Laying down the baseline

26 July 2010

PRESIDENT Aquino’s State of the Nation Address is expected to focus on the problems inherited from the previous administration, especially the anomalies pulled off in the last months of Gloria Arroyo’s nine years of misrule. That kind of stock-taking is an absolute necessity so Aquino can lay down the baseline from which to build on in the next six years.

Aquino’s team, however, has been on the job less than two months. The time might be enough to uncover the more egregious last-minute fast breaks, but it would take much longer to determine the depth and breadth of corruption that attended the unlamented Arroyo administration. And we are not talking yet of the failed programs and policies which must be discarded if Aquino is to redeem his promise of a brighter future for the nation.

But first things first. The people should not entertain overly high expectations from the new administration. An administration does not assume office with a blank sheet. The challenges are daunting. About 70 percent of the P1.541 billion budget for 2010 has been spent. Revenue collections remain in the doldrums, triggering fears that the deficit could hit a record P325 billion this year.

The overall economic outlook, nonetheless, is improving. After the first quarter’s strong 7 percent growth, the economy is seen hitting a growth of 6 percent for the full year. Growth, however, is seen tapering in 2011 and it’s anybody’s guess what the prospects would be after that.

In the days of Arroyo, we used to regularly warn that promises made in the State of the Nation Address should be taken with a bucket of salt. It was easy to conjure dreams of prosperity. The reality test, we used to say, was the budget proposal which the administration must submit within 30 days of the opening of Congress. In all the nine years under Gloria, the bright picture painted was not supported by the funding programmed for the coming year. This was already on the assumption a good portion of the money would not be skimmed.

The Aquino team does not have the luxury of time to minutely scrutinize the budget proposal drafted by the previous administration. His instructions to adopt zero-based budgeting, for example, cannot be complied with by the line departments within the 30-day period prescribed by the Constitution.

We should not expect a detailed program in Aquino’s first SONA. It is not in his character to spout glowing statistical targets and we would be disappointed if he started talking technocratese. He promised good governance. It is by this covenant that we should bind him.

Rivers run through it

Rivers run through it - REMOTE CONTROL | DANTON REMOTO
Posted at 07/23/2010 7:17 PM | Updated as of 07/23/2010 7:18 PM

Ilustrado means the enlightened ones, the indios during the dying days of the Spanish regime who could afford a European education. And in the true tradition of all colonials, they soaked up the education, filtered it, and then used it as a weapon against their colonial masters. They were the seeds that later bore fruit in the Philippine revolution of 1896.

The modern ilustrado is the subject matter, point of departure, and even the writer of this whirligig of a novel. Winner of the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel and the estimable Man Asian Literary Prize for the Asian Novel of the Year, this much-awaited book generally lives up to the raft of accolades and reviews it has received.

Full disclosure: the author, Miguel Syjuco, was my former student at the Ateneo de Manila University. I still remember well his hair dyed blue, his clipped and laconic words, his elliptical stories about love and life among the bored and the rich. I am even listed in the acknowledgement section, and thus I will try to maintain full journalistic objectivity.

The novel begins with a physical body and ends with a non-physical one. The corpse of Crispin Salvador is fished from the Hudson River. Obviously a take-off from National Artist for Literature Jose Garcia Villa, the hermit of Greenwich Village, who had a love-hate relationship with the Philippines. But unlike Villa who stopped publishing in 1958, this professor of literature and eccentric writer is supposed to have finished The Bridges Abalze (TBA), a novel that will restore him to the front ranks of Philippine writing. But alas, he is gone. So his student and remaining friend, named Miguel, goes back to Manila to, as they say, put the pieces of the puzzle together.

The missing novel is supposed to expose the horrendous crimes of the elite, the greedy ones who are responsible for the narcoleptic state of the country. Back in Manila, the capital of chaos, Miguel tries to tie the strings together by talking to Salvador’s few friends and his many, many enemies. He sifts through poems, interviews, novels, polemics and memoirs.

