Arts and Culture

A visit to Arguilla Country: Literature as patriotism

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

I brought the writer Angelo Lacuesta and his wife, the poet Mookie Katigbak, to Bauang, in La Union the other week. I had written earlier to Mary Jane Ortega, the La Union trustee, suggesting that the province honor the memory of Manuel Arguilla, one of our finest writers of the pre-World War II period. I asked her to do this knowing only too well how remiss we are in recognizing our writers and particularly Manuel Arguilla who, like Rizal and so many others, gave their lives for Filipinas. Mary Jane was once mayor of San Fernando, the capital of La Union; she is herself an academic and cultural activist. She replied immediately that, indeed, Bauang and its mayor Martin de Guzman III were planning to set up a library which will be named after Arguilla.

Literature had enthralled me at an early age but in that village where I was born, so few books were within my reach. What delighted me most about leaving my barrio to enroll at the Far Eastern University High School in Manila in 1938 was the availability of so many books not just at the FEU library but at the National Library which was then at the basement of the National Museum. I first read Arguilla’s stories in the Graphic and the Philippine Magazine edited by AVH Hartendorp. I was also enthused by the stories of Paz Latorena, Pacita Pestano, Conrado V. Pedroche — the essays Salvador P. Lopez and Francisco B. Icasiano’s in the Graphic, The Sunday Tribune magazine, the Philippines Free Press and the Midweek magazine of the Philippines Herald. Our first generation of writers in English had a larger venue then which our writers today don’t have.

I was at the National Library almost every afternoon and it was there where I saw Manuel Arguilla and Salvador P. Lopez. Arguilla was easily recognizable because he had this big black mole on his cheek. He was not all that dark — in fact, he was quite handsome. I was in short pants then, and much too shy to approach him so I just sat before him at the reading table. I do not think he noticed me at all.

After the war, I went out of my way to meet my elders, Fred Mangahas, Narciso G. Reyes, Salvador P. Lopez, Teodoro Lansang, Leopoldo Yabes, and the Jesuit trained Raul Manglapus, Horacio dela Costa, and from Cebu, Estrella Alfon, Cornelio Faigao, and in Baguio, Sinai Hamada, Amador Daguio.

I also met Arguilla’s wife, Lydia, who ran an art gallery in her Arquiza apartment in Ermita. In the early Fifties when I was with the old Manila Times, I went to Nagrecban in Bauang and photographed the Arguilla house and Manuel’s father who was a farmer very much like my own grandfather, his toes splayed “like ginger.” I gave that photograph to the Mayor of Bauang the other week.

Manuel Arguilla’s literary output was limited to short fiction and essays. His relatives reported that sometime in the Seventies representatives of the National Press Club convinced the family that his papers should be surrendered to them for safe-keeping. The papers were in one big chest; those papers should be located and published together with his prizewinning collection, How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife.

The title story in this collection is narrated from the point of view of a farm boy; how his older brother Noel brought home his city-bred wife. Noel, Arguilla’s nickname, reversed is Leon. It is an impressionistic jewel, without much action, but with evocative impressions — “like a morning when papayas are in bloom.” How many young Filipinos have awoken to such a morning? I tried to copy it and came up with “a morning when banabas are in bloom.”

Other stories are set in the farm, the awakening of carnal knowledge in “Midsummer.” Perhaps the last story Arguilla wrote was “The Man at Banzai Bridge.” It is set in Manila during the Occupation; a Japanese in the story is the narrator’s friend. The narrator’s intense curiosity about the man on the bridge who had looked at him propels the story. A guerrilla, perhaps waiting for someone? Arguilla’s most memorable story is “Caps and Lower Case,” about a proofreader in a printing establishment, his poverty. The ending is powerful — the world dissolving with him. Stories like this informs readers that Arguilla was also a stern social critic, in keeping with the Filipino literary tradition — searing social criticism starting with Rizal’s Noli and Fili.

Speaking before that Bauang audience that included members of the Arguilla clan, municipal officials, students and teachers. I recounted my visit to the Soviet Union in 1967 during the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

At the Moscow editorial office of Novy Mir, the literature journal, I had a very interesting discussion about Boris Pasternak, the famous poet whose novel Dr. Zhivago had appeared in the West. He had won the Nobel Prize but was not permitted by the Soviet authorities to go to Stockholm to get the prize. As the Novy Mir editor at the time explained to me, indeed, Pasternak was known in Russia as a superb poet, but that his patriotism was in doubt as evidenced by his novel. At the time, I had already read two English translations of the novel and so I told the Russian editor that Pasternak loved Russia perhaps more than any Russian. In that novel, I said, are the most beautiful and poignant descriptions of the Russian winter and spring — descriptions which only one who truly loves the land can express.

Actually I was thinking of Manuel Arguilla. I think no other Filipino writer has described the land, the seasons, the Ilokos and their villages with as much affection as he did. This love for the land was written with no less than his blood when he was executed by the Japanese for guerrilla activities during the Occupation. No testimony, like Rizal’s, could be more sublime and noble as this.

* * *

I urge young writers to read the Yabes anthologies which include some of the best fiction produced by writers like Manuel Arguilla from the beginning of our literature in English in the twenties onwards to the outbreak of World War II, and on to the early post war years. In this way they can form that iron continuum with the past and understand that our literature was shaped by contextuality and a faithful affection for our geography, our sense of place.

If Arguilla had his Nagrebcan, Nick Joaquin and Gilda Cordero-Fernando had Manila — the new and the old — Gregorio Brillantes had Camiling, Ibrahim Jubaira had Jolo, Charlson Ong mythified Binondo, and Cornelio Faigao, Cecilia Manguera Brainard, Lina Espina Moore and Estrella Alfon beatified Cebu, Amador Daguio and Sinai Hamada wrote about the Cordilleras. He was not so much involved with a place but Ben Santos empathized with the deracinated and homesick expats in the United States, and finally NVM Gonzalez faithfully recorded the lives of kaingeros in Mindoro. All these writers traveled widely but in a way they never left their native habitat because they had a venerable sense of place — and this beautiful remembering, can easily be transformed into a sense of nation.

At the University of Santo Tomas Creative Writing Center last Friday, I attended a conversation with five visiting Fil-Am writers, R. Zamora Linmark, M. Evelina Galang, Lara Stapleton, Fidelito Cortez, and Amalia Bueno. I asked them if the Philippines had a strong pull in their imagination and all of them said, indeed, there was. Though far removed from this time and place, the Philippines is very much alive in their imagination and in their writing.

However it may be defined, this sense of place gives character, color, to what they write, unfamiliar though it may be to their readers abroad. With artistry writers frame their work with this distinct particularity and from there, achieve the universality which art eventually achieves.

It is easy enough for any writer to proclaim unabashed his nationalism, his unerring contextuality, his enduring rootedness.

But patriotism? How many Rizals and Arguillas are there in this unhappy country?

Perhaps, it is enough to expect simple honesty from our writers.

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