In October 1967, I visited Moscow at the invitation of the Russian Writers Union on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was my first time in Russia. I was told there were shortages, but as a guest, I was treated warmly and was never in need. One of the high points of that visit, aside from meeting my translator, Igor Podbereszky, was a session with the editors of the literary journal, Novy Mir.
I had by then, of course, read a lot of Russian literature in translation -- Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, and of course Dostoevsky. I had also read Pasternak. I had compared the two English translations of Dr. Zhivago and was anxious to ask the Russian writers about him, particularly since he had been prohibited by the Soviet government from going to Stockholm to claim his Nobel Prize.
What was Boris Pasternak’s status in Russia? The editors of Novy Mir said he was best known as a lyric poet. And Dr. Zhivago? They said one reason he was not allowed to go to Stockholm was that, from his novel, it appeared he did not love his motherland all that much.
I told them then that his writing showed exactly the opposite, that the most evocative descriptions of the Russian winter and spring, the likes of which I had never read before, were in Dr. Zhivago. It would not be possible for any writer to write with such affection if he did not love his native land.
While I was saying this, I recalled Manuel Arguilla who, to my mind, had written the most beautiful descriptions of the Ilokos countryside. Arguilla's life was cut short at the peak of his artistic genius; in 1944, the Japanese executed him for being a guerilla.
Jose Rizal also came to mind. At 34, at the height of his creative powers, he was executed by the Spaniards. His two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, vividly illustrate his affection for his country and his disdain for Spanish tyranny.
AND SO WE WRITE THE LAND, celebrate its width and breadth, its foamy beaches, emerald islands, the majesty of our mountains, our golden plains, the cozy lethargy of our villages, the spanking shine and glitter of our sprawling cities. We remember the stench of our slums, the fragrance of newly harvested fields, and the sharp odor of a parched earth drenched at last by the first rain. We give our writing a sense of place, our characters distinct faces, our history its heroism, our people an infallible identity. And with all of these, hopefully, we invoke a sense of nation as well.
But is there enough celebration of the land in our literature? Why are we not writing? Why are we not producing literature as much as we should? Is it because our writers are simply too comfortable to care? Or, distanced as they are from their own kin, they cannot understand or empathize with their trials and their griefs?
I brought these thoughts to a recent visit by Samuel Chua, the poet who now teaches at the University of Oregon. He had just attended a writers meeting at the Cultural Center, and the questions asked led him to realize that Filipino writers are not writing as much as they should. Yet there is so much material around us -- in the very front page of our newspapers, and in our history, where so much is yet to be unraveled. I agreed with him.
We tend to view others in the light of our own perspective, and I told him that when I was thirty, I had already written three novels, all of them serialized in a weekly magazine but not published in book form. I always knew writing would be hard work. I also knew writing does not pay. But just the same, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was apparently driven, which is not so with many of our brilliant young writers, whose language is superior to mine. Is it because they are comfortable? Is it because their roots in this country are shallow and fragile? Or maybe they haven’t suffered at all, or if they have, they cannot remember.
I do not know; it is for these writers, particularly the very young, to probe deeply into themselves, and realize the reasons why.
ALMOST ALWAYS, literature is remembered pain or sorrow. In all of us is an essential loneliness, a melancholy that is the essence of art and literature itself. In that solitude wherein we immerse ourselves, we come face to face with the transience of our very lives and our puny efforts to live beyond it. What have we made of the life, the poetry, the music, the art that we will leave behind?
Pasternak recorded with brilliant faithfulness the pathos and heroism of the Russian people in that cataclysm that changed Russia forever. So did Rizal record the last years of Spanish domination -- history come alive so we will know what it had been like, and also realize who we are.
And so I ask myself and so should all of us who write – why write at all? I look deeply into myself and find no abiding reason, other than writing seems so natural, like breathing, because writing and reading, thinking and imagining have become my life.
It is all ego and vanity of course, and the hope that somehow someone will read me and appreciate what I have written because they see themselves in it the way I see myself in what I write. And I realize then that I belong to something bigger, something beyond myself, and that by writing I have brought meaning and purpose to my life.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 11, 2019
Gina Apostol’s latest novel, Insurrecto, reminds me of what my Russian translator said: "Not to read Dostoevsky is a crime, but to read him is punishment." Reading Insurrecto is difficult, but to read it is to be rewarded with knowledge and insight not usually available in much of Filipino contemporary fiction.
The narration of the story is not linear, but it is a very clever way of juxtaposing the past with contemporary events, and Gina’s prose crackles all over the place with its freshness and cleverness.
Her characters appear opaque in the beginning, but since every chapter is a revelation they develop solid surfaces. It is obvious that a lot of research went into this book, but the rendition of contemporary happenings also proves that the author is grounded in the often sordid and gruesome realities of this country today.
This book might not be popular primarily because it is not interesting in the manner that contemporary fiction – and its plots – are often satisfying and predictable. But it should be read precisely because it illustrates what an excellent writer can achieve not just with the imagination but also with language.
