On the Philippines: Order and Progress?

Posted in Culture, Politics, Reflection on April 1, 2011 by theburningpulpit

An indirect response to a scintillating read.

It has always been said, and by very perceptive minds too, that the Filipino people need be disciplined so that Philippine society can progress. Rizal in returning from Hongkong encountered some friendly Italian friars, who said that the Philippines could be a paradise if only it were governed properly. Some of our old-timers reminisce about the “good old” martial law days, saying that back then, people have discipline. And on one hand, I must nod and agree on our terrible lack of discipline. I hurt whenever I say this, but we Filipinos do need a little more lesson in not going beneath and/or beyond the rules. We have yet to develop a good system of national ethics, like Japan with its honor code and America with its ideal hardworking self-made man. And yes, we must already go beyond the blaming phase. The colonial Castillan, the bad friar, the oppressive dictators… in the end, they are not the ones who constitute and drive the Philippine nation–we are. And so, there is a grain of truth in the homies’ lingo: suck it up and push forward.

But questions popped into my head as I read this very interesting article. First, do we really want this discipline, this progress? And what do we mean by “progress?” By “discipline?” Are we capable of discipline? Is it desirable? How do we propose to instill this discipline into our people? Once we have this discipline, will progress ultimately follow? And once we attain progress–and is it, too, desirable?–then what?

Let me first reflect on the word, “discipline,” which I believe is the easier concept to grasp. To be disciplined is, at its root, to be a disciple–to be a follower. That which the disciplined person follows is the “rule of law,” a common standard set by a leader or by consensus. I hesitate to say “a leader” alone because, if this is the case, then discipline only works as a ruler-ruled dynamic, and is only a step away from encouraging an enlightened despot from seizing totalitarian power in the name of discipline and progress. This is, perhaps, what many among us Filipinos fear. Having been ruled (or, perhaps, having perceived ourselves as ruled) for 400 years by such tyrants and strongmen, we are naturally averse to having some new dictator impose his own will upon us. We would rather have a country run like hell by ourselves, than a country run like heaven by someone else (and us surrendering our independence), as President Manuel Quezon said. We value our freedom, our independence–but, again, what do we mean by these terms? During the Philippine Revolution, the upper classes sought independence from retrogressive Spanish colonial policies, while the masses and the peasants sought kalayawan, license after three hundred years of submission. And so things stand today: we cringe whenever our rights of speech are trampled upon; we want to spit and litter. And the common denominator is that we do not want other people, the authorities especially, from getting into the way of our fun.

But as I have earlier said, the “rule of law” is not only the product of an enlightened despot. As Immanuel Kant says, in man is the innate ability to legislate for himself through the exercise of reason. In man is the ability to engage in dialogue with his self-interests and the interests of society at large, with himself as well as his fellows, and so arrive at a “rule of law” drawing its enforcing power not from one ruler, but from institutions built up by the society for the greater good. And yet, we Filipinos seem even more reluctant to build and uphold institutions than to hail strongmen and leaders. We Filipinos gravitate toward personalities (Magsaysay, Noynoy, Nora Aunor) more than groups (Tagalogs, Kapampangans, Azkals, Barangay Ginebra) more than institutions (the AFP, the PNP, government as a whole, the Philippine nation). Why is this so? Why do we shy away from long-standing institutions and policies set in stone and place our trust in the tribal units, in the people whose terms last only six years? This is probably the “heritage of smallness” Nick Joaquin speaks of. We Filipinos, since our precolonial days, have always settled on the small things: bamboo over wood over stone, raid over pitched campaigns over conquests of unification, clan over confederation over nation. We are afraid of big things because we are a small people used with small things. It took the Spanish 300 years of rule and influence to build stone cities out of the villages of nipa huts, to forge a Philippine identity out of the scattered tribes. And even then we Filipinos have not yet truly learned the lesson: our stone and cement cities still do not reach for the stars, and our national unity is pro forma only: Tondo still quarrels with Cavite, Cebuanos still hate the Tagalogs, Moros still claim to be a different nation. ‘Rule of law’ through national consensus still seems to have a long way to go.

