15 September 2012

Dekada '70 (Lualhati Bautista)

Dekada '70: Ang Orihinal at Kumpletong Edisyon (1988) by Lualhati Bautista (Cacho Publishing House, 1991)

What better way to jump-start the martial law fiction reading project than with what was arguably the defining novel of the period? Lualhati Bautista gained notoriety when Dekada '70 came out in 1984, after having shared the grand prize for the Palanca Award for Best Novel one year previous. This novel about a Filipino family drastically affected by forces beyond their control was a national narrative of resistance against the Marcos dictatorship, against its repression of individual and societal rights and liberties. The story was told by Amanda Bartolome, wife to a dominating husband, mother to five sons, and – as she learned in the course of the novel – woman of her own mind. We found Amanda contemplating her role beyond her family of men, beyond a traditional patriarchy where a woman is only expected to serve a husband and rear children. This even as her world was being swept by the tides of history. Her strong-willed eldest child, Julian Jr. (Jules), was becoming more and more sympathetic to the ideology of leftist groups even as he increasingly felt alienated to the national government's raw display of totalitarian power. When the President handed down martial law in 1972, civil rights suffered in consequence. Student councils and school papers were closed down; the freedom of the press and the freedom to organize were curtailed; curfews were set; the writ of habeas corpus was suspended. It was only a matter of time before Jules joined the communist insurgency and for Amanda to lose many a night's sleep over her son's uncertain fate.

Higit kailanman ay ngayon ko nadarama ang mga trahedya ng maging ina. Hindi pala natatapos ang hirap at kirot sa pagsisilang ng anak, may mga sakit na libong ulit na mas masakit kaysa mga oras ng panganganak.

(Now more than ever I feel the tragedies of being a mother. It appears that my pains and sacrifices did not end with my giving birth to my son. There are pains a thousand times more painful than the hours of labor.)

What started as a domestic drama suddenly became a politically charged look at the lives of ordinary individuals in repressive regimes. Bautista dramatized the temper of the times using explicit images, language, and scenes. The action of the novel revolved only around a single family and yet she managed to infuse the domestic conflicts among brothers and parents with conviction. The Bartolomes were a nuclear family that could be viewed as a microcosm of a country descending into chaos. We followed Amanda as she began to question her relationship with her husband and internalize the violence threatening her children. From the seventies until the lifting of martial law in 1981, and even beyond that, we were privy to Amanda's increasing awareness of injustices around her, the socioeconomic and political issues hidden from sight, and her emerging political and feminist principles – these two principles becoming inseparable and closely tied together.

As the Bartolomes braved the dark shadows of military rule, vigilante killings, and social unrest, the reader was witness to a freak history. There were some wrenching scenes that seared into the mind, yet there were simple moments in the book that were equally hard-hitting in their emotional tenderness. Dekada was squarely in the tradition of José Rizal's 19th century protest novels against Spanish colonialism, the Noli and Fili, because it dared to question and critique the ruling power and its cohorts, and because it presented a forceful synthesis of abuses, corruption, and violence under martial law. No other novel had so lived up to its titular era as perhaps no other could have proposed its own "truthful", and hence "subversive", aesthetic of resistance against a dictatorship regime.

The family is the basic unit of society, we are taught and constantly reminded in schools. Bautista had shown that its values are also its pillars and that the seeds of resistance to any unjust authority at any time could very well dwell in a family. Dekada had set the bar for a martial law novel so high that I shall be reading succeeding Filipino novels for this reading project against Bautista's standard. She managed to distill an epoch of madness in those trying times, in that "world of men" that Amanda was starting to reject. For the record, in her record, in the words of her protagonist, the novelist defined the role of the writer in those circumstances: "Manunulat ang nagpe-preserb sa katinuan ng lipunan nya." ("It is the writer who preserves the sanity of her society.") Indeed they do, the very best of them, the authentic ones. They restore it to its senses. They slap it so hard that it may wake from its long sleep.

First published in edited form in 1984, Dekada anticipated the 1986 EDSA Revolution that toppled President Marcos from power. In one of its deft ironic touches, it was prescient in detecting a major change in the air: Naiisip ko . . . naiisip ko lang naman . . . wala sanang magalit sa 'kin pero naiisip ko . . . na kailangan na nga yata natin ang rebolusyon! (I was thinking . . .  I was just thinking . . . let no one mind me but I was thinking . . . that maybe it's time we need a revolution!)

The writing style of Dekada was considered controversial during its time because some passages in the novel were written in Taglish, a mixture of Tagalog and English words. Language purists must have felt discomfort at the threat to the purity of the Tagalog vernacular and so failed to acknowledge the realist style of Bautista's language. Her writing was also deemed "unpolished" for its straightforward, colloquial dialogue and presentation even if that's how Filipinos talked then and now. The Taglish aspect of the prose is one consideration for the translator should the novel be translated into English.


  1. "Her writing was also deemed "unpolished" for its straightforward, colloquial dialogue and presentation even if that's how Filipinos talked then and now." This quote chimes perfectly with how Nakagami's writing was perceived, again because he used the indigenous vernacular which wasn't considered as having the artistic integrity as defined by the literary elite & yet he still won the Akutagawa prize.

  2. Interesting comparison with the Japanese writer, Gary. I guess the arbiters of literary styles will always be challenged by works with strong linguistic styles.

  3. This sounds fascinating, Rise. It's not available in English, is it?

    A translation project?

  4. Séamus, I'm not aware if there was a translation published. It's fairly hard to translate, for its length alone. I'd like to translate stories or poems instead.

  5. P.S There's a movie adaptation with the same title. And I think there's a subtitled version.


  6. INteresting comparison with a Japanese writer indeed. I remember seeing a Filipino translation of Natsuke Sosemi's Three-Cornered World by Lualhati Bautista. Read Dekada 70 back in high school and consider it one of my favorite novels since then. :)

  7. Oh, I'd like to see that translation. Soseki is a favorite and that title is wish-listed.

  8. One of the books I read countless times and is still looking forward to reading it again.

  9. Certainly a book worthy of rereading if only to remind us Nunca mas!