We turn this week from high and ghastly matters that is politics to high and ghostly matters that is literature. If we are not writers, we can very well be readers; we need literature from which we learn ethics. With literature, too, we will understand ourselves better so we can live with ourselves.
How does a story, a novel, begin and when should it end? These are crucial problems for writers. Readers want beginnings that will grip them and endings that are neat, conclusive, and satisfying.
As a teenager starting to write stories, I was very fascinated with so-called O’Henry endings. Having read such classics like "The Gift of the Magi" and Maupassant's "The Necklace," I tried to plot out stories with similar surprise endings. All of them were rejected by the pre-war Free Press, The Sunday Tribune Magazine, and The Graphic. Plotting them required so much mental effort I eventually had to stop writing that kind of fiction and ended my stories where they should logically end.
I also had considered Hemingway’s advice never to empty the well, and so the endings of my novels and short stories were sometimes inconclusive. I wanted my readers, given all the data, to make their own conclusions. This is the way my novel, Ermita, ends.
A good read starts with tension. In detective or spy novels, the reader reads on because he wants to know how the crime is solved or how the mission is fulfilled, and how the detective or spy triumphs. This can be reversed. The end becomes the beginning and the tension lies in answering the question why. Tony Samson is dead in the beginning of The Pretenders, and why he killed himself is the story.
SOMETIMES I LEAVE REALITY to venture into the realm of fantasy; fiction anyway is imagination and therefore unreal in the sense that although the events and characters may look like life creations, they are not. I see to it, as does every careful writer, that these so-called fantastic events are believable enough to fit into the logic of narrative.
My last two novels, Sherds and The Feet of Juan Bacnang, are examples of fantasies woven into the narrative. In writing these novels, I must admit that in Sherds, I was influenced very much by that old Greek myth, Pygmalion. In The Feet of Juan Bacnang, however, it was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and Albert Camus’s The Plague that influenced me.
As a writer I am not satisfied with the endings of some of the famous works of fiction. If I had my way, I would change the endings of several stories and novels that have gained world popularity.
Rizal's novels, for instance, are required reading in our schools. I do not like the way he ended his second novel, El Filibusterismo, which is a sequel to his first, Noli Me Tangere. The novel is an exposition of Spanish abuses in the last days of the Spanish regime in the country. To hasten the revolution, conspirators brought a bomb to a house, to be exploded at a meeting of the country's elite. The bomb is thrown into the sea instead. I would have had the bomb go off and then reap the conclusion as the fitting end of the novel and the beginning of a new one.
The ending of Don Quixote dela Mancha is undramatic. The sick, old man is dying and he apologizes to his squire, Sancho Panza, for having led him astray with his fantasies. And so he dies and the story dies with him. I would have ended it differently. I would have Don Quixote go to Cadiz, the seaport in Andalucia, where those tiny ships sailed to the New World. Sancho Panza remembers taking him to the quay and it is there where the old knight disappears. Then the story could continue from there -- Don Quixote goes to the New World perhaps, where he continues his crusade for righteousness.
AND NOW, THE BOOK OF JOB, in the Old Testament. In this book, God punishes Job and makes his life miserable. Job loses so many of the things that he had earned through hard work, and all his sons and daughters, all these to test his faith. In the end, when God was satisfied with Job's loyalty, He gives back all that Job had lost. In my version of the ending, Job loses everything and suffers immeasurably, yet he endures and does not lose his faith. With this ending, Job’s story becomes more heroic, more telling in its message and faith.
Fairy tales usually end with “and they lived happily ever after.” This is what we expect and want, endings where all the loose ends are tied together. But this is not what happens in real life, where endings are never really certain unless a person commits suicide.
Would the world be happier, better, and society more compassionate if from the very beginning of our existence we are guided by the knowledge that we won't bring anything to the grave? When Alexander the Great died, his hands were both exposed to show that he was leaving the world as he had entered it, empty-handed.
And this world itself, how will it end? “Not with a bang but a whimper?”
All through the grim Marcos years, I wished I would live to see how the dictatorship would end. I did see that the end was coming when I witnessed the millions that followed the coffin of Ninoy to the cemetery. My expectations became more pronounced with the massive demonstrations against Marcos. Then EDSA I -- it was a complete surprise. I recall that late afternoon when news reached us at EDSA that Marcos had fled. Such joy swept through the crowd. Many wept and strangers embraced one another -- a celebration that will never be repeated.
And what about the Duterte regime? How will this story end?
First published in the Philippine Star, December 8, 2018. https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2018/12/08/1875125/beginnings-and-alternative-endings
Homage to Justice Antonio Carpio
Much as I abhor communism, I've always admired Mao Zedong for having united China and for establishing the Communist Party, the major institution that drove China’s modernization. The first and only time I was in China was in 1979, after Mao's tragic cultural revolution had already ended. I asked the same question to all the cadres I met: If you had your way, where would you work? Everyone said, wherever the Party will send me. Until Shanghai, when, finally alone with me, a man took back his stock answer and said, "In the kitchen because there, I will never be hungry."
Before 1949, with a population of half a billion, China had famine every year. Now, with nearly a billion-and-a-half people, hunger no longer afflicts the country. This is Mao's magnificent achievement. More than this, with their own genius and brawn, China is now a world power and, as such, it must compulsively expand, seek raw materials, and spread its influence wherever and whenever it can. Now, it has even grabbed portions of our territory in the West Philippine Sea, which it should not have done to a neighbor that is defenseless and poor.
This is the foremost challenge to our country today. Thank God, we have a patriot who sees this -- Justice Antonio Carpio. He warns that at any time in the future, China's People's Liberation Army might be right at our front door. China justifies its territorial and maritime grab as a historic right. While false, the claim is embedded as a national mantra in every child from grade school onwards.
Justice Carpio gathered a vast array of ancient maps -- including ancient Chinese maps -- and even official documents of China, and convinced those wise men in the Hague to decide in our favor. The Spratlys are central to our survival. Much of the fish caught in our waters spawn in the Spratlys. The oil, gas and mineral reserve, estimated to be vast, have yet to be measured. However, we do not have the power to enforce our rights to these resources.
