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