Notes on Finishing a Novel: Writing Raymundo Mata

I keep getting requests asking about what the novel Raymundo Mata means. I only know what it means from the writing of it. NOTE: This is a revised version of an essay appended to the Anvil publication of the novel. It is almost nine years away from that date of publication: another novena year. 

raymundo mata cover

On Finishing a Novel: Thoughts on Writing about Philippine History

I remember the solitude and satisfaction of beginning the novel that became, nine years later, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, which now arrives a full dozen years after my first book, Bibliolepsy. I remember the stillness of that spring midnight in New Hampshire. I had begun this farcical reconstruction of a solemn evening in the 1890s, in which Emilio Aguinaldo rides the calesa with the blind future katipunero Raymundo Mata, who plays an extremely minor role in history as the blind man who accompanies Pio Valenzuela to Dapitan on a fateful visit to the hero-novelist Rizal (ironically, the pair’s visit became the key incident cited by the Spanish judge in Rizal’s trial in 1896 as ‘proof’ that the novelist was the leader of Bonifacio’s revolution). I was laughing as I wrote what I thought would be the first chapter of a comic novel (it is Entry #25 in the finished draft): my daughter was asleep, my husband was in his hometown Worcester, Massachusetts, at his mother’s home, researching a novel of his own, and I was alone and exhilarated by the moment of starting a new novel.

There is nothing like the first pages of a new work—when one has finally discarded the trepidation and horror of beginning, and one simply begins. The horror of beginning lies in the immensity of a novel’s blankness. Any new novel leaves you on your own, worse than on a desert island, because it is a desertion and a bereavement of your own making. You build toward the angst of those first words, and so the frank release of that first chapter, when you begin, is an unspeakable pleasure, because to be honest—before you begin, it always seems impossible.

It is odd for me to recall now what I did not know then. That at the same time I happily began scratching out that novel, its first words, my husband, also writing, confronted his unspeakable solitude in his mother’s home. Not a word escapes to speak the immensity of his moment’s blankness. His death had no observer. And it is perhaps not so odd, though terrible and cruel, that I recognized this only after I had finished writing The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata: nine years after his inexplicable death. That I began this book on the eve of Arne’s death.

In this way we are blind to our deepest purposes, the gestures we make to survive. I strove against odds to return to this novel, after an abandonment of years, but I did not recognize until it was done why its completion was necessary.

For The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is, on one hand, a novel about unfinished books.

I am publishing it nine years after beginning it. In the Philippines, of course, the end of the novenas marks the ninth year of mourning. And the ninth year, I guess, is meant to signal one must begin a new life. My recognition now is that despite the end of all novenas, my husband is still with me. And so he will always be. And in my mind’s eye he lives: eternally in the act of writing his undone novel. The past (as I understand it) is always present: our lives are haunted but no one dies, if memory serves us right.

I wrote my novel for my husband, Arne, who loved the Philippines and Rizal.

But the novel, of course, is not about him.

……….

Readers ask me how one comes to write a novel at all. The curse of the Filipino writer, it has been said, is that a first novel (of all things) created us, the stubborn illusion of our nationhood. Not only that, it created us absolutely and early: that book was Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. The so-called Rizal curse is a fiction that condemns all our novelists to premature obsolescence, so we wail. But on the other hand: it is precisely the futility of our projects that may allow us to act.

Being a Filipino novelist can seem doubly irrelevant. At times it seems to me that being Filipino is fantastical enough—Filipinos are paradoxically ubiquitous yet invisible, a migrant everywhere but a known quantity nowhere; but being a novelist on top of that raises my sense of my absurdity up a notch. Who will read me? I have the strange gall of being comforted by that thought. Precisely because my audience must be invented, I feel freer to create.

……….

The seed for my novel about the revolution was double: one a dream, the other a voice. The first was a dream I had the year before I traveled to America to attend the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins. It was 1986, the country was in the throes of the EDSA revolt, and I kept going to libraries. In my dream I was on a jeep, and a person was speaking German. I completely understood him (in real life I have absolutely no German): he was telling me I had to write some novel, and in this dust-swirled tongue he explained its entire plot. I woke up thinking—what a good plot. Then of course I had no memory of it. All I could remember was a jeepney (I fancy it was going to Blumentritt Street) and a rattling squall of dust following it, with the stranger exclaiming in German while he hangs from the back of the jeep like extra cargo. All that remained, I guess, was the dust.

At that time, I used to go to the embassy libraries in Manila. By 1986 the rallies were passing by new places, like Thomas Jefferson on Buendia in Makati; but way before that I would detour to the British Council because of its new fiction titles. I also liked to go nearby, to Goethe Institute, for two things: it possessed a facsimile copy of the novel Noli Me Tangere in Rizal’s hand and the double-volume German correspondence between Rizal and Ferdinand Blumentritt. For some reason, it moved me, in those days of the EDSA rebellion: to hold the facsimile copy of Rizal’s novel, even though I would not read it.

I had read the Noli in high school in Tagalog, and I could not relate to its Victorian syrup. I hated Maria Clara and the tragic odium of her sentimental end. I was also, at the time, rather Maoist, and I thought Crisostomo Ibarra was a coño balikbayan, a limited perceiver of his country’s ills. At Goethe, I read instead the letters Rizal wrote to his friend Blumentritt in Bohemia.

