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Prisoners of memory

The memoir as literary genre has only lately come of age in the Philippines, with authors now finding time to look back and take stock on a life well lived, despite all the distractions our thoroughly postmodern setting has to offer. Memoir, placed under the creative nonfiction category along with travelogue and other reportage not too much in a hurry, survives and even thrives in the face of the Internet and its two heads of instant research and social networking, Wikipedia and Facebook.

Bilibid: Growing up Beneath Prison Walls by Romeo P. Virtusio (Context Innovators and Resources International 2009) is a quiet, almost meditative paean to the Bilibid of the late 1940s to 1950s, significantly post wartime when families whose fathers were mostly employed in the prison reservation built new lives in the suburb south of Manila. The mothers were schoolteachers, housewives, shopkeepers, or in Virtusio’s case, devout prayer women consulted by the neighbors on matters of faith and life-changing decisions. It was a time of innocence and confidences, in the words of an old Simon and Garfunkel song (Bookends), and the author revels in his past giving the reader a taste of what it was like back then with a minimum of sentimientos de patatas, in fact that is the book’s strength, its admirable restraint.

In any literary undertaking, the masters put prime to the story’s location, a compass of the psyche, apart from the usual geographic specifics, and this Virtusio takes to heart having learned well from the masters, a few of them national artists. And not only is the place where one grew up a harbinger of soul, it is also the last fortress of family, thus making Bilibid not only Catholic but catholic in the context of next of kin and how eventually all memory comes home to roost.

We see the past’s resolve already in the opening chapters, with the drive up to the reservation and onto the cemetery where the writer and surviving members of his family remember their dear departed during the All Saints’ Day holiday, amble up on to the main road till the imposing structure of the castle-like national penitentiary comes into view, and then to the nearby rows of cottages that housed families whose fathers were prison guards, bookkeepers and clerks of the bureau, and which employed as house help the minimum security prisoners out on domestic safe pass.

Virtusio’s portraits of his old neighbors are vivid and touching, compassionate and humorous, never without a touch of empathy, even as a number of them have passed on to the great beyond, but the reader will forever picture them as described in this memoir, strangely familiar: the lechon vendor who suffered a stroke and stared with half-open mouth as the business went on; the car-driving affluent classmate whose brothers went to the exclusive schools in Manila; the kindly family who always lent him their copies of the Philippines Free Press that most probably stoked the author’s passion for the written word.

But it was not just the Free Press that took up much of Virtusio’s time devouring the issues from cover to cover, it was also Liwayway magazine and the comics, and not least the Tagalog radio soaps the children of Bilibid listened to with gusto, relishing the domestic dramas in detail. Maybe this is where the author honed his chops on advertising copy, if unconsciously, listening too to the commercial breaks plugging this or that soap or detergent, as well developed a flair for the melodramatic and absurd, as every good marketing campaign needs a punch line, whether or not it’s Johnson yata ’yan!

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Remnants of the radio soap (latak) can still be heard on today’s AM radio, though Tia Dely is no more, the wheel of fortune keeps rolling on. Filmmaker Lavrente Diaz has a similar tribute to the radio drama in his 11-hour Kasaysayan ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, where the voice talents are occasionally seen emoting behind their respective microphones in the studio, while in the outside, no less real world, greatly missed persons are seen in two separate places at the same time, a kind of bilocation, the folk concept of the tagabulag.

Well, in a manner of speaking the Bilibid book aspires for a kind of bilocation, a la tagabulag, where the writer remembers the new prisoners coming in to the reservation all glum faced, hard to tell the rapists from the embezzlers, the murderers from the thieves, including an actor who killed his ladylove actress in a crime of passion, a time when the electric chair was still in use, and how living in close proximity with the convicted necessarily developed in the residents a sense of humanity if not of kinship, all of them prisoners anyway under the shape shifting skin of memory, mutable and restrained, you can look, boy, but better not touch.

If at times the prose moves in a kind of haze, one can’t help but wonder if a tear isn’t blurring the writer’s eyes as he looks back to the house on Ramon Victorio Street, citadel of a family’s past in need of renovation, but which this book succeeds in reconstructing better than any carpenter or architect. The book ends fittingly enough at a crossroads of a high school graduation, with friends going their separate ways.

Virtusio comes from Muntinlupa High School batch that helps run the yearly Cesar Tiangco literary awards that handed out their fourth edition of winners earlier this year. Co-sponsored by the Muntinlupa City government and the estate of the late school principal, the Tiangco awards 2010 were dominated by students from San Beda Alabang. One of the organizers Romeo Navarro said he hopes that the awards would discover more writers and have more joiners from the public schools, and that an anthology of past winners is being planned. Former palace spokesman Ignacio Bunye is from the same high school, and so would find Virtusio’s memoirs more than useful if not pleasantly familiar.

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