28 April 2013

The Anti-Bildungsroman

I’m reading something else—Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World—but I haven’t stopped thinking about Madame Bovary. I think I know why. A literary friend had written to me to say that he’d read the Flaubert (in the original French) three times—the first time as a twenty-something, when he still “knew nothing about life”; it occurred to me that my own experience of reading the novel could very well be influenced by where I am in my own life. 

After all, it is often true what some scholars say: the great books seem to be written for the reader and the reader alone. I am aware of the position of a book called The Perpetual Orgy by Mario Vargas Llosa (to which this friend had tipped me, saying he didn’t quite agree with the Peruvian-Spanish writer’s love for Emma Bovary), but I have not actually read it. I do have my own opinion of Emma. It’s not a very high one, and I certainly see her with less reverence than does Vargas Llosa. It has nothing to do with her cheating ways; it has to do with her being fatally romantic. To me, therefore, Madame Bovary is the anti-bildungsroman. Emma never comes of age. She remained as she was, as she had always been, until the day that she died (or killed herself). That Flaubert could craft a perfect novel (or as close to it as one might imagine) from having this woman as his central character demonstrates his astounding achievement. He never judges her, and he leaves it entirely up to us, the readers, to do so, if we could be so willing. And if we do judge these characters, it will perhaps say more about us—about where we are in the time that we read it—than about anyone else in the book.

Neither does Flaubert judge Charles Bovary, whom I have written about as the character I rooted for. He’s not up to much as a literary character—can anyone be less interesting?—but with a moral view of things, one will be hard-pressed to find fault in him. (Speaking of dull, I read somewhere that Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary as a way of taking on a challenge posed by friends or colleagues: to write a novel based on very dull characters. I’m not sure if this is true, but it makes perfect sense if it is.)

Like my friend, I’ll probably re-read Madame Bovary when I’m in a different place. I’m sure that by then the book will seem entirely new.

10 April 2013

Eduardo and Editha

Today my parents celebrate their thirty-sixth (I think) wedding anniversary. They met in a provincial town about three hundred miles north of Manila called Tuguegarao, which is now a city. Mother was a student in Saint Paul, father was in Ateneo de Tuguegarao, which no longer exists. During or after his senior year, at sixteen or seventeen, he successfully joined the AFS program, which meant that he was going to live and study for awhile in some exotic place called New York. This was in the sixties. The entire Bassig clan, including my paternal grandmother and grandfather (may they rest in peace), went to flank him at the airport. I have seen the send-off picture: they all had tears in their eyes and probably thought that he was never going to come back.

Well, he did. He came back as the world’s biggest Yankees fan, and he hasn’t since rooted for anyone in football except the Buffalo Bills. He also made good on his promise to marry my mother. In keeping with tradition there was a courtship stage, with maybe a bit of drama. Originally my mother’s family had not been so warm to the idea because he was not what one would call a mestizo; this was at least one of the unspoken reasons. Her family, you see, and this is all according to what I’ve been told, is of mixed German descent: Germany’s interest in newly independent Philippines, cut short by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, in the event somehow left a settlement in these blessed islands and produced my maternal grandmother. As I say, this is all according to what I’ve been told. I certainly don’t look one-sixteenth German, and I am as brown as father.

I am not, however, half as persistent or charming as he is, because eventually he won the affections of my mother’s parents and four siblings (down to three now; Uncle Boy has since died). By contrast, mother herself needed no extended wooing. She even wrote an effusive (open) love letter that he, then a radio DJ at a local station called DZYT, read on-air. He proposed to her shortly after that, and they got married in Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Tuguegarao. After the wedding they moved to Manila, where we, their four children, were born and raised. Mother found a government job, which she had to quit several years later; meanwhile, father worked as an advertising executive. Sometimes he let me tag along to his meetings and we’d drive back home in the old red Corolla listening to a Johnny Mathis record. Mother didn’t—doesn’t—drive. When I was nine, she, being very spontaneous, came in a rickety bicycle to fetch me from school. Being very proud, I refused to ride with her and decided instead to walk home, with mother in her print blouse (for which she had a penchant) still pedaling alongside me, inquiring in the wonderful way that mothers have how my day went and what sort of homework I had to do.

I think that a decade or two from now, when I’ve grown much older, I’ll look back and consider these memories as some of the loveliest in my life.

Also, when I was little, we usually celebrated the tenth of April by going on swimming vacations out of town. My favorite one was in a wonderful beach and golf resort in Cavite called Puerto Azul. I think the resort still exists, but it’s probably a different place now. Anyway, I was roomed in a nice suite with my older brother Francis and my sister Lourdes. (Josemaria, who must not have been more than five at the time, slept between father and mother.) I remember ambling dreamily down the hotel lobby every morning to meet everyone for breakfast. In the afternoons, I took the sweetest pleasure in the country club goodness of the place and innocently thanked God for the love that had brought my parents together.

Together they have stayed. Frankly, I cannot imagine being married to someone for thirty-six years. There are times when I cannot imagine being married at all. It’s definitely not going to happen in the Philippines, where a conversation about same-sex marriage is still likely to be met with raised Catholic eyebrows. Things may change—don’t they always?—but probably not soon enough. I remember that when I came out to mother about six or seven years ago I buried my face under a pillow. It was difficult. A few days later (even though she already told him) I came out to father; we were at Burger King in Welcome Rotonda and for most of that talk I was literally just staring at the chocolate sundae, crying. At the time I was totally ashamed, because I knew it would make my parents extremely happy if I could marry a girl, have kids, bring these kids up the way my parents brought us up—but all this was something I’d never be able to do. My love story was necessarily going to be different from theirs.