I knew my dream of the person speaking in German had something to do with finding Rizal in Goethe Institute—the dream was somehow a demand to write about that past trapped in the strange white walls of a German library during the height of a rebellion. Unfortunately, the dream was gobbledygook.

The voice I heard a few years later at Johns Hopkins was by no means gobbledygook. The clarity of that speaker’s erudition is luminous to me even now. This happened maybe in 1989 or 1990. I was newly married in a foreign country. My husband discovered that a historian was going to speak on campus about a Philippine novel, and he took me and a few others to listen to him. So there was that voice in a Baltimore auditorium talking about Crisostomo Ibarra walking through a piss-soaked cemetery in fictional San Diego, conjuring for me the phantom of my old dream, a return to an incoherent desire to articulate this past. The clarity of the speaker’s commentary on the literary qualities of the Noli Me Tangere struck me also as a kind of blow—a reproach.

I was caught by the profound empathy with which the speaker described the ironic style of Rizal. He rendered the ‘syrup’ text humorous; he called it complex. My husband demanded: why have you never told me about this writer Rizal? I had no defense. It was my husband who ended up looking for the novels, the Noli and the Fili, and making the Noli required reading for his students later on at the International School Manila when I moved my family back home. It was he who bought Santiago Alvarez’s Katipunan and the Revolution, which became so central to my novel because of the quotidian quality of its recollections of revolution (having diarrhea in the middle of battle in the rice paddies of Caloocan because of eating pakwan; the drunkenness of Matandang Leon, a tulisan turned revolutionary; a blind man being blindfolded when he is initiated into the Katipunan; et cetera, et cetera: a joy ride of consequential inconsequence).

We learned that the historian’s name was Benedict Anderson; in those days without Google, we had no idea what that savant did or why he knew so much about Rizal. All I knew was that his view of Rizal in that Hopkins lecture, the way he read him with wit and correctness as a terribly forgotten novelist, haunted me—while my ignorance rebuked me, though for a long time I did nothing to remedy it.

………

I went back to writing Raymundo Mata in 2005: what drove me to it is a mystery: I have no idea why or how I began to write. Because for seven years, I did not think I would get back to writing at all. I had finished a draft of one novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, the year my husband died, and I had begun a page of Raymundo Mata. In the 90s an agent contacted me about publishing Gun Dealer. But I had no heart in me to work on any of my books. I felt guilty about being a writer. I felt dread about being alive at all.

Instead, at his publisher’s request, I edited my husband’s novel, leo@fergusrules.com. The horror was that his first novel was accepted by a publisher two weeks after his death. The miracle was that it was accepted by a publisher two weeks after his death. I put away my novels’ drafts and worked two years on Arne’s book. It came out from Leapfrog Press in 2000.

On the other hand, in a sort of bravado, when friends asked what they could do for me, I would ask them to to scour the bookstores of Manila for works on the revolution. I don’t know what I was thinking: the fact was, for months I could barely read a newspaper. Those Philippine history books, which sat unread for years, signify for me the faith and support of friends: each book was an express act of generosity that silently told me one day I might work again.

In my mind I wished to return to that first writing night of comic exhilaration. In my heart I knew I couldn’t. But at the very least, I urged myself, I could read the books. Slowly, I did. Given a sabbatical, I began reading full-time. And as I read the history, the novel emerged. I wished to write a comic historical novel written like a puzzle. I made up rules for play, and the strictures I placed on myself seemed both amusing and necessary. I would enclose an entire history of Filipino texts—from balagtasan to bugtong, Bonifacio’s poetry to Mabini’s politics—wrapped in the search for a lost and longed-for novel. The book would have traps for the reader, dead-end jokes, textual games, unexplained sleights of tongue. I wished to write a funhouse-text. (Maybe my curse has never been Rizal; my curse, perhaps, is Nabokov.)

But at the same time, I wished to be true to the past I was plundering. My concept of Raymundo Mata, a cipher of history whose relatives are perhaps still alive, maybe living even now a stone’s throw from the Aguinaldo Shrine, is cut out of wholly imagined cloth. My invention of him as a ‘kelptobibliomaniac,’ a hapless fan of the writer Rizal, is entirely uncorroborated. But the details I conjured had to breathe through the prism of the life he actually lived.

The task was to see Rizal and his history from an ‘awry’ lens: in this case, the nightblind eye of a ‘kleptobibliomaniac,’ a wordy lover of books. From the start, I had this obscure desire to resurrect Rizal the writer—my ambition was to lay him bare for us as a man who, when all is said and done, only wished to finish a novel, not start a war. But the fact is, I know all I could do was clothe him in my own personal delusions.

………..

The task was huge—I needed to acquaint myself not only with the hero’s history but with all his work that I could find. And for some reason, I needed to feel “pure,” as if that were possible: I needed to conceive of history from my own vantage. In this way, I banned theorists and many secondary sources from my diet. First, I read only Rizal’s work itself. My favorites were his Miscellaneous Writings, a wonderful compendium that includes gossip in code and morbidity in scientific notes, and his supple, seductive second novel, El Filibusterismo, a narrative stew of tonal dexterity, a brilliant light polemic and bitter farce. My translation of a text singular in Rizal’s oeuvre, Memorias de un estudiante en Manila, an adolescent narrative I could not find in English, became the chance engine of the entire novel’s prose. In this way, plagiarism by translation has its uses.