WHAT ARE WE TO DO? We are small and weak, but we have a voice and the capacity to be heard globally. Justice Carpio suggests that we must help make ASEAN formidable and united to counter China's claims. We are not the only complainants; so are ASEAN members Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia as well.
We must urge other countries to understand the implications of China's disregard for international law and of its aggression in the South China Sea. What for instance if India claims possession of the Indian ocean? Or if Italy as the heir of the Roman Empire claims the Mediterranean which that empire dominated? It is important for the world to recognize that the West Philippine Sea is open to international navigation.
Even the smallest and weakest animals are capable of defending themselves. The porcupine has its quills and the skunk its awful smell. As I have said before, we should have built a fleet of patrol boats to defend our territory. We must now hasten to build that capability, taking a cue from the Vietnamese who have, through the centuries, fought Chinese recalcitrance.
To the Chinese, saving “face” is almost everything; it is the very core of their foreign policy. We can dent that face. We have thousands of overseas workers in the world’s capitals. We can harness them to demonstrate in front of Chinese consulates and embassies in furtherance of our national interest.
JUSTICE CARPIO URGES US to educate our own people, to be united and steadfast in the face of Chinese incursion on our sovereignty. This government has collaborated shamelessly, willingly, with China. It should be rejected in the next election. The Duterte aberration is just a tiny wrinkle in our history and it will fade. The Philippines will endure.
As much as we would like to be free from strangling American influence, what China is doing is forcing us to seek even more close ties with the United States, knowing that it is the only power that can challenge China's hegemony. This is perhaps inevitable. Filipinos trust the United States. As recent surveys have shown, Filipinos do not trust China.
For all its bellicose posturing and armed might, China does not really want war. Steeped in Sun Tzu's precepts on war, it wants victory on its own terms with an aggressive aid program and slow, piecemeal territorial expansion. Its occupation of Panatag Shoal off the coast of Zambales is an example. We should have sent our Navy and Armed Forces there at the very start, come what may.
But let us not look at China as the implacable enemy that cannot be appeased. We must broaden and deepen our dialogue with the Chinese and hope for China to become a China that is respected not feared. There is much in the Chinese Confucian tradition to support this expectation. The Confucian precepts of hierarchy and harmony should enable the Chinese leadership to look at countries like ours not as meek tributaries of an empire but as minor partners in the building of a harmonious world.
This nation owes Justice Carpio enduring gratitude. Almost single-handedly, with courage and a magnificent intellect, he has built a formidable bastion for this nation's sovereignty which China's mendacious fiction cannot destroy.
In speaking as he does, Justice Antonio Carpio is the shining, unswerving conscience of the Filipino people. By his singular example, he has exposed the cowardice and hypocrisy of our highest elected officials who have not protected or defended our sovereignty. May his patriotism motivate all public servants who feel helpless in the face of the inaction and apathy of our leaders, and give life and direction to the idealism of the new generation of Filipinos who are eager to serve this nation.
First published in The Philippine Star, December 1, 2018
Ambeth Ocampo asked me the other day why I am still always angry. Another old friend asked me, again, when I would write a novel with a sunshiny ending. I get asked these questions often, and I look back and recall what the late Anding Roces said, that we both would leave a country in far worse shape than when we were young.
When I was thirty, I had already published three novels, novels that I built with short stories written when I was still in my teens. One of these novels is The Pretenders. One of the main characters in it is an entrepreneur who sets up a steel mill. That early on, I already knew that the production of steel was the beginning of industrialization; that is the story of all industrialized countries.
In the 1950s, two naval officers, Commander Ramon Alcaraz and Captain Carlos Albert, and I went to Sandakan in North Borneo. We cruised first around the Sulu Sea, to the Turtle Islands, Tawi-Tawi, and then Balabac in the southern tip of Palawan on a hand-me-down patrol boat from the U.S. Navy. We discussed then the possibility of our having a maritime industry, that we would build ships in the finest maritime tradition. After all, Filipinos built the galleons, the best ships ever built. Their hulls of solid molave withstood the canon of British buccaneer ships.
I remember having a talk with then President Elpidio Quirino, who envisioned a maritime industry. I also discussed this with Mike Magsaysay of the Magsaysay Shipping Company and Carlos Fernandez of Compania Maritima. We were not going to build battleships or aircraft carriers, just merchant ships and a fleet of patrol boats that could not be out-raced by the Moro kumpits in Sulu.
We needed, aside from a steel industry, metallurgists and ship designers.Then, in the 1960s, shortly after the Korean War, South Korea started a shipping industry from scratch. Today, they are the world's biggest builder of ships. If we had started building those patrol boats in the 1950s we perhaps would be able to defend our sovereignty today, the sovereignty that China has mocked.
In the 1950s, as a staff member of the old Manila Times, I covered the Kamlon campaign in Sulu. Hajji Kamlon, with some hundred Tausug warriors, had defied the government. He brought the smoldering Moro problem to the surface. The government sent battalion combat teams and navy boats to blockade Sulu. They failed; the solution was not military. A negotiated settlement ended that uprising, and an incompetent government continued its military response. The problem worsened, culminating in the recent Marawi siege.
OUR MORO PROBLEM has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and billions of pesos, all of which could have been avoided had we looked at the root of the problem and given our Moros the active participation in the development of their own region. This is the solution not just for the Moros but for all Filipinos, particularly our ethnic minorities in the depressed regions.
In the month that I was in Jolo, I visited Maimbung and met with Sultan Ismail Jamalul Kiram and Princess Tarhata Kiram. Both told me that Sabah-North Borneo was ours for it was leased by the Sultan of Sulu to the British North Borneo Company. I remember that in the early fifties, the British governors asked our government to send Filipinos to settle there, and that much earlier, Rizal had suggested the same. But instead we lost Borneo to Malaysia.
I knew personally some of the communist leaders who led the Hukbalahap uprising in 1949. The origins of their grievances go back deep into our past, when the ownership of land was not available to the farmers who tilled the land itself. The agrarian problem too could have been resolved earlier on, by a government responsive to the aspirations of the peasantry.
Then Marcos came. He decimated a whole generation of leaders and wasted that generation, too, although he had gathered around him some of our very best technocrats. He could have modernized this country as the leaders of Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan modernized theirs. Like him, they were autocrats. And the leaders who succeeded Marcos? What was wrong with them, and what is so wrong with us?
