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Opinion

The Writing Life Fiction beginnings

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

Today, let me entertain you and draw you away though briefly from the horrible anxieties wrought by this pandemic. In the last few weeks, I’ve been recalling the themes of my past stories. How about my stories that never got written down? I have a large file of them. My three journals are also cluttered with literary ideas, a narration of dreams – some of them so bizarre that they could be materials for fiction. When I start on a story, much of it is already structured in my mind. I always see to it that it must have a “story” – a narrative that is interesting and not boring. We all write from our lives. We recall trivial incidents that become the core of the story after we have lavished it with imagination – exaggeration even. In time, Dante’s precepts about a story’s different levels of meaning are instinctively drawn. The symbolic level grows – organic to the story and not an artificial transplant. If you have read my story, The God Stealer, you know what I mean. Here are two stories already plotted which I have yet to complete.

Song bird

In the 1950s, when I was with the old Manila Times, I visited Jovita Fuentes – our first internationally famous diva. She was then in her 70s, retired, and was teaching voice at the Holy Ghost College in Mendiola. She had sung the lead role – cho-cho san in the Puccini opera “Madame Butterfly”. She was tiny and without an imposing presence…until she started singing. I knew next to nothing about opera. So, she first narrated to me the Madame Butterfly story, of a Japanese woman, her American lover and their son – both of whom she loses. She then sang the famous aria, “Un Bel Di” for me – an audience of one. It was an unforgettable moment. In the unwritten story, an eleven-year-old girl student at the College is present. She listens to Jovita’s narrative and to hear her sing, and when she is finished, the girl leaves the room and cries. The story is about her, her love for music, and how she goes on to study voice as well. She starts appearing in literary programs. Then, she stars in musicals and is catapulted to the international stage, to Broadway. Her records are all best sellers even at home for she also has a broad repertoire of Filipino songs. But all through the years, she never forgot “Madame Butterfly”. She collected records on the opera, and by herself, she sang “Un Bel Di”. When she got to be 50 years old, the President gave her this country’s highest honor. At the ceremony, the President asked her her favorite song. She told him and after telling the story, she sang it for the first time, but didn’t finish it, knowing she could never equal Jovita Fuentes, “Un Bel Di”.

The Last Crocodile

In the 1950s, when I was with the old Manila Times, I was the house guest of Datu Samad Mangelen, the mayor of Buluan in Cotabato. I was there with an acquaintance who was a crocodile hunter. We boarded a banca and went to the Liguasan Marsh – a huge body of water which at the time was home to many crocodiles. We didn’t get any but that week-long trip impressed me and informed me about real life in the Moro hinterlands.

The story: Dong Caracros, the youngest son of the President, took a nondescript course on social anthropology in an English university. Pampered and self-indulgent, he is nonetheless an avid sportsman, fond of big game, hunting, fishing, fast cars and the good life which is his for the picking. On those occasions that he goes home, he is seldom in the palace; he goes around the country climbing mountains. Then, he hears rumors about a huge crocodile that has terrorized residents in the Laguna Bay area all the way down the Pasig River to the sea. Here was excellent game, a challenge. Dong worshipped his father who, he knew, rose from humble origins after wiping all opposition. He had also taken over vast properties and was rumored to have killed those who stood in his path. Dong heard all these, but he ignored them; he was after all, his father’s favorite. Did the President know about this menace in the Pasig? He told his son it was gossip, but if Dong wanted to hunt it down, he has the President’s blessings. He ordered the Navy to build a special vessel for Dong, with two engines, one which is electric so it could move quietly, and flat bottomed so it could navigate in the shallows, on its prow was a special revolving platform with a powerful search light. Here, Dong sat with his Winchester Magnum. Two naval officers manned the boat. Dong crisscrossed Laguna lake, and he interviewed townspeople and fishermen. Yes, a woman during her laundry near the Sierra Madre inlet had disappeared; a boy, too, near the Pasig. He found one witness who said, he saw it – a capsized banca, but on double checking on the informant, he found out he was a drunkard. He reported all this to his father who listened with interest. Now, he stayed in the palace longer and saw for himself how well his father governed, and how rich the family had become. And yes, he also got to know about repression in the countryside, and didn’t indulge anymore in his frequent trips to the mountains. He took to studying about crocodiles, their hunting habits, and how they would remain motionless in the water until they could grab their prey. In a way, they were like people, intelligent and cunning predators. After a year of trying, he thanked the two naval officers who had helped him, and most of all, his father, the President, who understood him. He went back to England to work for his doctoral dissertation on political development in the new emerging countries in Asia and how power is acquired and used. End of the story. If you were to write this story, will you end it this way? Will you make the irony clearer and stronger by suggesting that the real crocodile in the Pasig is no less than the President in Malacanang himself? Or that Dong finds the crocodile which overturns his boat and drowns him? Or that he succeeds in killing the crocodile and realizing that it wasn’t the enemy? Or that he realizes he is the crocodile himself but is very happy with that knowledge?

This is literature – often ambiguous and often illusory, but if the writer knows human nature, we will see ourselves in it as revealed to us by our own imagination.

FICTION

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