Journeys and destinations

LODESTAR By Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star)
February 22, 2010 12:00 AM

Exeunt is the third part of Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s trilogy of memoirs. In stage direction, “exeunt” indicates that a character is about to leave the stage. And the sense of finality, of elegiac beauty, is found in this book.

Mrs. Nakpil’s two earlier books are titled Myself, Elsewhere and Legends & Adventures. The first brought back to us genteel Ermita before World War II, while the second showed the author’s colorful life from 1946 until the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1986. Both won the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle.

As befits a book called Exeunt, the last part of the trilogy is also the thinnest volume, like the books of Samuel Beckett, which became thinner and thinner as he became older. But the signature wit and wisdom are still there, as when she deftly answered questions for four hours from a dour Hong Kong immigration officer, who mistook her for the mistress of General Ver. Or when she recalls her meeting with the infamous Ben Abalos, former chair of the Comelec. This set piece sparkles, and is worth the price of the book.

“We were sitting having coffee at the (Hotel Intercon’s) Jeepney when in rushed this very flustered, slight, dark-skinned man to dump his political woes on Mayor Yabut. He was carrying several posters and charts which he showed the Mayor as evidence that he had been cheated in the recent election… He must have misheard something in my question (about my friend Narda Camacho) because he replied: ‘I have nothing to do with her. She’s too old and ugly for me to bother with her!’ I was stunned by his boorishness and replied angrily, ‘Well, then, you’re a cad! Saying offensive things about a woman who’s been helping you.’ Mayor Yabut disposed of Abalos… He stood up and gestured, addressing Abalos in peremptory Tagalog, ‘Umalis ka na. Go and take all your charts with you.’ When I watched Abalos, already the well-connected Comelec chairman, perjuring himself on the floor of the Senate over the Chinese ZTE scandal, I was not at all surprised.”

Well, well, well. Trust Mrs. Nakpil to remind us that divine justice does exist after all, in what Shakespeare called “our mortal coil.”

And as in the earlier books, she gives us a ringside view of history, of how Cardinal Sin deftly maneuvered the Marcoses, and of how Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile kept on blaming the Americans for the crown of leadership that did not sit on his head after the People Power Revolution of 1986. What is Mrs. Nakpil’s take on the event? Ever the nationalist, she digs deeper and shows us the roots of the problem.

“EDSA as revolutionary reform failed because, from its inception, it was tainted by foreign interests, and even its native elements were blighted by self-serving motives. EDSA crumbled from its impurities . . .”

Her health also takes center stage in this book. It took a turn for the worse after her two brothers’ deaths, and her tedious work at the Technology Resource Center. We all know this deep in our bones: as journalists and creative writers, we feel we are in a Procustean bed the moment we work in the strict confines of an administrative job in a government corporation. It is against, as what Mrs. Nakpil said, “my own free-wheeling and bohemian nature.”

But work she did, being a stickler for punctuality and trying to twist her face into a smile even if she wanted to gouge out the eyes of the politicians who were pressuring her to do this and that. Still, she wrote under the byline of Aurora Cruz (part of her real name), worked for the Marcoses to save her activist daughter Gemma and son-in-law Tonypet, and labored to push for micro-finance and solid-waste management projects at the TRC.

In the end, you can feel the hilarity and melancholy of old age in these well-polished lines.

“If you are an octogenarian Filipina like me who has never migrated, it is the present (and not the past) that is like a foreign country. . . Why is everyone dressed for the beach, or for winter in New York? Sandals and bikinis, or black tailored suits and pumps? Why is it increasingly difficult to tell men from women?… Which flying-saucer space ship beamed me to this never-never land? Why have all the Asians gone blond; my fellow Pinays pale and red-haired, macabre as death, and the Caucasians dressed like Africans?”

In the end, she calls old age “just a slow form of death.” As the clock ticks and time passes, she has begun to understand the nature of our compassionate God, the slippery mysteries of our Christian religion, and the importance of an all-sustaining peace. “I surprise myself by quoting to a distraught son, daughter or friend Teresa of Avila’s comforting lines which I learned when I was 9, ‘Nada te turbe. Nada te espante.’ Let nothing disturb or frighten you. Everything passes. God never changes. Solo Dios Basta. God alone suffices.”


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