Many of our past problems were imposed upon us by colonization. But we are no longer oppressed by a foreign power; we are colonized by our own elites, by our own leaders and politicians. I see all these past opportunities they had failed to grasp and I see how we ourselves are to blame for enabling them to belittle and abuse positions of power that are meant for those committed to service of people and nation. We are truly our own worst enemy.
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of vision or of expertise to change this country, to make it truly just and sovereign. But we must all transcend ourselves, our petty personal ambitions, and think of the larger community, the nation to which all of us belong.
So I am asked why am I angry? Why are my stories sad?
I am angry because I have seen us squander all our opportunities. Anger can keep us alive for if we are not angry, it means we are dead and can no longer respond to the challenges that portend to wipe out this unhappy country.
Nationalists of the post-Marcos era like Oscar Orbos say that we are waking up, that there’s a new consciousness that now pervades the country and our people — our young, the Catholic Church. Is the long night about to end?
And what about that novel with a sunshiny ending? I am working on one, its title is Esperanza, and I struggle to be hopeful.
First published in The Philippine Star, November 24, 2018
In June 1960, Raul Manglapus and I were invited to a cultural conference in West Berlin. There, we met Willy Brandt, the charismatic mayor of the city, and some of his colleagues in the Christian Social Democratic Party. Communism was on the rise in Western Europe and the Christian Democrats had taken on some of the populist programs of the Communist Party to defang it.
On our return to Manila, Raul decided to form a similar party. He asked the Hukbalahap leader, Luis Taruc, and I to construct the party's ideological platform, a job I enthusiastically accepted although I had objected to the word "Christian." In my view, it was important for the party to embrace all Filipinos, regardless of their religion.
At the time I was already familiar with the Iglesia Ni Kristo. In 1943, when I was working as a peon in Floridablanca, Pampanga, one of my co-workers was an Iglesia convert, and he often took me to a house in the town where the Iglesia services were held.
Then, in the early 1950s, when I was a journalist at the Manila Times, I had a long interview with Iglesia founder Felix Manalo at his first big church in San Juan. He was in the beginning very reticent but I was able to thaw his reserve and he eventually opened up. There were many aspects of that interview that I didn’t appreciate, among them his reason for declaring the world would end in the 20th century and only the Iglesia members would be saved.
I did see, however, a lot of positive programs in the Iglesia, among them the building of a real community among its members to encourage helping one another in times of need. I also studied the dynamics that held the Iglesia together. Members paid their dues, and their leaders came from within their ranks. In time, however, cracks in the Iglesia structure appeared, brought about by overwhelming success and power.
Raul’s new political party would have adopted some of the Iglesia’s structure. We were going to identify the most depressed areas in the country and start from there, recruiting the cadres from the brightest in these areas. For the members to have a stake in the party, there would be membership fees. I told Raul that the very poor don’t have pesos, but they have centavos.
The party would be active the entire year and not during the campaign season only. Whatever money the party collected would be used for the party itself. The first four years would focus on nationwide organization; party members could not run for any public office and detract from this focus. On the fifth year, the party would field candidates for local positions only. And, perhaps, after six years, when the organization had solidified, it would field candidates for national office.
But, alas, Marcos declared Martial Law. Raul went into exile in the United States, and his dream political party never really took off.
LET US RE-EXAMINE today’s political system and political parties. There was a time when our political parties were ideologically based. Independence from the United States formed the core of their ideology. However, after we became independent in 1946, that ideology disappeared and was replaced by what would become tired, old clichés, such as the upliftment of the lower classes, and opportunism.
It was only the Communist Party that had a firm ideology, but like I have said from the very beginning, both the old and the new communist parties were hobbled by objective realities. Like the big Communist Party of Italy, they did not and cannot ever win any election.
Yet a political party is a necessity not only as such but as an instrument to unite people, and through which they can express themselves and their aspirations. A political party is also a necessity as a government communication system that reaches all levels of society.
As it stands today, however, our political parties cannot attract the really purposeful and the idealistic. It has been proven time and again that winning in an election depends on a politician's personal popularity, and that our political parties are simply escalators to power and privilege. There are no nationalists in the Nacionalista Party, no liberals in the Liberal Party. And is there any fight left in Laban?
Recently, I attended a meeting of young hopefuls who wanted to establish a similar party that Raul Manglapus envisioned sixty years ago. I am doubtful it can attract followers for, by its very platform, it is not revolutionary enough. And this, precisely, is what we need today -- a truly revolutionary party whose programs embrace all classes so as to change the rotten political system and the equally rotten elite that supports it.
It is always possible, of course, for all the political parties to unite. But we have no Angela Merkel in our political horizon. And Duterte? He had started out with so much promise to bring change to this country. He has four years to get back on track, otherwise he will succeed in dividing this nation. Remember that old Roman injunction: divide et impera. Divide and rule.
First published in The Philippine Star, November 10, 2018
In the mid-1960s, Carlos Fernandez, CEO of the shipping company, Compania Maritima, invited the English historian, Arnold Toynbee, to address the Columbian Club on Taft Avenue. At the time, Toynbee's magnum opus, A Study of History, had elicited worldwide commentary. Carling and I had a long conversation with him.
Toynbee traced the beginnings, growth, and decay of nations and civilizations, the river systems that bring life to a nation, and how these nations become strong through the development of communication systems maintained by a powerful army. The character of the leaders eventually defined the people and the nation they led.
Some of Toynbee’s ideas have been confirmed, among them the possibility of a perfect society built by imperfect men. Most of all -- although I am afraid this is simplifying his main thesis -- that the response of a people and their leaders to challenges shapes history. But then, responses to significant challenges can go wrong in the process of change, and this can be life-threatening to nations in decay.
THE FAULT LINES IN OUR HISTORY were obvious early enough to our ilustrados, Rizal most of all. We have always been fragmented by ethnicities, clans, and most of all, by the social divide. So, we must now locate and define ourselves in history. There are several states a nation goes through in its development. Anarchy (not the political philosophy) destroys a people. A nation divided and polarized will soon succumb to civil war. Even when that war is concluded, the wounds will take a long time to heal or may not heal at all. And, finally, revolution or modernization can unite us the way EDSA I did.
