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Pop crimes: Quijano de Manila's 'Reportage on Crime'

Illustration by IGAN D’BAYAN

The adherents of opposing views of history can find whatever support that may please them, but to the man, like myself, has touched by a single act the very nerve of history, it is a source of confidence to know that while he stands alone, he had not acted in isolation, outside or in opposition to the compelling circumstances of his time and place.” — Ferdinand E. Marcos, Notes on the New Society of the Philippines, 1973

Undoubtedly, Nick Joaquin was perhaps one of our greatest fictionists. If only for the short stories like “May Day Eve” or “Summer Solstice,” the novel The Woman Who Had Two Navels or the play Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino, his literary reputation is already assured, considerable. He was and remains to the general public one of the country’s most well known writers — a status he shares with no other local novelist but, possibly, Jose Rizal. A National Artist for Literature, he surely deserves to have monuments erected in his honor — certainly his body of work alone is as singular as an edifice for any would-be writer to scale. One can’t help feel small. After all, in Philippine literature, the man was a giant.

Yet writing under his journalist alter-ego Quijano de Manila, he seems to have had a knack for insinuating into the cracks of Manila society and reporting just how desperately tight life had already started to become in there. Writing for the Philippines Free Press, where he also served as its associate editor during the 1960s, Joaquin as de Manila started covering and writing about crime. (He also wrote historical features, political commentary, current affairs and even showbiz profiles of stars like Nora Aunor. His oft-quoted maxim that there were no “bakya subjects but only bakya subjects” was something he proved week in, week out.) His accounts were certainly about the lurid but his prose never turned purple in its telling. Rather he gave us the facts, plain and simple; but his considerable gifts as a storyteller made them a fun read without losing the senselessness of the tragedy, the mystery of the experience. Re-released by Anvil Publishing late last year, the compilation Reportage on Crime is a collection of “thirteen horror happenings that hit the headlines” written by the author from 1961 to 1967, offering a view from the gutter of that turbulent decade.

“Dr. Leonardo Quitangon, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, cool-tempered Caviteño, was still fancy-free at 35 when he returned to Manila, after six years abroad…” begins “The House on Zapote Street,” perhaps one of the most terrifying of these reports (and which was later adapted by Mike de Leon into the film, Kisapmata), is dated January 1961. It tells about Quitangon’s courtship and eventual marriage to Lydia Cabading, a reticent medical student and her curious relationship with her policeman father, Pablo. At first he is enamored of their household even if he found it peculiar if she “seemed to have no gay early memories to share with her lover,” or “whenever it looked as if she might stay out late: ‘I’ll have to tell my father first.’ And off she would go, wherever she was… though it meant going all the way to Makati, Rizal, where she lived with her parents in a new house on Zapote Street.” After the marriage (including the payment of a dowry of P3,000 and the condition that they would have to live with the Cabadings), he finds himself “within a family turned in on himself, self-enclosed and self-sufficient — in a house that had no neighbors and no need for any” and “within that house (the father, Pablo) he wanted to be the center of everything, even of his daughter’s honeymoon.” Of course, as can be inferred, this affair wasn’t going to end well.

There’s also “The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society” (also coincidentally made into a movie by the late National Artist for Film, Lino Brocka, entitled Jaguar) which tells of the social-climbing Napoleon Nocedal or Boy Nap who shoots dead his friend Jose Ramos. The two, although both 21, couldn’t have come from more divergent backgrounds and it all comes to a boil in a Quezon City restaurant on August 7, 1960. The former comes from the slums; the latter from a well-to-do household with parents who were both college professors. They were part of the same barkada but Boy Nap was “a nothing, a nobody, the servant of all,” observed the Q.C. police sergeant who studied the case. Ramos, on the other hand, was the “wild, rugged leader of the Axis” — which was the name of their gang, described as composed of guys who were “all rich, rugged and guapo.”

“We went to parties. We went joyriding on the boulevard. We sat around in Luneta. We went fishing in Malabon. We went dancing at El Faro in Parañaque,” the girlfriend of Ramos, Normita Santos, is quoted as saying. “We did everything together as a group. Even on the Luneta, we didn’t pair off.” They’d sing because they all had good voices; they sang the music of Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte. “The group moved about in two cars… traveling, with the young’s passion for speed… speeding unaware, toward its fatal August,” writes the author. “In the group, and not quite of it, was Boy Nap Nocedal.”

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“He wanted to lead the flashy life of his affluent companions, but he could only ape the forms, not the spirit, of the high life. He boasts that for the last three or four years he has been going up to Baguio for the summer,” writes de Manila. “And the hankering for the life represented by summers in Baguio is what brought poor Boy Nap to these mountains of Orion, a fugitive from the law.” Again, it all ends in tragedy.

More than the retelling of the facts, it’s De Manila’s insight into these characters as well as his penchant to report even the seemingly trivial details that sets them apart from mere pulp fiction. We not only learn about these characters but of the era, of a society with the chimerical nature of Pablo Cabading or not unlike Boy Nap himself — “high-toned, high priced, high-spirited, highfalutin,” full of suppressed scruples that entertained these “vulgar little dreams.”

In the first story, before the denouement, the author writes this: “For all these new suburbs in Makati used to be grassland, riceland, marshland, or pastoral solitudes where few cared to go, until the big city spilled hither, replacing the uprooted reeds with split-levels, pushing noisy little streets into the heart of the solitude, and collecting here from all over the country the uprooted souls that now moan or giggle where once carabao wallowed and the frogs croaked day and night. In the very new suburbs, one feels human sorrow to be a gross intrusion on the labors of nature.”

The passage hangs like a miasma over not only this story but over all the stories in the book, a kind of Pinoy noir that permeates with the stench of a Manila still reeking of the decay of WW II and the American Dream. Towards the latter half of the ‘60s, Joaquin would deploy De Manila not to these episodes but devote the column inches at the Free Press to the political upheavals and turmoil of the Marcos presidency, culminating in Martial Law. If anything, perhaps it’s within these pages, these “crimes stories,” where we see the beginnings of the turbulence of the 1970s and ‘80s, not with the act of signing of Proclamation 1081 but with those four gunshots that rang out that terrible night in 1961 within the house that an overzealous father built for his daughter and ended in her murder. After all, what’s genocide without a few petty crimes, a New Society without the wounds of the old?

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