and modern, earnestness and frenzy, vulgarity and loftiness, high and low, all of it punctuated by “boisterous laughter.” (2001, 179)

But the clearest demonstration of the carnivalesque at work, according to her, is the Philippine komiks.

In the komiks world, anything is possible-from high drama to sentimental narratives, from myth to science-fiction, from devil-possession to vampirism, from serious political stories to the most light-minded tales, from love stories to high-flying tales of adventures, from tragedy to farce. (180)

She mentions the many marvelous elements to be found in these early forms of what is now referred to as grafiction: the numerous marvelous elements, ranging from talking roosters to flying typewriters to alien beings to creatures from Philippine lower mythology to actual historical heroes; the “forthright, and in some cases, exceedingly vulgar and farcical” language; the irreverent tone; the exuberance and excess, which “is so forceful that it tends to burst at the seams.”

All these strategies Reyes reads as “a graphic transgression of official culture’s many stifling rules because it allows behavior, ordinarily contained and punished in polite society.” One finds the same strategy with “the same transgressive function” which one finds in “radio programs that are actually political commentaries.” (180)

In another essay, “Folk Tradition in Philippine Culture,” she mentions another tradition which is a fountainhead which has nourished the literature produced by our own writers in the different Philippine languages-our myths and legends, or the folk tales which we now regard as “fantasy.”

They form a kaleidoscope, the elements of which spill into each other, creating a dominant impression of richness in color and variety, of exceedingly complicated patterns that defy categorization. (2001, 186)

What is the common denominator that binds these and other discourses which form our popular culture? Reyes asks.

Despite the unmistakable inroads of modernization, a major element has remained: the valorization of the imagination to evoke, to create, to breathe life into a wasteland, and to constitute and reconstitute various realities without following the laws of the mind-that which determines the text written in the literate tradition. In this view, life’s mystery is not dispelled but further affirmed and reaffirmed, and the sacramental, metaphorical view of the universe emphasized, its terror and anguish undiminished, its joy and pleasure mixing freely with its sadness and pain. (2001, 189)

Might not this be the fountainhead which has also nourished some of our fiction in English?

Unfortunately, I lack the expertise that would enable me to trace the influences of elements from our mythology and our popular culture, like the komiks, in these four novels. What I shall be focusing on is such formal elements as mode, structure and style; and such textual strategies as narrative frames, language registers, scenic effects, atmosphere, imagery, etc. which I think we might better appreciate if we understood their functional values; and if we saw them as governed by a different sort of aesthetic than that which governs conventional realist fiction, and which aesthetic seems to me drawn, not principally from foreign sources, but from our native literary traditions as described by our own literary historians and literary critics like Resil Mojares and Soledad Reyes.

Rereading these scholars, I take note of the number of times that reference is made to the curiously old fashioned term, “soul.”

In his introduction to Part I of Our People’s Story: Philippine Literature in English (2005), Gémino H. Abad refers to the “work of imagination” that is our literature as a “yearning for form.” This, he says is “what drives our people’s story.” And it is an “aspiration” which “is a force or energy of imagination. The form, one might say, is our country’s soul as “supreme fiction.” (2005, 11)

Soledad Reyes does not use the term “soul” itself, but to my mind there is little doubt about what she is referring to in impassioned passages like the one above.

But I am most struck by Resil Mojares’ use of the term in the essay “The Haunting of the Filipino Writer.” (2002, 299) Tracing the meaning of the term to its roots in the different Philippine languages, he explains the shamanistic concepts “full of soul,” “soul drift,” and “soul fright.”

When the soul is unformed, infirm or lost, the body weakens, sickens, or dies. Such descriptions can be made not only of the individual but the social body as well. When disease or misfortune blights a village, when there is a lack in the body politic. something, the shaman will say, is not quite right with the soul. What is required is healing and healing begins with an act of divination. It involves the act of finding. locating a soul distracted or lost.” (299-300)

Mojares says that according to the shamans, there are three reasons for “soul drift” or “soul loss”-shock, seduction and sin. And then he draws an analogy with “this body we call the ‘national literature.'” The shock-the trauma-was obviously the experience of colonialism. However colonialism turned out to be, not just an invasion but a prolonged seduction. (303) In surrendering to it, we turned our backs, not only on our old selves, on what we were before the invasion, but on many of our own kind.

In imagination’s failure to encompass the fullness and variety of the nation lies the third condition of soul loss-what I have chosen to call (if grandiosely) sin, but sin not in a medieval, Judaeo-Christian sense of what is transgressive but what is self-limiting, exclusionary and exclusive. (309)

What Mojares proposes is a “local poetics of soul formation” as a fine “conceptual model. for how the Filipino-and the Filipino writer-relates to his society and the world.” (307)

J. Neil Garcia has objected to this “mystical and soulful poeticizing.”

The national soul, if it does exist, is precisely what is present, what is undeniable, what is real in the lives of the people who have helped constitute it as a retroactive and regulatory fiction.” (2004, 123)

I do not think Mojares means to deny the “hybridity of our identities and lives” which Garcia urges us to accept, in lieu of any “‘recovery’ of a glorious past.” (125) If I understand Mojares correctly, his concept of “soul” includes past (both glorious and inglorious) and present, not to mention the realm of possibility. And, as the passage below suggests, it most certainly acknowledges and embraces this hybridity.

How “full of soul” a person becomes a function of how well a person, or the shaman in the person, tame and weaves these inner winds, nurturing and healing not by the expelling or the leveling of differences but the synergistic balancing of opposites. In the same way, the fullness of our literature can be judged by how well we weave and fuse within us the winds that blow from the many sites of what we must claim, in the nation’s making, as our shared life. (309)

In his introduction to Alfred Yuson’s The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café, Nick Joaquin claimed that the novel’s protagonist was the mind, the memory “that shuttles back and forth across the narrative.”

It is this intelligence that is our identity. Not this or that bit but all the bits together. We are the sum of all our contradictions, divorces, and anachronisms. (Joaquin 1987. In Yuson 1998, xii)

And in my own early essay on fiction and history, I also proposed the idea that our fiction, in serving as counter-memory, might help the nation to heal.

These contemporary novels are steps toward retrieving the nation’s fragmented past and making it whole, rewriting the story written by the conquerors so that we, the conquered, and our descendants might know it and be healed. (Hidalgo 1998, 132)

Our literature in English is very seldom discussed alongside our literatures in the other languages.

Mojares’ groundbreaking Origins and Rise of the Filipino Novel (1983; 1998) does include the early novels in English along with Tagalog and Cebuano novels. But since his study stops at 1940, the major works in English are not part of it.

The Lumbera and Lumbera textbook, Philippine Literature: a History and Anthology (2000) is one of the few that take up texts in English along with texts in the other languages. But, given the nature of a textbook, the selection is necessarily limited, and the discussions of each text, brief.

This isolation of the literature written in English from other Philippine literatures in our literary criticism tends to reinforce the notion that it has developed in an altogether different way, and was subject to different influences, its writers being an elitist, privileged group, hothouse blooms looking their noses down on the unruly grasses, weeds and wildflowers growing all around them; or, worse, blissfully unconscious that they even existed.

