Love, sex, and revolution in a “landscape of despair”
Book Review: My Sad Republic by Eric Gamalinda, Centennial Literary Prize 1998, Best English Novel, U.P. Press, 2000
Sa loob at labas ng bayan cong saui,
caliluha, i, siya’ng nangyayaring hari
Inside and outside of my sad country,
it is desolation that reigns supreme
Francisco Baltazar (1789-1862)
This treasure of a novel that won Eric Gamalinda a million bucks in the Centennial literary competition firmly establishes him as first among his peers writing in English.
Reading My Sad Republic is like reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or is it Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits, the way Gamalinda’s knowing prose brings alive not only the factual but also the “fictitious” (legends, fables, rumors, gossip) as well as the ironic in the sad history of the people of Negros in the time of the Philippine revolution against Spain that segued into the Filipino-American War. A time of strange signs and visions, labyrinths and lacerated souls, miracles and heresies, death and desolation, along with some very hot sex (being also a passionate if deadly love-triangle) and a dash of friar erotica on the side, in the dying decades of friar rule.
The parish priest of a town too far from anything to matter was inserting a sacred host into the lips of a native girl’s vagina. The priest (let’s call him Padre Batchoy) was on his knees, a position he found necessary but uncomfortable, because he was not used to kneeling and his massive weight made his kneebones ache. He was naked as the tonsure on his head…
There’s more but it’s a minor, if delightfully scandalizing, sidelight (along with some marathon jungle sex) to the lead story of rich-girl-poor-boy who fall in love and might have run away and lived happily ever after had not a ruthless tisoy come between them.
Asuncion Madrigal, rich girl of One Hundred and Seventeen Names (her paranoid mother had her christened with all the names of the Holy Virgin to protect her from all evil), is tisay heiress to a sugarcane hacienda where poor boy Dionisio “Isio” Magbuela is a farmhand, a sugarcane cutter, but also a healer, a shaman and folk hero in the making, impossible to ignore, yet hardly husband material compared to Tomas Agustin, landowner, even if down-and-out.
Jealous of the young healer’s appeal to the Madrigal women (the grandmother taught the youth to read and write, the granddaughter taught him to play and touch) and desperate to marry Asuncion for her money Tomas Agustin takes matters (the Madrigals, actually) into his own hands, eventually driving Isio into the jungles and up a volcano in search of Utopia, but not before Asuncion and Isio manage to steal away for some great sex, in some beach, for some nine days, a novena of sorts for the intention of Agustin’s unborn conceived in rape.
He fell exhausted, weeping, and she did a strange thing; she lifted her head a little and bit the hard, firm muscle above his collarbone, gently, prolonging the gesture as though she wanted to remain connected with his body, infinitely.
Unlike Rizal’s virtuous Maria Clara, Gamalinda’s Asuncion has a wild streak (something for sinful Pinays to identify with) that Agustin fails to tame and Isio fails to inflame enough to sweep her away. Like her son Felipe, Asuncion is torn, the triangle holds, even as both men rise to high political positions – Agustin becomes General, Isio becomes Pope – and engage in brutal war no longer out of jealousy or for revenge but out of ambition and for the prize of a dream Americanista republic.
Agustin and other Landlords had been falling over themselves to convince the general that the island—this island, forget the rest of the archipelago—should be accepted as a member of the American federation. This island alone, spliced and excised from its Pacific nook, and grafted onto the marveloustree of the American union, there to flourish and flower in stately progress. That’s what it is, thought the general: yet another attempt to let me know why the United States should accept the new and improved Cantonal Republic of Negros, sugar and all.
Isio, Pope, Supreme Power of God’s Republic on Earth who threw the friars and the civil guards out, is no less seduced by the American dream. Sorrow in our land, sorrow in our history, sorrow the handmaid of our memory. Sorrow because of sugar, bitterness, poverty and misery. Sorrow because of Spain. But now the Spanish empire is dead, and the United States of America, the greatest nation on earth, has recognized our republic. Long live the United States!
Had the girl of a hundred seventeen names run away with the Pope instead, she would have been Popess, and, who knows, God’s Republic on Earth might have flowered some under her miraculous thumb. But there’s only so much that miracles can do. In the long run, she could not have prevented the Pope from being set up (as in a C.I.A. operation) and she could not have stopped arrogant America from declaring war on the Pope and taking the island by force in the name of pacification and benevolent assimilation. In the landscape of despair, everything was a miracle. Even America.
It is a rare novel in the Philippines that tells the story of the Filipino-American war as seen through the eyes not of victorious colonizers but of the vanquished people who suffered through it. Gamalinda tells the story exceedingly well in marvelous Pinoy English that is now as much a language of misery and sorrow as the native tongues that English “exorcised” a hundred years ago.
Every island, every town, every tribe must have its stories to tell of the pain and shame of that disgraceful passage from Spanish colonization to Americanization. Stories that bear telling and retelling, the sooner to dispell the clouds obscuring that critical turn in our history, the sooner to confront ourselves and learn from our miserable mistakes.
Until then, in our landscape of despair, we will continue to believe in miracles – the quick if wondrous fix, á la EDSA.