27 December 2011


Ian F. prepared lovely strawberry ice creams, topped with cherries, and he always greeted everyone with a joyful "Mate"! It must have been a Kiwi thing. He was also a deeply religious man. He always said goodbye by saying, "May today be better than good." He bid a final goodbye a little over twenty-four hours after All Souls' Day.

No one saw it coming. He'd felt a sudden piercing pain in his stomach early in the week, while jogging or walking, like something inside had burst. When it became clear that something was seriously wrong, Bing, the mother of Ian's gorgeous five-year-old boy, Josh, took Ian to the hospital. Or wherever it was they attended to the sick in the provincial municipality of Matalam, Cotabato, where they lived, or in Kidapawan City, which they neighbored.

I went to Ian's house for a visit a couple of months before his death. The town was rural and simple; it seemed to me like a place where unhappiness did not exist. (There are many such places in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao: beautiful, undiscovered, blessedly virgin, quite unlike Manila.) There, I had a delicious Filipino lunch. I admired the expansive vegetable garden. I dribbled an abandoned basketball. In the front yard, there was a wooden playhouse, and little Josh, who takes after his cheerful father, peered at me doubtfully through its cracks and openings, and I gushed, "How cute. Look at those hazel eyes."

At the hospital the doctors operated on Ian; cut him open. The next forty-eight hours brought forth a somber exchange of phone calls and text messages between Bing and Ian's friends, colleagues, fellow expats. Her last message read, "Please help me pray for Ian as he travels to the Great Beyond to meet his Creator.” Cause of death was renal failure. He was sixty-three.

30 November 2011


Sometime last month, or was it two months ago? Sometime ago I read Ian McEwan's Saturday, which I found to be very entertaining. It reminded me, vaguely and likely inaccurately, of a Don DeLillo novel. I don't know why it did; it just occurred to me (as in occurrere, to run against, befall, present itself) that it did. I remember that I did try very hard not to think about what I was reading while I was reading Saturday. I just let myself be drawn in. What was there to think about? I learned nothing from it. I must be thick or I must have bad taste. From Amsterdam, also by McEwan, I learned a little bit more. From Joseph O'Neill's Netherland—to me, a more congenial post-9/11 novel (if there's such a thing as that), and which I'm rereading right now—I learned a lot more. But I'm talking like Miss Van Vluyck of the Lunch Club. Is the novel a lesson? Should it instruct more than it should amuse?

20 October 2011

Why We Are Not Shallow

Dear Mr. F. Sionil José,

I am positive that I recently bumped into you at Book Sale in Mall of Asia. It was the Basque beret, and the walking stick, that made me almost sure of it. You stopped at the first shelf of hardcovers, flanking the line leading up to the cash register—there never seems enough room to maneuver in sorts of stores like this—while I brandished a Cynthia Ozick that I was hoping you would catch a glimpse of, and be impressed by, and take interest in, and decide to want to have yourself, and therefore ask me about—where might I have gotten a copy of the book? (the Ozick, in fact, had been tucked in between some heavy accounting and Web programming manuals)—so that I could also introduce myself and mention, as a way of saying that your entry had not gone unnoticed, or unacknowledged, not least by me, that I had sent The Pretenders (and Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado) to a friend abroad, and that I'd thought carefully about the gift, because this friend was keen on familiarizing himself with the literature of the Philippines, and that I didn't want to be sending strictly Rizalian stuff over and over.

You must think me shallow. You wouldn't be wrong. I am shallow and pretentious: a very bad combination. I once bought, as another gift to another friend, a Star Trek: Voyager novel from Fully Booked, and I made sure I didn't brandish that. There is a phrase, I believe, to describe my whole shame about the purchase: "wouldn't be caught dead". As in: I wouldn't be caught dead buying a certain five-hundred-peso science fiction book, but if it were a second-hand, yellow-paged, fifty-peso prize-winner—a veritable piece of art—I'd be exhibiting it aggressively for fellow scavengers to see.

Yet I never did move to speak to you. I was too shy! I also thought that there would be other occasions in the future for a proper introduction, such as when I would again hop in a taxi and make my way to Padre Faura, to your own bay area bookshop, ready to perform my fetishistic sniffage of books, books, books from other countries by other writers I could only hope to afford to read: six-hundred-peso Pamuks, seven-hundred-peso Coetzees, eight-hundred-peso Trollopes, thousand-peso Norton anthologies. And if there I should see the same beret, whose wearer might be instructing the perfectly helpful saleslady, or seen through the office window upstairs, above the PEN posters, writerly going over a sheaf of typed sheets, then I'd be left without a doubt that it is indeed you.

It was thus without disappointment or disrespect that, after the tinkle that signaled the end of my Book Sale transaction, I slid mutely by you and left, happy that I hadn't spent any more time, money, or words inside the increasingly cramped store.

That was several weeks ago. Shortly after the episode, I read your Philippine Star opinion piece on why we Filipinos are shallow. "This is a question...which I hope all of us should ask ourselves every so often," you wrote. "Once we have answered it, then we will move on to a more elevated sensibility." It was something of what people call these days a "viral hit"; their nerves pinched and consciences stirred, readers shared the piece boisterously on Facebook and Twitter, also commenting one way or another that it is true what Mr. José says, isn't it?

But it isn't true, if I may say so respectfully. We are not shallow—well, I am, but the Filipinos you speak of, who respond to the native tinikling dance more heartily than to intricate Japanese numbers, who fill their evenings with the dramas and raptures of telenovelas (which, by the way, one must not take for more than they're worth), who gush over the loves of movie stars but cannot be made to read the New York Times, or watch BBC, or listen to Fresh Air on NPR, who seem eternally disposed to choose the materials and entanglements of a simpler, less intellectual life over the delicate civil pleasures and gilded perfections of the life of the mind—I don't believe that they are shallow; not at all.

To not be shallow, one must attempt to engage in profundities, must he not? But there is little room for profundities in our country. Our freedoms are so minor. So, therefore, are our victories. They are victories no less. Just a few days ago, at a traffic light along Padre Burgos, on my way to perform rapporteurial (or, to be less glamorous about it, "handmaiden") duties at a conference, I noticed a jeepney pull up next to the one I was in. The driver stuck his head out, turned to my driver, obviously his compadre, and exclaimed, "Ang sarap ihataw! Ang sarap ihataw simula nang na-welding! Ikatlo ko na ito ngayon, pare." (Translated to English, rather lamely by me, it means: "This feels incredible to hit the road with! And it has felt incredible since the welding job. This is already my third round today.") Bronzed and battered though he seemed by the torrid city-infected afternoon, the man had, I could see, the sort of look that cannot be anything other than the look of happiness, and the kind of smile that startlingly exposes the teeth, as though these are bones. Only, he had no teeth.

An absurd example, surely, but I hope you see my point: that in this country the freshly shaped chassis of a chrome wagon is worth far more than any novel and that engagement in profundity does not guarantee any relief from pain. Being a writer, like you (though of course a far less accomplished one), I wish I could say something to the contrary; I wish I could say that an "elevated sensibility" is what we need to satisfy our deepest yearnings, to save us from our lingering day-to-day glooms. But it wouldn't be true—not right now anyway. Or not until such time that the state manages to expand our freedoms, and it makes a little bit more sense to call out those who are prone to trivializing.

(A side note: being a reader of the NYT, like you, I oftentimes find that the paper cannot possibly be made for people like me—for the helplessly un-American, that is. Reading its relentless coverage of Hurricane Irene around the time that underreported Typhoon Mina hit the Philippines made me feel like I had no business reading papers from the other side of the world. Or from an entirely different planet, it seemed like at the time.)