In fact, the biographical evidence will reveal that they are nothing of the sort. Most of them-from Manuel Arguilla and Estrella Alfon to Nick Joaquin, from Gregorio Brilliantes and Jose Y. Dalisay Jr. to Luis Katigbak and Tara FT Sering-were or are working in media. Others (like Erwin Castillo, Felix Fojas, Marne Kilates and Sarge Lacuesta) were or are working in advertising or public relations, fields which require them to be bi-lingual and in touch with popular culture and popular tastes. There are lawyers among them and market researchers/analysts. A good number of writers in English are academics, teaching alongside colleagues who are writers in Filipino, and collaborating with them in running writing workshops for younger writers, while moonlighting as editors or speechwriters. [2]

It is true that Philippine literature in English was born in the classrooms of the University of the Philippines, where literatures in Tagalog and the other Philippine languages were not taught. Under the patronage of American professors and American editors, this literature flourished, and eventually, as Mojares says, “the English writers came to inhabit a markedly different intellectual milieu.” (1998, 332)

He attributed the split between “popular” and “artistic” writing, and the association of writing in Tagalog with the former and writing in English with the latter, as caused in part by the commercialization and commodification of the novel in Tagalog, through its serialization in magazines like Liwayway. (273-274, 331) What we seem to have forgotten is that some of our early novels in English were also serialized in popular magazines. Hernando R. Ocampo’s “Scenes and Spaces: A Novel in Progress” was published in the Philippines Herald Mid-Week Magazine in 1939-1940. Consorcio Borje’s “The Automobile Comes to Town was serialized in the Graphic Magazinein 1941-1942.

But the practice was to continue long after the Pacific War. NVM Gonzalez’s A Season of Grace was serialized in Weekly Women’s Magazine in 1954; and The Bamboo Dancers was serialized in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1959. Edith Tiempo’s A Blade of Fern first appeared in This Week Magazine in 1956; and Edilberto K. Tiempo’s More Than Conquerors first appeared in the Weekly Women’s Magazine in 1959. Bienvenido Santos’ Villa Magdalena was serialized in the Weekly Women’s Magazine as late as 1965. (Galdon 1979, 16-21)

Was the audience of the Weekly Women’s and the Graphic so different from that ofLiwayway? I recall that when I worked for the Graphic in 1964-65, the covers were always movie stars, and our biggest event was a popularity contest which had Susan Roces edging out Amalia Fuentes. And when my husband became a political writer for the same magazine in 1971 (by which time it had been bought by Don Antonio Araneta, and had become a political-literary magazine identified with the radical left), a running joke among the staff was that the movie section editor, Ethelwolda Ramos, had a bigger following than all the political and literary writers combined.

In any case, though the conditions for the production and dissemination of literature may not have changed completely, they have changed considerably. There are now as many writers in Filipino as writers in English in academe. Publishing houses are hospitable to both English and Filipino titles. If newspapers and magazines in English outnumber those in Filipino, most local radio and TV programming is in Filipino. Filipino dominates the theatre and the cinema. In fact, many of the younger generation of writers no longer see language as an issue simply because they are bi-lingual. Finally, globalization (including the Net) has ensured that today’s writers are exposed to literary traditions other than the Anglo-American, and, through the unprecedented phenomenon of the literary blog, exposed to each other’s writings, as well as the writings of non-professional writers.

In his chapter on the early novels in English, Mojares argued that the roots of these novels lie in the rich tradition of local oral narratives-including tales, epics, the pasyonand the corrido the lives of the saints, manuals of conducts, etc. Not to mention the romantic Tagalog novels serialized in popular periodicals, and the realistic, political novels of Rizal. Which is why these novels “did not constitute a radical break from tradition.” (1998, 332) This tradition he described as both didactic and romantic. [3]

I suggest that the four novels I have selected to discuss in this essay are proof that this tradition-and other traditions and modes, like the “carnivalesque” described by Soledad Reyes (2001,154-168)-remain strong in the contemporary novel in English (with, of course, the variaions which reflect the changed times). And that these traditions are part of that soul that Mojaresand our other scholars repeatedly allude to; but the fact that the novels are written in English has blinded us to this fact.

One might note that these four novels are actually historical novels.

In a previous essay, I made the claim that many of the novels in English written since 1983 were historical novels, using Petronilo Bn Daroy’s definition of historical novels as novels which “assimilate history into the texture of the narrative rather than allow(ing) it to remain a passive backdrop.” (1969, 257-258) To this I would add that history here is not setting. It enters into the motivation of the characters; it propels the plot. (Hidalgo 1998, 118) This was a marked contrast to the situation in the period preceding this-the period before martial law-when critics like Daroy himself and Bienvenido Lumbera decried “the hesitancy on the part of Filipino writers in English to write historical novels.” (Lumbera 1972, 202) [4]

These novels mentioned are historical novels in this sense. The personal conflicts of the protagonists and the development of the plot are inextricable from the historical forces obtaining in the fictional world of the novel. And this fictional world is understood to be based on an actual historical period, for all that the rendering of it might be in the fantasy mode.

They are not traditional, historical novels in the manner of the novels of Linda Ty Casper, Edilberto Tiempo, or F. Sionil Jose. Rather, they are examples of what Linda Hutcheon has called “historiographic metafiction,” i.e., fiction which does not merely draw its material from history, but is about the writing of history, fiction where novelist and historian write in tandem with others and with each other.” (1991, 117) As Ruth Jordana L. Pison says, they “provide alternative/oppositional stories. as well as interrogate canonical historiography.” (1991, 16)

The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café

Yuson’s The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café purports to be a kind of biographical novel about Pantaleon S. Villegas, a.k.a. General Leon Kilat, who lived in Negros Oriental around the 1800s. But this narrative turns out to be embedded in another novel, which is the story of Robert Aguinaldo’s attempts to write a film script and later a “para-novel” on the said Leon Kilat. At some point, within the “frame,” Aguinaldo (a thinly veiled version of author Yuson, who acknowledges Resil Mojares and other scholars as his sources) and Kilat actually meet Malate during a protest march after Ninoy Aquino’s assassination. And other time fissures abound, as when one of the members of the Katipunan in October 1896 quotes Horacio de la Costa. (1996, 158)

The story unfolds in a most disjointed, disconnected fashion, blithely shifting in tense and narrative technique as it goes along, sometimes proceeding linearly, and at others, jumping in and out of different time frames. The novel contains numerous lines and passages drawn from other texts, a calendar, a map of Negros island, a diagram showing the dynamics of a game of patintero played by Buhawi’s men/women. And, as if that weren’t enough, there are also endnotes and two photographs of statues of Leon Kilat.

Written in 1983, and first published in 1988, the novel was unlike any other novel in English thus far, and was rightly praised for its originality by, among others, National Artist Franz Arcellana, who also praised its “superb structure” and its “terrifying texture.” (Arcellana 1983. In Yuson 1998, x).

The word “terrifying” is interesting. Why terrifying? I think the word was used by Arcellana to mean “daunting.” It is a tribute to the work’s ambition, from a writer who, as a fictionist himself, understood the complexity of the project. Today, young readers who have cut their teeth on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri, read it and think, “Uh-oh, more of the same.” But, in fact, Yuson was, and is, an original.

There are miniature versions in Yuson’s own short stories-the madcap adventures of the balikbayan casino dealer in “The Balikbayan Christmas” (1989); the hilarious sexual initiation of the schoolboys in “Mercy” (1993);” the haunting song of the strange boy in “The Music Child” (1991) soaring above the sounds of the destruction of the forest, as the reporter flees the scene of impending doom. Hardly either “querulous” or “timorous.”

Elsewhere, I have called this novel a “mock-epic,” and pointed to the many passages that mime the rhetoric of epic narratives, with epithets, repetitions, incantations, litanies; all parodic, since they are interlaced with doggerel, phrases in pig Latin, in genuine Latin, in Spanish, recipes, the jargon of literary criticism, and God knows what else. (Hidalgo 2005, 311) There are also self-conscious references to epic heroes. And there is the crazy fiesta in that café in the sky, an appropriately festive comic ending. But trying to fit the text within a box and attaching a label to it is an exercise in futility. The text will simply turn around and leap out again. As mentioned earlier, it is a revelry, a carnival. It is also, of course, “history,” alternative history.[5]

That the work makes use of both modernist and postmodernist strategies is abundantly obvious. Aside from the numerous time shifts, there are sections of interior monologue and sections of stream of consciousness. There is fantasy and parody. There is pastiche (the borrowing of elements from different writers or other works of the same writer) and bricolage (an assemblage improvised from materials at hand, the interweaving of different registers in the text producing the effect of heteroglossia or plurality of discourse). In this passage, for example, there is an unexpected shift to the banal in the middle of a “literary” passage.

