28 May 2024

The spite on our putrefying flesh


Ang Suklam sa Ating Naaagnas na Balat by Ronaldo Vivo Jr. (19th Avenida Publishing House, 2024)

I dreamt of a difficult case,
I saw corridors filled with cops,
I saw interrogations left unresolved,
The ignominious archives,
And then I saw the the detective
Return to the scene of the crime
Tranquil and alone
As in the worst nightmares,
I saw him sit on the floor and smoke
In a bedroom caked with blood
While the hands of the clock
Traveled feebly through the
Infinite night.

– Roberto Bolaño, "The Detectives"


The novel opened with a crime scene: a skeleton of a woman was discovered in a burial site, the fourth victim in what was believed to be a femicide: serial killing of women working in stores and malls. Rushing to the scene were cops, detectives, reporters, and the brother of a young woman who went missing two weeks ago. He was told it was his sister. And since this was a noir novel, heavy downpour accompanied the discovery. 

In Ang Suklam sa Ating Naaagnas na Balat, the final installment in Ronaldo Vivo Jr.'s trilogy of crime novels, the Dreamland universe has expanded, geographically and thematically. The urban space and urbanscape radiated from the Dreamland wasteland to the adjacent metropolitan cities, from the slum community to suburban areas of dank safehouses and warehouses, vacant lots, depreciated real estate, and rundown housing projects. 

Suklam was dedicated to the oppressed masses: Ano'ng higit sa nagkakaisang suklam ng taumbayan / para patumbahin ang nag-iisang kaaway? (What could be greater than the collective spite of the people / to bring down the solitary enemy?) Clearly, there's strength in numbers, and the power structure would crumble before the fed up majority. 


As with the other novels in the Dreamland Trilogy, Suklam was a graphic detailing of horrendous crimes perpetrated by those in power, the corruption and impunity with which they operate, and the desperate search for justice and truth by the victims' kin. In the background, hovering like an incubus, the bloody drug war of the Rodrigo Duterte regime. 


The tentacles of historical materialism finally bared its fangs; the narrative encompassed and fully embraced the larger history of discontent and labor struggle. The city as a parasitical technoecosystem feeding on cheap labor. The unequal relations between the powerful and the laborers giving unlimited freedom to the capitalist and surplus time for him to exploit and abuse, paving the way for the devaluation of the person. 


The main protagonists in Suklam were two aggrieved brothersthe businessman Dondi Amadeo and the ex-convict Boni Flysearching for the whereabouts of their missing sisters. They were aided in their search by an investigative reporter and photographer: Marisol Gatdula and Pancho Alvarez. In the process of their investigation, they came face to face with a dystopian society where the oiled machinery of power and influence was calling the shots and where heavy-duty spitefulnessnever in short supplywas the only thing that kept them going.


Hindi na bago ang tanawing nasaksihan niya. Isang bahagi ng kaniyang pandama ang minanhid na ng paulit-ulit na karahasang naging sistema na ng kaniyang pag-iral mula laya papuntang loob, at sa kaniyang pakiwari, hanggang sa napipintong pagbabalik niya sa mas malawak at malupit na bilangguan sa labas ng rehas. Ngunit wala nang mas marahas sa mga katotohanang sumambulat sa kaniyang harapan—na darating at darating ang mga pagkakataong walang ibang posibleng depensa sa mga pamiminsala kundi ang tumunghay lamang. Lunukin ang mga sigaw. Mahirinan sa suklam.

(What he witnessed was nothing new. A part of his senses was already dulled by systemic violence that accompanied his waking life from freedom to captivity, and in his estimation, to his impending return to the wider and harsher prison outside the slammer. Yet there's nothing more brutal than the truth that exploded in front of himthat there will come a time when the only possible defense against oppressiveness was to be a complicit witness. Swallow the protestations. Choke on spite.)


The novel was only a novel and it could never be an instrument of social change. But in Vivo's case, the novel could be tested as an instrument of provocation on the part of the characters, on the part of the reader/s. The title was in the first person plural. The epigraph was addressed to the collective mass: the electorate. The novel's ruthless, relentless violence were a fulsome treat to a community of readers.


In the nightmare world of Dreamland, no walls or boundaries existed between the hellish prison and what's outside. Crimes occurred in both planes of existence. The jail guards would only joke that the heat felt by the inmates inside their cells was but a fitting rehearsal for hell. 


* * *


On August 5, 2022, Jovelyn Galleno, a 22-year old female employee of a shopping mall in Puerto Princesa was reported missing. Eighteen days later, on August 23rd, a skeleton believed to be hers was found near her residence. The locals followed the case with intense curiosity and dread. The twists and turns of the case were surreal: suspects identified and arrested, confessions made, blurred CCTV of Galleno’s final moments analyzed, social media posts scrutinized, her relatives interviewed, two DNA tests confirming the skeleton was Galleno's, suspect's confession (said to be made under duress) recanted. It was worthy of a full treatment in S.O.C.O. by Gus Abelgas. Three months after the discovery of the skeleton, the charges against the suspects were dropped.