And what state are we in right now?
I sense we are in the deep throes of anarchy, aggravated by institutions in dystopia. This condition may last very long, lulling us with a false sense of stability and permanence, blinded as we are to the opportunities for survival and rebirth. When the end finally comes and everything implodes, we may not even realize that we have lost a country. Applying the Toynbee thesis to our condition, we must recognize that the greatest challenge to us is poverty, and that we must act to build a just, sovereign and strong nation.
This year is the 150th anniversary of Japan's Meiji Restoration. Before the Tokugawa shoguns united Japan in the 16th century, Japan was fragmented, with various clans fighting one another. In the more than two centuries under the Tokugawa dynasty, Japan became stable and prosperous. Tokyo in the 17th century had a population of more than a million, rivaling such capitals as London and Paris.
Then Commodore Perry and his ships sailed to Japan and demanded that the country -- secluded from the West for 200 years -- be open to trade. Western imperialism was at their door. Japan’s response to the challenge was to create a new strategy, modernize the military and government, transfer the Emperor from Kyoto to Tokyo.
THE MEIJI RESTORATION OR REVOLUTION was masterminded by only a hundred purposeful leaders -- samurai, teachers, professionals, and merchants. They sent teachers to Europe and the United States to study Western technology, convinced that it should be backed by the Japanese spirit. For ten years, they worked at modernizing Japan during which period the modernizers were assassinated and limited wars broke out. But in the end, Japan emerged strong and coveting a co-prosperity empire. The Meiji Restoration is perhaps the best example of a revolution that was shaped not by the masses but by the elite.
The leaders who modernized America were neither revolutionaries nor proletarians. In fact, they were -- to describe them correctly -- immigrants. They were not saints. The Americans themselves called them "robber barons." They raped the land, exploited their workers. But they also built railroads, steel mills, factories, and great universities. They encouraged entrepreneurship and flung open the doors of the country to immigrants from Europe, and soon after, from Asia. It is this immigrant infusion and dynamism that powered American progress and, with it, the institutions that would make that nation endure.
The recent modernization of Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore was accomplished by middle-class leaders steeped in the Confucian tradition.
Can we modernize?
THROUGH THE YEARS, our educational system has produced thousands of professionals -- the intellectual infrastructure for modernization. We now have the technology, the expertise in business and in government. Yet many in this elite force cannot find fulfillment here.
Look around us and see these magnificent condominiums, shopping malls, casinos and resorts, all surrounded by slums. Our elites that built them have the mentality of landlords, much of it acquired from our colonizers. As landlords, all they do is wait for the harvest and the rent. How wonderful if these beautiful capitalist structures were factories. How wonderful if all those rich Filipinos who sent their money abroad would bring their money back and thus encourage the return of the thousands of Filipinos building and strengthening other countries rather than ours.
The triumph of revolution signals even more and even harder work. The conspirators and heretics who ushered that revolution must now be managers and builders of the institutions that will make the gains of that revolution endure. This will take equal dedication, which must now be backed by expertise.
The final goal of revolution and modernization is freedom, the embodiment of the deepest human aspirations. This freedom must be nurtured and shielded from apathy and neglect. It has been said that freedom lives only in the heart and if it dies there, no power on earth can ever bring it back to life.
First published in The Philippine Star, November 3, 2018
In a brief encounter with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle recently, we talked about the Church assuming a more activist moral position in banishing corruption. He had just visited Eastern Europe and noted the moral malaise there and nostalgia for the old communist regime. He wondered about this widespread moral decay. I reminded him of what Pope Francis said – greed is motivating capitalism.
In 1967, I visited Moscow as a guest of the Soviet Writers Union to attend the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. I also saw the grim capitals of Eastern Europe. Who would have thought then that the Soviet Union would ever collapse? But it did, not because America was stronger but because communism was destroyed by internal contradictions and the desire for freedom was unstoppable.
And so, capitalism triumphed, propelled by greed. It is responsible for climate change, the depredation of global resources, and strife in poor countries. Which brings us back to Marx and his searing critique of capitalism, how it should be replaced by a humane order, an appeal that is appreciated in the highest councils of the Church itself. The moral roots of Marxism lie deep in Western philosophical tradition, all the way back to Aristotle. As Marx said, philosophers have explained the world. But the point is to change it. Lenin asked how, and his own answer: Revolution, with Communist Party members as the harbingers of change.
There is a big distinction between a Marxist and a communist. A communist is a member of the Communist Party, and a Marxist is a believer in Marx. Marxism does not always espouse violence. As we have now seen, the ballot is now just as effective as the bullet in ushering social change, if we define revolution as the transfer of power from the oppressor to the oppressed.
EDSA I WAS A BLOODLESS REVOLUTION; it was an epiphany. But Cory Aquino did not understand the immensity of what had transpired and wasted the power placed in her hands to change the country. She was instead so true to her class that she turned the revolution into a restoration of the oligarchy, which then enabled the Marcos family and their cronies to return.
And who are the enemies of the Filipinos today? Spanish statesman, Salvador de Madariaga, whom I met in Berlin in 1960, said a country need not be colonized by a foreign power. It can be colonized by its own elite.
Let me be clear and precise. Our enemy is the very rich who hold almost 80 percent of the national wealth. Marx was absolutely right – the unequal distribution of wealth is one of the root causes of injustice. How did the oligarchy do this? By collaborating with the colonizers, by exploiting the political system if they are not politicians themselves, by prostituting political power, by land grabbing, smuggling, even killing. The political power that the people hold is not really theirs because the people are apathetic, incapable of critical thinking. In a larger sense, we made this bog in which we are submerged.
Revolutions are momentous cataclysms, as difficult to foresee as it is to foretell what they will bear. The Russian Revolution was followed by Stalinist terror and, earlier, the French Revolution gave rise to Napoleon who, fortunately for the French, brought glory to France. Mao’s revolution united China and created the Party, which was harnessed to modernize the country. But Mao also masterminded the Cultural Revolution, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed the Confucian moral order.
