July 31, 2016

Unforeseen shadows: Nínay by Pedro Paterno


"Nínay" by Pedro A. Paterno, tr. E. F. du Fresne, in The Pact of Biyak-na-Bato and Ninay (National Historical Commission of the Philippines, 2012)


In 18_ the cholera waged havoc in Manila. Corpses were hurled in heaps into the fosses. The road to the cemetery, formerly so solitary and lone, was now the way most frequented. In spite of friendly counselings and official restrictions, relatives and friends accompanied the remains of their dear ones to their last resting place.

One afternoon, just as I had left a home which had been invaded by this Asiatics malady, I saw, on the road to the cemetery, a feeble old man able scarcely to creep along, bent by his years than by the intense grief that weighed upon him.

Written in 1885, Nínay by Pedro Paterno was considered the first Philippine novel and the first Asian novel in Spanish*. Other long prose works in Spanish and Tagalog that came before it and were published in the Philippines were classified as "proto-novel." This latter type of novel—e.g., Doctrina Christiana (1593), Pagsusulatan nang Dalauang Binibini na si Urbana at ni Feliza (1864), Si Tandang Basio Macunat (1885)—were written by clerics and dealt with overt religious exercises or political tract.

What Nínay shared with its narrative precursors was the didactic tradition of novel writing in the Philippines which carried over well into the 20th century in novels written in both English and Tagalog (or Filipino). The novela tagala was subtitled "costumbres filipinas." Indeed, it described Philippine customs and the culture of the Tagalog people. The English version was published in Manila in 1907, and it was dedicated to Mrs. William H. Taft. By that time, our chameleon-like novelist was sucking it up to the new colonial masters.

The novel's didactic tendencies of preaching the native customs were combined with the modern, romantic and—surprisingly in one telling chapter—magical realist tradition. It was a cultural guidebook or tourist brochure.

It is timely here to explain to the reader about the ancient Philippine custom called the Pasiám.

Whenever a person dies, his family receives donations to defray the expenses for the interment. There is no relative or friend who forgets this obligation; he who is unable to meet it with money gives his personal services. The house of the deceased is never closed during the first nine days in order that all the friends and relatives may come; those who live close at hand, in the city, and those from the Provinces.

Without doubt grief returns with greater intensity during the shadows of the night, thus at the close of the day the friends gather at the afflicted home to divert the grief of the family, accompanying them in their prayers and afterwards, gathering in circles to recall the laudible [sic] deeds of the departed one; to recount the history of our sunny isles, their stories and their legends, and the thousand poetical thoughts that console the spirit. At midnight all is ended with the accustomed supper and shortly thereafter those who live in the vicinity repair to their homes, and those from afar retire to rooms in the home of the deceased or, if the size of the house does not permit, they are lodged at the homes of some friends.

The deceased was our heroine Nínay, full name: Antonina Milo y Buisan. During the course of the nine-day vigil of Pasiám (or Pasiyam; siyam is the Tagalog word for nine), the life and love of Nínay was recounted by a young man named Taric to the unnamed narrator, a self-confessed "lover of our [Philippine] customs" who was most likely an ilustrado, an educated Filipino who came back to his home country after a period of study abroad. There are narratorial intrusions into Taric's narrative which I am not sure if made by Taric himself or our anonymous narrator. The perspective adopted was that of a tour guide explaining local culture to outsiders: "Keeping in mind that there were present several persons who recently arrived in Manila and were entirely ignorant of the details of our country and our customs, he proceeded in detail as far as possible, as if he were relating the story to the Europeans only."

Sure enough, in every turn of scene in the story, every nugget of wisdom about the customs and traditions of the Philippine islands was related to the hapless Westerners.

After the prayer, as is customary in the Philippines, all those belonging to the household saluted Don Evaristo as head of the family and Doña Carmen took advantage of this occasion to deliver to her hosts the pasalubong, or presents, which the visitors always bring to their old friends.

"How but in custom and in ceremony / Are innocence and beauty born?" asked Yeats rhetorically in "A Prayer for My Daughter," a line that Nick Joaquín used as epigraph in his famous play. Joaquín shared with Paterno, his precursor, a deep-seated Philippine Hispanism. In this novel, culture was a blend of Tagalog and Spanish mores, within the matrix of the Filipino and the Indio.** In the novel too could be seen the forerunners of José Rizal's characters in Noli Me Tangere (1887): Nínay (Maria Clara), Don Carlos (Juan Crisostomo Ibarra), and Berto (Elias).

Over the course of nine nights of the novena (the nine chapters of the novel that follow) the story heard by the narrator and the European listeners was that of a fiery love affair between Nínay and Don Carlos Mabagsic, a very wealthy heir and landlord. It was love in the time of cholera, with two rivals and two jealousies strategically deployed to make the journey of the young lovers more dramatic and melodramatic. The story was in Paterno's patently rich and ornate prose, full of native color (costumbres).

In the middle of this spacious hexagon was a fountain which filled the air on all sides with the sweet murmurs of its cool waters. All was joyful. The dreamy ideas, the angelical fancies of Ninay had communicated an enchantment to all these objects. The very atmosphere exhaled poetry. It was not strange then that the little birds, attracted hither by the enchantment as well as by the solitude of the spot during the remainder of the day in which the young girl was at Santa Cruz, selected this site for the building of their nests and the singing of their loves. Here Ninay searched for the secret for the involuntary emotions and thought to find it in the atmosphere impregnated with the perfumes of an eternal spring-time. Here, full of kindness and of puerility she dreamed of happiness and embroidered the veil of her future with one continual festival. Here, in short, the two amorous lovers found their paradise. Is it necessary to describe the delight of Carlos in this grateful solitude by the side of his beloved, listening to the murmur of the fountain, and the song of the birds; hearing each branch converted into a throbbing heart by the wind; each flower turned into an incensory of sweet aromas; each plant into a spray of flowers?