I mentioned the Galleno case not to question its outcome or to compare its handling with the circumstances in Vivo's novel. I wonder to what extent the Amadeo case in the book was influenced by it. In any case, Suklam established its own "logic of decomposition" (in Chapter 10: Lohika ng Pagkabulok) and embudo, a funnel-like scheme to wrongfully assign guilt to suspects. 


In Suklam's universe, a spade was called a spade, and logic-defying circumstances were meant to be objectively questioned and weighed. Hence, all assumptions, press releases, official statements, and platitudes in the novel were questioned. Couched in bureaucratese language and clichés, the speeches in the book (press conference to introduce the murder suspect, introductory speeches to honor philanthropists and their work) were spelled out in carabao English. Invisible sarcasm was dripping from the words.


 * * *


The novelist relied on his main characters to take on the mantle of detectives.  

"Pagdating ko sa crime scene, doon sa burial site, no'ng makita kong kalansay na ang labi na sinasabi nilang si Divine, mabilis kong naiproseso na may mali."

(When I arrived on the crime scene, in the burial site, when I saw the skeletal remains of a person they claimed to be Divine, I immediately recognized that there is something wrong.)

When asked what he would like to have been if he hadn't been a writer, Roberto Bolaño said in his final interview, "I should like to have been a homicide detective much better than being a writer.... A string of homicides. I’d have been someone who could come back to the scene of the crime alone, by night, and not be afraid of ghosts." A year after his death, Bolaño's novel 2666 was published. In it, he dramatized in unflinching journalistic style the investigation into numerous murders based on real-life killings of women that spread like a pandemic in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The victims were mostly female workers in maquiladoras, factories run by transnational companies.

In Bolaño's post-mortem and dry description of each murder victim, interspersed in the narrative one after another, one could not help but question his intent. Would not a couple of victims suffice to give the reader an idea of the base and superstructure? A litany of murders could dull the senses. A segment of readers would not be able to cope; they needed respite.

"Sunod-sunod na pagpatay. Nais kong balikan ang pinangyarihan ng krimen", wika ni Bolaño, "mag-isa, sa gabi, at hindi naduduwag sa mga multo". Like Bolaño, Vivo's detectives would rather visit the crime scene and face the ghosts. They would take stock of grisly details, look at available facts with unflinching eyes, sift through and try to make sense of an inchoate body of evidence, try to arrive at a truth or a version of it that establishes hidden connections. 

The crimes told in Suklam might or might not be designed to elicit a response to the litany of uncalibrated violence and accumulation of spite. Once choked on something, the reflex reaction was to gag or to eject what's blocking the airway. Or else one would die of spite. To live, one needed to clear the airway; truth-seekers needed to pursue their mission: to pry out the truth (pag-ukilkil ng katotohanan, p. 151).  

 * * *

Beyond knowing what happened to their siblings, Vivo's accidental detectives were haunted by a specter much more basic (more base) and practical: by human acts that could bring more peace of mind and satisfaction. His detectives would avail themselves of an option more tangible than being at home with the ghosts: retribution. 


Ano'ng saysay ng mga susunod na araw ng buhay ko kung hindi ako patutulugin ng kaisipang tinarantado ako at ang pamilya ko ng mga otoridad dahil lang kaya nila? 

(What's the use of living the remaining days of my life if I would forever be haunted by the thought that I had been hadme and my familyby these authorities just because they could?)

* * * 


Dahil hindi sapat na nakita lang natin ang hinahanap natin. Dapat lang na makita rin nila ang hinahanap nila.


(It is not enough that we find what we are looking for. They themselves must find out what they got themselves into.)


Boni Fly and Dondi Amadeo were the novel's unwitting savage detectives, destined to give justice to the word savage and to bring justice to the savages. 


* * *


A string of homicides: a murder spree. In the urban blight of Dreamland, the scene of the crime was the Philippines where, between 2016 and 2022, during the infamous reign of Reino Rodrigo Duterte, human lives were dirt cheap. So dirt cheap as to be without value. During his war on drugs, a legacy for the ages, the king made the taking of dirt cheap human lives his sublime life mission. Patricia Evangelista chronicled her own investigation of this murder and mayhem in Some People Need Killing. But some killing need people. And so the king empowered cops to lead his war. At an alarming scale, bodies of suspected drug users, pushers, and innocent civilians piled up.


The Dreamland Trilogy erected a nightmare world of crime and punishment. It stood as a blistering critique of impunity. The business model of the powerful was revealed, fulfilling the preferred template for a noir novel outlined by Resil B. Mojares: "a medium for social investigation and political critique, a form of representing a society ruled by violence, corruption, and criminality". The trilogy embodied the precarious state of living under a police state, where every breath one takes clouded the atmosphere of state-sponsored human rights abuses.  

