Ang Huling Dalagang Bukid at ang Authobiography na Mali by Jun Cruz Reyes (Anvil, 2011)
The 2nd Filipino Reader Conference was held two weeks ago at the Filipinas Heritage Library. The event consisted of a day of panel discussions on various topics and live group read discussions. Nope, I wasn't able to come. But I was able to participate indirectly as one of the judges in the Filipino Readers Choice Awards. The awarding ceremony was one of the highlights of the conference.
The winners include Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco for the Novel in English and Ang Huling Dalagang Bukid at ang Authobiography na Mali by Jun Cruz Reyes for the Novel in Filipino. I took part in selecting the winner in the Filipino novel category. Here's the list of finalists in the various award categories; here's the full list of winning works.
Jun Cruz Reyes is one of the leading writers in the vernacular language. He is a multiple awarded author known for producing significant contemporary works, such as Tutubi, Tutubi ... Huwag Kang Magpahuli sa Mamang Salbahe (Dragonfly, Dragonfly ... Don't Get Caught by a Bad Guy, 1981), Utos ng Hari at Iba Pang Kuwento (King's Behest and Other Stories, 1987), and the 1998 Centennial Literary Prize winning novel Etsa-Puwera (2001). Ang Huling Dalagang Bukid at ang Authobiography na Mali (The Last Farm Girl and the False Authobiography) is his latest masterwork, once again capping a career of excellence in fiction.
I am impressed with the way the novel presented its unique strain of postmodernism. Its creative form is quite distinct from the realist novels that populate local bookstores. The enigmatic title hints at two strands of storyline splitting the novel. "Ang Huling Dalagang Bukid" (The Last Farm Girl) pertains to the title of a draft of a novel-in-progress within the novel which the narrator – a novelist-artist who bears the same name, physical appearance, and biographical details as the actual author – is attempting to write. But this draft novel is in danger of not being completed as the fictional-novelist veers off in many directions throughout his writing of this novel-in-the-novel. He specifically digresses on many topics, including his unusual approach to novel-writing, the germ of its idea, his literary influences, the draft novel's working plot and candidate real life-based characters who will appear in it, and the constraints and personal difficulties hindering him from finishing the work.
This part of the title also refers to the main character of the novel-in-progress. "The last farm girl (and boy)" stands for the young Filipino women and men who left the country in search of greener pastures abroad during the latter part of twentieth century. The females usually went to work in Japan to earn enough cash to escape poverty. They were known as "cultural dancers" at home but later were called "Japayukis", a derogatory name for club entertainers. Prof. Reyes emphasizes their previous status as "farm girls" as he discoursed on an increasingly alarming sight in the countryside: productive agricultural lands gradually sold and converted into industrial zones, giving way to factories, business spaces, housing projects, and malls. The novelist decries both the loss of agricultural lands and the mass diaspora of Filipino workers going abroad for better job opportunities – workers who were now ironically canonized as "bagong bayani" (modern-day heroes) for their efforts in pouring in dollars into the national economy. The Last Farm Girl in some ways expresses deep reservations on the implications of global capitalism on culture and values.
The other strand of the novel, "Ang Authobiography na Mali" (The False Authobiography), refers to the semi- or quasi-autobiographical treatment of the narrator's own life as he tells his own story beginning from his birth and spoiled childhood to his days of student activism, his unfortunate experience as a target of harassment by soldiers because his published works were critical of the military establishment's abuses, and his travails as a PhD student, teacher, and academic in a state university that is not free from petty politics. With these narratives, the writer paints an absorbing picture of the artist in a society in the grips of global forces and corruption.
What particularly fascinates in these two intertwining strands of the novel (the novelistic and the autobiographical) is Prof. Reyes's honest, forthcoming presentation of personal details of his writing and working life. In the novelistic strand, we read something fictional but we note the disclaimer that it was just a rough draft. But it more or less resembles a writer's journal where he documents his process of writing and the socio-political environment around him. In the biographical strand, we are presented an actual biography of the novelist, but it was branded as "false" in the first place.
The most obvious deception lies in the misspelling of the word "Authobiography" in the title, which can be seen as a word play or shorthand for "Author's Biography". I personally do not know Prof. Reyes but his generous telling of the story of someone also called Jun Cruz Reyes left no doubt in my mind that the story he is telling has grains of truth in it. It is truthful and it is true. True in the sense that it captures the life of a man trying to live according to his principles and ideals. Here's a speculation: the "Authobiography" we have in our hands is really false, and so the converse is true: the "autobiography" we have here is true!
This "pseudo-novel", a provisional term for something whose radical form breaks away from what we usually think of as "novel", is subtitled "Isang Imbestigasyon". At the formal level, this can mean an investigation into the co-existence of fiction (albeit a draft) and nonfiction (though perhaps a "false" one) in a single discrete text. At the thematic level, this can mean the simultaneous mapping of the consciousness of the writer-artist (individual) and the society he is living in (collective).