No matter. I was laughing and my eyes were closed. The drop could have come from banana heaven, for all I know. It tasted like reveries of old age, or like “history,” the secret of a successful recipe for leche flan, or like the beginning of a dream of grace. (emphasis mine) (Yuson 26)

There are allusions to other texts and authors. Some lines are actually lifted from other texts, whose authors are sometimes identified, and sometimes not. Finally, of course, there is the self-conscious foregrounding of the writer and the act of writing.

However, while the novel makes full use of both modernist and postmodernist strategies the mix is unmistakably Pinoy.

. The eyes, goddammit I wasn’t born yesterday but the eyes, yes, oh fiery, feline, fucking, feminist eyes, Viva España! Remember the Maine! Remember the Alamo! Abajo los Moros! Animo San Beda! Arriba Letran! Viva Mapua! La Salle Ateneo Jose Rizal! The pico de loro Pilita Corrales nose, haughty and clawing aright under its very own songs of arching contempt, the mouth pursed, la chula The pinks of Juan Luna! The bowstring drawn till the pluck of very sweet kiss, the tsup! (196)

And the numerous allusions sprinkled throughout the text, the references and cross-references, the dizzying time shifts, the repeated circling back and forth, the “camp dialectics” which turns out to be a game of patintero, the circus troupe which turns out to be a branch of the Katipunan-and all the other strategies-are not mere avant garde techniques displayed for the reader’s admiration. They are imaginative expressions of the novel’s thematic concerns. The dangers faced by the circus knife thrower and fire eater, by whip master and trapeze artist, and clown on ten-foot stilts, are metaphoric representations of the high wire acts of ordinary citizens turned into rebels by events they can no longer endure, like the assassination in cold blood of a man whose only crime was wanting to return to his country in order to serve it. Rizal and Eman Lacaba, Leon Kilat and Robert Aguinaldo marching arm in arm down Manila’s streets led by Behn Cervantes, dramatize the continuity of the revolution-only the enemy is different.

It is worth mentioning, too, that irreverent Pinoy laughter is at the core of every member of this novel’s dramatis personae, and at the core of their relationships with each other. Buhawi and his coterie are a merry band, a joyful band. And the Circulo Colonial de Calidad, who turn out to be a pack of revolutionaries, are the farthest thing from grim and determined. Leon’s cheerfulness and joie de vivre are as much a protective talisman as the precious drop from the banana leaf. This laughter permeates the novel-it is the life force triumphing over sorrow and adversity, triumphing even over death. To this day, this quality-the Pinoy‘s irrepressible humor-both exasperates and heartens. It might prevent the Filipino from taking life seriously enough to get his act together and catch up with his Asian neighbors. On the other hand, it prevents him from losing heart, from giving up, from disbelieving that somehow, he will manage, awa ng Diyos.

And if the ghosts of the Tuwang and Hudhud don’t haunt these pages, there are otherPinoy ghosts a plenty-including Manuel Arguilla, Nick Joaquin, Erwin Castillo, Wilfredo Nolledo, Horacio de la Costa, E. Arsenio Manuel, Maximo Ramos, and a host of others, both well known and little known.

The larger-than-life major characters are throwbacks to the heroes of folklore, who are paradoxically also like kanto boys, farting, screwing, guzzling, and causing general pandemonium; are, in fact, very like the komiks heroes (as, indeed, Buhawi himself was [6]). And then there is the dwarf, Paquito, who at some point actually encounters a dimunitive elemental, who mocks him for being a fake and pinches and pokes him mercilessly. And there is Silvestra, who has magical powers of her own. And Pintada, a liberated woman before her time. And a large cast of other remarkable characters. The point of this narrative is not realistic development of well-rounded protagonists. We are watching a performance here, a re-enactment of the story-telling or story-chanting of old, a rendering of what is collectively imagined.

The narrative is de-centered. What we have is performance, an enactment or rendering of what is collectively imagined by a people.

To return to the komiks and Soledad Reyes:

Taken collectively, the komiks stories seem to have taken on the dimension of the people’s contemporary myths, for these texts contain in a simplified yet highly concentrated form the people’s modes of perceiving their realities. The compulsion to repeat the same patterns-good vs. evil, ascent vs. descent, chaos vs. peace, harmony vs. discord-clothed in richly-textured details, suggest the need to exorcise what was unpleasant and negative, lurking in the collective psyche. Within certain limitations, the world out there-the country in the 1970s-becomes comprehensible through the narrative structured by a number of codes and conventions. (1991, 267)

Might this not also be part of this novel’s agenda? We might recall that both Buhawi and Leon Kilat are freedom fighters, simple folk driven to violence by the foreign devil; even as Robert Aguinaldo is a simple “writer researcher” pushed into taking sides, pushed into joining marches and rallies and finally propelled to join the attack on the dictator’s palace. And that the discord and chaos of the “present” are repeatedly juxtaposed against memories of harmony and peace (Leon’s sleepy fishing village and Sisa; Aguinaldo’s student days in San Beda). This rollicking, ribald, boisterous, fantastical narrative is how Yuson imagines the Philippines-a surrealistic land, where the most unlikely people are catapulted into positions which demand no less than absolutely heroic behavior, where the unpredictable is the rule, and survival depends on the wildness of one’s imagination and one’s sense of humor.

The novel’s structure enhances the novel’s meaning, for it reinforces the idea that all we have are finally just the narratives we weave. Robert Aguinaldo (as imagined by Yuson), in deciding to write a novel about Leon Kilat, rescues him from oblivion. His version of this story-while based roughly on actual accounts-is inevitably mediated by his own (and author Yuson’s) perceptions, prejudices, etc. The author Yuson acknowledges this when he makes his fictional novelist (Aguinaldo) meet his own nonfictional character (Kilat) and makes them discuss how they are each other’s double. At some point in any narrative, the writer is imagining, or re-imagining, not just the characters he is writing about, but himself. And thus do we re-imagine the nation.” (Hidalgo 2005, 321-322)

The Firewalkers

Perhaps more than any other contemporary Filipino novel in English, Erwin Castillo’sThe Firewalkers enacts Mojares’ “poetics of soul formation.” An earlier story-“Tomorrow Is a Downhill Place” (1962)-might be considered its prequel. This is the story of a young boy’s initiation into manhood during the Philippine-American War, not so much by the dawning of love, as by his first kill.

This novel is the story of a young man descended from shaman warrior-kings, brutalized by war while still a boy, humiliated and turned into a traitor, then returned to his own village as a much older man, to serve as lackey of the occupying forces. But it is also the story of how he finds his way back to the right path, beside his warrior kinsmen, The Firewalkers of legend and song.

If The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café makes imaginative use of the strategy of the mock epic, this novel as effectively appropriates the strategy of the fairy tale.

Thus does the tale begin: “Once upon a time, in the year of 19 hundred and 13, there lived in the mountain town of Lakambaga, the province of Cavite, a man named Gabriel Diego who was sergeant of police.” (Castillo 2003, 1) The “once upon a time” of the story’s beginning is echoed in other places in the narrative. It is further reinforced by the manner of the telling-the long, cadenced sentences, reminiscent of Nick Joaquin, a style which suggests an oral story teller or narrator.

