Nick Joaquin

According to Wikipedia, Nick Joaquin is the third most important Filipino writer (after Rizal and Recto) and the most important one in English. But let’s face it: even the Drunken Master (of beer?) of Filipiniana died without winning the Nobel Prize, and it’s doubtful that he ever will. So we lesser creatures might as well abandon all our deluded fantasies of writing the Great Filipino Novel and striking it Shakespeare-famous. Heck, if I may even put my two cents in, I think that the GFN project, were it to someday succeed, would be written not in English but in Filipino. And all us high-horsed English writers and critics would be dropping our jaws. But yeah. Anyway.

Poet, dramatist, essayist, fiction writer–one might almost say that Nick Joaquin was a literary polymath. But for me, and even in spite of Cesar Ruiz Aquino’s critique that the celebrated writer’s “real genius lies elsewhere” (as said of his fiction in a review for Erwin Castillo’s The Firewalkers), Joaquin was most natural, most honest, when writing fiction. Stories such as “May Day Eve,” “The Summer Solstice,” “Guardia de Honor,” “Doña Geronima,” and “The Legend of the Dying Wanton” are, true enough, engaging reads. But they are more than that: these stories are poignant portrayals of our Spanish heritage, charming as well as vaguely nostalgic, moving as reflective, earthly as well as spiritual. This ardor for history–which makes me skeptical of Epifanio San Juan, Jr.’s reading of Cave and Shadows–is what makes Joaquin’s prose honest and effective. Even though he employs a baroque-like style of Hispanic cadence and sustained length (which, in turn, leads litterateurs like Sir Exie Abola to say, and correctly, that Nick Joaquin is an “acquired taste” for readers), one may see clearly that his style is no mere gimmick, no mere “pa-kwela” (unlike perhaps many others in our current days), but an attempt to capture something of that past for his modern audience.

But, however much I disagree with Aquino’s review (“The Firewalkers: Going Farther Back Than Joaquin“), perhaps it is necessary for me to move further back than Joaquin–though maybe not far as Castillo had done; only a little more. Because, for all of his love for the Spanish heritage, Joaquin had first and foremost the project of “searching for a usable past, a usable identity,” as Sir Max Pulan puts it. In this sense, Nick Joaquin was a forward-looking man; his goal is, ultimately, progress–and he found it at the end of the Spanish era, or, to be more precise, just before the Revolution. He hoped to pick up where the Ilustrados had left off. In the end, then, Nick Joaquin was looking for the identity of the triumphant Filipino (read: perhaps the Ilustrado, the mestizo), the “winner” in the coin toss of history. And this is not my field.

Still–I would recommend Nick Joaquin to all those who would listen. Besides his especially poignant fiction, the exceptional play Portrait of the Artist as Filipino provides an excellent read.

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