Vintage Joaquin
- Alfred A. Yuson () - September 16, 2002 - 12:00am
Pleasurable is it always to hear the boombox of Nick Joaquin, National Artist and magus of memory. He is still the Big Daddy of us all, outslurring even the duendes at a historic palace.

Five weeks back, on Aug. 8, Sir Nick thrilled a formally-garbed crowd at Malacañang with a characteristically punchy recounting of a "lost manuscript" – his very own, that he said had mercifully been recovered and, some 10 years from the time of its loss, finally made the transition to a fine, large book.

Launched that day, in sheer presidential company, was Palacio de Malacañang: 200 Years of a Ruling House, edited by Alfredo Roces, published by the Society for the Preservation of Philippine Culture, Inc.

Only recently we heard from someone involved in the long-drawn-out book production that Joaquin’s manuscript wasn’t lost at all, but secured and preserved until the right time came along.

But between her bright word and Nick’s, we’ll still take the latter’s fiction anytime. We’ll take any prose work, too, for he never rests on his laurels and hacks it. Rather does he bless any commissioned essay, memoir, biography of person or place with trademark efficacy.

So it is with this handsome, weighty collectible.

Indeed, even more pleasurable than being deafened by Nick Joaquin is reading Nick Joaquin.

"…In 1869, renovations costing 3,650 pesos overhauled the edifice from roof to basement, to make it fit for a royal visitor: the Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria of England. But the British prince never slept in Malacañang. Work was still in progress when a strong earthquake shook Manila on October 1, 1869. The buttresses and pillars of the palace fractured; the plaster loosened from the walls of the guardhouse; the massive stone entrance gate was uprooted so violently its arch got twisted.

"So weakened were its foundations the palace was pronounced unsafe. All work on it was suspended and when the Duke of Edinburgh arrived he was lodged at the mansion of the Count of Aviles, on Calle San Sebastian. It was this count, Don Jose Vicente de Aviles, who in the 1870s opened a street in the northern part of San Miguel, to connect La Calzada de Malacañang with Sta. Mesa, then becoming a popular destination because the racetrack was located there, on the present site of the Polytechnic University. The northern street the count opened in San Miguel was named Calle Aviles after him, and the name was later extended to the entire Calzada de Malacañang. The mansion of the Conde de Aviles on Calle San Sebastian, where the British prince lodged, would later become the residence of the Legardas, on the street renamed R. Hidalgo.

"So grand were the honors accorded the Duke of Edinburgh that he could be said to have waded in red carpet. A morning levee, or reception, had him pacing the Philippine corridors of power to be greeted by such dignitaries as the commanders of army and navy, the magistrates of the Real Audiencia, the top hidalgos of Manila, the mighty merchant princes, the patriarchs of the Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians, and the elite of the local British community. Another morning took the prince – a handsome 25-year-old with a bush of a beard – to the rounds of Malacañang, where the whole of the garrison troops had been assembled to be reviewed by him, in company with the royal governor. High society was presented to him at a gorgeous official ball tendered by the government, and the hope waxing high and general was that some local beauty might catch his eye. The English colony then feasted him with the fancy dress ball. Throughout his stay, Manila was illuminated all night long; festive arches decorated the streets he passed; and everywhere he went he was cheered by crowds pressing to catch a glimpse of him.

"Staggered was the catty British consul by all this wanton display of magnificence by Philippine authorities – ‘on a scale which they were little able to afford.’

"And indeed, after the royal visit, its cost must have loomed even more prodigal when paired with the urgency of another expensive but necessary project: the mending of the badly crippled Palacio de Malacañang."

Why, this is history as readable as the present: munificent of clarity in its flowing parade of information, canny detail, flashback and flash-forward, color, trivia, insight. Even what we suspect to be speculations pour out from goblets of intuited logic to fill up the dry corners of our mouths already poised for salivation. Inebriation with virtuoso work is the happy, giddy result.

Only Nick Joaquin could have done justice to the demands of an account on Malacañang Palace; he is after all synonymous with any authentic tribute to Manila and its sundry parts, especially when these owe substance and form to the past, the author’s century.