For example:

It was claimed that in their young manhood they knew the locations and usage of all the ancient vulneraries, plant and animal, and that from leaf and bark, from gristle and bone, they fashioned unguents, salves, brews and powders that caused death or healing, and made them masters over ordinary men, over horses and women. In the fighting, they seemed invulnerable, proof against blades and bullets, tempting hellfire and lightning by entering the pillaged churches in their gorgeous powershirts and amulets to impale the friar on their spears. (5)

The spell cast by the tale is made more powerful by the limpid beauty of the language in which it is told.

On the other hand, the novel’s characters, though a colorful bunch, would seem to be hardly what one would expect to encounter in a traditional fairy tale.

The protagonist, Gabriel Diego is a traitor and a collaborator. It had even been rumored of him that as a young man, he had personally led the Macabebe to the revolutionary generals-the Olfato brothers, General Castor and General Apollo-an unlikely hero for a fairy tale. He has been a scout in the American army, and is now a barefooted police chief, with a half-wit for a deputy. But he is a kind of prince in disguise; once he was “captain, scribe, child of the mountain kings.” (6) The point of his lineage is made repeatedly. And although his uncles, cousins of Emilio Aguinaldo, and commanders of men under him, are now retired, one a peasant and the other a powerless “municipal president,” they retain their dignity and their memories. And, secretly, they continue to meet their comrades and to bide their time.

Against these “heroes” are lined the “villains”-the army of occupation, the conquerors, the new imperial masters- represented mainly by Major Edwards. The major first appears as conqueror, on horseback, washed in light (8-9); then as pacifier, critic of corruption among the natives (43-44), herald of progress, committed to bearing the white man’s burden (58). But he is really the villain, a sadist and a pervert, contemptuous of all natives, ruthless in ordering the massacres of hapless civilians, cold and unfeeling toward all except his servant boy.

It is interesting that here, as in Yuson’s novel, a traveling circus plays a major role in the unfolding drama. Circuses tend to be looked down on by mainstream society as a low form of entertainment; to call a person a circus performer is to imply that he is some kind of clown or freak. But the circus is perfectly in keeping with the carnivalesque mode. And, as in the first novel, the ragtag band are transformed into “heroes,” joining the native uprising against the army of occupation. [7]

The allegorical struggle is between good and evil in men’s hearts, and between the righteous and the unjust in the land. It is about personal redemption and the need to liberate the land from the evil wrought by the invader. At the end, the chief villain meets the death that he deserves, and all the “heroes” prove truly heroic. The Augustinian priest gives up on peaceful calls for reform, dons swords and bandoliers and rides beside General Apollo when he comes sweeping into town, “under the spears and the terrible flags.” So does El Boging Segundo, “in the caped and winged costume of Orlando Furioso”. The Apache Kid decides to fight with and ends up dying for Diego and his cause. And Littlefeather stands beside General Castor as they both call to Diego to walk through the fire. And, indeed, he does.

And what of the beast? Is it real, i.e., a wild animal or a monster? On the literal level, the beast who lurks in the shadows destroying the children could be an actual dog, or a pack of dogs gone wild, gone mad, whom the villagers, in their terror, turn into a demon monster. Within the allegory, it is the monster spawned by war, by death and destruction, by oppression, by cowardice and betrayal, a curse that threatens the next generation. And it is the beast in us, the fatal flaw in the human condition.

The beast-that survived the arrow, the crucifix, and will survive your electric lamp-arrives again to mock us. And it may be the tragic fact that your time, like ours, demands always one more sacrifice, needs a monster-a beast to call him there. (57)

Defeat has inflicted a deep trauma on these people, and the conqueror is in the process of seducing them into permanent subjugation. This is quite obvious in the exchanges between the major and the sheriff. But in their humiliation and abjectness, the townspeople, and their leaders begin to see their way to a personal healing; and then the task of healing society itself, the task of “recovering its soul,” may begin.

The revolutionary songs run through the novel like a leitmotif, reminding the reader that this is a historical novel, set during the early years of the American occupation, with the memories of the betrayed Philippine Revolution still burning in the minds and hearts of all its characters. Another recurring refrain has to do with the slaughter of the innocents: “Who is killing the children?” (30) This theme is sometimes expressed as “What is happening to our country?” (45) The betrayal of the revolution and the hypocrisy of the American colonial project (the “white man’ burden” so cynically mouthed by Major Edwards) is part of this revolutionary theme.

And then there is the theme of personal redemption-different characters act to save or help other characters, and in so doing win their own salvation; Diego saves Gen. Apollo (57-58); General Castor rescues Littlefeather; the Apache Kid saves Diego; General Castor and Littlefeather help Diego to save himself.

What is the significance of the choice of the fairy tale or fantasy mode to tell this story? In the racial memory, the time that the narrative depicts is wrapped in legend and myth. Aguinaldo and his generals are heroes for us, even as Achilles and Hector were for the Greeks. It is almost inevitable that tales about them should partake of the wondrous and the wonderful, for that is how we imagine them, remembering what was told us by our ancestors who lived during that time or heard of it from their elders.

On the other hand, Castillo may well say of his narrative that it is not fantasy at all, but history, i.e., true to reality as it is defined, not by the colonial master, or by those who would tell the story of our people as they have been taught by the colonial master, or to win the approval of the colonial master, but by the Pinoy-marvelous realism, if you will. Were there firewalkers in Cavite in the time of Aguinaldo? Are there firewalkers in Cavite today? There are those who swear that indeed there were and are.

Castor says, in his long, anguished confession, to his nephew:

So fearful, but faithful to our imperfect understanding of our responsibilities, we fabricate, we lie, we invent fictions. We puff ourselves up, make ourselves large and indestructible, and we declare: Sleep soundly my little children, for there are no ghosts. (56)

But as his own story (as told by Castillo) reveals-as another famous narrative, the story of Don Quixote de la Mancha, has made eloquently clear to all the generations that came after Cervantes-those fictions also have the power to transform and to empower. In the end we are limited only by our imagination.

Another interesting parallelism between this novel and Yuson’s is the vigorous comic strain, the laughter that pervades its world, for all the dark deeds that make up its plot and subplots. Gabriel Diego affects a horse whip though he owns no horse; (4) visiting dignitaries from the capital consent to pose for photographs behind the corpse of a murdered girl; (21), El Boging Segundo is kidnapped by bandits and held for ransom, but when it is understood that the “the profession is so penurious” that it is unlikely any ransom is forthcoming, the kidnapped actor is given his freedom in exchange for a theatrical performance. (63-64)

Nor are the romantic and melodramatic modes excluded. Among the most noteworthy are the generals of the revolution sweeping into town, “a moving mountain of fire and horses,” with the hunting horns blowing and the “terrible flags” flying; (68) the Agustinian’s priest memory of the monster he encountered after the fight for Silang; (12-13) and the memorable denouement:

And when you come upon the jumping sea to oar, with your cousins and your friends, remember to honor our mothers, of Makiling, Banahaw and Sinukuan; honor the sun, the moon, the seven sisters; salute the morning star and sing.
Sing: I am the child of David, who was of water born; child of the singer Carlos of the love songs and the lullabies; child of the bard Miguel, who knew the oracles and names. (79)

Here, then, is that other tradition, running parallel to the didactic and the romantic, and intersecting with it again and again to make one long continuous, tumultuous, bawdy, boisterous cataract-the tradition named by Reyes, the carnivalesque tradition-absolutely, truly Pinoy carnivalesque. Aquino makes a point of its being “not an imported newfangled art, certainly not the magic realism of the early Gabriel Garcia Marquez whose magic continually outstripped the realism.” (122)

But is it transgressive even as the komiks were?

