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The Muse of History

By Danton Remoto

In an essay of the same title, Nobel Prize winner for Literature Derek Walcott said that the writers of the Caribbean have to forge literature from the ruins that was their colonial history. Only through this could their texts be called muses – lodestar and light for their readers across the ages.

Legends & Adventures, the latest opus from Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, is written in the same vein. This is the second part in her much-awaited trilogy of memoirs. The first – Myself, Elsewhere – which I thoroughly enjoyed, shot up on the bestsellers’ list of National Bookstore and was lionized by reviewers and critics. Fittingly enough, it also won the National Book Award for the Essay from the Manila Critics Circle, of which I am voting member.

Legends and Adventures has an Andy Warhol-like series of the young war widow – seven photos with the colors of the rainbow, to correspond to the seven incarnations she has had since that awful war that killed her young husband and decimated their resources. It begins this way.

“In the same, arcane castellano we’d spoken at home in old Ermita before the war, and in her gentlest tone, my mother delivered the latest communiqué from Pappy: ‘Your father wants me to tell you that you have been drinking too much and coming home much too late.’”

The 23-year-old Carmen Guerrero did not faint and shrink in the shadows after the war, the way many of the war widows did, sinking in the swamp of their sadness over their fates. Mustering her trademark bravery and wit, she worked as a proofreader in a newspaper, wearing nondescript clothes, then became a reporter and columnist who read the galleys, ate in cheap joints, and went home only after the paper, as they used to say, had been put to bed.

So in the sexist, macho newsrooms sailed Carmen Guerrero of the illustrious Ermita clan. She covered the police beat and interviewed criminals and joined raids on vice dens, but her office mates knew she was different. They all became friends later, but Estrella Alfon (Magnificence and Other Stories), later told her that she had an air of Ermita hauteur that when she entered a room, they all wished she would fall flat on her face. She also did not brook bad manners. Once, when one of the pressmen yelled at her for taking time to finish a theater review, “I went and pushed the front page mat, smashing all the carefully constructed slugs and headlines, the day’s front page, causing alarm and scandal in the entire newspaper world. Was it Ermita or the war that made me a daredevil?”

You must remember the frame for this. El periodismo, or journalism, has always been a cause of alarm for the Guerrero clan. Fernando Ma. Guerrero, the poet and journalist, died at 46, tired and penniless. Her younger brother Leoni worked for the Philippines Free Press and was besotted with drink, and his escape to law and diplomacy was, as the clan must have thought, a way out for another would-be Icarus.

And so it was another scandal when the young Carmen – who was tutored to be a nun or a respectable housewife – entered the brash world of English-language journalism, became friends with riff-raff, danced at night clubs, and brought home in a newspaper truck or an Army jeep.

But trust mothers, our mothers, to put it all so well. “In her indirect, taciturn way, Mammy liked to sigh audibly about the perverseness of men. I would hear her say to the others during Sunday lunches: ‘Men are so foolish. I have three pretty mestiza nieces in Sampaloc. They are well-educated homebodies, good cooks, sensible and sweet-natured. Yet nobody courts them. Instead, a plague of men swarms around the hellion we have.’ It was such a comical and strangely flattering scolding that I would burst into loud, uproarious laughter, the kind she hated because it was so unladylike.”

Freed from the “incarceration” that was old Ermita, she worked with the best minds of her generation: D.H. Soriano and Melchor Aquino, Arsenio Lacson and Jim Halsema, fencing about history, politics and current affairs with the brightest and the best. Things came to a head when the newspaper workers called for a strike.

Carmen Guerrero was a union member and a member of the Civil Liberties Organization. But she was also a niece of the newspaper owner. She chose to join the strike.

“The sky fell on me. A mantle of cold Guerrero disgust overwhelmed me, chilling me to the bone. I became a non-person and ceased to exist. I had been mistaken; I thought the usually righteous Guerreros would understand my joining the strike and see the social democratic viewpoint. I had forgotten that they had evolved into the establishment while I was still enamored with the romance of the underdog.”

After the strike (which they won), Carmen Guerrero was offered a job at the Philippines Herald. One day she was assigned to do a series on “the ten neediest cases” identified by the Social Welfare Department – leper parents nursing their children in squalor, bloodstained TB patients, infants with swollen heads that battered her “into speechlessness and near-tears at every interview. Nothing in my experience, not even the horrors of war, prepared me for this. . . “

Our writer surmised that her brilliant editor, Joe Lansang, must have assigned her to do this, “to fill serious gaps in my education, for I began to develop distaste for luxuries, extravagant partying and the mindless self-indulgence of the other half of the Manila community. My reports turned into Chekhovian stories of the stark ironies in society and a social scheme that tolerated such misery among its weakest members. . . .”

After that she began writing her now-famous essays on history for The Philippines Quarterly, one of which, “The Filipino Woman,” was plagiarized by an American writer wholesale. She sued him and, as Tita Chitang said, he had the good sense to die before the hearing on the case started. The essay caused such a firestorm because, based on pre-Hispanic eyewitness reports, she wrote that, in essence, the Filipino woman were “pagan, pleasure-loving hedonists.”

But nobody could stop her. Her next life was as a columnist for the Manila Chronicle, where she wrote such vitriolic columns that caused PAL to cancel a million-peso ad, or the U.S. Embassy to squirm. “I wrote with such raw vehemence that the U.S. Embassy decided to exile one of its staff to Uruguay or Paraguay because I complained about him. After he repentantly offered to take me to lunch, I wrote, addressing him directly in my column, ‘Do you really think I could put food in my mouth in your presence?’”