Of history, I chose to read only contemporaneous or historiographical texts—those books that give us the history of our history. My aim was not to be comprehensive (I was writing a novel, not a syllabus); I merely wished from these books to catch the quotidian in flux.

So I read around seven revolutionary memoirs, plus French travel books of the 18th century; Austin Coates but no Epifanio San Juan; Father Schumacher but not a word of Anderson. (In fact, it is perhaps the novel’s witless irony that while its trigger was a haunting lecture by Ben Anderson, my actual draft bears none of the blessings that a reading of Anderson might have cast.) The trials of finding those books are, perhaps, grist for another essay (I will only mention here that the many branches of National Bookstore will shelve the same book in as many ways). A cruel and unusual punishment imposed by my accidental writing strategy was that, when I finally began to write the text, I banned myself from reading prose published after 1896. This was tough (I diverged in one item: I kept rereading Borges). Sadly, my friends soon pointed out that a diet of Eugene Sue, Ariosto, hero hagiographers, and obscure history about insane events was not conducive to polite conversation.

My research bore out that not a single incident in the history of the Philippine revolution is, in my view, not subject to ambiguity. This is a truism of all history, true: but it is almost alarmingly so when we read Aguinaldo’s memoirs versus Ricarte’s versus Valenzuela’s versus Alejandrino’s versus even the brief and innocuous testament of the terse musician Julio Nakpil. Every text raises questions. To paraphrase that master of ambiguity, Hamlet: we are all errant truth-tellers all. Thus, in order to tell the story of our history, one must have not one but multiple ways of telling—and so in the novel, the blind memoirist’s text is riddled with critics, and in the margins the critics happily slander one another, throwing footnotes, not stones.

The only way to distill the multiple reality of such a country was to take apart its texts and ‘botch’ them, as the Danish court said of the sad Ophelia: construct a history by pointing out how it unravels. Thus my novel, a deconstructed story, might seem strange to read, though it was fun to write.

The hero I conjured, the character Raymundo Mata, was serendipitously blind in the history books and appropriately blind in my illusory version. It’s through a blurry lens that we might see clearly. What became true to me was that to finish a novel is a miraculous act of recovery. The recovery of a text, a body; the recovery of a hero, a history; the recovery of a country, a past. And so in this novel I came to terms with the reality of who I am: I write. It is an act that makes me, however temporarily, whole, and my husband, a writer, above all would understand. I say this to myself. It is small consolation, but it consoles.

It was odd to me how writing was such a joy: I looked forward to writing Raymundo Mata every day, and finishing the novel was the least of my surprises. It turns out finishing a novel is completing a past, while knowing the act is never quite done. The power of Rizal, and the power of our history, is that this genie—the exemplary postmodern text that is our country’s story—is inexhaustible. This is precisely so because these postcolonial sources are contradictory, unresolved, a cast of maddeningly personal voices with axes to grind (both amusing and not so much).

We must be glad for the patently unfinished and infuriating history that we have—our untranslatable dystranslations—our frank misreadings of who we are—our disingenuous ambiguity. In this way, it seems Filipinos must represent the complexity of everyone’s incomplete and indeterminate self, the one we grope for in the dark, and our surprising, endless resurrections.

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Narration and History

(Written for Thirdest World, an anthology published in 2007, with work by me, Eric Gamalinda, and Lara Stapleton. All three of us in the collection wrote essays about our work. I commented on the short story, “Cunanan’s Wake,” and excerpts from The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. Reading this draft on my computer, I realize the final version was completely edited—don’t remember now how or why. NOTE: I do not write short stories anymore. I like short stories [by others! especially Sabina Murray’s: I admire those very much!], but I have stopped writing them for some reason. And I would offer this caveat about this essay: I do have discomfort about a binary of New Criticism/postmodernism: there is something false about that [which may be why I edited it for the final version of Thirdest World (don’t remember anymore)?]. One day, it might be useful to return to this though and place my choices as a novelist in terms of my own overdetermined purposes: personal, commercial, aesthetic, historical, deeply existential, and of course idiosyncratic. For instance, there is the material fact that I ended up a student of John Barth, to whom I wrote after the workshop in Silliman in 1985: I sent Barth the opening sections of Bibliolepsy: thus my arrival at Johns Hopkins in 1987. Ironies of the postcolonial are quite interesting in that transmigration. But anyway, here is this draft of the essay from my computer.)

Short story and novel—the dichotomy of style in those two genres, shown in the fairly ‘straight’ narrative of the story “Cunanan’s Wake” versus the fairly ‘disjunct’ narrative of the novel excerpt The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, perhaps summarizes the split I recognize in my own self as a writer.

That split denotes a fissure of style—or at least a ‘tangential divagation,’ as Dr. Ed Tiempo liked to say. Dr. Tiempo was the director of the Silliman Summer Workshops, for a long time the pre-eminent seminar for young writers in the Philippines. Dr. Tiempo was a New Critic, trained in the rigor of the ‘realist’ short story popular to this day in America (The New Yorker, for instance, still almost exclusively features short stories in the New Critical vein—like those by Michael Cunningham or John Updike or Jhumpa Lahiri).