Its heroes are not the ladron but the marginalized, the downtrodden, little people under the yoke of the army of occupation, the colonial master. The narrative combines official historical facts with legend and lore to create an alternative account, a version not often heard. Its subject matter is resistance-the people of the town of Lakambaga in Cavite recovering their fighting spirit and rising against the colonial power yet again. And its textual strategies resist conventional narrative-this is not realist fiction.

In The American Half-Century (1898-1946) Lewis Gleeck, Jr. describes the underground resistance to the Americans in Batangas and Cavite as ladron [8]activities. (87)

The “outlaws,” as Gleeck calls them, were also “self-styled patriots,” “defenders of the country,” “protectors of the people.” He quotes from a “constabulary document” by H.H. Elarth who admitted the “cunning, endurance, leadership and bravery” of one such leader, a Felizardo, but who also considered him a “fiend”. (89)

Like Malvar and Sakay perhaps?

The Firewalkers tells us the story from the point of view of Felizardo, or others like him, his fellowladrones, his comrades at arms.

Banyaga: A Song of War

The major theme running through The Firewalkers runs through this novel as well, albeit in a different key and with more elaborations and different variations. It is the theme of falling apart because of sin or wrongdoing, and the need to confess and make amends in order to become whole again.

In the novel’s prologue, Antonio Limpoco, is 88 years old, watching with great satisfaction as his grandson, Richard, conducts the orchestra in his debut as a composer. The concert is taking place in the lobby of the latest Limpoco Mall. And this grandson is the boy who, according to a soothsayer, “would bring the name of their clan to the farthest reaches of the earth.” (2006, ix)

The narrative then zooms back in time to the day that brought Limpoco and four other young Chinese boys to Manila by boat from China, and proceeds in linear fashion from “Part I Peacetime” to “Part IV New Society” (the martial law period), to end after the EDSA 1, on another boat in the Manila Bay.

Alternating chapters chronicle what happens to each of the boys. But beyond the personal narratives is the story of the country, told from the point of view of the outsider, and a particularly interesting outsider-the Chinese who started out as among the most oppressed minorities and today might be considered one of the most powerful. It chronicles the many twists and turns in the lives of these characters’ lives and the harshness and cruelty they both endure and inflict in order to carve out a space for themselves in this country to which they came uninvited and unarmed, and which never fully accepts them, for all the wealth and power they might accumulate. The price of success is the restlessness in their own souls and their alienation from their own wives and children, in particular their sons, for whom they literally give their lives, but who will never understand them and cannot forgive them.

In an essay which he wrote as the introduction to the first anthology of Chinese Filipino writing in English and Filipino, Charlson Ong said:

Our memories are not of China but of Chinatown. We do not have conquering heroes or legendary warriors to celebrate, only merchants, artisans, entrepreneurs. Ours is not a history of conquest, or even of mythicized barter but of occasional persecution and continual accommodation.” (2000, ix)

These four male characters are persons doubly marginalized, first by being banyaga, and then by being poor and orphaned, completely at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The dislocation is the trauma suffered by these characters. To survive in the alien land, they must surrender, they must submit. And even after they have attained a measure of success, they are constantly reminded that it can all be taken away from them at someone’s whim. Every move involves accommodation, compromise, prevarication. Every step of the way they must weigh words and actions carefully, mindful of the dangers that lurk in the shadows. Not even in their own homes are they ever completely safe. Not even in their own hearts do they ever really find peace.

Certain phrases echo through the narrative, underlining this need to remind themselves of their “place” in the scheme of things. Like “We’re junk people. that’s who we are.” (67) And “You and I are not going anywhere. Mao doesn’t want you and Chiang doesn’t need you.” (219) But marginalized though they might be, the four young men-and their friends and associates-find themselves drawn somehow into politics, compelled by events to take sides, some with the Kuomintang underground, others with the Maoist movement, still others with the huanna government; their business fortunes ebb and flow with ups and downs of the country’s political situation; their children go to UP, Ateneo and UST with the huanna, become activists, are killed, join the army, are wounded, join Ramos and Enrile inside Camp Aguinaldo.

The women have an even tougher time of it-thrice marginalized, creatures to be sold or bartered or given away as the men may see fit. But they emerge as stronger, more reliable, more enduring than their men.

This novel is basically in the realist mode, developing in linear fashion, much like a chronicle, with occasional flashbacks and “flashforwards.” And one of its strengths is the skill with which each character has been constructed-especially the four main characters, each like the other only in being damaged from childhood but determined to do whatever it takes to survive; growing up, growing twisted, but coming through for each other to the end.

The “song of war” of the title is literally a musical piece played on a bamboo and reed flute by Ah Beng or Antonio Limpoco, a tune learned from his own grandfather-“a dirge passed down many generations from some warrior-poet who sang of how soldiers fighting in a strange land must sing a song of longing to the night wind on the eve of battle, so that, should they die, their ghosts would be led home by the sound of familiar voices.” (ix) But it is also, of course, this narrative of this sojourn and exile, the lives lived by the Chinese in the Philippines. It is a chronicle of what Caroline S. Hau calls a “shift in their sense of home” (2000, 307)

The picture the novel paints is sometimes sad and sometimes horrific. But, again, the darkness is shot through with humor. And for all its realism, the supernatural is an important element of this world too, sometimes taking the form of dreams, which turn out to be curiously prescient, dreams running like a leitmotif throughout the novel; sometimes, a dead ancestress speaking through a medium; (258-262) sometimes, characters entering each other’s dreams and meeting people they had never known in real life; (277) sometimes, an astrologer predicting death and doom. (305)

Equally striking are the melodramatic scenes-some almost macabre, like the boy Ah Kaw and Sebastian silently sawing up the poor dead boy’s limbs; (62-63) and others, sheer theatre, like Ah Beng bearing his sister’s corpse in his arms to Lim Hua’s house, and laying her at his father’s feet, touching his forehead to the ground, and saying, “My sister pays her final respects, father.” (60)

Yet, a thread of humor runs through even these powerful melodramatic scenes, like the one with Ah Tin wielding a rake like St. Michael’s sword to fight off the mob gathered around the bullet-ridden corpses of his foster parents’ corpses. (163)

Like Yuson’s and Castillo’s novels, Ong’s novel is a kaleidoscope made of a myriad varicolored particles. But they are all of a piece-comedy, romance, tragedy, melodrama, fiction, history. As the fable draws to a close, Richard, the musician, Ah Beng’s grandson, thinks of all the stories his grandfather has been telling him, and wonders if indeed all or any of them are true, since they seemed to change with every telling.

. But he was happy enough to listen to them, happy they kept changing as though the meaning of a life, just like the meaning of a piece of music, was never settled. Perhaps the meaning was in the telling. (364)

Indeed, despite the grimness of many parts of the narrative, the story it tells is an optimistic one. Though flawed, most of the characters are good people. They try to tell the truth and make up for mistakes, try to reconnect, to make amends. In the painful scene when Ah Puy stands over his little brother’s broken body, he thinks he sees two angels, the angels who tried to lift the boy as he fell.

The angels had come to Ah Puy, hoping to rest briefly inside the young man’s heart, but he would no longer open its doors to any creatures with wings. (36)

Here is the soul adrift, the soul lost. To bring it back, there must be forgiveness. This longing for forgiveness echoes through the narrative. Ah Puy must forgive himself for this death. Unable to, he locks up his heart more tightly, grows colder, hurts more people. When he finally comes to terms with both his gay son and his illegitimate son, he opens up his heart once more, and can now perhaps come to terms with himself, even if it is too late to come to terms with the wife he never loved. Ah Beng must forgive himself as well; and he must make amends by throwing his support behind his grandson, Richard. He comes to understand that the hope for him and his line lies with Richard, the artist, who is both memory of the race and its future.

