02 February 2014

What Now, Ricky?

What Now, Ricky? by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, trans. Soledad S. Reyes (Anvil, 2013)

In a famous scene in José Rizal's nationalist novel Noli Me Tangere (1887), the educated protagonist Juan Crisostomo Ibarra was on the run from Spanish authorities and being aided by the mysterious boatman known as Elias. The two were aboard a boat on a lake, planning Ibarra's course of action to evade the authorities. They recalled their previous debate a month ago. Ibarra was then sympathetic to the colonizers. Now he had reversed his position.

“I wish to disillusion you, sir, and save you from a sad future. Recall that night when I talked to you in this same banka [boat] under the light of this same moon, not a month ago. Then you were happy, the plea of the unfortunates did not touch you; you disdained their complaints because they were the complaints of criminals; you paid more attention to their enemies, and in spite of my arguments and petitions, you placed yourself on the side of their oppressors. On you then depended whether I should turn criminal or allow myself to be killed in order to carry out a sacred pledge, but God has not permitted this because the old chief of the outlaws is dead. A month has hardly passed and you think otherwise.”

“You’re right, Elias, but man is a creature of circumstances! Then I was blind, annoyed—what did I know? Now misfortune has torn the bandage from my eyes; the solitude and misery of my prison have taught me; now I see the horrible cancer which feeds upon this society, which clutches its flesh, and which demands a violent rooting out. They have opened my eyes, they have made me see the sore, and they force me to be a criminal! Since they wish it, I will be a filibuster, a real filibuster, I mean. I will call together all the unfortunates, all who feel a heart beat in their breasts, all those who were sending you to me. No, I will not be a criminal, never is he such who fights for his native land, but quite the reverse! We, during three centuries, have extended them our hands, we have asked love of them, we have yearned to call them brothers, and how do they answer us? With insults and jests, denying us even the chance character of human beings. There is no God, there is no hope, there is no humanity; there is nothing but the right of might!” Ibarra was nervous, his whole body trembled. [The Social Cancer (1912), trans. Charles Derbyshire, emphasis added]

A similar awakening was experienced by Ricardo Mendoza (Ricky), the young idealistic activist in the novel Ano Ngayon, Ricky? (1971) by Rosario de Guzman Lingat (1924-1997). This time, however, the oppressors were not only foreigners but fellow Filipinos as well. And the social cancer was not colonialism from foreign power but corruption in government, the shameless impunity being enjoyed by politicos and oligarchs, and the caciques and neo-caciques in Philippine society. Near the end of novel, Ricky confronted the rich, educated man who represented the powerful preying on the blood of youth to advance their perverted cause:

"You knew that your paid assassin was a killer? What was his mission? To sacrifice the dead bodies of activists who desired to change the nation for your glory and honor? And prepare the path leading to your taking over of power? That has always been your goal. You became greedy for power which you first tasted when you were a senator. ... Your family and friends and you yourself were involved in grave scandals when you were in power; you feared exposure and humiliation. Instead of waiting to be exposed for what you really were, you wisely got out of politics. ... But the hunger for power, once in the blood, remains to eat up the innards of an insatiable man. ..."


"Don't you dare deny what I said, and once again make a fool out of me. The music is over ... You will never again make me dance to your tune. My eyes have been opened. You and [your assassin], two individuals at the opposite ends of life's pole, who ordinarily could not find any common ground, became one because you shared one goal. Self-interest! Personal gain secured in different ways. ..." [What Now, Ricky?, trans. Soledad S. Reyes, emphasis added]

The translator's comprehensive introduction – so comprehensive it should have been an afterword – rightly situated the novel within the tradition of the protest novel that originated from Rizal's Noli Me Tangere. A similar cancer that afflicted the country in Rizal's time also afflicted it in Lingat's time in the 60s and 70s. And it also afflicts it till now. It even afflicted those who hunger for power, a malignant disease eating up "the innards of an insatiable man".

Lingat's novel proposed electoral reforms, not bloody revolution, as a viable solution to the ills of society. The novel's epigraph said as much about how a nation's leaders were only a reflection of the greater society that elected them in the first place.

In a nation that creates
its own Government
by choosing the best
in the populace and clothing them
with power, its Government
is its own mirror.

The novel's backdrop was the First Quarter Storm in 1970, a period of unrest where students and laborers were violently dispersed by the police during demonstrations. Ricky was one of the popular student leaders. His “nagging doubts” and “bitterness” were all locked up inside him.

He exuded bravado, like most young men. He espoused beliefs and convictions all his own. He knew how to laugh, and he liked it when he was called Pogi, and he stood out as a colorful campus figure in the university, and very few suspected of the smoldering anger underneath a happy-go-lucky façade.

“What are the demonstrators fighting for?” Ricky was asked. The burning issues of the day: “Social Justice, Land Reform … [and] the rights of the Filipinos killed in American [military] bases.” Ricky was a respected student leader. His alliance was not part of the leftist segment of the demonstrating groups.

"We don't work with them [Philippine Youths]. They have communist leanings. Our group does not share their beliefs. We want change to bring about real freedom, not to hand over our country to another nation."

The communist ideology of the left as a separate nation incompatible to the current one was an idea present in the writings of other Filipino novelists, particularly in those of National Artists like Lazaro Francisco and F. Sionil José. The latter was quite vocal about it.