Thus, the novel Ilustrado begins to run on several tracks along with the other books of Crispin Salvador (Manila Noir, The Enlightened, Autoplagiarist, Kaputol Trilogy), the biography-in-progress, Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived by Miguel Syjuco, blog entries, and jokes, some of them salacious and scandalous.

The result is a novel that has at least three dimensions of reality, all going on at the same time: an angry and dizzying excoriation of how the Philippines ended up in this sinkhole.

Of course, this novel is not for everybody. I’ve met people — literate ones — who asked me, “What did you teach him that made him write like this?” Well, I would answer, I just taught him how to write sentences. The postmodernism he got from his teachers at Columbia.

But there is nothing wrong with postmodernism -- with its spirit of play and its self-consciousness -- especially if applied to a halo-halo, upside-down, horizontal-vertical culture and history like the Philippines’s.

Ilustrado is a brilliant performance, all right, but what remains with me are the small moments between lovers, between family members.
There is the lover’s quarrel between the narrator and Madison, his American girlfriend. “That was one of the lovers’ things Madison and I did, our own affectation of Atlantic academia: we referenced fictional characters as they were people we to learn from…

“It’s because for people who live in the mind, real people are blurred, not fully-fleshed out, compared to characters who come alive when read on the printed page.

There is the fleeting memory of his parents, a short sketch that is vividly drawn: “Both my parents dancing a waltz at a wedding in the garden of an ancestral home somewhere on this island, Dad whispering something in her ear, Mom pulling him close and laughing as the crowd behind them watched — this is how I best like to remember my parents.”

There is the quarrel between the narrator and his rich grandfather called Grapes, who sent him to Columbia and put him up in an expensive condominium. The old man is disappointed because his grandson is just an editorial assistant at a NY magazine.

“Grapes placed his seven-day pillbox in front of him, opened it to Tuesday, and began talking out tablets and capsules and arranging them on the tabletop. They looked like candies. He hadn’t even glanced at me since I walked in. Granma sat in the corner, looking at her hands. Grapes sighed. It was a brutal, crushing sigh. Like Acolus, the windwarden from Greek mythology, blowing down all too easily every wall I’d constructed within myself to contain my confidence and pride in the new life I’d just begun….”

The old man wants him to write “nice stories” and avoid stories about corruption. In fact, he wants his grandson to become a politician himself! Who would take over the, uh, mantle of leadership?
The lunacies of the rich are not spared. And what makes Syjuco different from you and me is that he writes about the milieu from the perspective of an insider. His strong suits are crisp dialogue and broad characterization. Here is an excerpt from a matron: “The poor girl died [in exile], while bicycling in Monaco. I’m convinced her hard life was because she was never baptized.”

Or the same matron who funds one of the cottage industry projects for the poor: “Weaving, that’s what they do. Remind me to give you one of the loincloths they make. They’re wonderful as table runners…”

Or the young, drug-addled set known by you and me, children of the famous and the rich, staples of the society pages: asleep by day and alive by night, like the social-climbing zombies that they are. Syjuco only has the harshest words for them.

Or the tiger — king of the jungle — who is terrified of the fried bacon Grapes threw at him for breakfast. And the Boy Bastos jokes that would make your neighborhood thugs hoot with laughter fired by liquor.

Or the merciless satire of the mad denizens of Philippine Literature. Good God thank you I was once this guy’s teacher, I was spared from his pen dripping with acid

Ilustrado begins with a cliffhanger at the Hudson River and ends with one at the Pasig River. Between these two rivers lies one of the best contemporary novels a Filipino has written. Glistening with style and wit and leavened by humor, this novel kicks open the door of global fiction for Filipino writers. We may do well to follow in his enlightened footsteps.

Snapshots of a Life

BY Danton Remoto
Remote Control

(Excerpts from a novel)

The Magic Box

I was four years old, sleeping soundly on my parents’ big bed. One morning, my mother woke me up, brought me to the bathroom where she washed my face, and made me rinse my mouth. When we returned to their room, she said. “This is the day I told you about. The man with the magic black box will arrive.”

