A novel on workers’ rights

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

It took me a year to translate the old Tagalog of Lope K. Santos in his 1906 novel, “Banaag at Sikat,” into 20th-century British English. The novel is a love story framed in the context of a political tale during the early days of American imperialism. Its burning passages on race, class and colonialism still resonate today. That must be one of the reasons why Penguin Random House South East Asia commissioned me to translate Santos’ novel as the first Philippine title in its South East Asian Literary Classics series.

The cover design is a painting by the talented Celeste Lecaroz: a work aflame with oranges and reds on a wide expanse of sky. The painting could be dawn; it could also be sunset. Such ambiguity captures Santos’ point in his landmark novel. Socialism will cause the sun to set on capitalism; and it will also be the dawn of equal rights for all in economic and property relations.

As in Virginia Woolf’s novels, time is also an important factor here. It can even be a character by itself. The novel begins on an early morning, when Manila’s social set goes to the Antipolo springs to take a bath. There, the novelist smartly introduces us to the characters, and the old capitalists and the young turks meet headlong. Here are excerpts from the fireworks of words.

*      *      *

Don Filemon said, “Look at how useless your Union is. Look at the so-called good it’s doing to the workers. There had been a series of strikes since these labor unions started. If the supervisor had caught them stealing and reported them to management, they would quickly ask that the supervisor be replaced. They would ask for a raise in their wages even if production and sales were down. If you didn’t give way to their whim, they would immediately declare a strike…”

Delfin raised his face and answered the two old men.

“Don Ramon and Don Filemon, you’re wrong in insulting the organization of workers, simply because your factory workers went on strike… They also have the right not to go to work.”

“And what would be their reason? What we pay them now is more than 100 percent of what we used to do so years before...”

“Don Ramon, do you think that the wage increase could cover the rising cost of food, clothing, housing and other needs of the workers?”

“The price of rice has risen many times. The food of the humble folk – smoked fish, dried fish and vegetables – have also increased in prices. We can add to that the cost of firewood, of water, of the ingredients needed for cooking, all of which have risen more than four times their original costs. Likewise with the fee for the seamstress and the prices of clothes, hats, slippers and shoes, which are needed to avoid exposure to illnesses. How about the rent for the small house, or the cost of renovating it? You couldn’t repair a house for a mere 50 or 100 pesos only. How about the taxes for the house and lot, the sanitation fee and other extractions by the State? Or if they rent a house, it’s usually as small as the place where animals sleep. All of these are just shadows of the real truth… Wherever the workers’ lives turn, it all ends up with capital. Capital rents their labor, and laborers also pay back to capital.”

The two old men seemed to have run out of saliva. The others just sat silently and bit their lips. When Don Ramon saw that Don Filemon was beginning to shake with rage, he began to answer in cool and mellow tones.

“You said so many things about the lives of workers. But you failed to mention the cockfights they attend every Sunday, the games of cards that their wives attend until the wee hours of the morning, making them sleepless, their preening that was prouder than ours, whether in eating delicious food or wearing good clothes. I’ve seen many workers who earn 15 or 25 pesos a month, and yet eat more food than I do, and wear clothes that could put Captain Luis to shame. Pray tell me now how expensive is the food, clothes, houses that they have, in contrast to their small wages. You know you’re not earning a lot of money, then why would you overspend? You don’t have money in the bank, then why bring your money to the cockpit week in and week out? The poor are a thousand times prouder than the rich… And when they’ve no more money to pay for their whims, then they would complain that they’re not paid well in their work!”

Don Filemon almost applauded upon hearing what his friend had said, and then he added: “These, these are the things that you should discuss and analyze, you who are members of the Alliance of Workers’ Organizations!”

“The greed for cockfights, for card games and other forms of gambling,” Delfin answered, “love for eating and good clothes – these I won’t deny. There’s some truth in what you’ve said. But don’t think that our rules and our Organization allow these. In our meetings, we have pointed out that these are wrong…

“Gentlemen, let’s go to the point. The vices that you’ve mentioned are only the leaves and fruits of the workers’ bitter lives. These are illnesses that cannot be healed, unless we go to their root causes. The root of all these is their poverty. The fruits are the vices from society. Why won’t the poor worker gamble, when he has no more hope of improving his lot? Why won’t he gamble, when he has to meet so many needs, as father of the house and part of the community, a tier of needs that are important and necessary?

“About the good clothes, why won’t he dress up well, when we still judge whether a person can be trusted or not by how he looks? Would someone wearing rags even be entertained if he is looking for work in a factory or an office? They don’t want to be thought of as ‘He’s poor as a rat,’ ‘He looks like a thief,’ ‘This one can’t be trusted,’ ‘This one should go to the Bilibid Prison,’ among other vile accusations.”

*      *      *

Radiance and Sunrise, my English translation of the novel, is available at Amazon.com

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