How, then, do we inculcate discipline to ourselves and our people while at the same time avoiding the terrible despot and the intimidating institutions? We must, inevitably, choose one route or the other. The best possible action for us, if we profess ourselves democratic, would be to get over our fear of big things and create standing institutions and policies, those which will enforce the common good and last for ten thousand years. If we believe in totalitarianism, we must find the strongest iron fist in this country and submit all our wills to him. We have had the chance with a dictatorship in, say, President Marcos. In the end, however, we revolted and threw him out. We have had the chance with democracy in the People Power Revolution and the constitution–and even as we speak we go over and/or under these institutions.  We may speak of a third route, and that is the home, the supposed building blocks of society. Yes, it is true that discipline can be learned in the home, in the school. A “rule of law” exists in these things. But what happens outside, where our parents and principals (the strongmen) and the school rules and regulations (the institutions) do not and cannot enforce authority? It is apparent that before discipline can be taught at home and in the school, the youth–and we Filipinos in general–need first to find the ability to respect the strongmen and/or the institutions that create this “rule of law.”

So much for discipline per se. But here another question emerges: do we really want, do we really need, this discipline? Yes, we are at once tempted to say. But why? For progress, we blurt out immediately. But what sort of progress do we want?

We can cite many examples of progress in the so-called progressive countries in the world today: the European countries, the United States, Japan, and China. Each of these countries have large economies matched only by their tall buildings. Their people may live more comfortably than most of us do. They have highly technologically-advanced tools. And they also have problems of their own. And perhaps, their problems stem from their common denominator: unchecked–and that is to say unlimited and uncritical–progress.

In Europe, the center of the Industrial Revolution (and culture and fashion and all “nice” things), we see a people with a growing sense of ennui, a sense of postmodern directionlessness. Europeans are party people with lots of beer and spirits and healthcare and social services, but why do they experience a high suicide rate? (Interestingly, European nations also have high levels of atheism, though here I speak as a Catholic who wants to have a religion than as a social analyst who makes correlations between high suicide rates and religion–I have yet to assume a relationship between the two in this article.)

In the United States we find a solipsistic nation, one that views its own interests and its own culture as the primary, if not only, one in the world. In Hollywood as well as in its international economic policies, the United States centers more on itself, and it injures racial-cultural sensibilities (see Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, and The Last Airbender for criticisms) and other countries’ interests (see the Imperiyalistang Kano).the United States, after all, is the country that discriminates African Americans and Mexicans (and Filipinos) and still thinks immigrants are out to get their jobs, and that the Chinese are Japanese.

Which brings us to the Chinese. China is the economic wonder of the late 20th-early 21st century: from the backwater and war-ravaged country of Chairman Mao, China has become the second largest economy in the world. But at what cost? China also has one of the highest pollution levels. China’s prosperity is, for the most part, limited to its big cities on the Eastern side–the countryside, I’ve heard, still has those legendarily terrible toilets. And who wants to live in a country that keeps its Nobel Prize winner in prison, erects the Great Firewall, and basically does not regret Tienanmen Square?

And the Japanese–the one country the linked article praised–is a nation that has yet to learn from its history. Dr. Shinzo Hayase in his book, A Walk Through Memories in Southeast Asia, implies that the Japanese still has to recognize the terrible atrocities its military government committed in the Second World War. In Japan, they do not remember the comfort women and the forced labor; what they remember is the glorious honorable patriotism of their soldiers and the Bombs destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (And to think that people–and authors!–like Yukio Mishima want to renew the old bushido, the same system that plunged Asia into the war!) And so the Japanese, in their non-knowledge, come across as insensitive whenever they enter into economic relationships with the Southeast Asian nations. Many Southeast Asian nations, up to this day, still hurt whenever the Japanese Prime Minister still visits the Japanese war dead shrine. Japan’s progress, then, ultimately sits on the shaky foundation of callous forgetfulness.

