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Opinion

History as fiction

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

I have finally published my first novel, Riverrun, which I finished writing 15 years ago. Began in Quezon City, I continued writing the novel when I took my graduate studies in Publishing at the University of Stirling in Scotland on a British Council fellowship. I wrote more chapters when I returned to Manila and served as Director of the Office of Research and Publications at Ateneo de Manila University for ten years. I brought the novel with me to Rutgers University, where I received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in its Graduate School in English.

Written in three continents over a span of 15 years, I am happy it was finally published last year, so I can go on and write more novels. History as fiction is one of the mofits of Riverrun, whose title is a take-off from a novel by James Joyce, the famous Irish novelist. For in this mad, maternal archipelago called the Philippines, there is much to be gleaned from our crazy and colorful history, and transmuted to the world of the imagination, the world of words.

I am reprinting one short chapter from Riverrun, in memory of the First Quarter Storm that happened in the country in 1970, a precursor to the bloody, violent, and corrupt dictatorship that Ferdinand Marcos Sr. would later foist on the country. Fiction may not solve all the riddles and problems of history, but it can remind us of what to avoid, when the next reckoning comes.

The chapter is called “Grains of Memory.”

Even when I was only ten years old, I was already an avid reader of the Philippines Free Press. My father would buy this magazine from the commissary every week. I read the poems and the feature articles, the essays and the stories, even if I could not understand all of them. But some things would remain with me, like grains of sugar left on the bottom of a cup.

One day in January, Ferdinand Marcos delivered his State of the Nation Address. We were watching him on TV. Sometimes, the camera would pan the crowd of student activists outside, then back to the majestic halls again, where the President spoke.

“But which nation?” The students massed in front of the old Congress Building must have asked that question among themselves as the President’s words boomed through the huge speakers.

They were all there, the students from Manila’s exclusive Catholic universities for the elite, boys in thick eyeglasses, long-sleeved white cotton shirts, ties running down their chests. The girls also came, in their white blouses and blue dresses cut above the knees. For this “out-of-school activity,” they had asked their housemaids to fold and re-sew their hemlines the night before, so they could bare more legs.

There were also students from Manila’s boisterous diploma mills. Boys in their Beatles haircut, Vonnel V-necked shirts and tight double-knit pants. The girls came in bright minis that stopped a throb away from their knickers.

Above these young people boomed the banners of protest, the voices that began being raised five years earlier, when President Lyndon B. Johnson dropped by Manila en route to Saigon, to finalize plans to pulverize the North. They were only less than a hundred, then, my mother told me, students carrying banners with the words: “LBJ, LBJ, how many babies did you kill today?”

But now they numbered in the thousands, joined even by the workers from the working-class districts of Quiapo, Sta. Cruz, and Tondo and by students from Southern Luzon. Ranged against them were the cops and soldiers, bristling with wooden sticks, truncheons, and shields.

As the President spoke of another country (less crime, more exports, democracy), the young firebrands also worked the crowd. One leader of the nationalist left, who needed no beer to unloosen his tongue, carped against the rich: “The rich wear perfumes they store in gallons and have underwear of silk. We only have the detergent Tide and our underwear are recycled from cotton sacks that used to contain chicken feed.”

And then the doors of Congress opened. First came the Secretaries, the Undersecretaries, the Assistant Secretaries, and their Manifold Assistants – the crows, the cockroaches, the centipedes and the earthworms. Then, there was the President, with eyes like a pig’s, his face turning greasy with the years. And like Lady Macbeth, there was the First Lady, with her big and lacquered hair, her dress with its butterfly wings, her bosom heaving, overflowing with love for the wretched of this archipelago.

Then from the student’s ranks someone threw a crocodile made from carton, right into the First Couple’s direction. The President and the First Lady ducked in time. Escorts herded them past the crowd, and they soon disappeared into their stretch black limousine.

After this, the Free Press said, came the madness.

The police and the military swooped down on the students, their wooden sticks and trenches swinging wildly. They bashed heads, shattered arms and knees. In turn, the students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, a rain of curses on the cops and soldiers. They held forth and only scampered away when the military began shooting.

As dusk fell, shadows ran only to be mowed down by bullets. Like a tangled net the screams rose in the air. Some students managed to run all the way to Mendiola, cross the bridge, and gather in front of Malacañang Palace. They commandeered a firetruck, drove it straight back up, thrice – and then the gates gave way, the students spilled over onto the grounds, jumping with jubilation, only to be cut down by a hail of bullets from the marines. Their sharp eyes picked out their targets as in a shooting gallery. Those who did not fall began to run, with the Marines chasing them, driving the students toward the other direction, at street’s end, where barbed wires, row upon row of the rustiest wires, awaited them.

And so it was that the students who were running away saw before them the wires like black teeth. Some of them did turn around and raise their hands. But the smell of gunpowder and blood was in the air. The marines cocked their rifles, took aim, then shot the students one by one. Seeing these, the other students just ran and ran in the direction of the barbed wires, then jumped blindly onto them, their elbows raised like wings.

“Riverrun” is available in National Bookstore and Powerbooks. Comments can be sent to [email protected]

 

ACIRC

AS THE PRESIDENT

ASSISTANT SECRETARIES

BRITISH COUNCIL

CONGRESS BUILDING

DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF RESEARCH AND PUBLICATIONS

FERDINAND MARCOS

FERDINAND MARCOS SR.

FIRST COUPLE

RIVERRUN

STUDENTS

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