Two ongoing rebellions, one communist and the other secessionist [in southern Philippines], have cost us billions and thousands of lives. If the communists win – and I know they won't – they will rule just as badly because they are Filipinos hostage to barnacled habits of mind, to ethnicity.

The real revolution has to start first in the mind and its wellsprings are not in Mao or Marx. It is in our history, in Mabini, in Rizal whose writing inspired the revolution of 1896. [This I Believe—Gleanings From a Life in Literature, p. 16]

For Sionil José, oligarchy is the social disease that is tearing the flesh of the nation. He was not one to shy away from violence to rid the country of the greedy and corrupt elite. In his novel Mass, also set during the First Quarter Storm, his main character Pepe Samson killed a homosexual cacique figure in the end, a man responsible for the disappearance of activists and whose name, Puneta, was emblematic of the curse of the land. This was after Pepe was detained and tortured by the authorities. There was in the the killing of one villain, who stood for the rest of his kind – as a synecdochic or representational figure – an imposition of justice, a righting of wrong. Pepe made good the promise given in the epigraph to Mass.

They lied to us in their newspapers, in the books they wrote for us to memorize in school, in their honeyed speeches when they courted our votes, They lied to us because they did not want us to rise from the dungheap to confront them. We know the truth now; we have finally emptied our minds of their lies, discovered their corruption and our weaknesses as well. But this truth as perceived by us is not enough. Truth is, above all, justice. With determination then, and cunning and violence, we must destroy them for only after doing so will we really be free.

This was supposedly an excerpt from "Memo to Youth", an essay Pepe himself wrote for a writing contest, without at first believing in its message, but later fully subscribing to it when he experienced a "final liberation" after killing "with determination ... and cunning and violence" the villain. This was hard to fault. But taken literally, Sionil José's solution may be hard to implement. There's just too many of the greedy elite that wiping them out would constitute a genocide!

Sionil José, further, ran the trouble of being betrayed by his sexual politics in relation to the nature of evil in his fiction. In Ermita, the eponymous female lead hired someone to practically castrate her gay or bisexual uncle, in retaliation for the latter's lascivious and cruel treatment of her. The uncle also happened to be a landlord who enriched himself at the expense of other lowly peasants. Despite the agreeable elimination of the caciques, the sexual orientation he chose for the villains in his novels was problematic. His lumping of caciquism (as a form of moral turpitude) with that of homosexuality was a sorry choice. It betrayed Sionil José's non-progressive views on homosexuality, while also somehow failing to recognize the patriarchal background of caciquism.

It was notable that in Lingat's novel, the rich villain believed in the necessity of violence ("No change is possible without blood being shed."). Bloody revolution, right of might, use of force. The justification for violence was ever present but their application was always in question. The moral and ethical ways to pursue moral and ethical imperatives continued to haunt nationalist idealists and reformers. In What Now, Ricky?, the same "right of might" that Ibarra proposed to Elias was presented as an option that should be considered only as a last resort. This "pacifist" idea was voiced out by Ricky's friend, Tony, a character who evolved from a poor and vulnerable provinciano at the start of the novel to someone more aware of his surroundings, someone whose eyes have also been opened through education and close observation of society.

History is replete with examples of glorious revolutions tragically ending with the leaders themselves conspiring to destroy each other to seize power. Look at the French Revolution, at our own revolution [1896 Philippine Revolution]. And even now, for each victorious moment, contrasting claims are made by different groups to reap the reward and honor. No, Ricky. War should be the last option, and only after everything else has been exhausted.

If for Sionil José complete freedom consisted of "destroying" the greedy elite, for Lingat freedom consisted of the people wisely exercising their right to vote. The denial of that right was also the denial of human happiness, of one's "rightful legacy". To fully enjoy that freedom, everybody is duty-bound to defend the right of suffrage. Ricky and Tony's understanding that reforms in the election system could be a solution had its own caveat. There was, then and now, a need to produce a lineup of "candidates who are morally upright and credible". But these species of candidates are a rare breed in Philippine politics.

So what, Ricky? – a question that could be a more idiomatic rendering of the title. Outside the novel, the full answer has yet to be worked out. The nation is still reeling from entrenched oligarchy before and since the Marcos regime. From the unbroken succession of trapos and epals – corrupt, inept, mediocre, douche leaders in Philippine government. Wake up, electorate, wake up!

What Now, Ricky? was one of the three novels of Lingat translated by Soledad S. Reyes and released last year. The other two, The Cloak of God and The End of Summer, both from De La Salle University Publishing House, were supposedly less political in subject but no less significant for delineating postwar socieconomic pressures on Philippine society. Reyes was probably the most logical translator of Lingat, having earlier written literary analyses of the writer’s works. She also wrote the biography of the novelist, Rosario de Guzaman Lingat (1924-1997): The Burden of Self and History. She was thus not merely the writer's translator but her champion, in the same manner her translation of The Gold in Makiling by Macario Pineda appeared after her literary studies of the writer.

Philippine literature needs more translators and champions to bring out to a wider audience substantive literary works of fiction in vernacular language like the novels of Lingat. More eye-opening works, more works that can shatter deep-seated apathy.