The survivors have emerged from the wilderness. Even the country appears to have come through. It has survived American colonialism, Japanese occupation, martial law. There is some breathing space-post-EDSA disenchantment has not set in yet. Most important, the next generation has taken over, and it is better equipped, being more Pinoy.

At Ah Sun’s wake, Ah Beng, thinks to himself:

The Chinese were storeowners, merchants, bankers, makers of detergents and textiles. They made money, saved money, laundered money, loaned out money. They were respected for their money, tolerated for their money. Perhaps they could be doctors but certainly not artists, not poets or writers. What would they write anyway? What would they paint? Another people’s history? Another people’s pain? Who would listen? Who would care? (310)

But Richard, is proving his grandfather wrong. Richard is a musician, a composer. His sister is a writer. A cousin is a film maker. And another cousin (a mestiza,daughter of the dead activist son) wants to learn Chinese from her grandmother, her link with the past. It is as if they recognize that before they can play a part in the healing of the nation, they must heal themselves, and one way is through art. Perhaps the most that they can do is pave the way. It is the next generation that will be truly a part of the nation, that, in fact, is already a part of it.

Banyaga‘s last chapter, like that of Yuson’s novel, is a party, a celebration, and the ghosts of the departed are as much of a presence as the survivors. But laughter and music echo through this scene, and the memories, for all that they may be laced with pain, are good. And the story ends, not with the two old “Chinamen,” practically ghosts themselves. It ends with two small Filipino boys in a boat and a pigeon, and the suggestion that their story will not be as sad as that of the two boys with whom the story opened.

The Sky Over Dimas

Like Erwin Castillo’s The Firewalkers, Vicente Garcia Groyon’s The Sky Over Dimas seems to embody Mojares’ “poetics of the soul.” Here, once again, are characters not just flawed, but deeply damaged. The difference between the two novels is that there are Catholic overtones in Groyon’s novel (which are missing from the other four, an unusual thing given the writers’ backgrounds) [9]; and the damage to the novel’s characters is fatal.

The novel opens with this line: “The fact is: George Torrecarion went crazy.” (2002, 1) And moves from there to.

In hindsight, all of Bacolod agreed that the incident at Adora’s Modern Drive-In Restaurant was not the first visible sign that anything was wrong. What everyone had thought of as the twitches associated with a man approaching middle age had been indications of something far more serious. (1)

This is followed by a description of the many “strange things” indulged in by succeeding “waves of once-young men” and Bacolod’s tolerance of these as ‘fads.”

What this introduction thus presents is the madness in the Torrecarion family, and the fact that the tale that will unfold will be narrated, at least in part, by “all of Bacolod.” But immediately following Chapter 1 is an italicized section in which George himself contradicts Bacolod’s opinon and proclaims himself sane, and determined to “set the record straight” about the Torrecarrions.

This “dialogue” between George and Bacolod society (George’s part contained in italicized passages which the reader learns are actually part of the notebooks he plans to leave behind as his “testament”) will continue till the novel’s end, interspersed with the thoughts and actions of Rafael, George’s son, as rendered by the omniscient narrator.

The narrative has been described as “lurid,” “bizarre,” “sordid,” “tragic.” Besides madness, there is incest and murder, elopements and infidelities, idiocy and blood revenge, massacre, suicide, and at least three fires. Characters appear, execute wild, violent acts and disappear, never to be heard of again. One reviewer has mentioned that this material is the stuff of telenovelas. [10] (Arcellana 2003, E-4) In fact, the narrator himself refers to “the continuing soap opera starring Geroge Torrecarion”. (249)

It is also quite hilarious, and, like The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café, this is metafiction, as much about fictionalizing as it is about the story it purports to tell. In fact, the story itself is about the telling of stories, orally as tsimis, passed on from hacienda to hacienda, or as family lore, handed down through generations.

George has found his great grandfather’s journal (written by his own hand in “archaic Spanish”) and is appalled at the lies it contains. A large part of his own journal or notebooks is spent debunking Faustino’s journal as a “laughable fabrication,” even if he lacks alternative versions against which to test its claims. And yet, George indulges in speculations himself, filling in the numerous gaps in the family history, asserting paradoxically that “Speculation is the only thing that keeps my family history coherent, I find, in the absence of any truly reliable documentation.” (937)

As in The Firewalkers and Banyaga there are secrets buried deep in its heart, secrets that must be uncovered and expiated for, so that life might go on.

The narrative is a harsh indictment of Bacolod and the planters’ culture, underwritten by a deep compassion for and guilt over the obreros that Rafael had been taught to ignore. But some parts of it sound like author Groyon’s ambivalent, anguished love song to the land of his birth, put into Rafael’s mouth. Rafael turns his back on the whole thing, escapes to Manila, opting for a life as far away as possible from the life he had known, choosing to live in rooms

“. Raised high in the sky, as far away from the smog and filth of the earth as possible, in a tower of concrete, steel and glass, that lifted him up and away from the source, for everything, the soil, the earth, had to be shut away, insulated, cleaned. (111)

But though it seems that Rafael is not afflicted with the same loathing and self-loathing that has driven his father mad, he is no less mad, as incapable of loving as of accepting love. (139)

The secrets that Rafael reluctantly uncovers are all tales of betrayal and bloodshed. In the end, George sets himself on fire, dying with his arms outstretched, as on a cross, perhaps seeking redemption to the end, as did the crucified Dimas. And, in a poignant reversal of the slaying-of-the-father theme, Rafael tries to save his father, risking his own life. But he fails.

These-the need to confess, the hacienda named after the “good thief,” the Christ-like pose at the end-are some of the Catholic touches which are conspicuously absent from the other three novels.

George’s death scene reminds me of of another memorable fire scene, from another novel, Kerima Polotan’s The Hand of the Enemy. (1962) Here the protagonist, Emma, re-enacts an earlier scene in the novel, involving the parents of the tormented Rene Rividad, who loves her-a millenarian peasant leader and his wife, who led his followers to their pathetic death in the town plaza. (Polotan 1998, 16) That scene seems out of place in a novel whose style I would characterize as quiet, restrained and elegant. (138)

But a closer look at this novel yields another equally powerful, and equally theatrical scene, where Emma tears another woman’s dress off her body, pins her arm beneath a cutter, and calmly watches the blade descend. (58-59)

My point is this: the best of our writers, writing in whichever language, love writing scenes like this. And Filipino readers, reading in whatever language, like reading them.[11]

Thus, when Rosario Lucero-another highly accomplished fictionist-writes of Groyon’s novel that “beneath the author’s lyrical prose and the sheen of premature wisdom beats a heart of pure pulp,” she is paying it a compliment. Because she also says of it that it “ranks among the best novels in English I’ve come across in years,” and she praises it for its “consistently flawless and elegant prose.” (2003, F1)

Rafael escapes, but the question is: what does he escape to, and what for? The novel’s final section is in italics, as though to emphasize its connection to George’s notebooks, to George’s discourse. But if George thought he had all the answers, Rafael knows that all he has are more questions, in particular this one: “what is going to happen next?” (258)

Perhaps George was right that no forgiveness is possible, and therefore, no healing can take place. Not even for the son whom he tried to spare. The line is truly cursed. But this would make the narrative quite un-Catholic after all, since at the heart of the Catholic doctrine is the story of the God who chose to become man and be crucified that all men might be forgiven.

The chief protagonists of The Sky Over Dimas are hacenderos; and they are largely defined by the land over which they have been masters for generations, and the manner in which they acquired the land and continue to control it. They are a dying breed, destroyed by what makes them what they are. The youngest generation is surviving by running away. But this flight guarantees neither their safety nor their sanity.