IN THE PHILIPPINES, the attempt of the pro-Chinese Communist Party to mount a revolution was hobbled from the very beginning by the Party leadership’s failure to understand what Marxists call the objective reality – in the Philippines, this was an anti-Chinese sentiment not only within the country but also in the region, and the strong pro-American sentiment of Filipinos. The terror imposed by the NPA would soon surface – the massive killings within their own ranks and the assassinations of their enemies – and, consequently, public support ebbed.
The NPA today is irrelevant; neither it nor any separatist movement can sunder this country now. Despite divisive politics and ethnicities, the country is more unified than ever and the armed forces is the most important element that is holding it together.
Yet communism will always draw converts, particularly from the young, idealistic, and educated who see no future, no hope for social justice in this country. As that old injunction states: If you are not a communist when you are twenty, you have no heart. If you are still a communist when you are thirty, you have no head. But I know of several communists who remain true to the faith although they are already in their seventies. Apostasy would be an admission that they have sacrificed for nothing, lived a life without meaning.
WE NEED REVOLUTION NOW; it is in our tradition. Its objectives are not utopian in a nation where so many eat only once a day. That revolution should abolish hunger, provide all Filipinos with shelter, health care, basic education. To mount that revolution requires conspiracy, heresy, organization, and the participation of the masa. How wonderful would it be if those millions of devotees of the Black Nazarene and the true believers of Felix Manalo and Mike Velarde were to march to Makati, Congress, and Malacañang? But how do they awaken from their stupor for, as Marx observed, religion is the opium of the masses? And as history has abundantly shown, religion also divides people.
The Filipino revolutionary should therefore focus on the elements that unite us – culture, for one, and, of course, a sincere love for and rootedness in this unhappy country. There is no time to lose. We are at the periphery of a scientific renaissance. We need to be a part of it and to do this, we must revolutionize our way of thinking and our society.
In the early 1980s, in the last years of the Marcos dictatorship, Dr. Klaus Zeller came to Manila as West Germany’s ambassador. The young diplomat’s Ph.D. dissertation was on the new nations of Africa. He had also read Rizal.
We were having a discussion on nationalism, and I observed that some nations were the creation of military leaders – Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, Garibaldi of Italy, and Bismarck of Germany. Klaus corrected me immediately. The soul of the German nation, he said, was shaped by artists – Goethe the novelist, Schiller the poet, and Beethoven, the composer.
So then, what is Greece without Homer, England without Shakespeare, Spain without Cervantes, and the Philippines without Rizal – men not with swords but with pens?
THERE ARE NO INSTANT NATIONS. Their building takes centuries and they are formed not only by geography and a society’s own culture, but also by the interaction with other cultures, and almost always, as a colonized people, by the response to colonialism.
Creative writers, deeply rooted in their native soil and its past, transform folktales and myths into literature. When Nick Joaquin uses Filipino superstitions in his short stories, and when I synthesize the Filipino reality in my novels, what we are doing is endowing our work with a distinctive Filipino patina and timbre, recognizable for its unique particularity and understood as well for its universality. We give our art an infrangible identity, an intrinsic and perhaps lasting longevity achieved not by flag waving or drum beating.
Leonor Orosa Goquingco extracted the martial movements of the Ifugao war dance and transformed it into “Ifugao Suite.” It was stirring. I watched it with the “shock of recognition” – a folk ritual dance transformed into Filipino modern dance, and destined to be a classic.
This is the challenge to all Filipino artists – how to give our art and culture a distinctive Filipino face, and with it unite a fractured nation in its quest for justice and a better life.
What empowers the artist is his rootedness in the land, his knowledge of his past, and his oneness with his own people. It is his personal striving for excellence, achievable only by hard work, passion, and the capacity for self-criticism. In fact, the artist should learn to be his own sternest critic. Critical thinking is an absolute necessity not only in cultural development but also in nation-building.
AND SO, WE LOOK AT OUR CULTURE now and realize that we have inherited the vices of our colonizers, not their virtues. I don’t think that a pristine culture exists today. Culture is never static. It is subject to so many influences. We do not have to stray too far from the attitudes that pervade our society – how everything American is appreciated, that our writers, for instance, don’t consider themselves successful until they are published in America or theater artists, too, have their eyes focused on Broadway. Much of this is also the impact of globalism. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
We have been blown off our feet. The American writer, James Fallows, put it differently, perhaps kindly. He said we have a “damaged culture.” Many Filipinos resented that label. Perhaps I was more sanguine. I said we are shallow, and this made many Filipinos angry. But look at our asinine media, our slapstick movies, our crass politics – objective truths we must confront and undo. Cultural development broadens and deepens our understanding of ourselves, our country; it enables us to think critically. With the internet, information is now available even to our very poor. We know now, for instance, that many of our leaders are rapists, corrupt, and even murderers. But we raise them to exalted pedestals, we elect them to the highest office. How do we get out of this rut?
I have been talking with young people. This is a generation so far removed from mine. The young are very adept with technology, with new gadgets, with new ways of communication, which give them instant knowledge, entertainment, and wider reach and influence. If they are in college, their immediate goal is to graduate so they can leave the Philippines for a better livelihood, to fulfill their dreams. How can we anchor them to their native land, to have pride in themselves as Filipinos and in their country?
A few of them are considering rebellion. They are eager to know what they must do. I tell them to strive for excellence and virtue, the Socratic precepts that are valid to this very day. I tell them to be engaged, to be activists for the future is theirs to fructify and reap. I tell them we were once the best in Southeast Asia but our leaders failed us, my generation failed us. They must not fail themselves. We do not deserve this government, this incompetence and decay. I tell them to know our history. Rizal, Mabini, Bonifacio, del Pilar – they were all very young. What did they achieve? They mounted the first armed resistance to western imperialism in Asia. They also established Asia’s first republic. They left us this legacy, this revolutionary tradition; more than anything they remind us that indeed, we are a talented and heroic people.
First published in The Philippine Star, October 27, 2018:
MY MOTHER, SOFIA SIONIL, was born on September 30, 1900. Her parents were Ilokano settlers in Rosales, Pangasinan. I called her Inang. When I received the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial award in 1980, she sat in the front row of the auditorium, composed, quiet, listening to my acceptance speech in English. I looked at her often as I recalled the village where she had raised me. I knew she understood all of it for her English was perfect.