And so she proceeded to dress me up. She pulled my new white, short-sleeved polo shirt from its plastic bag, and shook it in the morning air. Against my skin the shirt was crisp and clean. Mama made me wear my new khaki shorts. She buttoned up my shirt, and then knotted a green tie under my stiff collar.

“Now, you look so formal already,” she said. “When the man stands before his magic black box and disappears under the strip of black cloth, you should give him your widest smile.” Still groggy from sleep, I just nodded lazily.

Whiteness, there was whiteness everywhere! The walls and ceilings of our house with its French windows. The bark of the pine trees in the yard painted white, as Brigadier General Bautista, the commander of the base, ordered. And then, when we stepped out of the house, the whitest of sky, whiter than the paper Mama would give me, along with a big box of crayons. From this box, I would take out the crayons one by one, memorizing their colors, their shades and tones. Mauve. Aquamarine. Jade green. Ahhh, rainbows.

The man inside the van had hair stiff as a toothbrush. He was also as big as a cabinet. He asked me to sit down on a wicker chair in the middle of the van. Behind me, a curtain in pale green. Mama was just outside, I kept on telling myself, so there’s nothing to fear. The man then lumbered over to where the magic black box stood.

“Okay, son, ready?” he asked.

I just nodded, noticing the cracks on his pair of brown shoes.

Then his head disappeared under the black cloth. “Smile, son,” he said.
I smiled as he began to count. Ready, one, two, three. But at the count of three, I stopped smiling. I just looked at him straight, behind that magic black box, then tilted my head slightly to the right, as if listening to a voice only I could hear.

Now as I look at that first posed shot (thin hair, oblong head, the most piercing eyes), I still find myself listening to a voice coming as if from afar. But in vain I would wait, it would never arrive, and then there would only be the sudden explosion of light.

The Piano

A month after they were married, Papa bought Mama a piano. It was an upright piano, its body darker than wine, which Padre Pelagio had put up for sale because he planned to buy a new Yamaha organ for the chapel.

Papa borrowed money from the savings and loan association in the air base, added his savings from a year’s stay in Colorado as a military scholar, then one day brought Mama over to the chapel.

“But we have no choir practice today,” Mama protested loudly.

“I think Father Pelagio wants to tell you something,” Papa answered.

Mama must have smirked (that petulant smirk I also have), put on her Cat woman sunglasses with its frame studded with rhinestones, threw a sheer red bandanna over her permed hair, then sat beside Papa in our jeep.

Dust trailed the jeep. It was summer, and the heat blew right into the very pores of your skin. The leaves fell, the houses snored in their siesta, the sun was an intense eye in the sky. It blinked when Papa’s jeep stopped before the chapel and Padre Pelagio, his belly round like a watermelon, waddled out of the rectory.

“Good afternoon, Father,” Mama said, kissing the hand of the priest.

“O ano, are you here to get it na?” the priest asked.

“Get what?”

Papa smiled smugly (the way all those smug Hollywood lead actors must have smiled), then led Mama inside the chapel.

“This,” Papa said, touching ivory keys with the color of moth wings, “is my gift to you.”

Seven years later, I would sit before this piano, required to practice three times a day by my teacher, who also happened to be my mother.

“But it’s summer!” I wanted to protest. The dragonflies were hovering over the stream, their bodies the color of amber and fire. Our homemade kites were waiting to be flown in the clear, blue sky. The fruit trees were waiting in the orchard — mangoes, guavas, aratiles, duhat — the fruits ripened by the sun, waiting for our young and greedy hands.

But I had to stay at home and play the piano. Sometimes, I would just sit in my room and sulk. But my sulking Papa would not let pass, so he would make me sit before the piano. Then, he would install himself on the perezosa, the lazy chair beside the piano, and listen.

He would ask me to play Sarung Banggi, a love song from the Bicol Region where he and my mother were born.

Sarung banggi
Sa higdaan
nakadangog ako
hinuni ning sarong gamgam
Sa luba ko, katurugan,
bako kundi simong boses
iyo palan.

Dagos ako hangon
Si sakuyang mata iminuklat.
Kadtong kadikloman ako
ay nangalagkalag.
Kasu ihiling ko si sakuyang
mata sa itaas,
simong lawog nahiling
ko maliwanag.