Afterward, she suspected the C.I.A. sent her the photo of a revolver aimed directly at the one who opened the letter. She thought she was lucky, because I.P. Soliongco got a letter bomb. St. Theresa’s, her alma mater, wrote her to say they were praying for her soul. The Spanish press called her “anti-white and anti-Spanish,” with some of her relatives taking their side.

One day even her phone was wiretapped by Jose Lucban of the N.B.I. and called her a Communist at a Senate hearing. “Lucban wouldn’t even let my ever so distinguished lawyer [Senator Lorenzo “Tanny” Tanada] in his office and refused to repeat the statement. . . . Tanny and Dingdong [Atty. Claudio Teehankee] were so angry, they wrote the Bill declaring wire-tapping illegal, it was passed as Republic Act 4200, and remains in force, one of the democratic obstacles to tyranny and its latest incarnation in the Arroyo era.”

Carmen Guerrero Nakpil is a cosmopolitan and Westernized woman who could make any racist Westerner wither with shame because, “you needed to become Westernized to resent colonialism.” Once, on a British Council gathering, she ordered sherry as an aperitif for lunch and a Fleet Street type sniffed at her: “Oh, and where did you learn to drink sherry?”

Thus provoked, she replied sweetly: “You forget that the Philippines was Spanish for 400 years, and that your ‘sherry’ is really Spanish for ‘jerez,’ only you mispronounced it. We drink sherry in Manila as a matter of course.’”

Later, she writes about her daughter Gemma winning the Miss International, and her encounter with the young Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Romualdez – when they were not yet rich and famous. As wife to Angel Nakpil, she also attended social gatherings and was asked by Gregory Peck for a dance. You should see the photo folio in the middle of this delicious book. One such photo is of the tall and beautiful Chitang Nakpil with this caption: “President Diosdado Macapagal with his arm around my shoulder and Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez holding on to my elbow, in recognition of the power of the press.”

She also clears some cobwebs of gossip here. No, she and J.V. Cruz and Adrian Cristobal only had a trio of platonic friendships and no, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko did not court her. When she worked with the National Historical Commission as its director, she found the officers and staff “drab, old and mute.” Later, she wrote her novel, The Rice Conspiracy, in the middle of the bleak and arid sessions of the Executive Board of the UNESCO, where she was elected in the 1980s.

She also talks about Imelda, “who told me years later, especially when I was being fractious and argumentative, that I’d been in the list of journalists to be arrested, but that she had vouched for me, and my name was removed. It might have been because I was in a wheelchair, with my leg in a cast, and quite incapable of subversion.”

Why did she work for the Marcoses as director of the Technology and Resource Center? Simple. It was in exchange for the freedom of her daughter Gemma and her husband Tonypet, then allied with the Left. “At first I saw myself as one of those ancient Greek scholars serving the new Roman dispensation of pelf and power. I eschewed servility and often spoke out of turn, at which Imelda would pause and reprimand me half in jest, ‘There you go again,’ she would say in Tagalog, ‘You’ve always been tagilid.’ It meant contrary, wrong-headed.” Sometimes, Mrs. Marcos would call her ‘pahamak (troublemaker),’ after the journalist she introduced wrote scathingly of the Marcoses.

But despite her closeness to the Marcoses, she was one of the very few that never made money. “I still live on the same piece of land my father gave me, in the house built by my husband, who owns a Benz and pays for my groceries, and I buy clothes from the New Yorker of Slim’s whom I’ve patronized for decades. In my first government post at the National Historical Commission, I donated my salary to the government; in my second, at the Technology Resource Center, it was bolstered by representation expenses which were duly accounted for with receipts. On the side, I worked at my weekly history columns which were syndicated by government-run newspapers for a small paycheck. I founded a Writers Union to be able to host the international writer’s conference. What’s there to explain?”

She flew economy, roomed with fellow officers at low-end hotels, and had no logging concessions or other high-paying government directorship. Neither did she get a pile of diamonds or a Swiss bank account. Yet the clot of malice followed her all the time she worked for the Marcoses.

The day of Ninoy’s funeral there were one million people on the streets. Imelda called people up, but only Tita Chitang came. “I asked her whether she and the President had watched Ninoy’s funeral on TV, and she said, yes, they’d done so, together, in his bedroom. And that they’d been crushed, struck dumb by the enormity of what they were seeing on the video screen. She added that they had felt overwhelmingly humiliated because they had little inkling of the public mood, and that Marcos had said, ‘So, after all these years, all our efforts, our trying and striving, it has come to this?”

And then the trademark Carmen Guerrero Nakpil moment comes: “I was aghast. Had their isolation misled them so completely that they never even suspected people hated them with such unnerving passion? They simply could not plumb the depths of the people’s rage, could not accept the evidence of their wrath. How was it, I asked myself, that they did not know?”

This book is a ringside view of Philippine history in the last 50 years with intimate close-ups of, as they say, its major movers and shakers. Written with fluidity and wit, this should make us on the look-out for the final third of the memoirs. Carmen Guerrero Nakpil does not only write of history. She has become the muse of our history.


Alan said…
Mr. Remoto, I was looking for Ms. Nakpil's novel, The Rice Conspiracy when I came across your site. Would you know where, if possible, I can purchase a copy of that novel? Although I am based in Canada, I have relatives and friends in the Phils. who can make the purchase for me. Thank you for your time.

Alan Mescallado

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