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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.