And so we see that progress, when unchecked and unreviewed, can be quite disordered. Progress can bring about as much trouble as benefits. In the name of progress, kings and even populations have been killed: from France to Russia to Germany to China to Japan, and to many more. I am not saying that progress per se is bad: I suspect Nick Joaquin, my idol, to be quite the progresista with large-scale enterprises in mind. After all, he comes from the tradition of the Ilustrados like Rizal and Luna, whom he admired as Promethean geniuses. And yet, we must bear in mind that we cannot and should not pursue progress so blindly. People from the same Ilustrado class, in their desire to wrest power from retrogressive Spain and bring enlightenment in the Philippines, also committed and condoned atrocities in the Philippine Revolution. The innocent friars were abused along with the guilty. And it was the masses had to fight and die in their wars. And when the Revolution faltered, they were the first ones to abandon it. Progress, if it is to be true, has to be well-rounded: everyone has to be a part in it, and everyone has to benefit from it. The country, in the end, should not suffer further because of it, but rather, be all the more enlightened and benign.

In the end, we must agree with the article: we want, we definitely want, order and progress for the Philippines. That much has been clear to us since the dawn rose over the Spanish galleons in 1521. But we must ask ourselves: what kind of order and progress do we want? And, just as importantly, how are we going to get there?


Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah

Posted in Film, Literature, Review on March 27, 2011 by theburningpulpit

Believe me when I say that this graphic novel is a fresh breeze. Hence, this is my final official entry to my Filipiniana Feature Month WordPress event.

I’ve heard of Zaturnnah years before, but I was able to watch the movie two or three years ago and read the graphic novel last week. And I must say that in the movie, the musical (which my sister has watched) and the graphic novel, there is a certain fidelity and unity testifying to the strength and brilliance of the Zaturnnah franchise.

The original graphic novel focuses on Ada and his best friend Didi, both members of the third sex. (To be less politically correct: they are both gays.) Ada, an owner of a small beauty parlor, receives a strange stone from the sky with the word ‘Zaturnnah’ etched on it. Whenever he swallows the stone, Ada turns into a voluptuously muscular female superhero, whom Didi dubs as ‘Zsazsa Zaturnnah.’ Zaturnnah then goes on to battle a giant frog, a horde of mumus, and a posse of radical alien feminists hellbent, for some strange reason, on dominating Ada’s little town. At the same time, Ada/Zaturnnah also has to contend with his/her feelings and romantic needs, condensed in the form of Dodong, a well-endowed *ehem, I’m getting a relish for certain things* and chivalrous young man. With the stress brought by evil supervillainesses and, worse, a troubled love life, Zaturnnah/Ada is stretched thin to meet the demands of both fronts.

Much has been said of Zsazsa Zaturnnah being a milestone for third sex literature–and the franchise, from Vergara’s graphic novel to the movie, truly is. That strangely moving scene between Ada/Zaturnnah and his/her father, now part of the mumu army, really struck me: that a father would, even beyond the grave, still harbor his disappointment and rather tear himself to pieces than accept Ada for who he truly is! And yet, even the biggest chauvinist, given that he has something of a literary inclination, cannot help but be at least amused with the self-aware humor in Vergara’s graphic novel. Ada’s swallowing the stone just because Didi told him to, Zaturnnah getting those dramatically burlesque panels, the superhero sardonically yelling at the panicking crowd to stay aside so as to avoid the rampaging giant frog, the said crowd’s uncontrollable tendency to surround dangerous fight scenes… all these things “deconstruct” (whatever that word means nowadays) the graphic novel form and the superhero genre, re-presenting the experience in a funny new light without trying to be hyped and/or intellectual. I mean, come on, see that scene where Queen Femina Suarestellar Baroux channels a tiger with her kung fu routine and Zsazsa channeling a mermaid with her… interesting… mahalay arts. If you don’t at least smirk at that episode, you should probably see a psychiatrist or three.

The musical and the movie, by extension, are also good renditions of the Zaturnnah story. My sister, who has watched the musical, said that the story was engaging and the music wonderful, even though the “Didi” dominated the stage. (Then again, Ada was never meant to be a show-stopper.) Perhaps the musical’s being staged seven times says something of its popularity, its ability to capture the audience’s imaginations. The movie I can vouch for, even though it did not bag an MMFF award. The music ranges from catchy (“Babae Na Ako”) to haunting (“Multo ng Nakaraan”), and its plot, retaining much of the original (as I later found out), preserves the soul of the graphic novel. The musical, the movie, and the graphic novel, in the end, are all must-sees.

