From a haunted castle to Cambridge

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - February 6, 2021 - 12:00am

I was given a month of free board and lodging in Boswell Room at the 17th-century Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian, Scotland, in 1993. The international writing fellowship was sponsored by the Drue Heinz Foundation. There were four other international writers with me in the castle.

We were always on tenterhooks because we had heard that the ghost of Fiona Cunningham was still there. She was supposed to marry Lord Drummond, the owner of the castle, in the 18th century. But the Drummond family objected to such a union, because Cunningham was only a commoner. A few days before the wedding ceremony, the people just found Cunningham dead of poisoning.

I finished the draft of my poetry manuscript in one week, and decided to write my first novel at the haunted castle of Hawthornden. I could not afford the P300 daily rent for the electric typewriter in 1993, so I just wrote my novel in long hand, on yellow sheets of paper. After our communal breakfast, we would then return to our respective rooms to write. Lunch would be a flask of soup, bread or crackers, or sandwiches left atop a small table outside our doors. And dinner would be communal again, as if the writers were being rewarded with good food for working hard during the day.

I wrote 20 pages every day, in long hand, until I had written 300 pages of my novel in three weeks. The scenes I was writing were very clear to me. This time, the mode of writing I employed was what the French and American critics would call “magic realist.”

But for me, it was pure, classical realism, for I was writing about a vanished past – my childhood, the years of growing up, the slippery and glorious chaos of it all. My fingers were sore from all that writing, calluses covered my hand, but my heart was glad and filled to bursting.

After the fellowship in Scotland, I flew to Los Angeles to visit my sister for the whole month of June. Then after a month, I flew back to London and took a train to Cambridge University. The British Council had also kindly given me a fellowship to attend the Cambridge Seminar on Contemporary British Writing at Downing College for two weeks in July.

There, I met the crème de la crème of British writing, from Doris Lessing to A.S. Byatt to John Fowles, and naturally bought their books and asked them for their autographs. And during our Writers’ Night, the fellows were asked to read their works of creative writing.

I chose to read an excerpt from my novel. I read the words scribbled on the yellow sheets of pad paper, my fictional version of the building and collapse of the Manila Film Palace. More than 40 workers allegedly died when the scaffolding fell and the workers crashed into the quick-drying cement.

After I read, there was stunned silence, followed by a thunderous applause. The delegation from Spain shouted, “Viva Filipinas!” The Latin Americans rushed to me and asked me for the Spanish original of my novel. And the Eastern Europeans, the writers from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, they came to me and with a wicked gleam in their eyes they said: “You are just like us. You also make fun of your country’s weird history!”

To the Eastern Europeans – the grandchildren of Franz Kafka – I just smiled my Mona Lisa smile. To the Latin Americans, I said that there was no Spanish original because I wrote my novel in English. I also teased them by saying that they should wait for my next novel. It would be about my great-great grandfather who fled Japan in 1895 after he had murdered somebody there. He landed in Manila just in time for the preparations for the Philippine revolution against Spain – and he joined the side of the Filipinos.

The characters in the first draft of my novel were young and confused. They were also funny and sad. They seemed to be floating, unmoored, meandering. This was because that was how we felt during the Marcos dictatorship. We were young and we felt we had no rosy future at all. We had nothing else, except a seeming hopelessness and the taste of ashes on one’s tongue.

I guess you could call the form of my novel as a hybrid. There was realism there, but there was also a hint of magic realism. It was fiction written in the form of a memoir, an older and more cynical person looking back at his past. The novel had a recipe for shark’s meat, which served as a metaphor for the dictatorship. It also had recipes for laing, bopis and Soup Number 5. The recipes functioned as commentators on the flow of the narrative, in the same way the chorus did for the Greek plays.

Moreover, the novel had flash fiction and vignettes, a feature article and parodies of poems, as well as vivid songs. The spirit of James Joyce hovered over the novel, since some sentences mimicked his writing style, while others parodied the famous lines in his short stories and novels. There was no grand narrative arc that ended with a bang. Rather, there was a series of narrative arcs, rising and falling in the novel, like waves.

I was not even sure that I had written a novel, or ended it the way it should end. I guess I just followed what Milan Kundera said in his The Art of the Novel – that a novel could be linked together by themes or motifs, like a symphony. I did not know if I succeeded there at all. Only Time – that great and pitiless arbiter of all writing – could tell.

And in the end, I hope the spirit of the great Jose Rizal also hovers over my novel, in his lovely immortal words, telling us that there is nothing sweeter than the love for one’s country.

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Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com Danton Remoto’s novel, Riverrun, was recently published by Penguin. Available at Shopee Philippines and amazon.com.

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