16 August 2015

The Hand of the Enemy

The Hand of the Enemy (1962) by Kerima Polotan (University of the Philippines Press, 2010)

If Nick Joaquín was to be believed, it was Kerima Polotan's protracted relationship with her father that impelled her to write The Hand of the Enemy, her first and last novel.

Her anguish over a relationship left dangling in the air, unresolved by a deathbed embrace, troubles her fiction, so cold on the surface, so angry at the roots. The Polotan heroine is a lonely, embittered, unsatisfied woman who craves to be loved but sees in the hand of the one loved, the hand of the enemy.

Private grief had become literature.

And that's how books get to be written. But grief that had become a book has also become a public commodity, which must be sold, peddled, advertised. How important are such commodities to public life? Do the forms one woman has given her anguish really matter as much as rice and groceries?

Joaquín was spot on in identifying the hermeneutics of grief as the positive, conscious force driving Polotan's text, feeding the manic momentum of her prose. This was, for example, the same force that wrote A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke's autobiographical novella about his mother's suicide.

Private grief was indeed laminated in the pages of The Hand of the Enemy. But as with the best works of grief literature, the personal and the political (historical) were intertwined. Set in the postwar period of 1950s to 1960s, the novel was the story of two marriages and their dissolution. The title was so ambiguous it could be applied to any enemy, and to either of the two hands.

"Kerima Polotan Skips a Dinner", Nick Joaquín's witty introduction to the novel, echoed the novel's skewering of the hyprocrisy of the noveau riche. During the literary dinner in honor of Polotan's publication of her novel (which she skipped), Joaquín asked questions about the relevance of the novel in the time of the rice shortage (this was 1961). Food for thought or food for stomach?

The blather of one "chairman of the cultural committee of the Philippine Columbian", as quoted verbatim by Quijano de Manila, was not lost on the reader.

I submit that literature—and novels in particular—should not be considered as just a form of entertainment. In portraying characters and dramatizing conflict, novelists can influence society and change behavior patterns. Novels and other forms of literature can serve a social purpose; in the present preoccupation with intensive economic development we are likely to neglect this powerful tool for social change, if we could only show that contemporary novels can be an effective vehicle in attaining the economic objective, then the campaign will have been won.

Novels? Change behavior patterns? Powerful tool for social change? Effective vehicle in attaining the economic objective? My goodness. What daunting tasks for the contemporary novel! One could detect the journalist's amusement in hearing such nonsense. As with any highfalutin dinner, the spirit of Rizal was invoked in full measure.

Andres Cristobal Cruz wrote a paper on honoree Kerima Polotan. He began with a long quote from Rizal, ended with another long quote from Rizal. The rest of the paper was also mostly about Rizal but Mr. Cruz occasionally remembered that his subject was Kerima Polotan, who, he said like D.H. Lawrence, explored the theme of forbidden relationships with a passion that touches the heart. He opined that, by "the hand of the enemy," Kerima Polotan meant the superstitions still around us, the poseurs and phonies of our society. This inevitably reminded him of what Rizal had said about superstition and Kerima Polotan vanished for good in the incense offered to the national hero.

Ever attentive to the nuances of literary reception, our guide Joaquín quoted at length from a Chronicle column published the next day by fellow writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, expressing her minority position. She must have, Joaquín presumed, "shuddered at what seemed hucksterism running wild at what was supposed to be a cultural soiree".

"It must have been curiously humiliating for writers to sit at a dinner-forum intended to create more awareness of the need for reading books by Filipino authors—as many of them did last night at the Philippine Columbian. It was rather an uncomfortable feeling—rather as if one were a brand of soap whose sales had fallen off or a consignment of abaca matting which was losing out to a more popular, washable, colorfast kind imported from the United States.


"One cannot help wishing ... that people ... would buy and, more important, read what one had to say between the covers of a book without someone important beating a large promotional drum or holding the sword of philistinism over their heads.

And what of the novel itself? What of the anguish between its covers?

No, this novel would not alleviate poverty or prevent rice shortages. On the contrary, Polotan offered a healthy dose of reality. She must have a checklist for the purpose of avoiding any sense of redemption or indulgence or absolution for the reader. Every action seemed to be haunted by the past—the transgressive, unforgiving past. Every other scene allowed for restrospective leaps of telling, for further digressions into the past, always auditing the temporal present for an account ("Just two weeks ago ..."; "But that day ..."; "Earlier that week"; "that day long ago"). She imbued every gesture, every word with import.

Fleeing Glo's over-percolated charm, Emma Gorrez ended up in front of the largest department store in the city. The mannequins in the window, the silks, the porcelain ware, all seemed vaguely familiar. The curving bridge nearby and the fetid odor of the shallow creek brought back that day long ago when she had come to this same place, money and misery together, to bury the presence of Mr. Navarro. She had interred the memory of that tragic old man beneath piles of the most useless things she had ever brought in her life. How instinctively a woman turned to bangles for surcease! She had bought a pendant that day and hung it around her neck, loud and noisy and vulgar, as if the sound of brass would exorcise the dangers of the dark—there was something fundamentally comforting in the process of buying: you pushed your money over the counter and clutched whatever foolishness you had paid for, grasping it like a talisman against the shadows in the long corridor of the mind.

Like holding a talisman, yes. Hers was a careful exercise of the apocalypse. She was a conjuror of doom, an existential witch. The vision of the novelist was one of fatalism. Life was a force majeure. As one character said: "Life is a bitch ... a foul-smelling, filthy bitch".

The world was something outside him; life was something outside him; a great big something, a mighty merciless great big hand picking up people and lives and hopes and tossing them athwart the sharp prow of circumstance.

So how to conduct and keep one's self, how to keep it "dear, inviolate, true"? In the face of the merciless blows dealt by the hand of the enemy, the hand of circumstance, how not to make it—one's self—one's own sworn enemy?

For one, one must avoid unhealthy literary soirees that bred further bitterness and disillusion. Joaquín concluded just as much.

The state of Philippine literature may be as bankrupt as the critics say; but Kerima Polotan is not concerned with improving the state of literature or the state of the nation. She simply writes; her motives are private. If she should stop and ponder if she should not be writing in Tagalog instead of English, or be writing pamphlets instead of novels, or be writing books that are easy to sell, or not writing at all at a time when people are standing in line to buy rice but should do something to solve the rice crisis, go to the province, maybe, and plant rice—she would be destroyed. Her selfishness is her salvation.

No wonder Kerima Polotan skipped the dinner held in her honor. There were temptations everywhere of violence and misconduct. There was enough drama already. The book was written already.