Because really, we need more “earthy” literature. We need literature that can reconcile the intellectual might of the academe and the gravitational popularity of mass media. Perhaps Zsazsa Zaturnnah has shown us the way. And now, as I end my Filipiniana Feature Month after presenting one photo album, one academic novel, one movie, and one graphic novel, I hope that those who write Filipiniana can finally push the frontiers not a little forward, no, not anymore, but by leaps and bounds.

Of the Sea

Posted in Composition, Essay on March 24, 2011 by theburningpulpit

The sea, the sea!

My first true love was the sea; the sea is probably my one true love (and farm fields, my querida). Which is strange, for I have seldom been to the sea: seven times on the beach, and only one beyond sight of the shore. But the rarity of these encounters is perhaps the reason why I yearn for the sea, why I long for it, why I hear its call–rolling waves and crying seagulls–all the louder.

My fascination with the sea stretches back to my childhood, during my sister’s birthday, which also happened at the time to be on Easter Sunday. But back then the sea was the beach, the playground of sand and kingdom of sandcastles, and the waters were a distant entity, strange and large and fascinating and vaguely frightening. I saw people on TV, drowning beneath the waves. And yet the sea played with me. The same waves that doomed others lapped my feet, wetting my toes with its cool caress.

But love came a little later, and it came with this music. For some reason, that song spoke to me, and it spoke to me of the sea, of its endless width and depth, of the sunlight making the waters glitter with gold and diamonds, of the cool winds blowing, the waves ebbing, the seagulls flying home. And hearing that song, I knew that in my heart, the sea is home. I may not be a mermaid. I may not be an elf. But still–in the sea I found a glimpse of that quiet, of that contentment, of that peace I have always wanted to find. I realized: when I die, I want to die facing the sea, my foot feeling the cool waters one last time, my ears filled with that song, that deep, beautiful, hopeful song.

This is not to say that the sea is always peaceful, and that we should never be afraid. Even the sea fills me with dread, sometimes. I may brave crossing the sea, as we did when we crossed the strait between Luzon and Mindoro. But I cowered when a tsunami became a very real possibility. And yet, now I think of it, can we always be sure, can we always be at ease with those whom we love? Those we love are never completely made known to us, and that which we do not yet understand disturbs us, discomfits us. And must we love them any less for this? Should we not, in that which we love, cherish what we do not know as much as, if not more than, what we do know?

What do we know of the sea? What can we say of it? For me, all great things come from the sea. From the sea spring life and abundance as fish on the dinner table, beauty and hope as a word to the weary poet, strength and tremor as the call of adventure and the last crashing sound of death–all great things, whether we can endure them or no. Our country is the Eastern Sea’s pearl, so we still sing; the sea is our mother. The West, our brothers, came from the sea: riding tall galleons with proud flags waving, or blue and yellow ships of the line with mighty cannons roaring, or in dark iron battleships bringing horror and ruin. For good or for ill, all the great things that shaped our country came from the sea. And even now, just as our land itself was born of the dark blue waters, it is the wonder, the allure, the terror, and ultimately the total beauty of the sea that touches our hearts with its seagulls’ song and with the rhythm of its waves, that calls us home.

The sea, the implacable mistress, is the most mysterious thing of all–therefore the most dangerous. And yet it is that which stirs in our hearts the greatest feelings, the greatest yearnings. But so are all great things, so are all things most worthy of love. So is, in the end, God.

The Brain and the Heart

Posted in Composition, Short Story on March 23, 2011 by theburningpulpit

The Brain and the Heart
A Fairy tale for Bigger Kids

Once upon a time the brain and the heart sat together in the head, side by side. No one was above the other; likewise, no one was beneath the other. But there was no harmony between the two, for they were opposites.

The brain was logical. He always analyzed hypotheses through and through before formulating conclusions and executing actions. He weighed both sides of a matter first before pronouncing judgment. He did not consider ideas without sound proof, for a statement without a clear rationale is plainly absurd.

The heart, however, was emotional. She was passionate, and was quickly drawn to admire many things: the rainbow, the flowers, and the like. Being impulsive and instinctive, she was quick to act as long as she feels she is correct, for in her opinion some things are to be believed immediately although unseen and unfounded. And that was the cause of constant disagreement between the two.

