The Role of the Novelist
The post-launch smaller crowd at Solidaridad were all concerned about the fate of the nation in the light of the impeachment trial. … We ventured that the reason why there seems no end to elite rule is that those in power create or reproduce the conditions for their own reproduction or perpetuation considering that they control the coercive and ideological instruments or agencies of the state. Otherwise, as Marx said, they won’t last a year.
The top floor of Solidaridad Book Shop built after the war on Padre Faura, Ermita, Manila, is ideal for a book launching because, for one, it can accommodate about 50 people, the usual number attending such an event. More than that can be a tight squeeze in a space accessed only by a steep narrow staircase from the mezzanine used as office. Frankie Sionil Jose has his nook, the “den of iniquity” as he calls it, in the top floor where writers have met –other National Artists like Nick Joaquin and NVM Gonzalez, Philippine PEN members, and visiting literary figures like Mochtar Lubis, Norman Mailer, Wole Soyinka, and Mario Vargas Llosa, to name a few.
Once, Frankie invited the leading figures of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) in a seminar on the Huk rebellion. After a heated and recriminatory discussion Frankie concluded that egos must have gotten in the way of the revolution. Frankie’s Solidarity (now defunct) published the proceedings of the meeting . Other radicals and armchair revolutionaries have met in the same venue; hence, Frankie likes to call the top floor of his book shop a den of conspiracy and lost causes.
(Actually Solidaridad Book Shop is the best stocked bookstore in town catering to the intelligentsia since the early 60s. No pulp fiction or romance pocketbooks here. Just good literature and scholarly work.)
It is in this historic setting that Rony V. Diaz’s novel Canticles for Three Women was launched last Saturday. The discussion focused on why the country, ruled by the elites, cannot break the impasse of poverty, hunger and official corruption. Rony’s novel seeks to show the rot in our society –as Jose Rizal’s novels did to expose the social cancer of friar-dominated Philippines.
“I am no Rizal,” Diaz said when it was noted that Rizal’s novels triggered the 1896 Revolution. He said that his aesthetics prevent him from making a case for armed revolution – though he mentioned the activities of the Huks and other armed groups.
I pointed out that Rizal, with his knowledge of revolutionary practice limited to anarchist socialism in Europe tried to create an anarchist character in Simoun but who failed in his plot to destroy the social and political elite under one roof by a bomb planted in an overhead lamp. It takes conscience-stricken Isagani, seen as Rizal’s persona because of his reformist ideas, to throw the lamp with the bomb into the river just in time. The dying Simoun’s jewels left in the care of Father Florentino who also reflects Rizal’s reformist prescription of education for social change, are cast by the Filipino priest into the Pacific Ocean – praying that they be retrieved and used by those pure in heart for the benefit of the oppressed people.
The banned Rizal’s novels which were circulated surreptitiously by ilustrados (like Jose Ma. Basa) nfluenced those who would lead the armed uprising in the 1890s, a time when the Propaganda movement was at its height here and abroad. The friars were of course furious and had Rizal on his return from abroad arrested and deported to Dapitan. Thus, the birth of the Katipunan led by Andres Bonifacio. .
A writer for a business paper asked, “after Rizal’s novels, what?” There were of course the “seditious plays” of Aurelio Tolentino et al at century’s end, the socialistic novels of Lope K. Santos and Faustino Aguilar, the incendiary Sakdal and PKP tracts, proletarian writings in the 30s, Amado Hernandez’s anti-imperialist novel Mga Ibong Mandaragit, and underground or resistance literature (produced mainly by national democratic writers up to the present).
Fiction in English has not seen any novels approaching the subversive quality of Rizal’s until Frankie Sionil Jose’s anti-oligarchic novels particularly Mass where the principal character joins the underground, Sin where the mestizo elites are excoriated by the author, and The Feet of Juan Bacnang where the malevolent characters are shown to be recognizable contemporary politicians — like the actual persons in society portrayed or caricatured in Diaz’ Canticles for Three Women. Otherwise many novels in English seem to have been written for literary contests like Palanca and Asia Man.
The post-launch smaller crowd at Solidaridad were all concerned about the fate of the nation in the light of the impeachment trial. A lawyer in the defense secretariat was asked to sit with them. A witch hunt, the pro-Corona lawyer promptly said. The discussion turned out to be a replay of arguments for or against the chief justice.
So we ventured that the trial was an instance of the conflict of two rival factions of the elite and that these factions would ultimately come to terms and reconcile common interests. In his closing argument, the chief defense counsel hoped that the trial whatever its resolution would lead to national unity, i.e. the consolidation of the ruling classes..
We also ventured that the reason why there seems no end to elite rule is that those in power create or reproduce the conditions for their own reproduction or perpetuation considering that they control the coercive and ideological instruments or agencies of the state. Otherwise, as Marx said, they won’t last a year.
It is indeed a tall order for those below and the concerned middle class represented in Frankie’s den last Saturday to upset this order of things, and as the novelist said his aesthetics can go only so far –describing the state of society. That’s what Rizal’s first novel Noli did in the first place.