16 December 2018

Dead souls

Ilaw sa Hilaga (Northern Light) by Lázaro Francisco (University of the Philippines Press, 1997)


Mapalalo at mahumindig na nakatunghay sa malawak na Liwasan ng San Carlos, pangulong bayan ng lalawigang lalong kilala sa pamagat na "Bangan ng Sangkapuluan," ang malaki at magarang tahanan ni Don Alejandro Vargas. Yaon ay isang matanda ngunit maringal na pilas ng makalumang arkitektura na tila nagmamalaki sa mga kalapit na gusali at nagmamarangyang may pagpalibhasa sa mga dampang palasak sa maraming dako ng nasabing bayan.

Tall and full of itself, Don Alejandro Vargas’ huge and handsome house overlooked the wide Plaza of San Carlos, capital town of the province more known as the “Granary of the Islands.” It looked as though it came out of the yellowed pages of an old architectural tome, ancient but venerable, haughty among the nearby buildings, preening above the common shanties. [translated by Marne Kilates]

Lázaro Francisco's major novel, Ilaw sa Hilaga, demonstrated, in my opinion, another corrective to Nick Joaquín's assertion that the Tagalog novel was constrained with orality and unable to get past the idea that "Tagalog is not yet a written language." This novel was a solid edifice of prose that showed Tagalog writers were capable of artistry in their own language, whether resorting to the oral tradition or not, for the Tagalog novelist's prose was an indelible example of creative inquiry into subjects as lofty as the establishment of a national consciousness and the rejection of the colonial imagination. Francisco dared to challenge the "colonized mind", the prevailing colonial mentality among Filipinos during the early decades of American occupation.

Ilaw sa Hilaga had had a rather colorful publication history. It first appeared in 1931-32 as a serial novel in Alitaptap magazine—as novels in those times were consumed by the Filipino public in weekly installments—using a title that was hardly appealing: Bayang Nagpatiwakal (Suicide Country, or more literally, The Nation That Committed Suicide). An extract of the novel was also published in another periodical in 1932 under the title Ang Pagbabangon (The Awakening). In 1947-48 it was republished in Liwayway magazine, at that time the most popular weekly, under its current title Ilaw sa Hilaga. It was rewritten in 1977 and reissued in book form in 1980 and later in 1997.

The novel was a testing ground of Francisco's preoccupations found in his later novels, Maganda pa ang Daigdig (The World Is Wondrous Still, 1956) and Daluyong (Storm Surge, 1961). But the ideas here were already threshed out philosophical ideas on political economy, national identity, economic independence from colonial America and foreign investors, inequality of agrarian and commercial transactions, injustices from "cacique" landlords, and disruptive, guerrilla methods to "awaken" a nation on the brink of suicide. But more than establishing a position against the tyranny of "self-hate", the novel contained a plan of action to transcend the state of national stupor, to transform and reverse engineer a state of self-destruction and hopelessness.

At the center of the novel was the debate against foreign capital and control of the local economy of San Carlos, an emerging town north of the Philippines. Instead of supporting local products, native language, local writings, national costumes, and local businesses, the elite of San Carlos was blinded by the allure of all things foreign. Hence, it promoted the capital investment of foreigners and its exploitation of natural resources. The leading members of society even led the campaign to close down local businesses! Fresh from fighting two wars of conquest—the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain and the protracted defeat in the Philippine-American War—the citizens of San Carlos would rather give tribute and honor to outsiders than celebrate its own national war heroes.

In the midst of this conflict was the character of Javier Santos, a rich idealistic young man, the embodiment of the titular "northern light", the hope of the motherland that was a direct descendant of the characters created by José Rizal in his twin novels of Philippine revolution, Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891). Javier was an Ilustrado-like figure modeled from Rizal's double identities of Juan Crisostomo Ibarra and the mysterious figure of Simoun who fomented revolution and anarchy years before Joseph Conrad tackled terrorism and anarchy in The Secret Agent (1907).

As local businessman competing against foreign capital, Javier Santos fought and lost against the elite and aristocracia of San Carlos. He then reinvented and disguised himself as another person after setting fire to his own transport business and arranging for his false death. Just like Simoun—complete with dark spectacles—Javier Santos, the light of the north, became a vengeful blazing "fire" who will teach his people a painful lesson in economics and national pride. The symbol of "light in the north", the carrier of light—the modern Ilustrado figure, or the enlightened—was here heavily referenced as the light that would point the right direction for the lost seafarers, together with "Aurora Borealis", a manifesto or philosophical tract written by Maestro Tumas—a character borrowed from Rizal's philosopher Tasio. The manifesto supposedly detailed strategies on how to solve the seemingly impossible problems faced by a country dying of self-inflicted wound, a people lost in the sea of disillusions. Tasio who, along with an enlightened few, was probably the only rational one in a continent of mad citizens, would declare: "Oo, baliw ako, pagkat dito ang katinuan ay itinuturing na kabaliwan" (Yes, I am mad, because here sanity is considered madness)—A quote almost straight out of The Alienist by Machado de Assis: "I know nothing about science, but if so many men whom we considered sane are locked up as madmen, how do we know that the real madman is not the alienist himself?".

Beyond its affinities to the anarchic objectives of Rizal's El Filibusterismo, Francisco's "committed" literature did not just offer a diagnosis but also a cure. I hardly knew of any other Philippine "socioeconomic" novel that explicitly dealt with business tactics to overcome the competition, curtail the abuse of dominant economic position, and assert the moral imperative to combat foreign capitalism, which is here synonymous to imperialism. Javier Santos ala Simoun became the fiery instrument to overhaul the mindset of the people of San Carlos. His cruel provocations and wounding of the pride of the people catalyzed the"awakening" of the soul of the nation.

—Papaypayan natin ang apoy upang lalong maglagablab! Duduhagihin natin ang damdamin ng bayang ito upang maibunsod sa pagpapakagiting! Susugatan natin at papagduruguin and kaniyang kaluluwa hanggang sa matutuhan niyang gumawa ng isang himala tungo sa kaniyang ikaliligtas!

—We will fan the flames to stoke the raging fire! And we will humiliate the nation's pride to incite it to embrace nobility! We will wound and bloody its soul until it learned to perform a miracle that will deliver it to its own salvation! [my translation]

The anarchic and anticolonial sentiment displayed by this early novel—published when Lázaro Francisco was just 33 years old—was already at a grand scale and concentrated form, rivaling his later novels. Its treatment of economic competition was universal in appeal and would resonate with other nations fighting their own economic wars and invoking sovereignty and independence through nationalist economic policies. Necessary methods (novels) that would make it value self-preservation. That would illuminate and resurrect the dying soul of the nation.

* * *

The upcoming translation of the novel—as "Light in the North", its working title—would bear out the strong literary qualities of the novel. Marne Kilates, a well accomplished poet and translator, would bring out his version in English. Kilates was the prolific translator of several volumes of poetry, particularly the ones by Rio Alma (pen name of Virgilio Almario when writing poetry), before he branched out to translating book-length prose—producing fluid translations of Seven Mountains of the Imagination (2011), literary criticism by Virgilio Almario, and then Typewriter Altar (2016) by Luna Sicat Cleto. These two books owed a lot to the facility of Kilates, and if they are any indication, he would be able to spell out the cathartic flavor of the humor and irony in "Light in the North".

A background reading on Marne Kilates's translation of the first chapters of Francisco's novel can be found in "My Practice of Translation, or: The Vanishing, Relocation, and Transfiguration", download link here (see pages 3-5).

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