* * *

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so", wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet. The ending of Suklam reinforced the relativist nature of evil once circumstances forced one to commit acts one would rather not do. Because the novelist’s legislating mind and executive hand had the ability to stupefy and stun, one could not afford to identify with or root for a hero. Every crime was contingent upon the objective. One’s justice is another’s injustice. One s redemption, another’s hell. For the novelist was also granted the power of omnipotence: something that could dwarf the readers. He could command the abyss to yawn and open before our feet. He could just up and pull everything under the rug. 

More than a critique, the novel might as well be an inoculation against complacency and a call to action. Disgust is the opium of the people. Once it enters the system, it is only a matter of time for the purgative to take effect. 

The first two volumes of the Dreamland Trilogy are forthcoming in translation: The Power Above Us All (translated by Karl R. de Mesa) and The Abyss Beneath Our Feet (translated by Mark Frederick Bulandus). The translators will have to ransack the urban dictionary to find street-smart, shovel-ready, and sturdy approximations to the novels' street language, prison code words, txt msgs, and crimespeak. The trilogy's language was what authenticates its power and abyss. Stoppered and sealed, its language of desperation could detonate once the accumulated spite had us in its chokehold. For we have no choice but to resist. We have no option but to give vent to the spite on our putrefying flesh.



Extract from "The Detectives", in The Romantic Dogs: 1980-1998, translated by Laura Healy (New Directions, 2008). Quote from "The Last Interview", interview by Mónica Moristain (2003), in Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations, translated by Sybil Perez (Melville House Publishing, 2009).

12 May 2024

Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway (Bleeding Sun)


Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway (Bleeding Sun) by Rogelio Sicat, translated by Ma. Aurora L. Sicat (Penguin Random House SEA, 2024)





The agrarian novel was a rich vein in Philippine novel writing. It pitted farmers against landlords, the powerless against the powerful. Class conflict was the canvas of the novelist where he painted stories of social injustice and human rights abuses. The imbalance of power originated from cacique democracy, which, according to Benedict Anderson, prevailed during the latter part of the Spanish occupation of the Philippines in late 19th century up to the American imperialism and beyond. Several masterful Filipino writers explored this type of dramatic conflicts, the most notable of which were produced by novelists such as Lázaro Francisco (The World Is Still Beautiful, translated by Mona P. Highley), Servando de los Angeles (The Last Timawa, translated by Soledad S. Reyes), Amado V. Hernandez (Crocodile's Tears, translated by Danton Remoto), and F. Sionil José (Dusk and Tree). An important Filipino novel which had the same thematic concern was Rogelio Sicat's novel Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway, first serialized in Liwayway magazine from September 1965 to February 1966. It was now finally translated by his daughter Ma. Aurora L. Sicat and published in English translation after almost 60 years.

Dugo means blood while bukang-liwayway is a mouthful, yet beautiful, Filipino term for daybreak or sunrise. The title of Sicat's novel could literally mean "blood (spilled) at dawn." Bleeding Sun was an inspired choice for a title; it had a poetic ring to it. And it was apt, given the agrarian struggle depicted in the novel, which was also subtitled "The Tale of a Farmer's Crushed Dreams and Hopes." The publication of this translation was of great cultural and literary significance. Hence, one could forgive the misspelled "liwaway" in the book cover and title pages. I read the Kindle version, and I'd also buy the print edition, once available, for my collection of translated Philippine novels.

There are two farmers in the novel: Tano and his son, Simon. Their story was set against the backdrop of Philippine history. The novel deliberately interspersed "journalistic" narration of historical events during and after the American colonial period. There were also scenes of Japanese occupation in the country. Through this novelistic melding of public and private histories, Sicat welds the political and historical forces with the farm labor and land economy which favors the landlords and brings them wealth. For tenant farmers working the rich landowner's farm, work was backbreaking.

His [Tano's] legs were shaking. He had patiently been planting the seedlings the whole day. Like other farmers, he was moving swiftly because they did not own the land and hence were not too eager to cultivate the best crops. Nonetheless, growing rice was their livelihood, their bread and butter, their only means of survival. Their only choice was either to work to survive, or starve to death.

Simon's mother died while giving birth to him after the landlord refused to extend help during the delicate childbirth. Tano took care of the child on his own, sent him to school, and taught him farming (the only way he knew to support their living) although Tano never wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become a slave of land. It was not only masters, however, that poor farmers like Tano had to contend with. Natural disasters, in the form of a very destructive typhoon or an extreme dry spell, were tricks of fate that befall the unfortunate tillers of land. Sicat realistically portrayed the rhythms and routine of agricultural life in the first half of the twentieth century. He imbued his struggling characters with dignity despite the bad luck and cruel and whimsical landlords that accompany their lot in life. 

The sun in the title was the constant witness to this daily grind and toil on the land. In setting and rising without fail, the sun was arbiter of time and shaper of destinies. Tano later fell sick, lost his right to farm the land due to this illness, and died. Although poverty was not a birthright or an asset, it was passed on to Simon. It was now Simon's time to struggle on his own. Because of the abuses he and his family received from the landowner Paterno Borja, Simon vowed to amass wealth and seek revenge.