on reading The Descartes Highlands
i loved eric gamalinda’s My Sad Republic (2000), but i can’t say the same for The Descartes Highlands (2014). nothing to do with how different the english is, even if it’s far from the latin american baroque, filipino-english style, of Republic, rather, in the author’s own words, “something completely new, stripped down, and more in-your-face.”
na okay naman, except that the style is new only of him, or maybe of filipino writers in general; otherwise it just sounds and feels, well, american. and that multiple first-person narrative is gratingly self-indulgent three times over. where is the tension when all three personalities — american father and two fil-am sons born of different mothers — are similarly flawed and dysfunctional in their separate existences. sure, there’s the tension in their relationships with the women, who start out fine, but who only get messed up by these self-centered mates in quite depressing ways. life is just one closed and vicious karmic cycle of sex and drugs, violence (torture, abortion, suicide) and ennui, no recourse, no redemption.
much is made of the moon and mankind’s marks on it, and of the synchronicity (year-wise) of the apollo 16 landing with the birth of the boys and martial law in the philippines, pushing the notion of a shared immortality, but to what end. in occult thought the moon is a powerful symbol of change and transformation as it waxes and wanes in a 28-day cycle synchronous with a woman’s menses, every new moon offering a new life, a fresh beginning. instead, “ideas, emotions, themes, characters, and episodes swirl in a cloud of cosmic dust” that fail to coalesce into separate beings, dissipating into nothingness of the mortal kind.
and i get naman the sense of marcos-style martial law’s endless grip. we’ve been getting the story kasi in drips and drops, or, from recent voluminous memoirs, in floods of whitewash. propaganda posing as truth. hagiography as history. almost three decades later, we have yet to get the full unvarnished story of the conjugal dictatorship’s reign of greed and terror. no post-marcos administration — not cory or fvr or erap or gloria or noynoy — has cared or dared to undertake a documented research study for public consumption (guess why). so, yes, martial law stories, fictionalized and not, continue to appeal.
however, there are aspects of that grim period that have been told and re-told, in particular, the torture and killing of political prisoners. and no fiction, even by the greatest writer, could hold a candle to these first-person and eyewitness accounts.
this is not to say that gamalinda’s prose does not impress, and stun, but the story is dated, never moving forward, almost as if to say that martial law hasn’t ended, marcos is still around. which is true, in a manner of thinking, but certainly not true, historically speaking.
i suppose it is gamalinda’s way of saying that he doesn’t think much of the EDSA revolt of 1986 that saw the marcoses fleeing the palace for paoay and being hijacked by the americans into exile. even if, as he reveals in an asia society interview (45:37), he was here, among the crowd, in the vicinity of channel 4 on the very day marcos fled.
granted that cory messed up when she enjoined the country post-EDSA to forgive and forget, as gamalinda’s friend lino brocka is said to have lamented (46:47); still, to treat that wondrous event as unmentionable is quite sad for nation, and for the novel, where the people power phenomenon that has gone global, if transitorily and in fits and spurts, could have given the author something current and complicated — like the problematique of non-violent change — to wrestle with, in the process taking the philosophical eklat and existential angst to a higher plane.