Of course, this doesn’t at all mean that I am inclined to consider their example less admirably than if I were straight. Everything I ever learned about love, I learned from my parents, Eduardo and Editha, whom I hope you will join me in wishing the happiest of anniversaries and the most indissoluble of loves.

07 April 2013


“Conservation instinct,” you write. I’m at my grandmother’s birthday celebration in Manila, you’re at a local hammam in Morocco, and I ask you to confirm that I didn’t really stand a chance. Did I? “I knew you were leaving,” you reply. “Now, do let me say no more.”

You don’t have to. It’s all I need.

Le Bistrot, on Nueva de Lyon, between Los Leones and Tobalaba. Remember? November. The last time we met. La Especial Bistrot salad for you, salmon fettuccine for me. Afterwards, a bottle of bad Cab at a Cuban bar where one of the waiters, a plump young man with a cringe-worthy mustache, gamely offered us girls. Bellas mujeres de Brasil, de Colombia, de Argentina! I think he was missing a tooth, too. When finally he left us alone you told me about the ex from Mexico who, in the ten years you were together, didn’t ever really know who you were. Or what you did. “I think it’s important to find someone to talk to,” I said. “It’s rare to be able to find someone to talk to.” I believed this myself. After the wine, I said goodbye to you on the street. You gave my face a friendly, affectionate slap. A farewell.

Librería Ulises, near Café Wonderful, in Barrio Lastarria. This was after our early dinner at Urriola, where Rodrigo, our waiter, acted, in your words, like such a “cock tease in search of tips.” Second to the last time we met. Also in November. It was just at the beginning of spring, wasn’t it? We were looking at the bookstore display. “I can’t believe they have it!” you said—it being the Humboldt ‘metabiography’ by Nicolaas Rupke. This brought to my mind Daniel Kehlmann’s teasing portrait of Humboldt in Measuring the World. “Do you know—” I began. “I know,” you said. About Humboldt. “There’d been plenty of rumors, all right.” Rumors. Stories. Books. I remember: you had Anna Karenina on your phone. I had Howards End on mine. Before sunset, you dropped me off at Santa Maria corner Pio Nono, in front of the university, the law school. You in your red shirt, your red car, your favorite color. We shook hands. “Thanks for coming out to dinner, Raskolnikov,” I said. Because you played him, didn’t you, in school, in a musical? I couldn’t believe it when you told me.

Plaza Italia towards Monsignor Müller, via Providencia. The daily walk. The streets of Santiago. Cowboy John Mayer through my earphones, singing, “It’s such a waste to grow up lonely.” September to November, from the last of winter to the first signs of spring. The times we didn’t meet. Or I couldn’t see you. The months I thought we’d meet. I wasn’t sure what the problem was. But you were in Peru, Bolivia, Belgium, China, America. Or you had a reaction to pollen. Reachable only through WhatsApp. You asked about my Spanish: how was I doing with it? “I decided not to take lessons,” I confessed. “But you’ll be proud: I’ve been studying the people.” “BS!” you said, to which I replied, “I’m a writer. Everything I say is BS.” “If you say so,” you said, “I can only concur.” My reply: “Meanwhile, you’re an economist, researcher, and professor. Trained to detect BS all the time.” Your reply: “Yes. Including my own.”

Roaring towards Costanera Center, through Costanera Norte, along the Mapocho River. You were more than an hour late; it was past midnight. A time during August that made one desperate to avoid the sordid charms of Grindr flirtations. You picked me up at Patio Bellavista after your dinner with colleagues. We  didn’t really talk much. But we were going—we were going 80 to 85 miles per hour. Something like that—too fast, that’s for sure. “What’s with the noisy phone?” I asked. “The app is called Waze,” you said. For navigation. For avoiding cops. I could hear the beeps, I could smell the alcohol, I could smell the danger. But I had no one else to talk to, you know? Or maybe it was the danger—not the romance of talk—that attracted me. Second time we met.

Rishtedar, on Av. Holanda, close to Metro Tobalaba. A detour from Café Liguria, because Café Liguria was too noisy; we wouldn’t have been able to talk in there. This was August. Winter, still. First time we met. It was so cold, I was shaking. Remember? You were wearing a red dress shirt under the overcoat. I was wearing a white dress shirt. We ordered spicy chicken curry, spicy shrimp curry, heaps of Basmati rice. We went for Kunstmann beers at Bar de Willy, then walked to Augusto Leguía Norte, past the sex shop, past the stray dog trying to cross the road. “The poor thing is going to die, I cannot bear to look,” you said. You once had a dog that went out through an opening under the fence in your farmhouse near Concepción, you never saw him again, it was awful to think of how he might have died. But this one crossing the road, he lived. Once we reached the front of your apartment, you asked if I wanted to come up. I said sure. I noted the red Welcome mat, the red walls, the red dining chairs. “So I guess you really like red,” I said, while you poured Pinot noir into the glasses. “My favorite color,” you said.

When I got up the next morning, I found the day’s El Mercurio on the red mat and eagerly picked it up without your asking. Should I have done that? It felt to me like I did something wrong, because you avoided eye contact when I said goodbye.