The sigh was almost audible in that passage. Consider another.

It is impossible to bid farewell to the city of one's birth without suffering a bitter sorrow. It is impossible to say adieu to the dear fatherland without the falling of a tear, and if in the city is an adored and saintly being; if in the fatherland are sincere and loyal friends, then in truth shall the hot bitter tears of the wanderer mingle with the bitter waves that bear him away from all that is dear to him.

That was the introductory passage of Taric's narrative in the penultimate chapter, during the eighth day of the Pasiám), the chapter elevated the novel from mere romanticism and costumbrismo. Certainly topping the previous poetical murmurings of the love story between Nínay and Carlos and the evil machinations of their rivals in love to keep them apart, here in this chapter we have the most revealing, surprising, and action-filled chapter in the story. Marooned in an island after being given up for dead in the raging storm at sea, Carlos was separated from Nínay. He survived and found himself rescuing a woman fleeing a band of fierce savages.

A woman with unloosened hair, followed by a group of ferocious savages broke from the midst of the conflict. Terror lent speed to her feet and rapidly she approached the spot where Carlos was standing. He, moved by a generous impulse, took up the defense of the helpless, pursued woman and arming himself with two rocks of granite, with an unerring blow hurled down the foremost of her pursuers. He tore the saber and spear from the prostate man and, with these, defended himself, finally putting the savages to flight as a whirlwind scatters a heap of dead sere leaves.

The saber was a venerated one; it had counted a thousand victims and now, for the first time, had met defeat and disgrace. It was analogous to those used by the Bertas, a nomadic people of the upper Nile. Schweinfurth has represented it in the hand of the famous Mounza, king of the Mombouttons. The spear is decorated with the pointed teeth of the shark. The fallen man was the king of the invading tribe and his death had caused his followers to flee terror stricken.

The woman, Tik, turned out to be the queen of the island. Carlos was implicated in a fast-paced adventure story involving a queen and her tribe in an island loaded with treasures from various lands and many savage enemies coming and circling it to conquer the queen. With Carlos gaining the approval of the tribe by saving their queen, his ascension as king and defender of the island was as if foretold by the oracle Pythia.

Given what came before, we now came to the turning point of the story, the problematic chapter that defined what it was that was utterly modern in a novel and what it was that transports a reader of fiction to a magical place. From a love story during colonial times to a love story that was almost a parody of the noble savage. From customs and ceremonies of the civilized, the reader was thrust into the rituals and rites of fighting warriors in an isolated island. The switch in the setting and genre of the story was a tone shift too off-kilter to take for granted. The absurd trinkets and ornaments cribbed from all over the world—the general absurdity in fact of this island sojourn—were opening the text to many-worlds interpretation.***

They presented him, as trophies of victory, pieces of human flesh, a shield made from the skin of the elephant and which resembled the Roman scutum, a Moorish poniard and a khouttar with its scabbard of serpent skin; and with mysterious phrases the queen bestowed upon him the graceful plumes of the ostrich to wear upon his head as a recognition of valor. They were nude, except for the girdles of leaves which they wore and their hats which were of the richest variety. Some fashioned from the skins of the monkey, the antelope and the tiger and some woven from the leaves of the palm, while still others were of tails and beautiful feathers. In their hands the warriors bore arrows and bows, spears, sabers, and battle axes some of which were similar to those seen in the hands of certain Thevian warriors in the paintings of Bet Oually.

If in his memoirs on the pact of Biyak-na-Bato, Paterno came across as a hungry political animal, in Nínay he was a transporting novelist of magical absurdism. The winds of fortune changed so fast that the bittersweet reunion of the two lovers after Carlos's bloody island wars was almost anticlimactic though no less full of pathos.

The thread of our existence is woven, in part by chance, in part by design and plan. This obeys our will that dominates and commands us; the one seeks the light that lies in our path; the other drags us into unforeseen shadows. Happy are the hearts that are tempered to receive the blows of Fortune.


*An extensive reading of Nínay can be found in the award-winning The Magellan Fallacy: Globalization and the Emergence of Asian and African Literature in Spanish by Adam Lifshey (University of Michigan Press, 2012). According to Lifshey, Nínay was heavily footnoted in the original Spanish. The footnotes were eliminated in the English (this) and Tagalog translations. See also "The Spirit of Nínay: Pedro Paterno and the First Philippine Novel" by Eugenio Matibag, in Humanities Diliman.

**The novel constantly referred to "Indian" peoples (e.g., "some of the most aristocratic Indian families", "merry groups of young Indian maidens", etc.). This could be a mistranslation as it is a literal rendition of Indio, a racial (often derogatory) Spanish term describing persons native to the Philippines during the Spanish occupation.

**"Many-worlds interpretation implies that all possible alternate histories and futures are real, each representing an actual "world" (or "universe")." As applied to this work of fiction, this could mean the building of an alternate universe within a universe. "The hypothesis states there is a very large—perhaps infinite—number of universes, and everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes."



For Spanish Literature Month, organized by Stu and Richard.


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