With this novel, Groyon returns to the setting and themes that compelled his imagination even as an undergraduate, as in the short story. “On Cursed Ground.” (2004)

The “hidden” things in this story are dead bodies as well. And the smell that pursues the young man fleeing the sugarcane fields for the shelter and anonymity of steel and asphalt is, even then, guilt.

The Sky Over Dimas, written by the youngest of the four novelists, is a dark and somber tale. And for all that it is the most lyrical of the four novels, and in its own way, as funny, it is the only one which does not end on a note of hope.


The authors of the four contemporary Philippine novels which form the subject of this short study are among the most highly regarded writers in the country. Alfred Yuson is a member of the Carlos Palanca Hall of Fame, and is winner of numerous other awards for both fiction and poetry, besides being a founding member of the Philippine Literary Arts Circle (PLAC). He also teaches creative writing at the Ateneo de Manila University.The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café won the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel. Erwin Castillo, who is also a painter, has won awards for both his poems and his short stories, has been published internationally as well as nationally, and was National Fellow for Fiction of the UP Institute of Creative Writing in 2000. The Firewalkers was selected by the UP Press to be part of its UP Jubilee Student Edition, a series “designed to bring the best of Philippine literature within the reach of students and the general public.” Charlson Ong is another multi-awarded fictionist, a Resident Fellow of the UP Institute of Creative Writing, and a teacher of creative writing at the UP. His first novel, An Embarrassment of Riches, won 2nd place in the Philippine Centennial Literary Contest in 2000. Vicente Groyon has won his share of awards, including the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel for The Sky Over Dimas. He teaches at De La Salle University and was for a time Director of the Bienvenido Santos Center for Creative Writing.

In describing their literary practices as they are found in their novels, I could well be describing significant aspects of the poetics of the Philippine novel in English today.

As demonstrated above, this novels are a mix of such diverse elements that it is difficult to categorize them as realist, magical realist, tragic, comic, fantastic, or what have you. Two of the novels seem clearly to be in the non-realist mode: one appears to be a metafictional mock-epic (although somewhere within the text itself, one character, who is a surrogate for the author uses the term “para-novel”); and the other, a parodic fairy tale. Where the principal mode appears to be realism, many elements conspire to defy realist conventions-scenes that partake of melodrama, of parody, even of fantasy; theatrical episodes, exaggerations, coincidences, complications which seem to belong more properly to the soap opera or telenovela.

Though there is a darkness to all of them-because the tales all tell of sorrow and tribulation, of disaster and death-the pain is eased by generous doses of comedy and humor. The comic takes different forms, from puns to green jokes, from slapstick to ironic, from grotesque to quixotic, and all within one and the same text. There is a reason for this, as there is a reason for the important role that comedy and humor play in Philippine society, morphing from vaudeville to long-running television sit-coms to comedy clubs; crossing classes, genders, and generations; going multi media via the Net and SMS or “texting.”

Ihab Hassan has explained why some comedy writers of the “rebellious sixties” in the U.S. came to reject and shun the “black humor” and the “absurd” that dominated the fifties, which had become a “stereotype of evasion, perhaps even a kind of cowardice,” and thus “an accommodation to failure.” This type of writer, Hassan wrote, well knows that

. There is another genre, intelligent as well as celebrant, that keeps the possibility of spiritual heroism alive, without mendacity or bombast. (321)

For me, the key word in that passage is “celebrant.” This element-the comic which is also celebrant-had for some reason disappeared from the Philippine novel in English. With these four novels, it is obvious that it has returned.

On the other hand, romantic love-which used to be a dominant theme-does not occupy a central position. Leon Kilat is not “in love” with the different women he “marries with,” anymore than they are in love with him. Gabriel Diego has memories of his “dear wife and his small, very brave son,” which are like shafts of clear light glimmering in the dark night of the soul, but they are fleeting. He might entertain fantasies of Reinamaria, but never seriously does anything to turn the dream into reality; nor does he fool himself after sleeping with Littlefeather that she is the woman he has been looking for all his life. Rafael is the opposite of romantic in his inability to form deep attachments. There is a romantic subplot in Ang Puy’s agonized love for the doomed Po Tsu, but it is only part of the elaborate labyrinth of lives crossing and criss-crossing in Banyaga.

Romanticism in these novels takes other forms: an idealization of nature (in Yuson); or of friendship, of male camaraderie (in Yuson and Ong); or of art (in Ong); a predilection for the strange, the gothic, the grotesque (in Castillo and Groyon); a deep awareness of the traditional (in Yuson, Castillo and Ong).

And then there is the didactic-a strong force running through all four novels, which asserts itself in different dramatic ways-but never in a predictable or trite manner: the urgent need to shake free from all that has corrupted and enslaved us, the urgent need for courage, for admission of guilt, and for expiation, so that healing, hence salvation, might take place.

Finally, all four are what I would call historical novels.

In his Pasyon and Revolution (1979) Reynaldo Ileto argued against the dismissal of such movements as the Lapiang Malaya as “fanatic,” “nativist” or “millenarian,” an attitude which has the effect of alienating us further from those our own countrymen who were part of them or lived through them. He pointed out the continuity between the Lapiang Malaya and the Katipunan secret society. To understand these connections, he urged a “history from below.”

What we modern Filipinos need first of all is a set of conceptual tools, a grammar, that would help us understand the world of the kapatid, which is a part of our world. (5)

Perhaps the four novels have been examining are one such “grammar,” but not so much “conceptual tools” as imaginative renderings of the lives of persons dismissed or neglected or forgotten.

We see this first in Nick Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows (1983-2003), the forerunner, in my opinion, an underrated novel. [12] Here we find our multi-layered cultured, revealed bit by bit as the narrative shifts back and forth in time, from the 16th century, to the ’60s, to the 19th century, to the early part of the 20th century, to August 1972, the eve of martial law. Here is a pastiche or collage of texts—historical and legendary, rumor and reportage, a lore deeply rooted in our people’s imagination.

Here is the cult of the Ginoong Ina, who might be the reincarnation of the 17th century healer, La Beata, or of the warrior priestess who led a revolt against Spain with a Spanish archbishop riding beside her; or the avatar of a pagan goddess; or a Tiboli princess (or possibly a starlet turned “neo-pagan” activist?).

Here is the precursor of Groyon’s Rafael, Jack Henson, “the melancholy, fey, somewhat disembodied chronicler of the ilustrado gentry in the wake of the unprecedented insurgency of the Filipino masses in the 70s.” (San Juan 1988, 174)

Here is the quest for the elusive “truth” played out against both the Platonic parable about cave and shadows, and the specter of martial law with its bald-faced lies, its “myth-making” about the dictator and his wife, and atrocities masked behind euphemisms.

Henson’s investigation into Nenita Coogan’s mysterious death leads him to prowl the city he thought he had already escaped, and confront its many faces-its elegant, terraced mansions and marble fountains, its opulent bayside clubs, its narrow squalid alleys and flophouses, and finally the strange cave uncovered by an earthquake right in the middle of a middle-class suburb.

The novel’s structure-that of a detective story or whodunit-is admirably suited to a narrative which hides another, deeper mystery at its heart: what is to be done? And, of course, there are no simple answers. The novel offers only possibilities, the untold story, the repressed story, the secret of the cave. In another essay, I suggested that

Perhaps the strength of the myth, its durability, is simply proof of the strength of the need for it. While the situation remains desperate, people will clutch at it. And this, perhaps, is the novel’s point.” (2003, 308)

Of the four novels that we have examined, it is The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café and The Firewalkers which seem to follow in this novel’s footsteps using both fabulation and chronicles for fiction which is also alternative history; to retell an old story through a different perspective, history from below. But the other two novels, each in a different way, have a similar agenda.