The incorporation of a draft novel within an unstructured biography while investigating several themes at once is further turned on its head by the cross-pollination of several genres: informal essay, history, and memoir. It points to the potentialities of the novel to be an accommodating, all-inclusive medium of creative expression. Reinforcing this postmodern mix of genres and is an expansive, expressive style and a language of free play. Prof. Reyes's handling of language in his early works was labelled by literary critics as balbal (coarse or vulgar, from the root word of kabalbalan, coarseness/vulgarity). However, the narrator is right to reject this unfortunate classification. His language here is more colloquialism than coarseness. He does mix high and low registers in his prose. From this pseudo-novel alone there is no recognizable coarseness or transgressive value. The transgression partly comes from his handling of figures of speech which can be both playful and radical in their formulations. It is whimsical, like the postmodern quality of stream flow:
Dahil natataranta pati ang tubig, hindi na rin nito alam ang tamang direksiyon. Noong araw, nang sinaunang lumang araw, aagos lang ang mga bukal mula sa kabundukan, tapos ay magtatagpo sa mga sapa para magparami, saka tutuloy na sa mga ilog hanggang makarating sa dagat. Medyo formulaic at predictable ang dulo ng kuwentong ilog. Lagi iyong nagwawakas sa dagat. Ngayo'y postmodern na rin ang daloy ng naratibo ng ilog. May mga literal na twist and turn na rin ito. Anti-structure at anti-canon na rin. Ngayo'y nagmamadali ito, hindi na padaloy tulad ng isang tula, na dumadausdos mula sa bundok, kundi rumaragasa, kung minsa'y pabuhos at pabulusok, walang pasintabi ni awa, isang tropa sila, ang tubig na may kasamang troso, layak at burak. Kung minsa'y may patangay pang mga bahay at kalabaw, malauna'y may patangay pang mga taong nakagapos at may tape sa bibig at may nakapaskil sa dibdib na, "Huwag akong pamarisan." Bahagi rin iyon ng kalikasang postmodern. May mga patay kaliwa't kanan pero wala namang pumapatay at hindi rin naman nagpakamatay. Huwag nang alamin ang kuwento ng mga patay. Sapat nang magpasalamat na tayo'y buhay at nalilibang. Ang ilog ay parang militar na nag-ooplan lambat-bitag na ang madaraana'y collateral damage na lang. Mapahamak ang makasalubong ng nagwawala, ng nagwawalang kalikasan, ng mundo at ng tao.
(Even the waters are now in turmoil, not knowing the right direction to turn to. Once, once upon an ancient time, the springs flowed freely from the mountains, then congregated in streams to fill volumes, and then coursed through rivers and reached the sea. The end of the river story was a bit predictable and formulaic. It always ended in the sea. But today even the coursing of the river-narrative is postmodern. It now literally twists and turns. Anti-structure and anti-canon. Today it's on a headlong rush, no longer issuing like a poem, as it slides down the mountains, but gushing down, sometimes in a flood and in a flash, with no excuse or leniency, a troop of waters, a torrent accompanied by tree trunks, junk, and mud. Sometimes it washes away houses and carabaos, then later it washes away hogtied persons, with mouths taped shut, with notices pinned to the chests saying, "Don't follow my example." That is also part of postmodern nature. The dead appeared left and right yet nobody killed them and nobody took his own life. Better to close your eyes to the story of the dead. Be thankful for what we have. Play and be merry. The river is like the military with its operation fish-trap wherein those caught in crossfires are but collateral damage. They are at risk, those who encounter the rage, the rage of nature – of the world and men.)
This passage follows the writer along an indefinable flow of the "postmodern river" story, improvising from that whole chaos a riff on the human rights abuses by the military. Improvisation is the way with which Prof. Reyes merged his double stranded narrative and its forking themes, genres, and linguistic play. Smashing the categories attributed to modernist and even postmodernist works, the novel then becomes free-ranging and unconstrained, like an open mic performance. It becomes receptive to the scrutiny of literary theory (Marxism, post-colonialism, postmodernism, and even ecocriticism (as the sample passage above, along with the novel's discourse on mechanization encroaching on farm lands, illustrates).
In short, Prof. Reyes's novel of ideas is forward looking, futuristic. It is stitched from existing forms and yet reveals new ways of assembling and expanding the novel's universe. The only weakness I can think about it is its length. Its unwieldiness is evident from the introduction of extraneous ideas that could otherwise have been expunged. The novel's status as a "draft" cannot excuse it from having gone on interminably in several places. I feel that a good editor can tighten the book and strengthen further its readability. This editorial issue aside, I am looking forward to read more of Prof. Reyes's other fictional materials, particularly his works in the 1980s dealing with the subject of the martial law years under the Marcos regime.