Might the irony of it all be that, with these words, I am positioning myself in a better, more sophisticated place? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What I am certain of is this: the day I put myself forward as someone who isn't shallow will be the day that I also finally, fully admit that I am a terribly unhappy man. Even possibly a terrorist—a terrorist by way of pen, if you will. Indeed, given the ruinous—at times murderous—inefficiencies of the state, I wonder why there are not more terrorists in the Philippines. I wonder why the modern-day Ilustrados haven't yet formed a group akin to, say, the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany or the Brigate Rosse in Italy and called themselves, I don't know—Los Malalims. (Now there's an idea!)

Or might I be remarking on an altogether different matter? Forgive me if you meant only to call out specific people who cannot afford to be shallow—could they be public officials?—and who cannot, must not, behave as though they were made of Tarlacian sugar: bound to melt in the face of tears and flood and blood. But—but—I am not a student of politics; I don't have anything intelligent at all to say about political goings-on.

Whatever I do have to say, I hope you'll hear me out on it. And I hope that, the next time I see you in one bookshop or another, you'll ask where I got the Ozick, so I can say, unabashedly, that Filipinos are not shallow, and you'll find a copy at that dusty little corner of the room.

07 October 2011

Measuring the World

Once you have navigated past the first few pages of Measuring the World (or Die Vermessung der Welt), young Daniel Kehlmann’s most recent novel (strictly speaking, that is—Fame doesn't really count, does it?), you'll realize that the story at hand isn't as daunting, or even as ambitious, as the title suggests. You'll even get the sense that Mr. Kehlmann must have been laughing at himself when he wrote this delightful comic tale.

Measuring the World follows the lives of two German geniuses of the Enlightenment: Prussian aristocrat Alexander von Humboldt and the unsociable Carl Friedrich Gauss, straight as a whip. Both of them have set out to survey the world using their respective brands of genius and eccentricity, but, save for this common goal and a meeting in 1828 at a scientific congress in Berlin, the ways of these two prodigious scientists cannot possibly be more different. In the middle of a spectacular, almost mythological expedition, fearless traveler Humboldt determines the altitude by measuring a snow bridge that he and French botanist Aimé Bonpland have to cross in order to survive; Gauss, meanwhile, makes astronomical charts and calculates and corrects the trajectories of planets all by himself in his house at Göttingen, just “at home in the kitchen”.

The events proceed at a comic book pace, and Mr. Kehlmann banks on exaggeration to paint semi-faithful, semi-whimsical caricatures (as all caricatures should be) of two figures in history whom scholars (not including the author, definitely) are likely to take too seriously, and who both later appeared in banknotes. In one scene, Humboldt bastardizes Goethe in front of four oarsmen by translating "Wanderer's Night Song" in a way that will have you laugh out loud. In another scene, Gauss finds himself in a genuinely mathematical moment (he has successfully drawn a seventeen-sided figure), only to be overwhelmed by the force of a hurting molar.

(Zimmerman) felt like praying. This must be printed, and it would be best if it appeared under the name of a professor. It wasn’t the done thing for students to be publishing on their own.
Gauss tried to reply, but when Zimmerman brought him the glass of water, he could neither speak nor drink. He made a gesture of apology, wobbled home, lay down in bed, and thought about his mother up there in Brunswick. It had been a mistake to come to Göttingen. The university here was better, but he missed his mother, and even more so when he was ill. At about midnight, when his cheek had swollen still further and every movement in every part of his body hurt, he realized the barber had pulled the wrong tooth.

If you're a fan of magic realism, you'll likely enjoy all of Humboldt’s adventures. But I'm not a fan of magic realism; the chapters set in the Amazon and the Himalayas reminded me instead of The Adventures of Tintin, but wilder. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know, but I secretly wish that Mr. Kehlmann made Humboldt "explore the blessed islands" of the Philippines. He did, however, allude in the most subtle of ways to Humboldt's (alleged) homosexual tendencies.

Ultimately it is Gauss' story that proves to be the more intriguing one. What was really inside the mind of that genius? Of course, one need not take pains to illustrate that it was an extraordinary mind, unimaginably mathematical, but what makes Kehlmann's portrait of Gauss—always pining for the familiarity of all things domestic—a truly intelligent and affecting one is its picture of a man being imperfect, being all too human.

Originally written in German, Measuring the World was translated to English by Carol Brown Janeway; a few sentences get a little problematic, but I'm really just nitpicking. After all, given the difficult linguistic differences between German and English, what might one expect? At least, Kehlmann's storytelling is contemporary, and the very German irony of Measuring the World is out there for even the least alert readers to recognize. "Now he knew," reads a passage describing one of Gauss’ precocious discoveries, “that all parallel lines meet." Paired by many for measuring the world and shifting paradigms, Humboldt and Gauss may never really have had anything in common—except, that is, for 1828 and a less-than-reverential presentation in this deceptively light novel.

05 October 2011


As I went downstairs I heard Bill singing, "Irony and Pity. When you're feeling... Oh, Give them Irony and Give them Pity. Oh, give them Irony. When they're feeling... Just a little irony. Just a little pity..." He kept on singing until he came downstairs. The tune was: "The Bells are Ringing for Me and My Gal." I was reading a week-old Spanish paper.
"What's all this irony and pity?"
"What? Don't you know about Irony and Pity?"
"No. Who got it up?"
"Everybody. They're mad about it in New York. It's just like the Fratellinis used to be."
From Fiesta, which I read again recently and enjoyed even more thoroughly. I'm finding it truer by the day that I understood so little of whatever I was reading when I was nineteen or twenty or twenty-one, compared to what I know and understand now at twenty-six. Which means that by the time I'm forty, I'm going to be even more keenly aware of what I missed at twenty-six. Or as a friend put it: "You think that you know what you’re doing, but the whole point of having brains, it seems, is to grasp, in retrospect, that you didn’t."

25 September 2011

Goon Squad

He's standing at the railing, looking out. It's the first time I've seen him be still.
I go, Do you even remember being our age?
Lou grins at me in my chair, but it's copy of the grin he had at dinner. I am your age, he goes.
Ahem, I go. You have six kids.
So I do, he goes. He turns his back, waiting for me to disappear. I think, I didn't have sex with this man. I don't even know him. Then he goes, I'll never get old.
You're already old, I tell him.
He swivels around and peers at me huddled in my chair. You're scary, he goes. You know that?
It's the freckles, I go.
It's not the freckles. It's you. He keeps looking at me, and then something shifts in his face and he goes, I like it.
Do not.
I do. You're gonna keep me honest, Rhea.
I'm surprised he remembers my name. I go, It's too late for that, Lou.
Now he laughs, really laughs, and I understand that we're friends, Lou and I. Even if I hate him, which I do. I get out of my chair and come to the railing, where he is.
People will try to change you, Rhea, Lou goes. Don't let 'em.
But I want to change. No, he goes, serious. You're beautiful. Stay like this.
But the freckles, I go, and my throat gets that ache.
The freckles are the best part, Lou says. Some guy is going to go apeshit for those freckles. He's going to kiss them one by one.
I start to cry, I don't even hide it.

From A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.