Kadtong kadikloman kan
mahiling taka.
Namundo kong puso talos
na nag-ogma.
Minsan di nahaloy idtong napagmasdan
sagkod noarin pa man dai ko

(One night
as I lay in bed
I suddenly heard
The singing of a bird.
I thought it was a dream
But it was your voice
I heard.

I then rose at once
And opened my eyes wide.
In that darkness I looked around
And when I raised my eyes,
I saw your face very clearly.

In that darkness when I saw you,
My sad heart found happiness
At once.
Though I saw your image
I will never forget
That night

But when I looked at my father, he was already asleep. Perhaps it must be the heat. Or my bad playing. Or the song itself, carrying him on its wings, back to a past when he was still young, looking for the images of love on a night washed by the milky light of the moon.

The Man on the Moon

Like somebody with a Ph.D., Papa was explaining to my grandmother and I how the Apollo 11 would fly to the moon.

From blast-off at Cape Canaveral to the rocket’s head splitting from its tail to the actual landing on the moon—he explained all this with verve. First, he slipped his right arm in his brown imitation-leather slippers, tracing a trajectory. Then, slipper and hand separated, like molting skin. Soon, only the slippers were left, standing for the rocket landing on the cold, windless landscape of the moon.

That night we watched in our new colored TV. A blur of images. The Stars and Stripes. Then, the astronauts in their white, bloated uniforms, looking like aliens. The rocket blasting off, hurtling in space like a bright comet, and then many hours later, the moon: full of craters deeper and wider than anything I had ever seen. After the Apollo 11 had landed on the moon, the three astronauts free-floating in space (A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind). Men on the moon, my father said, the greatest country in the world staking its claim on a territory millions of miles away from home.

Years later, my grandmother would bring me to Manila in one of her summer vacations. Nora Aunor — the short, brown actress whose rise to fame defied the colonial notions of beauty in the country, she whose eyes spoke a language of their own — has a new film called Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo (Once a Moth). Complete title: Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo Ang Lumaban sa Lawin (Once A Moth Fought A Hawk).

In the film, Nora plays a nurse, Corazon, whose ambition was to go to the United States and work there. She lived near Clark Air Force Base in Angeles City. But one day, her younger brother was shot by an American soldier on the periphery of the base fence, mistaking the young boy for a “a wild pig.”

Another image: Corazon’s grandfather (played by the magnificent Pedro Faustino) was already alive during the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896-98, and later, the Filipino-American War from 1898-1904. As a young boy of 10, he wore calzoncillos, like long johns that reached down to the knees. Inside the sewn edges of his calzoncillos was a piece of paper folded many times over. It would contain, in code, the enemy positions, the number of the men, the tactics of the revolutionaries, whom the Americans called bandidos (bandits). When Corazon’s grandfather saw the Americans landing on the moon, he asked, “Kanila na rin ba ang buwan? (Do they now own even the moon?)”

That night, after a heavy dinner of shrimp sinigang, I went out to the backyard. Everything was silent, as if the night itself was holding its breath. Beyond the acacia leaves, the moon rose clear across the Zambales mountains.

While helping her set the table, our housemaid Ludy had told me that there was already a naked man on the moon even before the men of Apollo 11 came. She said he looked like the man in the five-centavo coin.

So tonight, I took out the coin I had stolen from Papa, and in the light of the moon I looked for the naked man. Curly hair, a face well chiseled, broad shoulders. His buttocks were firm and his legs, long and powerful. He was bending down, his body frozen in an arc. On his right hand he held a hammer, pounding something on the anvil in front of him. He was trying to make an object from ore, a shape from all that rawness. Like a god. Patiently he bent down, waiting to be blasted by something like lightning, or by a flash of revelation.

I squinted at the night sky, as if I had the Superman’s X-ray vision, or the eyes of Lee Majors, the six million-dollar man. But try as I might, beyond the trees and the mountains I saw no man on the moon. There was only a lighted disk suspended in the air many, many miles away, alone, beautiful, and pure.