The protagonists of Banyaga: A Song of War all start out poor and helpless. And though some of them do become rich and powerful, the narrative as a whole is the story of a people who had been systematically marginalized and persecuted. The Sky Over Dimas might be a tale of hacenderos-and the poor who are part of the story might not occupy center stage-but the tale is told through the eyes of someone who has made himself an outsider, who sees it for the decadent, dying world that it is, and turns his back on it. It is no coincidence that the most decent characters in the story are Rodel, the farmhand who becomes Margie’s lover, and then a peasant organizer; and Lorna, the maid who becomes George’s mistress, looks after him because she truly cares for him, stands her ground against his relatives, and refuses to accept the money Rafael offers her.

In their “imaginings,” though the novelists may have been influenced by literary trends and strategies absorbed from foreign sources-by surrealism and impressionism, by postmodernism and marvelous realism-the more important source has not been foreign. These novelists have dipped into the wells of our own cultural and literary traditions, have fused romantic, didactic, comic and carnivalesque, to concoct delightfully original, extravagant narratives which recreate the myriad facets of our culture: fantasy and telenovela, fable and chronicle and wild, wacky, romance.

I recall Petronilo Bn. Daroy’s interesting observation that what was needed for the novel in English to be more vital and relevant was not just transcendence of the limits of their class, but a rejection of conventional techniques of depicting reality, in short, of the techniques of social realism.

The limitations of realism today are becoming totally apparent. The conventions of the traditional novel have become inadequate for the representation of contemporary reality. A new mode of survival must be invented, and out of a recognition of this necessity, we can start to create a new literature. (1969, 165)

These novels are, in their different ways, a response to his challenge.

It seems to me that each of these novelists have taken measure of a bad situation, have tried to imagine alternatives, and have found the strategies with which to explore those alternatives. Their characters make choices which are personal, but because the novels are historical novels, they have implications for the larger society. The alternatives turn out to be far from simple. There are no clear victories, no ready answers. But is it not enough that literature asks the questions?

According to Malyasian animism,

. The soul is formed in the human activity of focusing and expanding, centering and decentering, in a constant dialectic of past and present, actuality and possibility, between what is in us and what lies outside or beyond. (Mojares 306)

Perhaps this is what these novels are doing. Perhaps they are trying to effect a healing. Perhaps they are luring the drifting soul back home.

In 1995, when the poet Gémino H. Abad took over as director of the cash-strapped UP Creative Writing Center, young writers working as his graduate assistants dreamt up a fund-raising scheme. They called it “Writers’ Night.” It was advertised as a reunion of the UP National Writers’ Workshop’s fellows and a Christmas party for all writers. A small admission fee was charged. Everything was for sale, including the food and the beer. The day began at 2 pm with a book sale and ended at around midnight. The highlight was the auction of literary memorabilia, donated by the writers themselves, and anyone who had something he or she thought might fetch a price. “Services” like dinner for two or a harana were accepted as well.

Everyone pitched in. NVM Gonzalez donated his old portable typewriter. Gilda Cordero-Fernando gave an antique santo and camisa from her own collection. Letty Jimenez-Masanoc offered dinner for two. Artists Danny Dalena, Manny Baldemor and Santibose donated paintings. Larry Francia donated a small Nena Saguil. Teddy-Boy Locsin donated a handsome desk set. Greg Brillantes parted with typescripts of his stories with his hand-written corrections.

The literary canon showed up en force, including National Artists Nick Joaquin and Franz Arcellana, and National-Artists-to-be NVM Gonzalez, Bienvenido Lumbera and Virgilio Almario. The media gave it full coverage.

The affair, held at the Balay Kalinaw in the Diliman campus, and emceed by Googoo de Jesus (then Philippines Free Press literary editor) and Ed Cabagnot of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, was judged an enormous success, raising more good will for and interest in Philippine literature than making money for the CWC.But raising money as well.

The associates of the CWC (which at some point became the UP Institute of Creative Writing) decided to make it a yearly ritual, and over the years, it has evolved, each director giving it his or her personal touch. When more artists donated their works, the auction was by silent bidding, and the evening’s main event became the poetry reading and other performances. When I was director, there was a year we made it a bazaar/concert, held it in the Filipinas Heritage Library, and invited writers from Ateneo, De La Salle and UST to put up booths. Paolo Manalo did tarot card readings and Charlene Fernandez read runes. Another time we made it a tribute to writers who had received awards that year, and moved it to the Executive House, with UP President Dodong Nemenzo as sponsor. National Artist Virgilio Almario revived the UP Writers’ Club and put it in charge, and they made it an al frescoaffair, with rock bands and the spoken word.

By the time Vim Nadera had taken over, it was held at the Balay Chanselor, and included some writers launching books, others selling handicrafts and furniture, Butch Dalisay lecturing on the wonders of the Mac, someone collecting signatures for a National Artist nominee, and someone else pitching book ideas at a publisher, Khavn de la Cruz haranguing the audience about Hacienda Luisita, instructors and graduate students from the UP English Department doing brisk business concocting cocktails at the bar, and poets shouting out their verses to be heard above the din. It had morphed into a fiesta!

The Philippine literary carnival is alive and well.


1 Formal courses in Latin American literature were not taught in UP’s Dept. of English and Comparative Literature until the early 90s. According to Dr. Priscelina Legasto, the Latin American fictionists were introduced in UP by Prof. Ed Garcia in his political science classes in the late 70s or early 80s. But, even assuming that they were being read by the Philippine literati before they were formally taught in academe (Miguel de Asturias received the Nobel Prize in 1967; Pablo Neruda in 1971; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982), Nick Joaquin’s early tales were published during the Commonwealth period, before the Latin American writers were published in Barcelona by Seix Barral and became the phenomenon known as the “Boom,” and certainly before they were translated into English.

2 Caroline Hau has acknowledged that that literary production in the Philippines is “never hermetically sealed off from the world.” She also assumes that this “complicity” causes writers some “unease,” and discusses the various ways of coping with this uneasiness about “hack writing” which Filipino writers have found. (2000, 184-186)

3 Mojares: “In general, the motive behind the early novel (in Tagalog) was to portray life and manners with the coloring of romance the underpinning of morals.” (206) He was using romance to mean “a form in which the primary allegiance was to the illustration of an ideal pattern rather than the representation of reality;” (57) and the “didactic impulse” to mean “the motive under which everything else is subsumed is religious and ethical instruction.” (96)

4 For Lumbera’s interesting and original theory regarding the reason for this reluctance, see Lumbera 1972, 201; also cited in Hidalgo 1998, 117.

5 The reader is referred to Ruth Pison’s excellent reading of the novel as postcolonial history. (2005, 85-101)

6 Soledad Reyes mentions Buhawi as one of the komiks characters in the work of Francisco Reyes, whom she describes as “a pioneer in this particular genre which combined elements from preliterate forms with the demands of the new technology.” (2001, 158-159)

7 Something similar happens in another earlier Philippine novel in English, Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War (1988), with a group of festival transvestites turning out to be assassins.

8 Ladron – thief, robber

9 Although Yuson, Castillo and Ong went to UP for their undergraduate education, Yuson did time in San Beda; Castillo, in Ateneo; and Ong in Xavier.

10 “Though this could be the stuff of telenovelas, or the novelist’s own tribute to sentimientos de Illonggo, the reader should keep in mind that these things happen, truth always being stranger than fiction.” (Arcellana 2003, E4)

11 Another story with a fire as climactic scene comes to mind-“Dragonseed” by Leoncio Deriada-this story again involving a troubled father-son relationship. (In Abad and Hidalgo, 2002, 135-147) A more industrious search would probably yield many other such narratives; and many others not involving fire but no less melodramatic.

12 I have written elsewhere about this novel. See Hidalgo 1998, 117-139; and Hidalgo 2003, 296-311.



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