The Filipino short story in English was born from the writers who studied under American New Critics in the thirties through the sixties. The New Critical story was marked by a diachronic sense of history, with connected incidents threaded astutely and patterned subtly with motifs, reversals, and recognitions, elements that hark back as far as the Poetics of Aristotle, leavened by gentle modernist sleights of tongue. It is an orderly narration, thus satisfying. Aristotle noted that the best kind of plot was ‘complex’ and that the best kind of ‘complex plot’ possessed these two elements: peripeteia (reversal) and anagnorisis (recognition). Irony and epiphany seem to be the modern devices from which the form of the New Critical short story hangs on to Aristotle for dear life. These are not the only marks of that type of story; nor do irony and epiphany (nor reversal and recognition) occur only in the New Critical story. But the short story that Dr. Tiempo deemed naturally the best, no questions asked, at the beaches in Silliman, where I went in the summer of 1985, distinctly favored carefully plotted ironies and deftly built epiphanies, so that a gun on page one should go off (or at least misfire) by the end. Those stories also threw in an objective correlative here and there, for good measure.

For better or worse, when I write short stories, which tend to be about individuals trying to figure out their place in their culture, or their culture’s place in a wider culture, I keep hearing Dr. Tiempo’s aesthetic. Tangential divagation. I cannot escape its clutches. In “Cunanan’s Wake,” I hadn’t recognized until I finished the work that the figure of the pig runs through the story. I kind of liked how it turned out that way—though I certainly did not set out to make it one fat and roasting objective correlative. It kind of ‘nosed’ its way through the work, I guess. Also, sure enough, in the story the gun appears and, however erratically, goes off. The final scene is typical (though not the best kind) of Dr. Tiempo’s tangential epiphanies—the divagation from inner resolution to outward salute in the firing of the gun. An echo of the beginning. Subtlety. Recognition. The form of the story is essentially one of inherent futility. The gay son is still unspoken, hidden in the mother’s heart. Epiphanies tend to be that way—inward, individual.

It makes sense that America in the 1930s would fetishize an art form constructed around the narrow constraints of an individual’s refined perceptions: America itself collapsed (if one defines America by its stock market) and, as war became inevitable in Europe, America turned isolationist, inward. The Filipino short story in English, that transplanted species grafted directly from a capitalist wound fetishizing the individual, is doubly cankered, it seems to me—not only does it branch from the colonial master’s private agonies, it creates a whole school of Filipino writers from the thirties onward who are unaware that they are nursing the fetishes of their own oppressors.

This is not to say that one should not write short stories in the mold of Ed Tiempo or Paz Marquez Benitez. What it might imply is that the ‘realist’ mode of narration constructed from the theories of New Criticism, boldly accepted in workshops as the standard for narration, may in fact be as imported and ‘unnatural’ as Spam. That is, it is not ‘naturally the best.’ Like almost everything else, it too is a product—a product of history—and like Spam it might be unhealthy.

At the Silliman workshops, I know I felt a kind of castration (for a woman writer always has balls, you know). The Filipino short story in English, as defined by Silliman, seemed too narrow for my—or my country’s—interests. I think I began to write novels to resolve those misgivings. The form of narration I choose for my novels is as much constructed from conventions and discipline (and perhaps even more ancient models) as that of the ‘realist’ story. But the deliberate use of disjunction, or narration by parapraxes and lists, or by footnotes and leaps, or characterization by emergency not by careful coincidence—these devices are often considered ‘awkward,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘misfires.’ They are only tangential and divagate from nowhere. The gun does not go off. It’s hard to get works like these published, though writers as influential as Rabelais and Sterne prod those of us who prefer these funhouse flops.

But for me, a powerful reason to write ‘postmodern novels’ (as some people damn these cursed constructions) is precisely because their construction matches my sense of history. Philippine history is the overt result of various others shaping its sense of self. The so-called postmodern voice (for lack of a better word), which refracts, realigns, and repositions texts and viewpoints from multiple angles, ruptured plots, confused tongues, and an almost heedless anachronistic sense of history, is a potent way to fathom and portray the unfinished ‘reality’ of such a nation.

Here is an example: the notion of the Philippines, in a sense, was produced by a novel. The national hero Jose Rizal’s first work, called Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), inspired the mass movement that launched revolution against Spain. That novel was written in Spanish. At this point in history, we do not read that language. Because we were occupied by America by 1898 and officially ruled by it until 1946, we’ve read in English (at least I have) and speak at least 50 different other languages. I grew up with three languages: Waray, Tagalog, and English. I was required to study a fourth, Spanish: but my learning of it was much removed from actual practice. Thus, we must read in translation the novel that begot us. In a further spin, many of us read that novel in another colonizer’s tongue (as for me, I first read it in Tagalog: quite illuminating for a Waray).

