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.

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