03 October 2012

The Gold in Makiling (Macario Pineda)

The Gold in Makiling (1947) by Macario Pineda, translated and with an introduction by Soledad S. Reyes (Anvil, 2012)

The Gold in Makiling began with the mysterious disappearance of an old woman in the town of Malolos in 1947. When informed of this by a letter, the editor of a popular weekly magazine sent a writer (the narrator) to investigate this incident and perhaps write about what he finds out there. The narrator was in fact a bit familiar with the story of the woman. He himself was a relative of hers: "If it was true that an old woman disappeared, and that woman's name was Susana de los Santos, what I would face in Malolos was the culmination of a story of love, unique and not comparable with any other story written and published elsewhere in the world."

The novelist was getting ahead of himself, but that love story, between Sanang and Edong, was the story told to the narrator by Tata Doro, the nephew of Sanang and who as a young boy was witness to the mysterious series of events in the novel. Tata Doro's story went back to the beginning of the century (1906, in the early years of American occupation in the country).

When Doro was a young boy, his aunt's lover Edong went to Mount Makiling with his friends to gather orchids. The mythical Mount Makiling in the province of Laguna was believed to be haven of a goddess-like being called Mariang Makiling. Edong met an accident while trying to save a small bird at the edge of a ravine. He fell down the mountain cliff and was believed to have met a certain death. His body though was never found.

What followed was the beginning of magic, mystery, and enchantment, including an encounter with the mountain goddess herself. Edong returned to the village. He was alive after all. His survival he attributed to the power of Maring Makiling, who saved and healed him because of his concern for the animals of the mountain.

Mariang Makiling was as perfect as she was idealized: "She's a ray of light, a flower, a drop of dew teetering on the tip of a blade of grass in the early morning, a brilliance, a fragrance, a lovely poem, an idea ..." The land she guarded in the heart of the mountain was a secret village. In this community everyone treated each other like brothers and sisters; food was shared by all; peace reigned; there's a strong sense of bayanihan or unity; there's no political structure, no hypocrisy. Every smile was sincere and true. Most significantly, it was also a version of utopia and Elysian Fields. It was populated by the most noble and charismatic figures in Philippine history, both real and imaginary: the real heroes who contributed to the fight for independence against Spanish oppressors and the imaginary characters in great literary works. Think of the likes of Filipino great José Rizal rubbing shoulders with some of his characters in his novel Noli me Tangere.

They are people who, because of their constancy and steadfastness, became victims. There were those that life took advantage of, like a tenant, working on the land for fifty years, but because he lost his leg, in an accident, he also lost his job and was in danger of starving and facing imminent death. There is a servant from a town, mauled by his master, because of some baseless accusation. There is someone named Crispin, who was accused of stealing money and severely beaten up in a convent during the Spanish period. His mother is also there ... There is a man with a magnificent physique, respected by all. He has a huge scar on his forehead and it is said that his body bore wounds inflicted by a spear.

The novelist was offering an alternative reality. He had put in one place, to live as a community, the best men and women of the past, the champions of history, what he called kakanggata ng lahi, a beautiful concept and term in Tagalog. Kakanggata is literally the first milk extracted from freshly grated coconut meat. The translator rendered it as "the cream of the race", a good approximation that contains the sense of "cream of the crop".

The cream of the race were the pride of the nation. That they all lived together in the heart of Makiling was plausible. Where else but in magical novels can these people be assembled? But Pineda went beyond this fantastical idea by raising a more fantastical possibility. What if these people come back to us? What if they climb down the mountain at some future time and assist their people in their struggles? What if they are already with us right now?

To be able to live in this community, a sacrifice must be made, an unconditional offering of the self. This was the fate of Sanang as a lover; her love must be tested to the limits; her fortitude, her worthiness must be weighed against gold. Sanang was destined to brave the ravages of time before she could return to the arms of Edong and finally ascend and join the commune in Makiling.

The "gold" in the title was the stones of gold in the magical mountain but its symbolic meaning was evident. Men tried to plunder the mountain of its riches but they might as well be pursuing a curse. As Edong told the young Doro, gold is precious only to the lowland people but the illustrious people that dwell in the mountain had no use for it. No amount of gold in the world could buy the happiness of Makiling's chosen few.

In her introduction, the translator pointed out that the gold also refers to "Filipinos who through education can make a difference in the lives of people". This was embodied by Tata Doro who gained education and who was able to form ideas on the "meaning of life" and the painful lessons of history under colonial rule. The gold could also symbolize the "gold" inside a human being: purity of character and the resilience of an individual to the hardships thrown her way. The same gold standard that the nation's heroes adhered to and which earned them a special place in Makiling.

The translation by Soledad S. Reyes rang true and confident to me. It gave a distinct flavor that must be beholden to the original quality of the Tagalog prose. The novelist himself, like other writers in his time, was a writer first in English, but he eventually wrote his novels in his native language. The English captured the magic and lyricism of the story. It was able to communicate a strong sense of atmosphere, as with the following passage before a climactic event, notable for its snappy rhythm and a sense of dread to come.

The whole village was quiet. The windows were shut in the early evening. No one walked about. All the lights in the houses were turned off. Even the dogs seemed not inclined to bark, and the owners immediately restrained the occasional growl. The owl roosting on Tandang Isko's bamboo tree was the only creature left to make a vigil, but its repeated hooting, echoing in the forsaken night, merely heightened the desolation that cloaked the town. In a manner of speaking, it could be said that the whole village of San Juan, in the grip of fear, hardly dared to breathe.

The seconds ticked, dragging themselves in the night. Time seemed to have stopped, and the night appeared endless. At ten o'clock the bell tolled, as if to signal the impending doom that would befall the town.

Slowly, the seconds passed and at midnight, the silence that shrouded the town appeared ready to explode, and if not allowed to, could be worse than the tragedy for which the town was bracing itself.

Published in the year 1947, Ang Ginto sa Makiling was considered the finest novel by Macario Pineda (1912-1950). The novel was a window to the attitudes and lifestyles of townspeople in the Philippines during the first half of 20th century. It was a time when divorce was never considered an option for married couples and when lies told of a woman besmearing her reputation demand the penalty of death.

Pineda struck literary gold with his excavation of native materials and customs. He presented a unique magic realist narrative rooted in local folklore, legends, and nationalist history. The novel hinted at the need to break free from the shackles of colonial mentality and to renew traditional moral imperatives. It must be squarely in the crème de la crème among postwar Filipino novels.

I was glad to find a copy of it in English translation and did not hesitate to buy one even if I could obtain a copy of it in its original Tagalog language. English translations of works in Tagalog or other Philippine languages must be rare. Perhaps there are a good number of them out there, but right now I could count in one hand the number of Filipino novels translated into English.

The main reason I can think for this lack of translation culture here is that there already exists a tradition of Philippine literature in English. There is then a kind of parochialism with regard to translation in a country where majority of the citizens are bilingual. It's the usual tired comment: Why read the English translation when you can read the original? Or, more worrisome: Why translate at all when the original is understood?

I will not go into making a case for reading translations here and for doing translations not only for the benefit of non-Filipino readers in English but for Filipino readers as well. I'm just glad that this novel finally saw publication in English after 65 years. The credit must go to the book's translator Soledad S. Reyes, editor Bienvenido Lumbera, and publisher. Reyes also published studies on Macario Pineda's fiction and her knowledge clearly made its mark on her excellent version.

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