The essence of a country like the Philippines is that it seems to exist in translation—a series of textual mediations must be unraveled in order to reveal who or what it is. More precisely: it exists in the suspension of its myriad translations—it is alive in the void of its borrowed speeches. The New Critical-realist mode cannot hold that overflowing reflexivity—the dictates of its devices are too prissy and neat. On the other hand, the postmodern or ‘metafictive’ narration makes the problem of this translated self both its subject and its form: it unfolds a plot of reflexivity, introspection and narrative disjunction, weighted and measured in texts though alienated by words. These excerpts from the novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, attempt to conjure this dizzy history. In the end it must be that all literary forms are forms of ‘realism.’ Or maybe we just infect all things with words. Short story or novel, writers must choose with care which poison is most ‘real’ for the unnatural purposes we have in mind.

 

Two American writers of the Filipino-American war period

There are two interesting Americans of the period who wrote about life in the archipelago. One style of writing was to do captive narratives—I imagine those were popular among Americans, the way stereograph pictures of dead Filipino bodies were mass entertainment. Similar to these captive-memoirs would have been narratives of army officers, etc. Those seem to be well published. Of course, there were the travel narratives, many of them by women, Thomasite teachers and such. The other writer I am thinking of is a Conrad-esque one—his work was like a hybrid of Orwell’s Burmese Days and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

James Marie Hopper was an aspiring literary stylist who wrote in the vein of Joseph Conrad (Hopper seems to have been a fan of Conrad, as a letter from Conrad shows, and as the contemporaneous book reviews acknowledge). Some of the stories in Caybigan were published by the literary magazine McClure’s; he was most famous for his reports on the SF earthquake, in Harper’s—he made money enough on it to buy a home in Carmel (now Carmel-by-the-Sea), CA. He was said to have published 300 stories in his lifetime. I looked up whether or not a Filipino scholar had done any research on Hopper; could not find any references. I found him because I was looking for evidence of what seems to be an apocryphal story about Jack London—that in his time as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner during the Russo-Japanese war, he passed by Manila and thus owned or stole a Katipunan flag. Anyway, found no source for that rumor, but I found the work of Jack London’s friend James Marie Hopper instead. Hopper, in the Google book of Jack London’s letters, is said to have been known in the literary world as “the Kipling of the Philippines”—an intriguing, if not necessarily complimentary, epithet.

The other writer is Albert Sonnichsen, a former prisoner of war who wrote a 12 Years a Slave-type narrative, called Ten Months a Captive Among Filipinos. Mark Twain wrote Sonnichsen a very nice letter approving of his book: the memoir was, in fact, an evenhanded narration, in some places poignant, of incidents of war. Most powerful to me is his anecdote of a grieving Filipino mother offering food to the prisoner of war Sonnichsen, asking him whether gringos treated their prisoners well. It turns out the old woman’s son was a katipunero captured by US forces—a haunting mirroring in that scene. I saw Sonnichsen’s papers, including that nice autographed letter from Twain, in the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division when I was doing research on my never-ending novel William McKinley’s World. Sonnichsen was a Danish American captured by Aguinaldo’s army in Malolos; he was sailor who left his ship to take pictures of the outbreak of war, then the Katipunan captured him when he got off a train (or something Reds-like like that). He went all around Bulacan then Northern Luzon as a POW of the Katipunan, becoming friends with one of his captors Juan Villamor, an Ilocano general under Aguinaldo (a hero also mentioned extensively in Scott’s Ilocano Responses to American Aggression). The American senators who cross-examined Taft about Balangiga in 1902 in Affairs of the Philippine Islands were very familiar with Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir (it was because of Sonnichsen’s book that the senators insisted to Taft on their belief that Aguinaldo himself killed Luna; Taft dissuaded them). Ten Months a Captive is available online here.

But while Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir was well-reviewed and somewhat famous, James Marie Hopper is the literary writer. He came to the Philippines in 1901 to be a teacher; he was well-known at Cal Berkeley as a football player; he grew up in Oakland (incidentally so did Sonnichsen). His father was an Irish Fenian refugee in Paris, his mother was a Parisian who took her twin sons across the seas to California (don’t know what happened to Fenian dad). Hopper was friends with Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, etc. Hopper’s book of Conradesque short stories, Caybigan, was published in 1906; including its title’s punning use of Tagalism, caybigan, for the saccharine, reflexive term Pinoys used both for themselves as colonized and Americans as colonizer—that is, amigo—I think his book Caybigan is a lot more interesting than John Sayles’s Amigo.

Being something of a modernist, Hopper drew portraits of his fellow Americans that drip with what could pass as anti-imperial critique, in that Conrad way that is both simpatico and repulsive: racist and well-meaning (it seems). I like especially Hopper’s stories of colonist-trauma—the pathetic US soldier in Iloilo from the American South whom Hopper describes with the relish Conrad gave to the nutty Russian in the Congo or the “pilgrims” in Heart of Darkness, Hopper’s beast-like Southerner in his tattered camisa climbing up banana trees in the dark of night in order to eat (the denouement is tragic, an inverse of the balikbayan-OFW tale, quite fascinating); or the farcical life of a maestro (called Thomasites in history books but portrayed with gentle but clear-eyed self-critique in Hopper, who was, of course, a maestro himself)—funny Mark-Twainish scenes of the maestro desperately catching the truant Isidro who refuses his ‘civilization.’ And so on. Hopper liberally uses Tagalog words—baguio, for typhoon, bata, tao—but also racist words like pickaninny and brownie—all in an interesting, arch voice that I cannot quite condemn or condone, so I laugh. The racism, of course, makes the entire book a bit of a travesty, but it is an instructive read. Caybigan is also available online, here.