I did one last thing before deciding to stop using Facebook. I looked for Jennifer Egan's page and left a comment. "You've got a reader in Manila, Jennifer Egan!" I wrote. "Thank you kindly for writing A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is friggin' incredible and quite unlike anything I've ever read. I should buy copies for my friends, because we all seem to get caught up in the tragic romanticism of our quarter-life existential crises (growing up without knowing it, in other words). Your book reassures me—us—that we'll somehow survive."

She wrote back a few days later. (This is all public, by the way. Anyway, if a Pulitzer Prize winner sent me a message in some form or another, I'd wish not to keep it private! Pompous man that I am, I'd brag about the correspondence to anyone who'd listen.) "Migs," she said, "I love the thought that the book has meaning to you in Manila. Thank you for these fantastic words, which have made my night. I'm very happy to have you as a reader."


15 September 2011

Thieves in Our City

It's feeling like a movie out here in Manila; a bad movie. Just recently, our help, Lisa, came back to the house from a trip to Mercury Drug weeping. Her cell phone had been stolen. Two masked men on a motorcycle had come up to her at Labo, the stretch between Laong Laan and Maria Clara, and threatened to kill her with I forget what the weapon was: a gun or a balisong? It doesn't matter. "I'm concerned about my SIM," she said. "I saved so many numbers and messages in there." We told her it doesn't matter, at least you have another cell phone, a nice new and shiny red one with a TV. She bought it from Robinsons Place Manila a couple of months earlier. It's a better phone than mine; mine has a touchscreen that doesn't do anything when you touch it.

Then a few days ago my younger brother, Josemaria, came home from work swearing he'd never ride a jeepney again. He began talking about how, earlier that morning, after six but before seven, he had closely watched a pickpocket slip inside the EDSA-Cubao jeep he was in and steal another passenger's cell phone. He said that the poor passenger must have been a construction worker, he looked so sleepy, he had no idea what was happening. I told Josemaria to ride a taxi or a Tamaraw FX. "There aren't any FXs that early," he insisted. I didn't believe him. I said I used to ride FXs to Cubao every day when I was working at Eastwood. He said again, "There aren't any FXs that early."

Even if there were FXs, or even if he began taking taxis on his way to the office, I'd still fear for his safety. Lately there has been plenty of news on television about the bukas-taxi boys, whose modus operandi is to open the unlocked passenger doors of taxis running along EDSA and seize whatever they can seize from whoever's at the backseat. Should the victim or the driver jump out in the middle of traffic and chase after them, the boys—children, really—will pick up rocks from the sidewalk for throwing. Then they'll run across the rails of the MRT to the other side of the road.

It's really kind of messed up. It doesn't even matter to these thieves whether you have cash in your pocket or not, or a credit card in your wallet or not: whatever you have with you, they're going to take it away. Yesterday morning I woke up to find that the water meter by the gate of our house was gone. I remembered the dog barking in the middle of the night, but who would have thought it was at someone trying to make a living out of selling stolen brass?

Actually, I should've known. There are enough stories in this city about the disappearance of the side mirrors of parked cars. There are enough stories about vanishing handbags and purses in food courts, about laptops lost in Starbucks. Last year, when we lost the ancestral house to a big fire, a number of men in firefighting suits went in without hoses and opened drawers and boxes and cabinets, looking for jewelry. A few days later came the scavengers, who searched the rubble for scraps of steel and crumpled iron sheets. There was this case too from last month, when, filing out of a Rise of the Planet of the Apes screening, I noticed an edgy little twenty-something guy in cargo denim place a blue Jansport backpack at my feet. I thought it contained a bomb, so I ran like an idiot to the houseware section, behind a mall security guard. It was only when I heard the crunchy obscenities of the thief's victim that I realized the bag was not about to explode.

Theft happens everywhere, but this is getting seriously stupid. I won't even call it theft. My name for it is despair: a state of being, of thinking, of feeling rather than an act of crime. And while there's little to be said about stealing—other than it's not right, and should be stopped—it worries me what might be said about what's being stolen, and why. I feel often enough like hell for being unable to make a lot of money (although I do seem to consistently spend more than what I make), but scenes of scheming out-of-school youth and water meter pilferage leave evidence not of sullen personal defeat (or kleptomaniac tendencies) but of larger disorders and societal failures. It's not a problem you can solve by chasing.

It's also not a problem you can solve by policing. When I was seven or eight years old, I stole a box of chewing gum: Chiclets. I grabbed it from the checkout counter at the grocery store in Welcome Rotonda and put it in my pocket. It felt so illegal. And it tasted even worse. The gum was disgusting because it came with a special ingredient called conscience. It certainly wasn't worth it, and if security had come after me, if my mother had caught me and told me off for taking things that belonged to someone else, I'd have given it back, even wrapped it in teary-eyed apology. I'm not saying there weren't more serious cases of theft back then, but these days one gets the sense of a new breed of thieves: those who would literally die if they ever had to say sorry; those who will not only refuse to give your belongings back, but who will also threaten you with a fan knife and hurl a big-ass rock through your windshield—hurl it, too, with all the force of their pain. And, by God, they must be hurting: conscience and punishment count as nothing more than a pinprick compared to despair.

It's like a movie, I'm telling you: some sort of poverty porn, with the state at the directorial helm and society as its writers. I believe we all know who the actors are; they're sweeping up all the hardware.

27 August 2011

Editing James Soriano

The unedited version of this article, written by a Mr. James Soriano, originally appeared in Manila Bulletin.

"Language, lLearning, iIdentity, and pPrivilege"

English is the language of learning. I’ve known this since even before I could go to school. As a toddler, my My first study materials as a toddler were a set of flash cards that my mother used to teach me the English alphabet. (A set that must have been missing a dangling modifiers card.)

My mother made home conducive to learning English: all my storybooks and coloring books were in English, and so were the cartoons I watched and the music I listened to. She required me to speak English at home. She even hired tutors to help me learn to read and write in English.

In school, I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations, and variables.  (Another James—Henry James—would have disapproved of the missing Oxford commas.) With it, (and again!) we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it, we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.

Filipino, on the other hand, was always the ‘other’ subject—almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion, and English. My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.

We used to think that learning Filipino was important because it was practical: Filipino was the language of the world outside the classroom. It was the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera tindera (vendor) when you went to the tindahan tindahan (store), what you used to tell told your katulong katulong (maid) that whenever you had an utos utos (command), and how you texted manong manong (a hierarchal marker) when you needed “sundo na sundo na (to be picked up).”

These skills were are required to survive in the outside world, because we are forced to relate with the tinderas tinderas and the manongs manongs and the katulongs katulongs of this world. If we wanted to communicate to with these people—or otherwise avoid being mugged on in the jeepney—we needed to learn Filipino.

That being said, though Having said that, I was proud of my proficiency with in the language. Filipino was the language I used to speak with my cousins and uncles and grandparents in the province, so I never had much trouble reciting.

It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult. What proved to be difficult was the reading and writing. I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote, and thought in English. And so (do not use "and so" unless you're Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace), in much of the same way that I later learned German later on, I learned Filipino in terms of English with an essentially English understanding. In this This way, I survived Filipino in high school, albeit with too many sentences that had the preposition ‘ay.’ ('Ay' is not a preposition; it's a linking verb.)

It was really only in at university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of as a language and not just dialect (do you mean) a "lingua franca." Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.

But more More significantly, it was had (or "inspired") its own way of reading, writing, and thinking. There are ideas and concepts unique to Filipino that can never be translated into another. another language: try Try translating bayanihan bayanihan, tagay tagay, kilig kilig, or diskarte diskarte.

Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with With this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda malansang isda. My own language is foreign to me: I speak, think, read and write primarily in English. To borrow the terminology of Fr. Bulatao, I am a "split-level Filipino."

But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while While Filipino may be the language of identity, it is still/also (just helping you out here) the language of the streets. It might may have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned. (It was the language of Jose Rizal, though—one of the twenty-two that he allegedly used.)

It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory nor the language of the boardroom, the court room courtroom (a compound wordthank you, Cory, for the reminder!), or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege. I may be disconnected from my being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.

So I have my education to thank for making English my mother language.

Editor's note: I hope that your education taught you the meaning of the word "asshole", because you'll have to forgive me for being one to you. Now go ask your mother for a new set of flash cards.

18 August 2011

Littérature Engagée

Dear Mr. J.M. Coetzee,

I just finished reading Diary of a Bad Year. It's the first novel of yours that I've read; it certainly won't be the last. (Promise.) Also, while it hasn't, according to the Internet, generated as many good reviews as, say, Disgrace, I'll likely think of my first Coetzee as more meaningful than whatever will come next. And not just because you had rather accurately written up a Filipina character; but also because Diary exampled the kind of novel that I think the world sorely needs today. Never mind the reviews; never mind the critics.

"And one is thankful to Russia too, Mother Russia, for setting before us with such indisputable certainty the standards toward which any serious novelist must toil, even if without the faintest chance of getting there: the standard of the master Tolstoy on the one hand and of the master Dostoevsky on the other. By their example one becomes a better artist; and by better I do not mean more skilful but ethically better. They annihilate one's impurer pretensions; they clean one's eyesight; they fortify one's arm."

Of course, it isn't only at this latter passage that I'd nodded my head. (And that's all I can do! Part of my agreeing with the opinions in your book is recognizing my inability to come up with similarly intelligent ones.) An earlier one ("On universities") just went straight to the point. "The real university," it read, "may have to move into people's homes and grant degrees for which the sole backing will be the names of the scholars who sign the certificates."

This cannot be emphasized enough. I myself come from a university here in Manila that, from the looks of it, is being turned, slowly but surely, into a business enterprise: buildings being named after entrepreneurs; programs and premises being vested by moguls; professors struggling to fulfill quotas. It's the sort of system in which money so often changes hands; the sort of system, therefore, wherein gaps in learning can occur. Well, yes, but who am I to underscore the problem? No one; I am one of the damaged goods, in fact. But this doesn't make the task of restoring our learning institutions to its purest form any less urgent indeed. Otherwise, the whole freaking undergraduate bulletin will soon turn into a press release, or a sort of marketing kit. And more students will be mined ("mine!") instead of instructed.

Anyway, enough of that rant. I do hope you appreciate the fact that your books are actually widely available here, in terms of shelf presence in bookstores. (I know I do! And while I understand your fundamental aversion to the ceremonies, the prizes do help.) I'm probably going to read The Master of Petersburg next, since I see copies of it everywhere I look. This is not to mention my terrible interest in seeing how you had reimagined the life of a Russian novelist who also happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers. 

13 August 2011


What a name: “Pius”. I didn't know him well; I just knew that he served at San Isidro Labrador Chapel. His name may explain why my most vivid recollection of this neighbor is of his performance at my grandmother’s wake, at Saint Peter’s in Quezon City, three or four years ago. As if to render unthinkable the kind of rumors that circulated about any middle-aged bachelor who attached himself to church in these fallen times, Pius played his guitar with an innocence that approached the holy. He’d brought along the usual retinue of teenagers—Len Len, Jenny, Men Men, Rey Boy, among others—who otherwise would have had nothing else to do but whistle the time away on street benches or place their fathers’ bets for the San Lazaro horse race (with its racetrack that evoked the socio fundadores, in sepia).

Led by Pius, and flanking the open casket of my father’s mother, they sang a chorus of church songs. During Mass, Pius sort of doubled as a lay minister, spreading cloth over a makeshift altar and assembling the chalice and ciborium at a makeshift tabernacle. After Mass he put his guitar in a corner and stayed with us, cleaning up cookie crumbs left by family friends whom he had also encouraged to mark their condolences in the guest book.


Well, he died, too. He was forty-seven. Diabetes. He spent his last days walking around the neighborhood with his neck covered by a makeshift scarf; he had this wound on the back of his head, from the nape downwards, this wound that wouldn’t heal and he wouldn’t show and which people who had nevertheless seen it described as being the size of a plate. “That’s impossible,” I thought, when mother announced at the dinner table that Pius had died. She wasn't kidding me. “Maybe the size of a saucer,” I went on thinking, “but not a dinner plate, I shouldn’t think. That’s horrible.”

02 August 2011


"No one reads Trollope now," Mrs. Ballinger interrupted impatiently.
Mrs. Roby looked pained. "I'm only just beginning," she confessed.
"And does he interest you?" Mrs. Plinth inquired.
"He amuses me."
No one reads Trollope now. I mean, if there's something I can say to Edith Wharton about the state of "now", it's that there is so no one who reads Trollope now, compared to then, when she'd written this masterful short story called Xingu. But what is Xingu anyway? That's part of the joke that she tells.
"Amusement," said Mrs. Plinth sententiously, "is hardly what I look for in my choice of books."
"Oh, certainly, 'The Wings of Death' is not amusing," ventured Mrs. Leveret, whose manner of putting forth an opinion was like that of an obliging salesman with a variety of other styles to submit if his first selection does not suit.
"Was it meant to be?" enquired Mrs. Plinth, who was fond of asking questions that she permitted no one but herself to answer. "Assuredly not."
And the joke that she tells is a joke that still works today. I smiled, I gathered my eyebrows, I laughed, I blushed—all at the same time—at the thought of a Lunch Club, and at the thought of the not-so-remote possibility that, if I were a woman, if I were living in the first two decades of the twentieth century, I'd be part of something so pretentious and terrible.
"Assuredly not—that is what I was going to say," assented Mrs. Leveret, hastily rolling up her opinion and reaching for another. "It was meant toto elevate."
Miss Van Vluyck adjusted her spectacles as though they were the black cap of condemnation. "I hardly see," she interposed, "how a book steeped in the bitterest pessimism can be said to elevate, however much it may instruct."
As it turns out, of course, I find myself situated between the first two decades of the twenty-first century—which, really, would be the perfect time to raise my eyebrows and turn my nose up at things like Twitter, Facebook, postmodern literature, bromance and chick flicks, that sort of stuff, that sort of gimmick. But I do enjoy that sort of gimmick.

True, after a healthy dose of Wharton's shorts, I am now reading J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year (pretty heavy stuff, both for dilettantes and intellectuals), but I have also already ouched at several people's assumptions that I take myself "way too seriously".
"I meant, of course, to instruct," said Mrs. Leveret, flurried by the unexpected distinction between two terms which she had supposed to be synonymous. Mrs. Leveret's enjoyment of the Lunch Club was frequently marred by such surprises; and not knowing her own value to the other ladies as a mirror for their mental complacency she was sometimes troubled by a doubt of her worthiness to join in their debates. It was only the fact of having a dull sister who thought her clever that saved her from a sense of hopeless inferiority.
So I've taken pains—or, come to think of it, taken none at all—to do Ms. Roby things like wear 3D glasses to see Avatar, stay up at night to catch TMZ, listen to Bruno Mars instead of Rufus Wainwright, and choose Evelyn Waugh over Anthony Trollope because the latter, in my opinion, is, you guessed it, more amusing.