She had learned English, most probably from one of the Thomasites, the name given to the American teachers who arrived in Manila on the ship Thomas in 1901 and to those that came after them during the American Occupation. My mother had finished Grade Seven, a very big achievement in those days. Once, I had American professors in the house and I introduced my mother to them. It was the first time my children heard their grandmother speak English and they all gasped in wonder and surprise.
My mother never wore Western dress, just the traditional Ilokano woven skirt, with a kimono or blouse. She went about in wooden shoes and for special occasions, she wore what we called cochos, a cloth slipper with embroidery and thick soles. I don’t see them anymore. For special occasions, too, for church, she kept in a wooden chest called lacasa a special handwoven skirt, a blouse with butterfly sleeves, a stiff panuelo to wear over her shoulders, and a gauzy, white veil. They gave my peasant mother such radiance and simple dignity that truly became her.
Unlike most Ilokano women, Mother did not chew betelnut or drink basi, or smoked cigars, which the women in the village handrolled from leaves of the tobacco plants that they grew. She did smoke those long "La Yebana" cigarettes. One time, a foreign visitor tried to light it, and witnessing this my children burst out laughing because our guest did not know the lighted end was in her mouth.
I GREW UP IN CABUGAWAN, a village at the edge of the town of Rosales in Western Pangasinan, an area settled by Ilokanos at the turn of the 18th century. It was named after the town of Cabugaw in Ilokos Sur, where my grandparents came from. Towards the south is the barrio of Cabalaoangan; the settlers there came from the town of Balaong in La Union. And farther north is Casanicolasan; the settlers came from San Nicolas in Ilokos Norte. Early in my boyhood, the Ilokano virtues of patience and industry -- anos ken gaget -- were pounded into me by relatives, by my mother most of all, who herself personified these ancient virtues.
During the planting season -- July to September -- our neighbors ate only twice a day, at ten in the morning and at four in the afternoon. But my mother saw to it that we never missed a meal; there was always rice in the bin because my mother worked hard. She was a dressmaker and I grew up with the sound of her Singer sewing machine. When she wasn't sewing or making rice cakes, she was crocheting -- everywhere in our house were the doilies she crocheted. I woke up very early in the mornings to help grate green papayas for ukoy. Still half asleep on the grindstone, I also ground the glutinous rice soaked in water that she used to make the kakanin she sold at the Sunday market. When she discovered how much I loved reading, she went around to the houses of the town officials and the doctors, lawyers, and teachers, and borrowed books for me.
I made my own toys -- the bamboo canon for Christmas and New Year, tops, a slingshot. Whenever I went for long walks, I always carried an alat, a kind of bamboo basket tied to my waist. By the time I reached home, it was almost always filled with vegetables I had filched from some field, or mudfish if I had gone fishing. The creeks, flooded rice fields and irrigation canals yielded a lot of fish -- ar-aro, ayungin, and the bigger paltat and boricao, which were caught with baited hooks. The rice fields also yielded shellfish -- the dark and small led-deg, the bigger bisukol, and freshwater crab.
During the rainy season, the nights were alive with the croaking of frogs. I would make my own kerosene lantern, all its sides covered with tin except the front. When the light fell on the frogs, they would freeze and all I had to do was pick them up. Mother would spend time skinning them before cooking them with young tamarind leaves. She would fill a bowl or two for me to bring to our closest neighbors. We Ilokanos call this gift "padigo."
OUR TOWN WAS BRACKETED BY TWO CREEKS. I learned to swim when I was eight or thereabouts, and I'd miss school to enjoy swimming. I was visiting my old grade school teacher, Soledad Oriel, in a retirement home in Sacramento, California, and she told my son, Eugene, about my truancy. The principal, Mr. Hidalgo, reported me to my mother. One morning, I pretended I was going to school but went instead to the Andolan Creek to swim. So I was oblivious, playing in the water, when my mother called me from the bank. I didn’t know she had followed me. She had a bamboo strip and right there, she whipped me.
I knew I deserved more punishment in those instances that I displeased her, when I forgot to do her bidding, such as sweep the yard or carry our drinking water from the artesian well. But she didn’t; she simply admonished me, then with a stick, she would whip a bamboo post, the ground, or the buri wall of our house. I fully understood all that symbolism.
I tried my very best to help. I gathered firewood and when I visited friends in the villages, I always brought home something to eat. I was perhaps seven or eight years old when, with her, I helped in the harvesting of a rice field. It was still quite dark but it was already bright enough to harvest the grain. A field being harvested is wet with dew in the early morning, and the delicious fragrance of newly cut rice stalks pervades the field, an aroma I'll always remember. We didn’t stop bending and slashing even as the sun rose.
At midday we had our lunch of leftover rice and a cake of cane sugar we called sinakob. After lunch, our backache relieved, we began threshing the rice with our feet. I had worked so hard I had quite a pile of grain. Close to sunset, the owner of the rice field came. He took his share and left me with less than a ganta. I was so disappointed I started to cry; after all my hard labor, this tiny pile was my share. My mother laughed. She explained that it was fair. We didn’t own the land, we didn’t plant the rice; we merely helped in the harvest.
AT NIGHT MY MOTHER WORKED on her Singer sewing machine, a storm lamp beside it. I would read beside her, but the sound of the sewing machine often disturbed me so I fashioned my own kerosene lamp out of an empty pomade bottle. There were times, however, when we had no money to buy kerosene so I would walk to the street corner and read under the street lamp until my mother would come to tell me it was time to go to sleep.
She never really bothered me when I was reading, not just books but even pages of old newspapers used to wrap dried fish. I was reading the Noli one early evening and when I came to the part where the priest accused the brothers Crispin and Basilio of stealing, I was so angry I started crying. I remember my mother pausing her sewing to ask what it was that made me cry. I pointed to the book. I don’t remember her saying anything. She just looked at me, her eyes shining, then she went back to her sewing.
My mother was resourceful. When the collars of my shirts became frayed, she reversed them. No scrap of cloth was ever wasted; she sewed them together to make them into blankets. I was so pleased when I saw my wife do similar repairs on the clothes of our children. One of her first purchases when we got married was an electric sewing machine. She also learned to cook the peasant food my mother prepared, all of which I often miss.