Insurrecto is a commentary, too, on our relationship with the United States and the suffocating influence of American culture on the Philippines. The historical roots of this influence and the love-hate relationship that Filipinos have with America gives Insurrecto its meaning and significance. But, as Gina concludes, Insurrecto is a misnomer and Revolution is a dream.
My Dear Friend -- You are in your early twenties, you have just graduated from college, you are a writer, and you want to teach. And perhaps, without realizing it, you may have doomed yourself to fail when you decided to be a revolutionary.
It is a very brave and ambitious decision; revolution is nearly impossible to achieve. Not many young people these days talk like you do, aware as you are of our political system and the gross injustices that prevail all around us. Writing is not enough, or teaching, or whatever profession you choose, because there is this entity that’s bigger than us and it is this unhappy nation.
The real objective of revolution is the transfer of power from the oppressor to the oppressed. It is easy enough to see who the oppressed are, but who is the oppressor? This is one of the first things you must realize, that the enemy, the real power holders in this country, are the very rich, the oligarchs. And then you will also realize that we ourselves are also the enemy, and that revolution demands we transcend our clan, even ourselves.
Revolution is often a lengthy process, and you may not even notice it until it is exploding all around you. Here I am, 94 years old, and still wondering why the revolution has not yet happened, when so many of us have long accepted its necessity, its inevitability even.
ALWAYS UNDERSTAND THE OBJECTIVE REALITY. In what condition are we in today? Is it anarchy? Anarchy destroys a people, polarization ushers civil war, and revolution unites a people. We have never really been united. But can we not make use of our own diversity to mount that revolution?
There are many important elements that you should never miss – that revolution requires heresy and conspiracy, that it may be necessary to use naked power and violence to usher it in. One thing is sure – there must be a cabal, an organization of like-minded people to usher it in, to manage it, and to fulfill its promise. Where can these people be? In the army? In academe? Among the business elite? Wherever they are, they must believe in the revolution and, most of all, they must love this nation.
Persevere, endure. It was easy enough fighting the Spaniards, the Americans, the Japanese. They were not us. But now the enemy is our own elite, Filipinos like us. They have inherited the vices of the colonialists, who are now our exploiters and, like the old colonialists, they exploit this nation and salt their loot abroad, in Europe, in China, and elsewhere. Remember they also flaunt the flag and announce themselves as patriots who support noble Filipino causes. But never, never forget that they are very rich, and our people are very poor.
ALWAYS REMEMBER TOO THAT YOU DON"T HAVE TO BE A COMMUNIST TO BE A REVOLUTIONARY. The communists as ideologues are contemptuous of the objective reality. And this objective reality is that the Army is vicious towards the communists because so many of its officer corps and rank-and-file have already been killed in the communist pursuit of protracted war. But this country can no longer be dismembered, either by the New People's Army or the rebel Moro movements. Primarily, the Army is here to preserve this nation and it is an Army of the people, its officer corps and its rank-and file come from the masa, the very poor.
This Army, too, is profoundly aware that it is fighting an enemy from the same class. So ask yourself, when the poor kill the poor, who benefits? It would be wonderful if the army, given its social origins, were to side with the Revolution. It was what kept the country together during EDSA, or else anarchy would have gripped this country, resulting in the deaths of thousands as had happened in Indonesia with the downfall of Sukarno in 1965.
Beware of making revolution fashionable or a cliché. When it becomes popular, then it loses its essence, its sting. You now know the enemy. Work towards its destruction, its emasculation, or help transform it into what is called the modernizing elite. And never, never take revolution for granted. It must be lived, not bandied about in cocktail parties, and discussed endlessly in academic fora.
Learn from history, that revolution is not a modern phenomenon. It is an important element in humanity's search for freedom, for opposing slavery and dictatorship. This search for freedom is almost as natural as breathing. It is the very essence of life, the blood that is continuously pumped by the heart for that is where freedom also lives.
Learn from past revolutions, whether they succeeded or failed. Beware of following the examples of other revolutionary leaders, by other rebelling peoples. The Filipino Revolution must be organic and not an artificial construct. It must grow from our deepest aspirations. This is what history also teaches us -- the unique successes of other peoples because they trusted themselves and were true to themselves. Remember this when your mind is waylaid by foreign examples: We are not Cuba, or France, or Russia, or least of all, China.
In my youth, I also thought of revolution. I read all I could about it, and wandered on its fringes. But it was not until I was 35 years old that I accepted it heart and soul. I remember that moment very well, even where it happened, how suddenly free I felt. Yet with the soaring of the spirit came the realization that I may have to die for it.
But even then I knew that a dead revolutionary is a useless revolutionary. So then, my brave, young friend, live for the revolution, for your unhappy country. Work hard for her, sweat blood if necessary, and always remember, the objective of revolution is freedom, the building of a just and sovereign nation by a people who have finally established their place in the sun.
First published in The Philippine Star, May 4, 2019