So time passed as the two coexisted uneasily, until man decided to coin a new word for a certain something he could strongly feel within: love. Upon hearing man uttering the new word, however, the brain could not help but be scornful.

“See how illogical man is? ‘Love’… is this thing not but an electrical sensation caused by my medulla oblongata as a signal for man to reproduce?” the brain posed this question to the heart, who sighed before answering.

“You do not understand. Love is like water to a parched field, like sunlight to the winter-beaten leaves, and like the evening star to the gloomy night. Love is the reason why man exists: man lives to love and to be loved. Love is life.”

The brain laughed. “I do not understand? I, who know many things? It is you, foolish heart, who does not understand. Man does not exist because of this so-called ‘love’; man exists due to oxygen and glucose and a series of electric impulses. I mean, does ‘love’ supply vital nutrients to the human body? How come, then, do you conclude that ‘love’ is life?”

“It is because of love that a father hunts food for his young! It is because of love that a mother nurses her children! It is because of love that a man marries and begins a family! It is all because of love, dear brain – love!” the heart emphatically declaimed.

“Rubbish! That is not ‘love’ – that is just self-preservation of species!”

“You just cannot see love even when it is right before you, can you?”

“I am afraid that I cannot find proof that this ‘love’ exists,” the brain pronounced. “Not unless you present a clear example or an exact definition will I ever recognize the existence of this ‘love’ thing.”

Both were quiet for some time. However, at length, as night fell, the heart muttered, “Love has reasons that Reason does not understand.”


It was a bright new morning. The brain, newly refreshed, was prepared to face the day–a day, no doubt, fraught with the annoying, senseless statements of the heart.

And speaking of the heart, she was nowhere near.

The brain was perplexed by this. What is she up to now?

“Heart!” he called out. “Heart! Where are you?!”

Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.

The brain heard a strange muffled sound – which was never before audible – far below him. He looked down and saw the heart there, sitting silently but for the alien sound.

Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.

At last – at long last – the brain understood.

A lot of things changed since then. The heart, now below the brain, remains in the chest. She just keeps her submissive silence, letting the brain decide firmly on a matter unopposed. Even though she sometimes disagrees with him, she does not speak out loudly and instead abides blindly by his judgment.

The brain realized everything, of course, and was deeply moved. Want proof? Our brains are the first to die after our hearts fail to function. Why? Scientifically speaking, this is because the sensitive brain would suffocate should the heart stop pumping precious oxygen to the head. Ah… I, however, believe that this is because the brain, binding his self to the only sound the heart produces, has ever since depended on the strange sound for his existence.

Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.

Love you. Love you. Love you.


Posted in Film, Review on March 22, 2011 by theburningpulpit

(My apologies for the late post. Grad rehearsal yesterday.)

It is our family’s tradition to watch an MMFF movie every year. As Mano Po, the movie series preferred by our family (read: not me) was not in the roster last year, I rather hoped I could successfully suggest RPG: Metanoia, which even then was getting good reviews as a first in the Philippine film industry. However, we (read: not I) eventually decided to see Rosario, at the time also getting positive vibes thanks to Dolphy’s good acting.

So Rosario it was.

I should have enjoyed this film. Even now I am hankering for decent “Era” films and stories, and Rosario is as close to “Era” as one gets. While it is not of a historical line like Tirad Pass, Rizal and Baler (the last I liked even though I did not see it in full), the production and design teams went over and beyond my expectations to match (if not to faithfully replicate) the costume, the language, the mood, and the atmosphere of the early American period. The Spanish twang was still strong in that part of Philippine history, as evidenced in the term “Nueva York,” the Spanish punctuation marks in Vicente’s letter, Vicente’s Revolutionary sentiments, and the hacienda era in Negros–wide fields, beautiful houses, amigos and paisanos gathering in sumptuous dinners. I suspect that the people behind this film are, at the least, fascinated with that different day, that different age, and I believe that if more of these people step up, then there is hope still in molding our country’s sensibilities.

