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Arts and Culture

Admirable audacity as biofiction

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson - The Philippine Star
Admirable audacity as biofiction

The start of Assembling Alice, Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta’s biography of her grandmother Alice Feria, published by Penguin Random House SouthEast Asia, reads like superb fiction, with a precise, detailed account that introduces “The Stranger, 1939.”

“He walks to the front lawn of the house dressed in a camisa de chino and trousers that barely lick his ankles. The topmost button of the crewneck shirt hurts the dip between his collarbones. He turns the button to the right and itches to flick it loose. He stops himself. Local men would have kept the button tight, whatever the weather. Strange to this place, he must not look out of place. If he cannot look like their men, he must appear to respect their ways.

“He walks to the front lawn with the kind of purpose that clicks its heels but does not quite know why.”

The stranger is a young Japanese who offers to serve as a gardener for a wealthy Filipino’s summer residence in Baguio.

Characters other than those who people that cottage are introduced, in brief episode-chapters suggesting their stations in life, points of view that unveil character, radius of consciousness and knowledge, even psychological and ideological stances in the context of socio-economic class, colonial pivot, and awareness of a war looming in the horizon.

Now, that may sound like too much of a welter of individual placements in fastidious world-building. But in the author’s deft hand, these quick snatches are rendered as elliptical fragments that subtly grow a picture puzzle of relationships. The prose glitters with sensory applications. Sight and sound and smell are chronicled as delicate poetry.

“With a single look, at that moment between life and death, you had made perfect all my seasons. You had laved my dirt with sun and rain, just so. The stones in the garden had fallen into place then, and the sun had struck a sudden flush of petals with just the right bend of light. And all the long necks of roses kissed the air. And you had made me a perfect form with a single look — you had designed me into a perfect order, into a perfect garden.”

The master of the house is the topnotch lawyer Callao who consorts with the unnamed President in Manila. There is his wife, then their daughter Linang, and the help, with whom the Japanese gardener associates more frequently, although he is as observant as a spy when it comes to the masters’ activities and conversation.

Alice Feria arrives as a family guest, faux kindred to the Callao family owing to her own origin — as a mestiza raised not by her own parents but by a middle-class family after she’s shipped over out of wedlock from Mindanao. Her spinster aunt who becomes her adoptive mother, Salvacion, is true to her name.

In her late teens, Alice rivals the older Linang, who has become like a cousin. Linang is better-educated and highly cultured, but it is Alice who can give a good account of herself on a Steinway. Linang can tell the popular composers apart, but Alice prefers Debussy over Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven. They discuss books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone with the Wind, and how the feminista had risen when Filipinas won the right to vote. Both girls sport a genteel wit and observe fashion conventions. But with her hazel eyes, light brown hair and fair complexion, it is Alice who fatally attracts the boys, even those Linang has set her eyes on.

At some point during a Baguio vacation, Alice helps the infatuated Haruki complete a haiku, much to his fated appreciation and quiet delirium.

The story flashes back to 1921 for a backgrounder on Alice’s uncommon provenance.

Peripherally, since this is both biography and roman a clef, historical figures appear, among them Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Dean Worcester whom Callao portrays in a libelous essay as a “Buwitre” (shades of “Aves de rapiña”), and Herbert Zipper, a Jewish expatriate poised to take over as conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra.

The war comes. Among its consequences on upper-class families in Manila is that Zipper (who has escaped Dachau and Buchenwald), refuses to lead the renamed orchestra and include Japanese victory songs in its classical repertoire for the Manila Metropolitan Theatre. Instead, he orders his musicians, including substitute pianist Alice, to bury their instruments.

By this time, Alice has married Ding Obordo, Linang’s former obsession, whose only seeming claim to fame was his participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a member of the Philippine basketball team. He helps his young wife bury her practice piano in their back lot. A Japanese officer uncovers the deed, which almost costs them their lives.

The heck with spoiler alerts. In the dungeons of Fort Santiago, Alice is rescued and set free by a senior officer, the former spy whom she had helped out with a haiku. Haruki then disappears forever.

Historical fact and ethereal conjectures engage in a curious dance, introducing us to the fresh genre that is biofiction. But the significance of Katigbak-Lacuesta’s audacious inventions, as the granddaughter who pieces together her lola’s life from vignettes heard and crafted, rests on the highlights of diction and articulation. These are unfolded with such elegant ardor of imagination and language, inclusive of grace notes — with turns of phrase approximating the art of ikebana with its inspired gradations of completion.

When characters are introduced or reverted to, soon their POVs take us into their minds’ very recesses, not just into the easy whys and wherefores of a society that’s been beset by another war while still weaning its way from colonization. It also allows for a variety of takes on class and privilege, the canny immediacy of three, even four, languages, and the maneuverings required by complex circumstances.

The author acknowledges the confines that dictate her tack, still as part of her story:

“All I know of Alice I’ve heard from second-hand stories — fragments of which have been lengthened here into creative fact. What we have here is literary biography gleaned from stories that have morphed into many versions over the years, and from the memories of a variety of sources.”

This allows her to slide away, indeed elide, from expected dramatization of personal milestones of intimacy and portent, leaving us with fait accompli that have been bookended by presage and outcome.

From a first marriage that’s cut short by the terror of war, to a second, initially improbable one, with an American officer beguiled by her piano-playing, Alice herself is a cameo around whom everyone else revolves, with their own backgrounds fleshed out to limn the jewel of their admiration and affections.

Alice became a journalist, pursuing her advocacy of nation-building by publishing Filipina Home Companion, which paved the way for other Filipina journalists. Towards book’s end, we are given a glimpse of her own writings, as samples of her lucid, impassioned essays.

Writing “On National Development” in 1958, presciently or abiding by old truths, Alicia Feria-Winn might as well have observed present vicissitudes and the moral compass that spells hope:

“We learned from the last war that an unswerving faith to one’s ideals and principles is not in vain and the triumph of Truth is irrefutable.”

FICTION

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