Why have you got to be so harsh? I'm enjoying myself.

24 July 2011

First Reaction: Norway Attacks

I have been keeping up to date with the news from Oslo and Utoya, as I am sure you have. Ninety-two dead. (So far.) That is at once incredible and horrific. While I know little about European politics, and don't have much in terms of opinion (a Swiss friend and intellectual mentor will surely advise me to zip it unless I know it), I nonetheless shake my head at what I must say is a classic case of conservative backlash. Well, it is far more than that, really. It is right-wing extremism at its bloodiest, and I am not surprised that the man who is connected to the attacks—a Mr. Anders Behring Breivik—is, reportedly, a fierce Christian and anti-Muslim political conservative (who plays war-related video games).

Ah, if I were him I'd have felt lucky, what with such a liberal government. (Cough, cough!) His resorting to terrorism proves that the world is still plagued by people who love their religion far more than they love peace.

07 July 2011

The Assassin

I was scanning the pages of Granta 69: The Assassin when I came across a photo essay by former Magnum photographer Kent Klich.
In 1989, the first television pictures from Romania's children's homes shocked the world. More than 100,000 undernourished children were kept in institutions reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps: left lying in their own faeces, bound hand and foot, maltreated by their 'guards'. No one touched them gently.
Soon it was found that thousands of the children had been infected with HIV, either through transfusions of infected blood or by syringes that had been reused without being sterilized. The fact that low-birthweight children in Romania would be given micro-transfusions of blood to help their chance of survival only increased the risk of transmitting HIV.
According to President (Nicholae) Ceaușescu, HIV and Aids did not exist in Romania—which is why, for a decade before his downfall in 1990, the virus was able to spread so quickly. Under his regime, families were required to have as many children as possible—the norm was five children to each woman—which put an impossible burden on the poor. Contraceptives were forbidden, abortion was illegal. The result was thousands of primitive abortions and tens of thousands of children abandoned to state institutions.
Sound familiar? I don't mean to make rash comparisons and assess the state of the Philippines in light of what happened twenty years ago in Europe, but lost, it seems, in all this talk about the proposed Reproductive Health Bill is the serious underreporting of HIV incidence in the country.

According to the local health department, 6,016 cases of HIV/Aids have been reported from 1984 to 2010. Yes, that seems to be the twenty-six-year total. There are close to a hundred million people in the Philippines—over sixteen million in Metro Manila alone, meaning there are more people in this capital region than in New York City, but that's another problem, I guess.

In any event, it doesn't take a mathematician to know that those numbers don't add up.

20 June 2011


Martin with brother Nole. 

Remember Mitzie? She had a son. His name is Martin. He looks exactly like her—cotton-haired, short-muzzled, marble-eyed, caramel-colored, soft-pawed. Which is to say he looks nothing like his hideous dad, a dog named Brutus, who is owned by my cousins Fred and Eugene, is neither Spitz nor Shih Tzu, and looks as ugly, and is as ill-mannered, as his name.

While Martin, fortunately, took after his mother in terms of looks and cuteness, he didn't exactly charm people. He certainly didn't charm me. Coming home on late nights I often turned the key to the gate of our house and heard Martin waiting on the other side—not cooing as one might herald the arrival of a master, like Mitzie did, but barking at me as though he was about to rip my head off. Or, if he wasn't being mean, he was being annoying. Like whenever he positioned himself to sleep in front of a screen door—the entrance door—so that I couldn't go in without forcing him to move, or that I couldn't go out without hitting his head or his leg, upon which he always let out a sharp, ear-piercing yelp.

"Get out of the way," I yelled at him. The son, ultimately, of his father, Martin acted like he couldn't care less. So in a move that I'm sure PETA would have frowned at, I rolled out the garden hose, connected it to the spigot, put a finger through the other end, and sprayed water, nasty man that I was, at Martin, who retreated drippingly to a dry safe corner, or under the van.

Then last year we lost the house to a fire, which ripped through everything and had us—two families, ten people in all, plus two dogs (Mitzie died four months earlier)—squeeze into a rented three-bedroom apartment one block off the rubble. Displaced from his comfort zone, Martin did not act uncomfortably. Something else happened. He behaved courageously, heroically, realizing perhaps that his family extended to include us, in the same way that we'd always thought ours included all pets. He stopped barking at me, for one, and, like his mother, became prone to humping my Pumas or Happy Feet—in addition to my father's Cole Haans, my siblings' Hush Puppies and Havaianas, my mother's sandals bought from Trinoma—as a form of warm welcome. He ran to catch roaches in the apartment, or the rats that sometimes appeared to chew the wires of my brother Francis' salvaged CPU. He moved away to give and respect space, taking little quiet dog steps to the open kitchen area upon the arrival of occasional guests. When last Christmas a cousin from California came with his hair-dyed, big-earringed, wetly lip-sticked, Prada-handbagged fiancée, Brutus went on to sniff the lady's legs while Martin played to perfection the part of a dog with manners, a dog with refinement.

As a reward, Francis began to take him out to walk in the evenings and enjoy the cool-breezed freedom of Manila suburbia. Such that Martin, the formerly insufferable beast, became Martin, the giddy, utterly lovable tongue-wagger.

I'm forced to hold on to moments like this now that Martin has been reduced to a stumbling mass of hair—no thanks to something called canine distemper. The last few weeks, he's been on IV, with an anti-bite mask wrapped around his mouth. He's also had to deal with an inordinate amount of eye discharge, which has led to futile attempts at wiping it off against the nearest solid surface, and which has basically rendered him blind: a dog walking pathetically into walls, mirrors, the legs of chairs. There's also, as I mentioned, the 'stumbling' part. He's fighting, brave little boy, he's fighting, but he can't lift at least one of his legs—can't lift it long or high enough to keep him from losing balance, like a disabled person whose grip on the stick constantly falters.

So I think to myself, come back, Martin, come back to your old self, jump up and down and bark at me if you have to.

But his breathing is increasingly labored; his life fading. Yesterday, my younger brother Josemaria sent me a text message that read, "Papa is asking if it's okay with you that we euthanize Martin." That sent me into a pretty horrible state; all of a sudden, there was a lump in my throat that made its way out through my eyes and on to a piece of Starbucks tissue. (Well, it wasn't that poignant. I actually sobbed like a wittle girl.) I responded immediately by saying I'd spend as much of my measly income to keep the dog alive. But it isn't the money, my brother replied. The neurological damage is permanent. Like in Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. Martin's completely disoriented, he no longer has any idea what's going on, he doesn't even respond to his name anymore. And it will be like that for as long as he lives. He's not going to get better. There is nothing, in other words, that we can do to save him.

Today, Father's Day, seeing Martin walk limply into a pool of his own pee (incontinence is one of the symptoms of the disease) and bump his head against something every five seconds, I've decided to change my mind. I guess there was a part of me concerned about where my convictions lay, but there was a bigger part: a wavering spirit, a reluctance to admit that the lives of dogs are just so short. Too short: no sooner did I let my guard down to love and admire Martin than this happens. It's awful, the high-pitched whimpers, the sound of him weeping. The quavering legs, the eyes that no longer open. Martin is all but gone, as difficult as it is to accept. He is family all the same, and it is with nothing but love that I say it's time, finally, to put the dog to sleep.

P.S.: Martin got the injection today, 20th of June. I'm sure he'll send our love to Mitzie.