When I was in Grade Six, my mother gave me a piglet to care for. All our neighbors had pigs or chickens. I understood, of course, that when the pig had grown, it would be sold. He was a beautiful animal, with blue eyes, a short, curly tail, and was white unlike the native breed which was dark and had a long snout. I called my pig Puraw, Ilokano for white, and as he grew, he got to know his name. From the fallow fields, I gathered the weeds pigs eat. I also asked the neighbors to give me the trunks of bananas that had already borne fruit -- this I chopped into bits and cooked.
Almost every afternoon, I went to the rice mills at the eastern end of the town and collected whatever darak or rice bran had been thrown away. This I also cooked for Puraw. Came a time when he had to be caponized so he would grow faster. I pitied Puraw for having to suffer such punishment, but he did grow even bigger. Every afternoon when I came home from school, Puraw would rush to the gate to meet me, playfully nudging me, then I'd follow him to the house. I'd scratch his tummy as he laid down, then I would lay on his tummy, and we would fall asleep together. It was hard work looking for Puraw's food, but I was very delighted by his gratefulness every time I arrived from school. Then, one afternoon, there was no more Puraw to greet me, and when I realized the immensity of my loss, I really cried.
ALTHOUGH I PLAYED TRUANT OFTEN, I think I was obedient and industrious. I never asked my mother for baon or money. Every morning, when I went to school, I carried a sweet potato, an ear of corn, or cold rice with a chunk of sinakob. When I was in Grade Seven, I asked her for money to buy a new pair of rubber shoes as I had already outgrown my old pair. She said she didn’t have that kind of money; a pair then cost around two pesos, the monthly salary of a housemaid.
Graduation time -- I could have been the valedictorian but I had too many absences from school. I couldn’t attend my graduation in my bare feet, so I found a block of wood in the house and brought it to my industrial class where we had carpentry tools. There I made wooden shoes. For straps, I used an old leather belt that a cousin had discarded. Come graduation evening, there we were in our finest white trousers and shirts. I looked at the feet of my classmates -- I was the only one without shoes. It was only then that, despite all the pleasures of my childhood, I felt the pain of being poor. I remember the pain of that realization until today. When it was my turn to deliver my salutatorian address, I walked very carefully across the stage, lifting my feet so my wooden shoes wouldn’t clatter.
About two months after graduation, I went to Manila to stay with the family of my uncle, Andres Sionil. I remember that unblemished May morning. My mother walked me to the railroad station. I carried a handwoven tampipi with my clothes and she carried a bag of gifts for my uncle's family -- a couple of mudfish and some vegetables. To the neighbors who asked us where we were going, I could sense pride in my mother's answer -- that I was leaving Barrio Cabugawan to go to Manila for high school. I still had no shoes.
WHEN SHE WAS IN HER EIGHTIES, my mother fell and broke her hip. Soon after, she died. I could not bear to look at her when she was in agony, and I never looked at her in her coffin. I wanted to remember her always as she was before the fall, a tiny woman with watery eyes, her hair tied in a bun, her face slightly pocked by smallpox scars, and her hands rough and gnarled -- I used to hold and kiss them. My lasting memory of her is entwined with ethereal images of revelation and discovery, of silver mornings, cool, clear streams, and golden fields -- the good life and, most of all, books and books and honest labor.
Of my five fountain pens, my favorite is the one from Chitang Nakpil, which she gifted to me after I wrote a review of her three-volume autobiography. Butch Dalisay, the real pen collector, identified it as the Parker anniversary edition.
My Parker fountain pen writes very smoothly, and I like to think it’s the same smoothness and sharp finesse with which Chitang wrote.
When she passed away on July 30th, the Philippines lost one of our very best writers. She deserved to be a National Artist. I've known Chitang early enough. I met her sometime in 1947 when she was a staff member of the now defunct Saturday Evening News magazine that was edited by NVM Gonzales. I was still starting out then. I was awed by her regal presence, her beauty, and most of all her felicitous writing. There was a time, however, when I knew she didn’t like me. The feeling was mutual.
Here was a brilliant writer, and committed to the ideals of freedom. But she disappointed me and so many others for having sided with Marcos. Chitang knew this. In her autobiography, she observed that during those years that she was cozily identified with the Marcoses, some of her friends abandoned her. This is one virtue that separated Chitang from the Marcos lapdogs. She was always honest.
I was privileged to have known Chitang personally, to have had many discussions with her. I remember one particular conversation with the historian, Teodoro Agoncillo. Chitang had a very perceptive sense of history. After all, as a writer, she is staunch keeper of our nation’s memory. I said that had the revolution of 1896 succeeded, a civil war would have erupted within a few years.
Chitang said a civil war would have immediately erupted. Teddy Agoncillo agreed. He said that the social divide was already very clear between the wealthy Filipinos and the proletariat.
The Guerreros as a clan belonged neither to the upper class nor to the proletariat. They are a learned middle-class Ermita family involved with the historical destiny of this country.
She ends her autobiography with the conclusion that in the end all else is vanity. And here Chitang points out what is so wrong with so many of us and particularly our leaders. Ego is our fatal flaw--how we never transcend ourselves to commit to an ideal bigger than us.
Chitang showed how that ego can be tamed, how it can be utilized to beautify and dignify and love our unhappy country.
Another writer, Alice Guillermo, who passed away almost at the same time as Chitang comes to mind. Alice was perhaps our most outstanding art critic. She devoted her entire career not only to teaching but also to writing, describing the development of our art, how it reflects the lives of common Filipinos. I believed with her that it is with Marxist lens that we can truly analyze and discover the essence of Filipino society and most of all the elements that obstruct the growth of this society. Although Alice taught at the University of the Philippines all her life, she never received tenure.
I recall another artist, the late playwright, Wilfredo Guerrero, who devoted his life to the development of the Filipino drama. Like Alice, he also did not get tenure and was even forced to abandon his home in Diliman.
So, again, I ask this tired question: Why does this country starve its artists and its writers?
My novel Sherds is a meditation on freedom, truth, and art. It details the poignant relationship between PG Golangco, a rich and accomplished potter, and his poor and beautiful protégée, Guia Espiritu. Beyond the narrative level, I like to consider it as an elegiac treatise on art, etc. All these are, of course, beautiful abstractions, inane and meaningless, if they are not given value — social, political, national, even personal.