And yet for all its glamor–for a glamorous visual treat Rosario is, and no one can deny it–I find myself disappointed with its plot and theme: the film could have better played with the liberated woman standing out in a society only beginning to come out of its shell. We, the viewers, do not feel that Rosario’s mistakes are brought about by her conflict with a retrogressive society. Instead, she comes across as a woman who just could not resist getting it on with all sorts of men: we do not see the Jennylyn Mercado of chi-chi sensibilities and smoking habits cavorting with Yul Servo and Dennis Trillo, but just a woman without any self-restraint. She did not float her way through her partners because she honestly believed that, as a liberated woman, she could, but because her id just drove her to it. Nor did the theme of redemption, emphasized by Dolphy’s narration (incidentally, his name in the film was “Jesus”), truly come out. It had not been well-reinforced. Even the scene where Mercado bangs on the door of Servo’s car, trying to plead with her daughter, did not evoke a particularly strong sense of guilt and regret, for it had come too late in the film.

The story’s frame (Dolphy talking about his mother to his estranged nephew, Manuel V. Pangilinan) comes across as rather stale. True, Dolphy does need to tell his mother’s story in spite of her character, for ancestors should always be remembered. But that Rosario did not prove to be a truly redeemed character weakens the glow in Dolphy’s design. Moreover, I did not understand the need to hide MVP’s face. The only conflict in the latter’s character was whether to accept Dolphy’s claims as true or not; there was nothing in MVP himself that warrants the obscuring of his face. If they could not have gotten the actual person, then why not make someone else look like him?

In the end, Rosario holds value only because of its beautiful rendering of an era. Despite the Lopez-esque argument that a story that is purely ornamental is lifeless, I believe that beauty must hold for something, and that art for art’s sake is also valid. And so Rosario must join the ranks of “first” movies like In My Life, RPG: Metanoia, and Baler–movies that attempt to revitalize the Philippine film industry by pushing the conventions further, by depicting an honest (if not faithful) era atmosphere, by dignifying a third-sex relationship, by daring an animation movie, by portraying the other side of the coin.

And yet, as one applauds these pioneers, he must also ask himself: why is it that these films only remain “firsts,” and that no follow-ups proceed them? If we admire In My Life and Baler, then why don’t we continue pushing the limits? Why don’t we make more honest era stories? Why don’t we make more good lesbian and gay love stories? Why does our film industry not press forward and improve on the faults of these pioneer movies? Rosario and RPG: Metanoia, alas, may as well be stored in that same moldy and webbed cupboard of “firsts,” of revolutionary movies that, unfortunately, bear no more fruit. Can we let this go on?

Smaller and Smaller Circles

Posted in Literature, Review on March 14, 2011 by theburningpulpit

I first read Smaller and Smaller Circles because it was required material in my literature class. Literature class. Hah. You get grades for doing what you would like very much to do: read.

As the first true crime fiction novel in the Philippines (Nick Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows is not so much a crime story as a Quest for Identity novel), Smaller and Smaller Circles cannot help but be compared to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, from which the book obviously draws inspiration. (I was lucky to read this book just after watching the Guy Rithchie film and reading the original Holmes stories.) Smaller and Smaller Circles’s Holmes and Watson, Fathers Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero, respectively, are irregulars in a crime scene where the official authority (Scotland Yard and the NBI) fails to step up. And yet the novel also departs from the Holomesian fiction: instead of the clear and singular perspective of John Watson, the point of view rotates along a rigodon of characters: Fathers Gus and Jerome, Father Emil of Payatas, the journalist Joanna Bonifacio, the unscrupulous Ben Arcinas, the victims, and even the murderer.

Glossing aside criticisms regarding the ridiculous transparency of the case and the hint of technical pretentiousness in the novel, one must still accede that Smaller and Smaller Circles is a fresh and smart read as well as an incredibly relevant book for the study of Philippine society. The circulating perspectives throughout the story hints at the difference between Victorian London and its Jack the Ripper and contemporary Manila and Payatas with its psychotic face-stealer. Instead of Holmes and Watson shedding a pure light straight into the heart of chaos, the differing voices and the plot’s roundabout resolution and conclusion suggest the plight of a confused community, much more confused than a London drowning under the clutches of Moriarty. For evil in the Philippines does not come forth so simply and clearly from a singular and well-oiled agency, but from every corner, from every strata of society: the inefficient NBI, the corruption which allowed for Saenz money, the sensationalist media, the depraved criminals, and the starving and desperate poor. Everyone is a victim because everyone is a perpetrator.

