Word Made Revolutionary: On Gina Apostol’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata
The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, according to the blurb (found behind the Anvil-published copy) by Eric Gamalinda, “creates a new, atonal anthem that defies single ownership and, in fact, can only be performed by the many—by multiple voices in multiple readings.” For him, Apostol is able to present an “alternative [narrative] on history other than those… who claim entitlement to official memory and national identity.” But what is this “new, atonal anthem”? Why must the rambling of Raymundo Mata, a night-blind man creep like a vine around the story of the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal? Why is there a need for multiple voices: for the rabid nationalist, the overly academic psychoanalyst, and the unreliable translator to compete within the hundreds of footnotes? In the end, is this alternative history true—or, perhaps, we may better yet ask: is it, at least, of consequence? Or, perhaps, does the author’s style, instead of delivering the alternative history, mystifies it, lending it a confused miasma that obscures rather than sheds a clear, penetrating light on our Filipino identity? This paper, then, seeks to explore what kind of alternative history the novel introduces, and whether this presentation is successful. To achieve this, we shall begin with a summary of the novel and then proceed to an analysis of its characters and then with remarks to its themes and structures. From there we shall attempt to see the novel within the context of contemporary Philippine society as well as the tradition of Filipiniana and in the end determine what Gina Apostol’s opus has to say regarding the Filipino identity, especially within the historical (and, to be more specific, revolutionary) lens.
The novel supposedly centers on Raymundo Mata, an uncouth night-blind member of the Katipunan and participant of the Philippine Revolution. In the form of a memoir, the story traces Mata’s childhood, his education in Manila, his love affairs, and his discovery of Dr. Jose Rizal and his books, which in turn involves him with the Philippine Revolution and, ultimately, Makamisa, Rizal’s third and unfinished novel.
Raymundo Mata’s autobiography, however, is de-centered by another story: that of the development of the book. In the foreword(s), afterword(s), and footnotes, we see the translator Mimi C. Magsalin (a pseudonym), the rabid nationalist editor Estrella Espejo, and the neo-Freudian psychoanalyst critic Dr. Diwata Drake make multiple readings of the Mata manuscript. Inevitably, clashes between these readings occur throughout the novel, and in the end no singular and comprehensive interpretation arises: depending on which interpretation the reader follows, one may either conclude that the manuscript contains and/or is Makamisa, or that it is an elaborate hoax perpetuated by the translator.
Perhaps the cause of the different readings is the fact that, in the first place, the novel has multiple protagonists—and this does not merely mean Mata plus translator plus editor plus psychoanalyst. In a quixotic fashion (that is, literally, stemming from Cervantes’ Don Quixote), the interlacing of the story (Mata’s memoirs) and the story of the story (the way it was re-written and re-presented as a book) invites the readers to participate in the creation of the story: we are asked throughout the novel to scrutinize the anglicized text and contrast it with the original Tagalog, Spanish, Chabacano, and (occasionally) Visayan phrases. We are asked either to agree or disagree with an overtly nationalistic reading (where everything, even a plagiarized form of Candide, is a Katipunan code) and/or an extremely academic psychoanalysis (where everything, even young Raymundo Mata’s encounter with his father, is a symptom of the Filipino Psychosis). As the reader progresses in the novel, he finds himself not only a witness, but also a co-creator, an inspired party in the interpretation of Raymundo Mata’s word.
And then there is Raymundo Mata himself, which, one might suspect, is also a multiple character. In the novel we find that this lewd, pun-loving, Rizal-worshipping bibliokleptomaniac is intertwined with none other than Dr. Jose Rizal: both read the same French authors (Voltaire and Eugene Sue), love the same women (Mata’s K., Orang, and Leonor find their parallels in Rizal’s real-life romantic interests), and even write similar diary entries (Entry # 22 is a case in point, as Dr. Diwata Drake points out). And so, we find that throughout the novel Raymundo Mata fulfills at least two roles. On one hand he is the provincial, the base Caviteño providing a lopsided (and one might say irreverent) view of Aguinaldo, Paterno, Mabini, and Bonifacio—in this role he shares in the word of the Philippine Revolution by putting in his two cents, that is, by bumbling through his initiation, the discovery at the Diario de Manila printing house, and the Battle of Balara. And yet, as the bibliophile obsessed with words, Raymundo Mata also shares in the word of Rizal, “the world of words that creates the world of things” (Apostol 123).