Those two, Sonnichsen and Hopper, give one a sense of the temper and tone of some of the literary writing about the Philippines at the onset of occupation, during a global period that was, in fact, full of great human radical movement—anarchism everywhere, factory occupations in Italy, communists in Hollywood, etc. They don’t tell us why books of that sort did not have a lasting hold on American letters. Basic American education also does not include Mark Twain as anti-imperialist, for instance, or MLK as socialist. High school students always read Gatsby but never Sinclair Lewis. And so on. The lack of American canonical literary writing on the American occupation of the Philippines does tell us that American letters is highly ideological, and rightwingish: the canon is made by a bunch of twits whose main job is to take wedgies out of their asses; canons aren’t about genuine thought but about lasting reaction. Sonnichsen actually became a freedom fighter in Montenegro, and then a leader of the cooperative movement in Connecticut (whatever that is). Hopper became a World War 1 war correspondent. The 2 were by no means great writers, but they were two of the better ones, and they were more interesting voices than the much-published, stupid “historians,” like money-grubbing, gold-mine-owning, artifact-grabbing Dean Worcester. Or Forbes and Blount.

My sense is that those 2, Sonnichsen and Hopper, were exceptions, ‘better’ Americans than the usual kano in the Philippines. No wonder a writer born of erudite parents of the Spanish period, like Nick Joaquin, had disdain for the era he grew up in, the prewar years of the American occupation (at least I see that in his stories; don’t know much about his personal views); his country’s occupiers were louts, embezzlers, midget minds out to make a buck. Not to mention very tiresome racists. McCoy captures those Americans, with fine portraits of Rough Rider Leonard Wood’s stock-market-swindler son—a son of a governor-general (favorite friend of TR) who used his influence to fleece investors in Manila and New York, etc—and other filthy characters (not excepting the annoying Filipinos, like Quezon), in his essential book Policing America’s Empire (not available online, but available at Ateneo de Manila bookstore).

Both Sonnichsen and Hopper, coincidentally, were sons of immigrant Americans (one man’s father was from Denmark, the other man’s family emigrated from France) who grew up in California. They were not the Midwestern Indian-war veterans or Southern farm goonies who made up most of the U.S. volunteer soldiers. Hopper, I imagine, was also quite different from the pious, semi-literate Christians from Ohio or Arkansas who made up the Thomasites. In general, most of the Americans who came to the country were probably like swamp people in Flannery O’Connor or Faulkner (Hopper tells a story of one of them in the opening tale of his book Caybigan). At least, that is the very unkind interpretation I make from the documents of the Filipino-American war period, which mostly come from US Army files or government documents—such texts not being beacons of enlightenment.

Professor Lector at the Faculty Center

I learned this week the UP Faculty Center burned down. I spent formative years there. My first novel, Bibliolepsy, was born there. I went to UP because I was told Franz Arcellana taught at Diliman. I never took his short story class, but I used to give Franz drafts of my work (they were all terrible—unbearable pieces of impossible malaise), and we’d talk about Dostoyevski (Franz talking about the fly buzzing about the the cold body of Nastasia Philipovna in The Idiot is somehow frozen in my memory) and Virginia Woolf and Kafka and so on. I liked best his stories of his friendship with Estrella Alfon, his Cebuano cohort in madcap literary stuff. Franz is not at all Lionel Lector in Bibliolepsy, but in Bibliolepsy, Lionel Lector is the only writer who escapes whole from the narrator’s crazy pen. I recognized once when I was reading Bibliolepsy to a crowd that the scene in Chapter 7: Third Poetry Reading is my own private homage to my conversations with Franz (you don’t think of these things when you are writing), and now I see it entombs my days at the FC.

Note: I was thinking of where Franz’s papers were: it turns out they were at the FC. This is very painful. May Jurilla blogs on the English Department: “The Department of English and Comparative Literature (DECL) suffered a particularly gut-wrenching loss: In February this year, the family of the late Francisco Arcellana, National Artist for Literature, donated his library to the department. It comprised over a thousand books, the most special ones marked with annotations in his hand and inscribed by their authors for him, along with rare first editions of Philippine literary works. Some of my colleagues and I were in the process of sorting through the collection. It was tedious and literally dirty work, but it came with the privilege of catching a glimpse of the life of the mind of a brilliant man who was a pillar of Philippine arts and letters and who was once one of us, a member of the DECL faculty.”

from Bibliolepsy, a novel

‘The door of the cafeteria, which was housed in the Faculty Center, opened. It had a slow way of moving, this door—a bit like the careful, rheumatic movements of many of the people who frequented the place: old or aging professors with different measures of gall drained in them. The door opened but did not close. Instead, a head seemed to hold it ajar. It peeked through the door and looked into the room. Not looking, you’d say, but glaring, or almost as if startled into our presence—the flies on the food, the aluminum dullness of the counters, the grime on the cracked plywood walls, colored flesh now, withered to the hue of our questioning faces as we looked at him, he who seemed surprised by his own arrival.

His head, when seen this way, preening back as though ready to be sliced by the door, was all eyes—a wide gray reckoning of his place and time. …

Professor Lionel Lector—though I don’t recall my naïveté anything to be proud of—was the reason I had decided to go to university at all, and this university in particular.

