Sorry for the month long hiatus of this post. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but with the holiday break, the sudden flood of work, and the time that’s passed since my last review, I got a bit lazy. Put it on my resolution list to get things over and done with.
Also, in case you missed it, I did an article for ZeroThreeTwo featuring my favorite reads from last year.
This book started out with a lot of promise.
For starters, I’d like to think that Philippine history is usually more exciting to hear about from your older relatives than the cartoons of the 90’s had us believe. I can no longer name the show – whether it was Hey Arnold! or The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Kenan and Kel escapes me, so I hope you know which one I’m talking about – but I remember learning from it that dread was the natural reaction to realizing that your parents or your grandparents were about to tell you the stories of eras bubbling with historical detail and interest, eras antiquated enough for their artifacts and colloquialisms to now be obsolete. Thankfully, I discovered that this was not true. Growing up, I was fascinated whenever the stories that were being told to me confirmed whatever came out in my textbooks. Clearer than the shows that gave me this bad impression of the historically-charged kwento is the memory of the historically-charged kwento itself – the memory of my sister and me leaning over the table as our parents narrated to us the experiences of hearing about friends and acquaintances vanishing into thin air during the Martial Law era; the memory of us listening as our grandmother related in a very matter-of-factly way how long she had to hide under a church as bombs fell over their town; the memory of what was going on when we were born, what happened when we were too young to remember anything, or for that matter, when we were not around at all – I have become so fond of these stories that if you and I have talked and you asked me about my family, I would probably break into that mode of kwento, telling you, almost word-for-word, what I heard.
Empire of Memory opens in a similar way. Despite their experience, my parents do not have any stories about the Beatles’ visit to the Philippines in 1966. So when the novel opened with narrator Al using the event as a frame for introducing himself and the beginning of his friendship with future co-writer Jun Hidalgo, I was sold. For those of you who know what happened, you know that it certainly wasn’t less-than-memorable. Neither was it comfortable for any of the major players involved in the whole shebang: the Marcos family, the public-at-large, the Beatles themselves… As much as we would have liked to give the Beatles a welcome befitting of most foreign bands nowadays, somebody screwed up and it’s hard to entertain the idea that Paul and Ringo would ever want to come back. But Al’s narration is rife with intrigue and the tension of any story preceded by the words “We were actually there.” Jun manages to infiltrate the Beatles’ hotel room, and it is more than any of us can bear. It almost feels weird knowing that the Beatles are talking to the friend of someone who is already convincingly leaving an impression on us as if he were our own new best friend. When Jun and Al come into the possession of John Lennon’s torn jacket, it is almost like coming into the possession of a holy relic, and Al treasures it, literally. At the same time, we are being told that Jun is doing this all for the affections of Al’s older sister, Delphi, and you get the impression that this book will be about them, about their adventures (or misadventures), about the height of their friendship and then turmoil, about entering their roles as agents of the Marcos era rather apathetically but breaking out of it heroically.
I will tell you upfront that this book is not about that at all.
What it about has to do largely with the sensation the book’s prologue gives you. What I mean to say is that in the future, you might find yourself wanting to tell the story of the prologue to your friends, to talk about it as if it were something real. The problem with this is precisely that you know it isn’t. Though I learned from a professor that there probably was someone hired to write the history of the Marcos era, they weren’t Jun and Al. They are to our generation unnamed or unidentified, still hidden or lost when the regime was overthrown.
The novel’s first half will look in one’s mind like a novelized version of Mike de Leon’s Bayaning 3rd World. Jun and Al, when we meet them again in the novel proper, are working for the media wing of the Marcos regime when they are given the assignment of re-writing Philippine history for the purpose of turning Marcos into the Philippine Kim Jong-Il. Well, maybe that’s a little extreme, but they more or less do it. They change details liberally by altering the names of certain personages to invent a relation to the President or Imelda, hiding journals that could mar the story as they report it, and creating entire mythologies out of thin air just to keep themselves sane. It is a scandalous plot for those who cannot see past it (i.e. not us Filipino readers) and a justifiable one for those who stand with the Marcoses. It becomes something to talk about with your Philippine studies professor, whether he or she has read the book or not, largely because it makes you skeptical of all the history you have read so far, which is also good. It essentially inspires us to become historians with integrity, even if we aren’t in the business of it. We just have to seek out the truth of our people’s stories, so that we don’t become lost in, as Gamalinda presents, the island of Akeldama, where Jun and Al concentrate their research.
The book is rife with Bibilical references, aside from the obvious Jesus allegory of the American-Filipino rock superstar Sal X. The island of Akeldama takes its name from a Biblical location. Many of the chapter titles are taken from popular Biblical passages. What am I getting at here? Post-colonialism and also self-criticism. Gamalinda seems to present the Philippine people as if they were the new Israelites, or at least, they have been deluded into thinking that they are so. Reaching the end of the novel, I got the sense that no one finds salvation, not even Sal X, who has himself crucified annually to get the attention of the American father who has forsaken him. The father never comes back for him. The story of Akeldama ends with a hint that doom is approaching. We’re also never quite sure if the Zabarte brothers will ever end the cursed cycles of violence and romantic triangles that have befallen their family. The impression I get as I think of it now is that Gamalinda is pointing out our eternal frustration with our colonial masters, how that frustration will never be sated by revenge or self-mortification, and how we in the end throw our own faults on the shoulders of our personal historical villains. This is the island of Akeldama basically. It is an island that represents some of the very worst attitudes of the Philippine people. It reflects us, but it doesn’t have to be us.
Akeldama seems to infect those who come to it. Even Jun, who spends more time over there than Al, becomes more and more apathetic about what he is doing. It takes Al to snap him out of it, and it takes Delphi, who remains totally untouched, having moved to the States, appearing only once via correspondence to snap Al out of his own trance. When Al realizes what is going on, he basically has to race against time to make sure the book never reaches the printers. I’ll tell you upfront: it does reach the printer, and it coincides with a very specific point of Philippine history. When you see it, you can make of it what you will.
All said, I am a little hesitant to recommend this book. Despite its length, it doesn’t make for light reading and the patterns that extend throughout the novel are sometimes frustratingly subtle. If you want to hear a good story about a particular time in Philippine history, go ask your elders. If you want to contextualize arguments about Philippine identity, society, and history in one fell swoop, take a chance on this book. Magulo siya.