What we are feted with is another masterpiece, at once royal but accessible, plush and painterly – from broad strokes to effervescent brushwork. Nick Joaquin’s text lauds both chronology and context, as a panoply of stalwart research and recollection. Replete it is with felicities of language and the familiar daubs of effortless elegance, as with the reverse syntax starting nearly every paragraph. Often too, with remarkable ease, the maestro escorts us with a wink and a nudge away from any cavalier effort, herding us along the charitable walkways of our colonial past. And when he foxtrots on the contemporary dance floor, he does so with equal parts gallantry and grace.

Each President and family that have occupied Malacanãng is accorded fleshed-out treatment. Reliance on existing accounts is complemented by the author’s own takes on the procession of occupants, the transitions meriting varied textural egress.

Joaquin also follows a president or two out of the palace and into the fields and trees of folksy governance. He gives First Ladies credit where credit is due, detailing for instance how Eva Macapagal took pains to clean up the mess and funk of decades.

"The system had apparently defeated previous First Ladies who may have had notions of keeping the palace as neat as a private home; they may have, after a few tries, given up in sheer despair over the stubbornness of attendants bent on doing things the way they had been doing them since Quezon’s time. But, happily, the palace had at last got a First Lady who would not give up: Mrs. Macapagal was never a housewife to be bullied by the househelp…

"She had the curtains and rugs beaten until the soil they had accumulated for years was dislodged; she ordered that the rugs were to be vacuum-cleaned every day, and taken out and beaten at least once a month. She opened up the unused rooms, had them emptied of basura and tidied up, and laid down the rule that they were to be dusted and aired every day, just like the other rooms. Then she attacked the toilets."

On the extended Marcos occupancy Joaquin is nearly merciless, highlighting the vagaries, vulgarities and excesses of taste manifested in Imeldific fashion. Ferdinand himself is not spared the curious vignette on uncontrollable bladder and bowels.

"In a moment of shock or in a fit of panic, Mr. Marcos had shitted in his pants…

"At any rate, it seems all too proper that one of the last things Mr. Marcos did in the palace was to defile it."

Right after "Chapter XXV: The Marcos Conjugalities," it behooves editor-designer Alfredo Roces to pitch in with a neutralizing insert, titled "Private Lives in a Public Palace," that allows Bongbong and Irene Marcos to wax nostalgic about playtime in the park across the Pasig River, or the "hauntings inside the Palace."

Roces also serves up a brief, welcome account of "Mang Piding at Malacañang’s Service" – of "A valet who labored in the innards of the kitchen of Malacañang from the times of President Elpidio Quirino in 1949 to the last days of President Marcos in 1986."

Joaquin’s last chapter – the penultimate one being on President Corazon C. Aquino’s term – is titled "The Palace as Museum." Here it becomes evident that much of the original manuscript had been commissioned and written well before the 90s, as no separate chapter is awarded the Ramoses. In fact, the mention of Fidel V. Ramos’ assumption into office is segued into only as a tidbit: that the Museo ng Malacañang Foundation which managed the Palace tours, among others, during Cory’s time, and which eventually became the Society for the Preservation of Philippine Culture, Inc, the book’s publisher, had to turn over the reins "to a new group of caretakers called the Malacañang Heritage Foundation..."

Joaquin then opines: "Many hope that this interim of Malacañang as a museum is but temporary and that the time will come when it will again be a residence, the number one habitation in the land..."

Roces rounds up the book with a doublespread photo essay on Joseph Estrada’s entry as occupant, titled "A Short-Lived Residence for an Ill-starred President," followed by a longer Postscript, a fine account titled "EDSA Dos Knocks at Malacañang’s Door." A photo of the Arroyo couple, on their way to host their first formal reception at the Palace, is then followed by a contemporary photo gallery of the surviving members of the families that lived in Malacanãng.

All the photos in the book are in black-and-white, with the relatively recent shots taken by Akio Kawasumi, Neal Oshima, Wig Tysmans, Dick Baldovino, Rolando Codes and Wahoo Guerrero. Pen-and-ink illustrations are served up by Manuel Baldemor and Phyllis Zaballero.

Such a handsome, weighty, but eminently readable book this is, indeed one marvelous collectible.
* * *
"Palacio de Malacañang: 200 Years of a Ruling House" may be purchased or ordered through IdeaZ at 400-2387 and 522-5268. The book is priced at P5,000 per copy, with a bulk discount offered on purchases of five or more copies.

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