09 June 2011

Why I'm Pro-Life, Whatever That Means

There's a sticker, unpeeled, on my father's office desk. I don't know where it's from, but it's meant to demonstrate one's opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill. "Say no," the sticker reads, a thick red diagonal line dashing across the glossy sheet of vinyl. Maybe it was given out on a recent Sunday at the local parish; maybe it's meant for the family car.

You might have been hearing a lot about this bill, first proposed more than a decade ago, in 1998, and which, if approved, will serve as a kind of national health, population, and development policy, giving Filipinos—especially the poor—access to proper sex education, family planning devices and programs, and related free or low-cost social services through taxpayer support. There's been plenty of debate and controversy about it, to be sure; as for why, well—you must keep in mind that majority of the 94-million-strong Philippine population is Catholic, and that any talk of things like contraceptives, birth control pills, vasectomies, and sex education is likely to be met with raised eyebrows. Here, divorce isn't even legal. (We're something of a standout in that regard, Malta having voted positively in a non-binding referendum on legalizing divorce.) So you can imagine the humorlessness with which the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) had, at one point, threatened to excommunicate President Aquino, if he should ever signify his support for the RH Bill.

As for why now, don't ask me; true, this is the first time that legislation of this kind has won the support of the health committee in the Philippine Congress, although it seems to me that the whole affair has less to do with politics than with a kind of divine comedy. Of which I, too, have been thrown into being a part. "The problem with 'pro-choice,'" tweeted my younger brother J (who is named after the founder of Opus Dei, and who until last month hadn't yet graduated from college), "is functionalism." Being an advocate of the bill, I replied that the problem with being anti-RH Bill, or "pro-life" as the opposition wishes to be called, is theism: after all, just before this particular exchange, the CBCP had spent close to a million pesos—possibly more—on the placement of anti-RH Bill advertorials in several national dailies. J sounded irritated. "Someone's intent on building straw hats." Then I wrote, not without disproportionate, hair-pulling fury, "Don't be so cocky just because you'll have a medal round your neck," right before un-following him on Twitter and blocking him from my Facebook Wall. I told you it's funny. But it's the kind of comedy that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

And it's the kind of bad taste that I felt as a kid whenever I heard someone utter the word "condom". It sounded like a Bad Word, and I believed it was a Bad Word. "Condom" dirtied up sacred body parts like the penis and the vagina with bastard associations. As though the word itself was equivalent to sin—never mind using the thing. But like all young boys, I was drawn and tickled by the mystery surrounding this Badness, by the adult seriousness with which I'd been told, in hushed parental whispers, about the immorality of contraceptives. I remember one early summer morning at the local basketball playground when I stood by the entrance gate next to a garbage can, riveted by the sight of a crinkled, soggy latex chute, as gelatinous as a jellyfish and as clinical-looking as a test tube. Oh my, I thought. So that's what it looks like. By then I was convinced that a world of truths was being kept from me. One such truth is this: there was no dead embryo in that garbage can.

Murdered five-day old babies, the carcinogenic qualities of some oral contraceptives, the likelihood that condoms will promote promiscuity, the spread of AIDS, and abortion, the presumed evils of an increasingly secular society: these (and some) are being cited by the "pro-lifers" to present their case. But forget about the bill for a second; forget about statistics and theories on population economics; forget that there's even a debate. With or without this political culture war, there would still be an unnecessary number of Filipino women and men living in shanties—in what a visiting American friend had described as put-together "scraps of tin and cardboard"—or sleeping at night with only the comfort of laid-out newspapers on pavement; in the daytime doing nothing but beg foreigners for "dollar, dollar" with babies pressed to their breasts to arouse sympathy; and they would still truly believe that they can afford to have four, five, six children and fornicate their way to raggedy defeat more than they can afford to go against what the church says about contraceptives. I know because I asked: there is a similarly striving woman somewhere in the streets of Malate, selling twenty-, fifty-peso second-hand books by Hemingway and Nietzsche (among others)—laconic brilliance and French existentialism spread out on sidewalk—and if you go ask her why she thinks condoms are bad, you'll get the same answer.

There would also still be an unnecessary number of pregnant Filipino women jumping down the stairs, hoping to cause a miscarriage. Or they're abusing fake or generic Cytotec (gastric ulcer drugs), bought from someone in an Internet forum named "Crizzy" or from the most questionable corners of the Quiapo blackmarket—without, needless to say, prescriptions. Or, if the goal is to prevent instead of end pregnancy, they're drinking herbal potions from who knows where, containing who knows what. These are the options: thudding on stair treads, anguished online pleas, ripened cervices, uterine ruptures.

There would still be the case from two months ago at Universidad de Manila, in which a political science freshman took a .38 revolver to class and shot his pregnant 17-year-old girlfriend in the head after a disagreement on what to do with the baby. He shot himself shortly afterward. They are as dead as dead, as lifeless as a statistic, but I would not believe anyone who tells me that age-appropriate sex education, birth control, or emergency obstetric care could not have done something—anything—to keep those teenagers alive.

And there would still be, for both men and women, the very horrible anxiety from which suffers anyone waiting for the results of an HIV test. If you have never had to do that, take my word for it: it's not fun. It's crippling. No amount of Xanax or Rivotril will soften the blow of hearing the word "positive"; neither will forgiveness from God soothe the guilty conscience of a barebacker waiting, wanting, hoping, praying to hear the word "negative". I have heard terrible stories from friends with the virus—stories of disease, stories of death—but if there is anything I might be able to observe from the way these have been told, it's the resolution to be smarter sexual beings, and the joyous persistence of life.

So forgive me for disagreeing with people who accuse me—and other proponents of the bill—of "functionalism"; with generations of clergy and conservatives who deny Filipinos the freedom to question and reject the Badness of contraceptives; with members of the opposition who call themselves "pro-life". Forgive me for disagreeing with the term with which they have labeled themselves. Being "pro-life" necessitates an experience, an understanding, of the struggles of humanity, and it requires the acceptance that, frankly, humanity sometimes works to disengage us from our youthful innocence. We do not become advocates of murder for believing there are no dead embryos in the aftermath of protected sex.

"You wonder whether you should laugh or cry," an observant Swiss friend wrote on the matter of this bill. I ought to have told him that the matter calls for neither; it calls instead for more disagreeing. And I'll do just that, vehemently so, should anyone peel off the sticker on my father's desk and paste it where I can see. I'm pro-life, I'll say. And I'd mean nothing funny by it at all.

27 May 2011

If One Didn't Stop at Apples

Twenty-five years is how long it took me to finally show up at something that happens five minutes from where my family lives — indeed, from the Quezon City district where I have lived all my life. And it happens every year. The La Loma Lechon Festival: a day for celebrating the loveliness of suckling pig — stuffed, roasted, costumed, paraded (in floats, too!), and eaten — symptomatic of the Filipino appetite for fiestas, loud ceremonies, and sustenance that can be delicious just as decidedly as it can be dreadful.

If not for lechon, La Loma would have been known for cemeteries and columbaria, which is just as well. At a ridge in this district that overlooks Manila was where José Torres Bugallón, fighting valiantly in the Philippine-American war, had died, along with many other Filipino soldiers. Let’s not forget, too, the innumerable roosters sacrificed all the time in the name of sport at the La Loma Cockpit, past which — as one heads toward Santa Cruz — stands the Chinese General Hospital. That this building has not only survived, but grown steadily since over a hundred years ago despite being surrounded by the La Loma Catholic Cemetery, the Manila North Cemetery, the Manila Chinese Cemetery, and the Manila North Green Park is truly worthy of note, one which I lamentably hadn’t taken until just now.

