July 29, 2016

The horrible noise of struggles: Two works of fiction by Pedro Paterno


The Pact of Biyak-na-Bato and Ninay by Pedro A. Paterno, translated from Spanish by National Historical Institute and E. F. du Fresne (National Historical Commission of the Philippines, 2012)


My situation is most lamentable. I am dragged by my love for my own country and my love for Spain. I am anxious to see them united in divine abundance of love, in the sweetest kiss of alliance and peace. One, for making me a poet when it swing my cradle to the cooing sounds of the rivers, the winds, and the moon. Its flowers intoxicated me with the aroma of honey and its volcanoes gave my soul the fire of patriotism. The other one, for being the mother, the second mother, who stretched out her arms to subdue my soul against her soul and gave me the most beautiful flower from among its most beautiful gardens, no other than the woman whom I adore, the woman that has loved me. The unforgettable woman that now sleeps under some sampaguita flowers—my wife and my soul!

Here was a running joke made by Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo in his preface to the omnibus edition of two novels by Pedro A. Paterno (1857-1911). The first, The Pact of Biyak-na-Bato (1910), hardly qualified as a novel, let alone a literary work. It was a historical document; but in terms of imaginative retelling, it was a historical hoax, in the same league as the Code of Kalantiaw. Paterno was infamous as a turncoat, what was locally referred to as a balimbing, a native starfruit (Averrhoa carambola) famous for having many sides and edges. A person called balimbing had no principles, no scruples, no convictions. He was a political butterfly, able to change sides and loyalties depending on which master he answers to. In the case of Paterno, he epitomized the colonized imagination, so blinded by power and ambition that he became the pawn of the Spanish government.

I was disposed to sacrifice my well-being, the comforts of my home, and even my own life for my adorable country which I idolized and venerated since childhood.

Self-aggrandizement and self-congratulation characterize his narrative of how he negotiated for the Philippines and Spain to come down to an agreement (pact). His one-sided account—of how he persuaded the revolutionary government of the Philippines (led by Emilio Aguinaldo, the alleged first president of Philippine Republic) to lay down its arms and to arrive at a compromise with the Spanish authorities—is full of color and embroidery. Flowery, ornate, highfalutin, grand garnishing of history—Paterno's novel of the pact had hardly no room for fact. Its descriptions came down to the quantified excess of self-congratulation, to the thousandfold thousand and the hundredfold hundred.

Finally, we arrived in the province of Bulacan after a thousand hardships; the woody Bulacan, so rich and beautiful called the Garden of the Philippines.
...
Anyway, the cargadores who transported me are the same sandatahan [army] who have been so heroic in the thousand episodes of their lives and are related sotto voce in this war for the independence of the motherland.

I lost my thought in a hundred varying ideas and my heart was agitated by a thousand encountered sentiments.
...
The General who have heard my name mentioned a thousand times by his brother, Jose, spoke to me lovingly and with respect.
...
"... confiscating our lands from us and hurling a thousand horrors on our faces?"
...
"A thousand times, no! Sr. Paterno, you must not tire yourself."
...
I took all the necessary precautions even if I smiled before these false alarms ... manifesting the favors to persons who gave me a thousand assistance in those days, except revealing the most intimate secrets which I swore to keep.
...
In all these provinces, I encountered a thousand obstacles ...

These thousand instances: I am not sure if this was a common expression in those times but this was like a thousand betrayals of usage.

The aspiration for peace at the cost of independence was at the center of all armed struggles, the perpetual conflict between the pen and the sword. As the emissary of the Spanish government, Paterno sought for a peaceful resolution by dissuading the Filipino revolutionaries from continuing their struggle and their demand for reforms and independence purportedly because "it would be impossible to uproot in one day what has taken roots for more than three centuries."

Speaking in a eulogy for a fallen rebel, Paterno's speech was still on point.

"All the revolutions of the world are, and have been, ill-fated. We ask for independence because we need it, like the air we breathe in a legitimate manner. Intellectuals and wealth abound in our country that we may be able to aspire for our own form of government. We should throw away our guns far, far away. Fire devastates, desolates. What we need is order and unity.

"Unity and order so that tears would not gush out with force from the eyes as on this occasion when we are just starting to taste the gall of its error. ... Because this one does not give anything but bitter disappointments. Because this is a tree bearing distasteful fruits, for there is more power, a thousand more powers in the valor of an idea than in the idea of force."

He was a brilliant devil's advocate and speaker, it had be admitted. In any case, Don Pedro's undisguised humility and crafty sincerity could be brilliant or disgusting, depending on how one looks at it.

What painful lesson the present people of the Philippines can take away from this memoirs of a diplomat—together with all the pacts, treatises, agreements, protocols, and suchlike incorporated word for word within this document—was that the price of anything, including revolution, was ultimately determined by the currency of money. When the topic was money to buy everlasting peace and order, one could hear thirteen pieces of silver exchanging hands. Although the novelist thought that he embodied a different character.

I think more of my present sad situation [as] that of being caught in the middle, at the mercy of two cross fires and I ask myself if I should be one of those saviours who would come out crucified.

This, for a turncoat, was the greatest sugarcoating. He manipulated every aspect of his image. And he even had his funerary rites planned out.

In return, I do not ask or expect anything but [a] handful of sampaguita flowers for my tomb, a smile from my dear country, and may a cover to my coffin with the banner kissed by my own lips three times. Even in the high peaks of Biyak-na-Bato or in its plains, the sound of the crackling winds along with the horrible noise of struggles could be heard.

How much indemnity does one receive to become a sellout and a turncoat? A banner? A smile in a grave? Our historical novelist was enacting a farce that he honestly believed in.

He would like to be judged by posterity, and posterity will judge Señor Paterno's role as intermediary and negotiator for Spain. At a time when the Spanish government's hold on the Philippine islands is beginning to slip away by the end of the 19th century, it was hard to discern whether Paterno's role in Philippine history was essential or unnecessary. A product of two contending cultures, he certainly brought out the best and the worst in a nationalist. He had a role to play, right before the arrival of a new country to negotiate with, new masters with the same grand colonial design, the Americans taking up the White Man's burden. The arrival of USA to replace the old, refined conquerors actually made the pact all water under the bridge.

Paterno's second work of fiction, Ninay (1885), was an actual and proper novel, in fact the first novel by a Filipino. I should maybe write about this equally astonishing work.


For the Spanish Literature Month—extended until Agosto—by Stu and Richard.


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