He was famous for one poem, a song of love and faith and dying, a common enough tale for any song, and a rare occurrence in being written so simply, powerfully and completely, easy to memorize and quick to move the one who reads. It was a poem embedded in our national memory now, published as it is in grade-school texts, definitive anthologies, commemorative books, and even periodically in the Philippine Journal of Education (as though it were a tic in this august body’s neck). Even babies, it is said, were affected by this poem. They cried at the right parts. Or so Prospero had said to me. I would cry, turning my head into my sheets, when my father recited the penultimate line of grief.

“I thought he was dead,” said burly but unsaintly Bernard.

“He should be,” said Tina. “It’s better than appearing mad like that. He gives me the creeps in the hallway, I think his dental fixtures will one day pop out. What’s he always chewing on in his mouth—cotton balls?”

“When you are old and gray, Tina,” I said, “I hope someone gives you a mirror and knocks it into your gums. I’d like to do that to you right now.”

“Hey man,” said Bernard, “chill out. It’s cool, Prims: everybody knows we worship the Prof.”

“He only wrote one poem after all,” said Tina.

—-

You know one learns a lot from one event, sometimes from even the most innocuous ones. Spending a day talking frivolously with a group of friends, you feel upon walking away from the table a generous repulsion in your chest, like a cotton wad of gross but natural excretions. You feel that you’ve wasted time, it will not come back, and worse still, you wasted it posturing, peacocking your image, or cheaply frittering away your passion upon indifferent people—the usual feelings of self-loathing that come upon us in fitful times. And you think: Why do I even allow myself to speak?

It was like this that afternoon, as I walked out of the Faculty Center to my new apartment in Area Six. I had moved all my books to the university area, and this trooping over from Adriatico to Diliman to Adriatico took a toll on my nerves. The daily diesel fumes were deadly. And as I passed by a room where people normally had classes, because of the shortage of space in the college, I saw again the old poet, Professor Lector, by a door.

His back looked like the upright back of an amphibian, leaning in.

“I like to look at them.” He turned to me.

I was startled by his address.

His voice was loud, from the habit of years of teaching, which unduly modulates speech to this high treble.

He motioned me to move closer.

“Look at them,” he was whispering. “It’s my class.”

“Then why aren’t you teaching it, sir?” I asked.

“I am,” he whispered, nodding his head. “They just don’t know it.”

“What are you teaching them, sir?” I asked.

“It’s just this.” He motioned me even closer to him, so that he said loudly in my ear: “It’s that the author is dead. He is no longer in our midst.”

Through circumstances and an almost strange delicacy, I had never enrolled in his class. I call it delicacy, a reader’s weird sense of abomination. Later as I got more comfortable being around these hallways, the mere sight of the poet in the building produced in me a kind of pain.

It was not just that he was old and intermittently lucid and altered from what he may have promised to be when he wrote the poem. It was not only the mental readjustments one had to make when one saw him (continual as those adjustments were), from one’s continuing historical image of him to his continuing, or may I say deconstructing, presence. The historical image, of course, receded as the present man daily peered through doors, gnashing his teeth as though chewing lifelong sheaves of paper.

It was a pain of all of these but not quite—not simply an everyman’s sorrow over the passing of time, which happens to all of us, even though we are not poets.

I could not quite put my finger to it, at least not at that moment.

I had to return to the building for a class that afternoon, and I saw him again in greater shadow: the way light fell upon the day. He was in a dark hallway a bit ahead of me.

“And how did the class take it, Professor?” I asked.

“Ah, hello, hello,” he said jovially, seeing but not placing me. He spoke with that jocular twang of his, peculiar to him, although they say he picked it up from his student days in the American Midwest, in Iowa with Paul Engle or Kalamazoo, amid the scent of Bienvenido Santos’s apples.

Professor Lector’s speech was a healthy rounding of vowels, an amused adoption of a foreign language.

“Take what, my dear?”

He stopped in his tracks to wait for me near the glass entrance midway through the hall.

Light was better there.

“How did they take the fact of the death of the author?” I asked.

He put out his hands in that gesture of doubt, moving his palms up and down. “So, so,” he said, shaking his head conspiratorially. “It’ll take them a while to get over it.”

“How long did it take you?”

I regretted that I had spoken.

Because there was this tragedy about which people whispered. How Professor Lector had stopped writing at an age too young for everyone’s wishes.

It was as much a tragedy, for some folk, as it was a mystery.

People thought they saw some signs of its cause. Knowingly they point out how after the writing of his seminal poem, Professor Lector had condemned it. He condemned the anthologizing, the commentating and the repeated publications in Philippine journals. All of this is true. He liked the poem, he had said in an interview, but he liked others better. He pointed to his masterpiece, which the world ignored. He wrote other poems, but we continued to memorize the same lyrical relic. He grew old, but people still confronted him with his boyhood poem.

And then he had confronted them with silence. He showed them the speechlessness of his days. And it became a mystery to everyone that he spoke nothing (for when a poet publishes nothing new, he may as well be mute); when in fact, say some clever souls, when he had spoken before, readers had drowned out his words by their thoughtless applause.