Two themes, then, emerge: the Philippine Revolution as text, as a “world of things” born out of the “world of words” of Rizal’s novels, and the multiple readings that generate multiple meanings, multiple interpretations, of the “world of words”. The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (the title itself may be seen a Biblical reference to the Gospels), the product of the many voices of Mata, Rizal, Magsalin, Espejo, and Drake, then becomes a word (I do not say the Word) of the Revolution—and the novel’s structure emphasizes its word-iness through the length of the footnotes, Raymundo Mata’s fondness of puns and witticisms, the ciphers, and the onomatopoeias (as employed by Mata just as used by Gina Apostol on naming Mimi Magsalin, Estrella Espejo, and Diwata Drake). The novel, as Mimi Magsalin might put it, is “raped” by words. And the words, as Estrella Espejo implies in the end, pose themselves as Makamisa, Rizal’s unfinished third novel—a final word in the Bible of Philippine salvation, a word that is perhaps, as Dr. Diwata suspects, is ingrained in the Filipino psyche: “That a nation so conceived, from the existential exigencies of a young man’s first novel, will find redemption in the phoenix of his lost words” (Apostol 277).
The line may have, perhaps, more significance than we, the readers, first perceive. Setting aside, for now, whether such a belief shall or shall not actually prove the salvation of the Philippines, the Filipiniana has a tradition of authors striving to write the “Great Filipino Novel” that shall expose the Filipino’s identity. This quest for identity has taken a historical vein, as we can see from the writings of Kalaw, Joaquin, Gonzalez, Rosca, and even up to Gamalinda and Syjuco. Even in spite of the lack of readership (or, at least, when it comes to so-called “high literature”), the Philippine literati have continued to plumb the neglected, forgotten past (whether American, Spanish, or pre-colonial) in search of the Filipino identity. Of course, this is a worthy and crucial task, and the attempt to write the Third Novel to Save Us All should continue. The problem, however, is when people neglect the quest for the right words in order to come up with the Word—erect a singular, “national,” totalizing Tower of the Filipino Narrative.
This is where the theme of multiple readings, multiple meanings, and multiple interpretations come in. It is important to note that in The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, no final, definitive Word appears. Espejo’s interpretation is as valid and yet as flawed as Dr. Drake’s, just as Mimi C.’s final statement is not authoritative: she assures the readers that the Mata manuscript is not a lie and is trustworthy, but she does so in cipher. The text, then, is liberated from a constrictive, imperious, violent summa, a One Message that excludes other readings, puts other perspectives into the background, and eliminates all criticism. The words in the novel, then, by being multiple and open to diverse interpretations, becomes a truly revolutionary one: The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata liberates the reader from one view of history, and hence a singular Filipino identity that may violently exclude the others. As in Entry # 36, we find that “like a novel revolution is never finished” (Apostol 220). The act of reading is both a novelty and a revolution: the Word is de-centered, indeed de-capitalized, and is made new and fresh and accessible to all readings.
So far, this paper has pursued a Biblical metaphor. And perhaps this is just as well. The Bible, after all, is first and foremost a text that has, throughout the ages, been reread and re-interpreted according to the needs of the Church (that is, the community). Just as any one totalizing reading limits the power of the Word of God, indeed making it stale and dead, unresponsive to a different time and a different audience, so must the quest for Filipino identity remain flexible and open to many reinterpretations. The text must be dynamic just as the people who read it are dynamic. For if the world of words is to remain static, then the world of things that it creates cannot be anything but false; being false, such a world cannot but fail and fade.
In the end, then, we, the readers, must ask ourselves the question: is The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, at last, the long-awaited Makamisa, the novel that shall save the country, the country that which the same hand, Rizal’s, created? But as we read and get lost in the maze of the miniscule footnotes, as we get lost in the highly postmodern “mystification” of the novel (for we cannot deny that the novel is, in a sense, mystified, given the highly literary mirroring, footnoting, and other such illusory styles; yet we must bear in mind that the word “mystery” is not merely something that is not understandable, but something more), we must accept that we cannot, and should not, discern the Word. Gina Apostol has—by revolutionizing the Word into an alternate history, a multiple “world of words”—already shown that we must go beyond looking for the Answer. Perhaps, like the realization found within the loop in Entry # 46, the finding of the Filipino identity already lies in the searching.