What is freedom? What is truth? Are they useful? Freedom itself, may be the root of injustice. A billionaire owner of a media complex righteously claiming freedom as their beacon may oppress employees, intimidate rivals, or corrupt officials to protect and enlarge their empire. Freedom then becomes a social menace.
Freedom as value is discussed in Sherds. In a major scene, the potter artist, PG Golangco, is asked: "Do you believe in art as social protest? Goya and Picasso used their art politically."
Golangco replies: "I would ask you to permit any artist all the freedom he needs. Art thrives on freedom. The artist is free to determine his purpose, whatever his time, be it good or bad."
The artist is challenged by an academic. "Freedom is a political condition. And you have freedom because you are very rich and can afford to speak your mind, because you do not care whatever the consequences. Mr. Golangco, you are free because you have the influence and the money to buy your freedom. But what about the artists of the people? Who are not pampered like you? Who are denied this precious freedom?"
Yes, indeed, how can the poor be free?
By praying, by striving, by revolution perhaps? In the end, freedom needs no logic, no reason. It is the human being’s fate, it is our ultimate destiny. There is no insurmountable barrier to this desire to be free. No dictator's lash, no tyrant's sword can halt this striving for it is a pre-determined purpose, entwined with every fiber in our being, a programmed culmination, the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, the sperm and the ovum becoming, and the river flowing to the sea to become the sweet air we breathe.
But take care, for this freedom is also very fragile and needs constant nurturing. It lives only in the heart where it is often neglected or abused. If it dies there, no power on earth can ever ever bring it back to life.
The idea of freedom is neither eastern or western. It universal and we instinctively define it in terms of our own needs. We say the wind is free, and as that popular Tagalog kundiman confirms, "Even the bird has the freedom to fly."
Thousands of Filipinos now eat only once a day. More than anything, we need freedom from hunger, freedom from the oppression of our elites who hindered our economic development and made us poor. Perhaps others need freedom from the restrictive customs of their societies, the caste system for instance, religious or racial discrimination, and freedom from oppressive personal relationships. We need freedom to speak out, to pursue legitimate ambition, to travel, to organize, Or as American President Franklin Roosevelt intoned in 1941 at the outbreak of the war with Japan, "freedom from fear itself."
Many of these freedoms are guaranteed by magna cartas, constitutions, by law, but more often than not oppressive despots have no respect for the basic law of the land. A scrap of paper, they call it. Freedom from tyranny, therefore, is a major aspiration for so many people all over the world.
The difference between the eastern and western tradition is sometimes over-emphasized by cultural anthropologists to buttress whatever their arguments on modernization. Actually there are more similarities between the two traditions. The great religions that sprang from these traditions espouse the same golden rule for ethical living.
An uncritical reading of history will perhaps promote the easy generalization that the eastern tradition is characterized by hierarchy and harmony while the western tradition is characterized by individualism and change or revolution.
I stated earlier that freedom may be achieved by prayer. This perhaps best explains the rapid growth of our indigenous religions, the Iglesia Ni Cristo and El Shaddai, as well as the continued strength of Catholicism. All these religions promise believers a very personal form of freedom or nirvana, peace, redemption, even wealth.
Our nativistic religions are motivated also by a sense of nationalism. The idea of revolution, an important aspect of the western tradition, may have inspired the Philippine revolution of 1896, but certainly it had no impact on the earlier peasant revolts during the Spanish regime, the Ilocos revolt of Diego Silang, for instance. These clamors for freedom arose from the basic instinct to revolt against injustice, in this case against the landlord friars. Although it is fiction, Rizal's Pilosopong Tasyo is instructive; no longer able to accept the continual increase in rent imposed by his landlord, he rebels.
The peasant Colorum revolt in Pangasinan in 1931 and the much larger Sakdal uprising in Central Luzon in 1935 may have failed, but as the Sakdal leader Salud Algabre, declared: "No rebellion ever fails, each is a step forward for freedom."
How does the tyrant destroy freedom? First and foremost, always remember that truth is the tyrant's worst enemy. So the first thing they do is shut up the founts of truth. They may do this slowly by first intimidating or threatening the practitioners of media. To dilute the truth, they might propagandize the lies that mask their reach for power.
Simultaneously, they will discredit or corrupt the justice system so that the justice system weakened or intimidated cannot prosecute them, but will, instead, meekly follow their bidding. They will also, in the meantime, build a core of fanatic followers who will applaud all their actions.
They will always look for a scapegoat or a minority to which they will attribute the poverty and other injustices in the country then hoist themselves up as the savior, mouthing all the while the tired cliches of nationalism. They will promote populist programs even if these very programs will bankrupt the public coffers. And if the people grumble because food has become costlier, they will be appeased with "bread and circuses."
Freedom is delicate and needs constant care. People may lose it through their apathy, when they don't realize it has been frittered away by neglect, when they have accepted security or financial bribery in exchange, or elected leaders who are the sworn enemies of freedom.
When tyrants unleash their hound dogs, people must resist but without violence. This is the most effective way by which brutality can be defeated. The individual is never powerless. Remember, whoever stands alone is the strongest.
Truth is your best weapon and to deny it is to deny freedom. Speak out against injustice, remembering that evil prospers when the good are silent.
Be an activist — join NGOs, or any organization for the public good. Demonstrate, take a stand boldly, loudly, to protect the institutions of freedom.
Use your ballot wisely. You know who are the thieves and murderers. Don't vote for them, shun them, and ostracize them. And don't lose hope because tomorrow is yours.
The Ilokano word for freedom is waywaya. How I wish you would read my story of the same name. It is an allegory of two pre-hispanic tribes at war. Dayaw from Taga Daya kidnaps Waywaya from the Taga Laud. She becomes his slave, but he falls in love with her. She dies giving birth to a son. As tradition demands, Dayaw brings her corpse back to her tribe and is killed as a matter of course; he illustrates the truism that if one loves freedom (or any ideal), he must be prepared to sacrifice for her. This is the logic of love.
So then, where are the Filipinos who truly love our unhappy country?