That was one theory. That readers, by their early, too partial pleasure, had killed Professor Lector. The public had made him sit on his laurels, squashing them.

It’s a fanciful theory.

There are others.

When I saw him in the hallways, it would sometimes seem as if his speechlessness were a long bout of self-revulsion, a cradling of an unspent loathing—”Why do I even allow myself to speak?”

But I recognized my own pale miseries in that.

He looked at me with those wide-open, humorous eyes and answered my question, which I had regretted, with that booming trill to his speech: “How long did it take me? Most of my life, my dear, most of my life. I had to teach it to myself.”

I moved on with him. We had reached his office.

“Yes,” he said, frisking himself for his keys, “the author annihilates himself.”

“Literally or symbolically?”

“Eternally and daily,” he grinned. “That’s how it should be. But mind you,” he said, pointing a finger at me, “I’m not revealing any of my secrets.”

He tinkered with his door’s lock, as if it were difficult, but it was easily opened.

He gestured that I take a seat.

I did.

His office held the clutter of a life dwelt in the mind—books, scattered paper, college bluebooks, greeting cards from students illustrated with Virginia Woolf in facsimile smile. I suppose I sought what I hoped to find: a sign of writing in progress, his secret life that would astound skeptics and pierce the mystery once and for all.

A typewriter lay on a side table, a bulky, dusty Remington. On a sheet on his desk I quickly noted the type he favored, the merry, wide font of Pica.

“A letter to a student,” he said to me. “They write me from all over, you know.”

“You write them back,” I said.

“Everyone. When I can, you see, when I can.” He gestured to all the papers on his desk, chairs, settee and cabinets, and upon a host of other papers and books. “They like to write to me. That’s my son,” he pointed to a picture. “He lives in Belgium, in Liege. Where they have these town fairs, you know—market days where they only sell guns and bullets. Can you believe it? My son lives in the world’s marketplace for guns. He’s a travel agent. And that’s my grandchild. She plays the piano, but more spectacular than that—she drives a car. Mine! At the age of sixteen! And that’s my wife.”

I saw a picture of a lady in sepia. I saw calendars given by colleagues. I saw pens and penknives. I saw coffee spoons and cheery, literary mugs. But apart from the space held by the typewriter, cramped in the corner by a cabinet of books and a settee with a flowered footstool, shouldered by a calendar of wit, beginning with Oscar Wilde and downhill from there, draped with bluebooks on its keys, I failed to see his space for writing.

As if mysteries might be so easily unravelled.

And what I saw clearly was my bungling, sorry vulgarity.

Professor Lector had seated himself before me.

“Now,” he said, “why are you so interested in the death of the author?”

I knew somehow he had found me out—a sneaky reader with misplaced concern. My intentions were more folly than malice, of course. I had no excuse for my spying and indecent interest but my lack of understanding.

For here was a writer whole in his world—his letters and his sons and the books he read and spoke about; a man booming with amusement in his voice, with a healthy attachment to his world—always peering in through doors, taking us all in with bright, living eyes, with the penetrating, permeating voice of a midsummer’s turtle.

I may have caged him in his poet’s cell: I had given him only a strip of paper, long as a poem, on which to stalk and speak about things. But he had jumped out of it—he had bidden himself away from the reader.

And even when and if he did take the bluebooks off the Remington and dusted the keys to type his words in merry, fat Pica—did he have to wave the matter to the world, to the rampaging bull of readers that snorts in small circles, inhuman and impatient to see his unlifted, furled and secret cape?’

Finished a draft, but the wrong one. The Unintended

is done. At least its first full draft. (I ended up finishing the wrong novel, not William McKinley’s World. Oh well. Still working on that.) A place holder website on some matters that come up in the novel right here. Yep, it includes Elvis. And Muhammad Ali. And Gus, the polar bear of Central Park zoo. And the stories of six women moved by loss. And, of course, Balangiga, which I know too much about. Finishing a novel is like shedding research notes, fact after fact, coming off like scabs.

http://ginaapostol.wix.com/praxino#!articles-of-war-articles-of-interest/c1wiq

 

A Lecture on the Filipino-American War. At Cornell University in Fall 2015

Thanks to Arnika Fuhrmann, the Southeast Asia Studies Department, and the University Lecture Committee at Cornell University for nominating me to do a University Lecture this fall. I’ll be talking about my novel in progress, William McKinley’s World, and my research on the Filipino-American War.

The link to the talk is here.

A footnote to this note: Benedict Anderson, to whom so many of us are indebted, not only for his books, Imagined Communities, Under Three Flags, and others, but for his generosity (both as a thinker and as a man), introduced my talk. I was so hugely honored. It was the first and only time I met him. He died a few weeks later, in Indonesia. I publish here photos with Ben at dinner. Requiescat.

ben anderson at dinner

with ben anderson

 

I was just sent the PEN American Award Ceremonies 2013 full video, as this year’s awards are coming up.

PEN awards 2013

My speech above is at 32:26. Click on the picture for the video.

The emcee was Andy Borowitz. He was fun. Clicking on the second picture links to a highlights video newly produced by PEN America. Mark Ruffalo introduced the playwright of the year, Larry Kramer. I was recovering from breast cancer surgery. What a strange year. But to see the events in retrospect is perhaps stranger.