In the exam question in Sir Max Pulan’s class, it was noted that detective fiction is a reflection of a troubled society’s search for order. Victorian London needed Holmes to be because Scotland Yard could not quell the tide of crime. How troubling is it that Payatas needs two Jesuits because the police cannot do their duty? How troubling is it that the murderer is also a victim, the hero a part of the system of bribery, the supporting cast of an insensitive mass media? In the end, Smaller and Smaller Circles provokes more than it clarifies. And if the case is rather transparent and the plot rather pretentious, maybe this is because these things are not the point. In this country, we all know who are the sinners, we all know who is guilty, and we all know that we, and the personalities we have shaped, are to blame for our plight. What we must consider is why we are going through things in a roundabout way.


Recuerdos de Filipinas: Album-Libro

Posted in Literature, Review on March 5, 2011 by theburningpulpit

Util para el Estudio y Conocimiento de los Usos y Costumbres de Aquellas Islas


Treinta y Siete Fotopias Tomadas y Copiadas del Natural


Don Felix Laureano

I was very lucky to have come across this one neglected book in the Filipiniana section of National Bookstore, Mall of Asia. Translated and edited into the English language by Felice Noelle Rodriguez (with Renan Prado and Ramon C. Sunico), Recuerdos de Filipinas is a lively and engaging first-hand source on the late Spanish colonial era. As stated in the subtitle, the photo-album contains thirty-seven photographs depicting scenes of Filipino customs and landscapes (mostly in his native Iloilo) and, more importantly, accompanying descriptions and contextualization by the colonial settler Felix Laureano, not to mention an appendix pertaining to Luzon, Manila, and the Visayan Islands.

This source is important not because it presents images of the great city of Manila and the famous Ilustrados and the other principal members of elite Philippine society; on the contrary, the photo-album is especially important because it presents day-to-day images of ordinary life. True, the images were staged (inevitably, given the technology of the time), as stated by Rodriguez’s introduction. And yet the texts that accompany the images possess so much detail and even a hint of humor so that when Laureano invites us to a luncheon of adobo, tinola, and kari (which one suspects to be kare-kare, a variant of the Asian curry) in a calenderia, when he regales us with stories of elaborate courtship rites when he should have kept on describing the wedding procession, and when he romanticizes the beauties of the Filipina mestiza, we, the readers, are indeed being transported into an age that has long gone.

And yet for all his good intentions and pose of objectivity, Laureano’s faults also shine through. Noticeable is his bias against the Indios, the indigenous peoples, and the Chinese: the Indios he described as suplado or proud; the Ati-atihan, vulgar; and the Chinese, swindlers and tricksters. While he dwells on the beauty of the women taking a bath on the sea, he does not mention names: the characters he try to bring into life end up becoming mere nameless faces. However, even Laureano’s faults also add to the learning experience: we see here the Ilustrado who, in spite of disdain and pretensions to superiority, still highlighting what he thinks is the best in his country. Especially after finding out that the photo-album was launched in 1895, just a year before the Philippine Revolution, we readers cannot help but be a little skeptical of his quaint and peaceful depiction of a (slightly) romanticized and exoticized Philippines. (As an aside, one may wonder how, in spite of his stand-offish attitude towards his Indio subjects, he has acquired so detailed a knowledge of their customs.) And yet, we also end up pardoning Laureano for having done these things, first because, as the title says, the photo-album is his memory of the Philippines, that country which he, having named himself as a “Filipino,” must have loved.

All in all, Recuerdos serves as an excellent first-hand source, despite its focus on his local Iloilo, and even despite his biases and other such quirks. Or perhaps, “despite” is not the right word, for even in these “despites” his worldview, his feelings, and his rationale as a Filipino shines through. It is in two levels, namely, the information he provides of the country and its customs as well as the information he unwittingly provides of himself and of his class, that Recuerdos proves itself valuable and informative.