But back to suckling pigs: who knew how charming they can be if one didn’t stop at apples! After a day of putting on my Journalist Hat, pretending to know about photography, and falling in love with saucy, meaty, thick-skinned, and publicly idolized beings that cannot possibly break my heart — at least not until cholesterol fills my arteries to bursting — I have “photo-bloggers” (and friends, certainly) Nykko Santos, L.A. de los Reyes, Lizza Capucion, and Sidney Snoeck to thank. If they never forced me to go out and move my bottom I would’ve closed myself off for a little longer. Even from a place so close to home.

22 May 2011

Dennis the Tricycle Driver

There is a man named Dennis who, for a living, drives a red tricycle in the island of Guimaras, located in the bigger island of Visayas. I met him when I rather clumsily disembarked at Jordan Wharf. There, a crowd of barking drivers — of tricycles and “multi-cabs” (public utility jeeps, really, each of which can fit a maximum of fourteen people) — cordially harassed us pump boat passengers; they roared in Ilonggo, announcing ridiculous rates, and pointed their greasy index fingers at their luxury tin vehicles. They must have seen us as prospects right from the start of our eleven-peso ride, which, if you board at any of the ports on the southeastern edge of Iloilo City, takes ten to fifteen minutes, depending on the weather. Most things depend on the weather, it seems like.

The day was hot and humid and the sparkling waters were almost blinding. I was thus disposed to not have much patience for swindlers. Dennis, who must be in his early thirties, stood out because he had dutifully directed me to the tourism information desk where two young ladies both wearing yellow Survivor t-shirts and denim jeans made sure all visitors were given a warm welcome, and that no one overpriced fares. They had a price list. “You’re going to Enrico Beach, right?” one of them said. She was scanning the pages of her notebook. “Let’s see. If you take a multi-cab, a one-way trip should cost you no more than four hundred pesos.”

Needing less space, I opted instead for the tricycle and hired Dennis: five hundred pesos for five hours, to the beach and back, covering a total of not more than sixty kilometers, but with likely side tours, too, to any one of Guimaras’ caves, or any one of Guimaras’ waterfalls, or any one spot where one could take pictures and notes and admire the unspoiled economy of one of smallest islands in Western Visayas.

I first heard about Guimaras in 2006 when the Manila newspapers reported the worst oil spill in Philippine history. To me, the story had the impact of a footnote — evidence of my urban snobbishness. But the mess of that has since been cleaned up; its last ugly ripple has ebbed. Now, when the island province is brought up in conversation, the beaches are praised as being better than that of Boracay. The sand and soil have been ascribed adjectives in superlative form, such as “purest” and “most fertile,” respectively. The sweet mangoes are raved about, too, with Bill Clinton and the present Pope alleged to be two of its most famous eaters. “Plant a mango tree and send your child to college,” so went the motto of former Guimaras Governor Emily Relucio-Lopez (at least that's what she had been quoted as saying), and I wonder if there’s any other place in the world where tuition is appraised in the currency of tropical fruits – and beachfront hospitality, in US dollars.

“You’re heading the wrong direction,” Dennis told me coolly. He was sporting a childish moustache and the great laughable Asian goatee. “Alubihod is where the tourists go. I’m happy to take you to Enrico, but I haven’t even been there since high school.”

Three years ago, during which time Dennis was working in a bakeshop in Libis, Quezon City, his father died. So he left Manila and went back home. After the funeral, Dennis’ wife insisted that he stay on the island, or at least in Iloilo City. He did. He effectively put Manila behind by buying the tricycle, which he now rides to go wherever in Guimaras he wishes to go, be it to a passenger’s destination, an odd boredom-conceived adventure, or his house in the municipality of Buenavista.

At the start of our Guimaras tour, Dennis filled his vehicle up with four 1.5-liter Coke bottles of reddish unleaded gas; then he drove me to Daliran Cave. We descended a long autumnal staircase before landing on what looked like a set location for the next Indiana Jones movie, if there is going to be a next Indiana Jones movie. I hasten to add, however, that it was King Kong whom I half-expected to emerge furiously from the deep black shadows of the cave.

This piece would not have been about Dennis, but I lacked the material to talk at length about the pump boat captain, whose name is Ariel. He had enough quips, mind you, but the best thing I could remember from my sea-breeze conversation with him was that he had worked for Quezon City’s First District Representative Bingbong Crisologo. Ariel had helped build the congressman’s house. Unfortunately, I found it impossible to put a fashionable "The Talk of the Town" sort of spin on Ariel’s cement-slapping endeavors from the yesteryears.

01 May 2011


"Everyone uses it," she said. "Everyone, all over the world."
And was that it really, what Essie gave out just then in her mercurial frenzied whisper? Lie, illusion, deception, she said — was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?
From Dictation, a quartet by Cynthia Ozick.
  • After my immersive, romance-tempering experience of reading The Folding Star, I thought I'd follow it up with something less draining and slightly more idle, like, say, a collection of short stories. Just then I'd purchased a copy of Cynthia Ozick's Dictation, which, as it turns out, is every bit as brilliant as I'd expected my first Ozick would be, yet certainly not any lighter or more idle than the Hollinghurst novel.
  • I say that because a week after deciding I wanted to write exactly like Alan Hollinghurst, I changed my mind and decided to want to write like Ozick instead. Not that either task is easy. But probably the best advice that I ever was given is this: don't be afraid of imitation.
  • And who would not want to imitate the way Ozick writes? Her stories remind me of Alice Munro's. (Hey, both writers even have the same sagacious white hair!) You cannot read them in a way that's disaffected or merely transitory. The title story is awesome, of course, and, reading it, I experienced what any fan-boy would — to be that close to, or intimate with, the genius of Henry James and Joseph Conrad — but the story I liked best is "At Fumicaro": a love story. It is a modest love story, so modest there's nothing extraordinary in it, but Ozick captures perfectly, I believe, the dynamic of any (blasphemously) interracial relationship, as well as the social and intellectual imbalances that often enough happen to contextualize that relationship. "There were scores of poor young women all over Italy — perhaps in Fumicaro itself — in her position," reads an unforgettable passage. "He could not marry them all. Her tragedy was a commonplace. She was a noisy aria in an eternal opera. It did not matter. This girl was the one that he had been led to."
  • There are certain writers reading whom a wannabe like me finds his mojo. In my case, I've found that Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, and Hemingway, among a few others, are the ones who jolt me into the urgency of "write like that if you're going to write at all". Not even coming close to any of them is not important — at least not yet. The point is to understand why it's them who jolt me and not others. The point is to identify, when one goes into studying the craft of storytelling, which writers one wants to study. Having finished Dictation in a matter of two sittings, I am left with no room to doubt that Cynthia Ozick is the newest addition to my list.

