25 March 2013


Do you know that Manila is also called the ‘City of Our Affections’? It is. The nickname has quite a nice ring to it—it sounds, to me, a bit more thoughtful than the romantic ‘Pearl of the Orient’—but don’t, I advise, mistake “nice” and “thoughtful” for “feel-good.” To me, the nickname has always been injected with a certain pathos.

To questions of why, I’ll defer to a key part of “If These Walls Could Talk,” Carlos Celdran’s famous Intramuros tour, in which tour-goers are led into one of the historical district’s old American barracks in Fort Santiago. It’s the part that involves a pull-down projection screen and a slideshow featuring MacArthur and his Ray-Bans (in grainy sepia), a group of soldiers carrying the Japanese flag, and a black-and-white close-up of a bomb that half-eclipsed an aerial view of the city on which it was about to drop. The city in the photo—the city in which all the photos were taken—is Manila. You’re supposed to sit solemnly in a pew during this part, such that it seems wholly appropriate to call to mind the phrase, all together now, ‘City of Our Affections’—never mind if it must have caught on long before the war. Say it under your breath, and it takes on a strange, quiet wretchedness akin to that of a prayer being uttered at a funeral. A funeral for 100,000.

I do wonder sometimes: can these affections be evoked, be revived, without the help of a performance? Also: Manila is the city of whose affections, exactly? I don’t mean to be disagreeable. But last week, walking along Padre Burgos Street, I saw a homeless man just outside the gated golf course in Intramuros. He was peeing on the grass through a wire fence. (The newspaper men at the Manila Bulletin building in front could see his equipment, surely.) A few feet away, meanwhile, also on the sidewalk, was a young boy sleeping on a bed of rice sacks. Next to him a sign read, “Watch out! Flying golf balls.” His mother must have been the woman who was washing her clothes in the pool of water surrounding a monument: the Gomburza monument, I think it was. Why she chose to do her laundry there, I can’t tell you. The water was not clean, and on it sailed fallen leaves. 

To be sure, Manila is not the city of these people’s affections. Turning the golf course into a urinal, sleeping on concrete, washing dirty linen in spaces reserved for marble heroes: like they would ever give a damn what the place is called. But it is because of them, hollow and sentimental as this sounds, that Manila might become the city of someone’s affections: mine. Not that I wish to take any credit for grand gestures of kindness subsequently performed—if you really want to know, I was only making my way to Muralla Street for dinner; affection could do with, but does not require, kind gestures. (As tourists often say, “You cannot save everybody.”) In any event: are these people not collateral damage, too? From a different war with a different name. I’ll let you call it whatever you like. What I’ll say is that if hearts grow fonder upon engagement in the remembrance of history, so must mine—if not every ManileƱo’s—on a walk today through the old city streets.

Which raises the question: why is the golf course still there?

Out of the Game

I must be getting old. (Which is okay, by the way.) Recently, encouraged by Roger Rosenblatt’s New York Times piece on the best movies about a writer, I watched the film adaptation of Starting Out in the Evening, which is based on a novel by Brian Morton. To my horror, then not so much, I found that I could see myself more in the old, writerly Leonard Schiller character (played by Frank Langella) than in the young, student-y, brimming-with-enthusiasm Heather Wolfe (played by fire-haired Lauren Ambrose). Not because Schiller is a writer, which I claim to be (besides, so is Wolfe—she’s writing her thesis), but because Schiller is old—older—and would rather not suffer from the intense but short attentions of young people. 

This is not to say that I regularly attract young—younger—people’s attention. I don’t. Of the intense kind, I attract even less. I only mean that if I do, I won’t be able to keep up with it. I know so! As Rufus sings, not too sadly, “I’m out of the game.” And the game, whatever it was, was invariably something I’d be useless at playing in the first place. 

If this sounds outlandish and awfully ageist, forgive me. But it’s true. A few days ago in a bar I met a pair of backpackers barely out of their teens and, next to them, I could positively hear my bones creaking. One was from France, the other from Denmark, and they began to talk to me about beer—the beers of the world. It was a conversation that lasted close to three hours, felt longer (much!), and involved voluntarily dished out lists of breweries visited, places sojourned in, cultures absorbed, exotic foods sampled, sexual encounters had, wealth squandered and wealth accumulated; it was, in short, the kind of conversation that was not about beer, really. It was about being young, wild, and free (or Eat, Pray, Love as told by two guys in a room). I made less than a little contribution to it. Here’s an old-person skill I did not use to have: I managed to talk without actually saying anything.

Now if only I can find people who’ll tell me something about books instead of beer. Or about Starting Out in the Evening. About anything! As long as it brings to the surface how one thinks instead of what one thinks. Also: age doesn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t get in the way. I thought I’d find friends in bars. Obviously not! But I’m only half-kidding, which goes to show that I don’t know as much as I think I do—a fact that to me will be clearer in a few years, and much, much clearer in a lot of years.

07 March 2013

We Must Not Touch Our Idols

We must not touch our idols; the gilt sticks to our fingers.

I just finished reading Madame Bovary. (Phew!) It took a long time. It took three sleepless nights to get through the last part. By the end of the third night, I was crying. Flaubert had me. For whom were these tears, you might ask? For Charles Bovary, Emma’s husband. 

So what if Charles is common, unsophisticated, not intellectual? He is a good man. He is kind, hardworking, loyal. That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? That’s all one can ask for from a man—from a spouse. Few deserve Charles. Emma doesn’t. I certainly don’t. (Not that it’s a matter of what one deserves.) But it’s funny because I wrote recently to a friend about how I could identify with Emma, who is irresponsible and a total romantic, who lapses into boredom, sickness, and depression whenever reality fails to match her ideas. (It’s awful, but that’s me. I touch idols until inevitably they cease to be idols.) And yet in the end it was Charles for whom I was suddenly rooting. It was for him that I was suddenly feeling.

One of the most interesting things about the creation of Madame Bovary is that the first English translation of it—that which I read—was produced by Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. If you’ve read the novel, the story of Eleanor’s death will sound horribly familiar. She was sickened by, among other things, a love affair: this was with socialist campaigner Edward Aveling. So sickened was she that she decided to send her maid Gertrude to the chemist for chloroform and hydrogen cyanide. Eleanor swallowed the poison in the privacy of her room. Unlike Emma, however, she actually had time to pen a final billet-doux. “Dear, it will soon be all over now,” she wrote in her suicide note to Edward. “My last word to you is the same that I have said during all these long, sad years: love.”