28 April 2011

The Folding Star

"So of course you saw him again."
"I probably would have wanted to, because I was a young romantic and to me ten minutes with a handsome stranger was clearly the same as true love, and besides it had the romantic complexities of danger, and sin, as I suppose I thought of it then. I can see now that it also conformed to the sense one had in those years that everything important was secret, and so anything secret must surely be important."
From The Folding Star, by Alan Hollinghurst.
  • I finished reading The Folding Star a couple of weeks ago, but it's only now that I've 'distanced' myself enough to take it in, and perhaps to write a few notes about it. 'Distanced', I guess, because it's a kind of novel that requires you think about it for a little, to sit by yourself and think and let the feelings flourish, in the same manner as one would during the credit roll of an emotional film.
  • The Folding Star isn't so emotional, of course, as it is horny. There's so much sex in it, written by Mr. Hollinghurst in a way that is at once beautiful and disturbing, and narrated by the Edward Manners character in a way that's simultaneously disaffected and right-in-your-face. But in fiction, sex isn't always about sex, or it isn't just about sex, and it is these implied meanings of the carnal — meanings beyond the carnal — that The Folding Star has implored me to contemplate.
  • Which begs the question: am I a reader old enough to contemplate? As shown by the above quote, to the young, beauty and sex are pretty much indistinguishable from love and importance. However, to me, I'm afraid, they are no longer quite so. I must be old! Or I must have grown so much older. Indeed, in a way, I would not have understood The Folding Star if I'd read it at nineteen as well as I did reading it at twenty-six. I would not have pushed the book back to my shelf and thought, for weeks afterwards, oh, how right you are, Mr. Hollinghurst.
  • My copy, by the way, is inscribed with "Wishing you all the best in your literary career". It would have missed the point if it wished me instead all the love in my life.

11 April 2011


Dear Mr. Miguel Syjuco,

You might remember me as one of the countless fans who wrote to you with a congratulatory note after a review of Ilustrado appeared in The New York Times. Or you might remember my thoughts on your first novel as being odd, for I had told you that I didn't quite know what to think of it. Well, forget that. I'm writing now to tell you how your work has come at just about the best possible time, at least for someone like me.

You have probably heard a crazy amount of good things about Ilustrado. (I notice you even have a "Fan Shrine" that's made its way to the top of a "Miguel Syjuco" Google search!) So what I have to say probably won't mean much, I mean compared to the positive coverage that I see, say, on the New York Times or Philippine Daily Inquirer or Time or even Smile Magazine. But do you know that the novel reminds me of Orhan Pamuk's Snow? There's that sense, for the reader, of being thrust into a story that flirts with simulations of the real. There's that same kaleidoscopic quality tinging every event while the story moves on and the main character investigates the details of a mysterious death, the dirt trails of politics, and the clues to a philosophical puzzle. Beyond all these, however, beyond whatever might be said about the story, I think that Ilustrado—its existence, and the acknowledgment of this existence—carries a significance similar to that carried by Snow on behalf of the Turkish people, or by The White Tiger on behalf of India. I make a reference to Aravind Adiga's novel because it was only when I read it that I realized the extent of what you have accomplished. Which is: put us on the damned map. You are likely to think of yourself as a writer who happened to be Filipino, and not a Filipino who happened to be a writer, but I believe very firmly that Ilustrado also successfully pushes a distinct Filipino agenda.

You see, before your book I'd never come across a review of a Filipino novel on any major international publication such as the NYT. I didn't even think that it was possible. Your Time interview was headlined by describing Ilustrado as a "Breakout Novel", but it may as well have used the adjective "breakthrough". A Filipino like me used to sit and dream and think that the biggest deal would be to receive grants from NCCA, win Palanca Awards, sign copies for fans at Powerbooks and National, hold readings at half-empty lecture halls in Ateneo, La Salle, UP. Then Ilustrado happened. I don't mean to glamorize your success, and I don't mean to take for granted these national institutions, but I hope you realize—and I write to you in case you don't—that Filipino writers need not feel so cynical about themselves and their professional fate. I hope you realize that, since reading your novel, my friend in New York, a mentor of sorts, has pushed me harder (and more furiously) to work, work, work, write, write, write. I hope you realize that my mother, a housewife who cannot be made to read Dostoevsky, is suddenly paying attention to an Inquirer feature story on Miguel Syjuco and teasing her son, why can't you be more like your namesake?

So thank you. And I am sorry that, on my first note, I'd complained that Ilustrado left me without opinion. I tell you now that it has certainly brought inspiration.

02 April 2011

Thank You For Drinking Gasoline With Me

(I wrote this in 2007, as another writing exercise. Having closed the old blog, I thought of publishing the piece here. Don't laugh as hard as I just did!)

Thank you for drinking gasoline with me. May the bartenders of Café Adriatico never call that a martini ever again. “Oh my god,” you said, smiling, “it does taste like gasoline, with a hint of puttanesca sauce. Or at least that's what you expect gasoline to taste like.” Not tight enough, I was slightly embarrassed by my choice, which does not mean that I wasn’t to blame, since I really ought to have studied the cocktail list more curiously. But there were formidable distractions all around us that evening, weren’t there? From the oval marble fountain on our left side came a childish jingle; we both wondered where the speakers were. A glittered man in a shiny gold intergalactic costume with a sort of antenna on his head was lurking nearby to frighten families promenading along Eastwood City Walk, which never fails to turn into somewhat of a posh carnival during holiday season. The powdered high school students whom father used to mistake as prostitutes for call center employees were there, too, using the word ‘like’ in their sentences to replace the commas, and then pushing each other playfully towards the Central Plaza for the Kuh Ledesma concert. Oh, the concert: we, too, were desperate to catch that. And so, contemplating liqueur amid the fluffy adult wonderland, I inadvertently ordered a glass of unleaded. But thank you all the same; it would have been a very dull birthday.

Thank you for drinking ice-cold bottles of San Miguel with me that velvet midnight. You paid me sweet attention, despite the presence of handsomer men on your periphery, and you promptly let me light your cigarette, despite the health hazards of smoking. And you whispered, whispered despite the surround sound that was blaring all that had gone wrong after the seventies. You kept drinking with me in a charming display of solidarity. Were you aware how unbelievably tired I was? That day, before our little rendezvous, I interviewed a source for a story, typed the transcript afterwards, wrote dozens of letters to friends, scoured the bookstore for a copy of Ethan Frome, played billiards with my holidaying cousins, and promenaded along Manila Bay. I thought that the beer would make me indefatigable—especially when taken in your company. It did not. I excused myself to go to the bathroom. On my way back, the world fluctuated violently and the dark became neon darkness. You witnessed me fall down under the weight of divine intoxication, once, twice, thrice, and I swear I heard you cry, “Mercy!” Mercy, indeed. But would you like to know what I was then about to tell you, if only I didn’t have to leave for the car park and remove myself from the vomit all over my Abercrombie and Fitch cargo pants? I was about to say thank you, thank you kindly for drinking ice-cold San Miguel with me. The year would have been utterly forgettable without tragedy or self-destruction.

Thank you for drinking Merlot with me, and for pleasantly surprising our party host with your mere presence. I forgot to buy him a present, you see, but reckoned that your coming along with me was enough, which in fact proved to be true. The view from the penthouse of the Greenhills condominium was beautiful; it held me in thrall. I gazed quietly at the impressive Manila cityscape right after leaving you at the round table to mingle with mutual friends from the university—artists and bohemians, directors and actors, advertising executives and vacationers from abroad, successful youth, all of them filled with congee calories and the heady goodness of red wine. Then they took photographs, many of which were of themselves with you, whom they might not see again for a long time. “I don’t want to take the spotlight,” you joked before our fashionably late arrival, “but I’m afraid it’s inevitable.” I was afraid, though, of some other inevitability: the usual prolonged exchange of pleasantries, not just with those other guests whom I didn’t recognize but also with people I knew very well. So thank you for doing my share of talking, for thus happily did I bask in my moonlit standoffishness. Thank you very much, even though this year there will decidedly be less to be thankful for, because, according to Jonathan Franzen, “the end of the binge is the beginning of the story,” at writing which I am no good.