On Lualhati Bautista’s ‘Dekada ’70’

Not merely a ‘Martial Law novel’.

The book cover of Lualhati Bautista's ‘Dekada ’70’, depicting a wall vandalized with red paint.

I’ve been seeing the novel Dekada ’70, by Lualhati Bautista, on National Bookstore’s Filipino shelves for as long as I can remember. That is the certain mark of a work’s membership in the literary canon, as far as the economics of required readings are concerned. But somehow, in all my years of schooling, I had evaded all the panitikan teachers who would include this novel in their syllabi. Either that, or I’m suffering a combination of faulty memory and a past fear of classic literature.

It happens that I’m currently atoning for my past disinterest in classics, and a friend lent me a copy of the progressive pocket-sized novel. (I imagined—framed—my friend as a concerned citizen discreetly sharing subversive readings to a fellow citizen, for enlightenment in these dark times.) I have no idea when, or if at all, I would ever have read this novel if not for this friend. Dekada ’70’s cover has intimidated me all these years, after all. Every time I would see its stark red, overtly political cover illustration, my mind’s interest-switch flips off. I am all for appreciating realist, social-political narratives on a medium like film, but I’m a slow reader, and I only have so much reading capacity to spare when it comes to grim literature.

I’m glad that I proved my own expectations wrong. Everyone mutters, don’t judge a book by its cover, but the reality is that for the majority of books we lay our eyes upon at the bookstore, we pre-screen them by sight. By their covers, that is. Certainly, we could read the synopsis, cross-check with reviews or recommendations, but before any of this can be accomplished, we would already have instinctively formed prejudices on a book by its face. The book design for Dekada ’70 belies the novel’s domestic tone: there are grim moments in this story, true, and the anxious climate of the titular era is the omnipresent spirit of the narrative, but the entire tale is depicted in such a welcoming, informal manner that the political becomes personal—what would otherwise have caused distant despair becomes a matter of intimate concern.

There is actually nothing surprising in this novel for those who paid attention to their history lessons, and have not succumbed to historical revisionism. In this novel set in 1970s Manila, a character befriends progressive youth, and becomes radicalized himself; he joins the underground movement, and is later arrested, imprisoned, tortured. Authorities barge into homes, searching for subversive materials, leaving the rooms in disarray. Other characters are killed, or ‘salvaged’, sometimes for political reasons, other times for no clear reason at all. Those left behind are gripped by worry and paranoia.

Such was the political climate of the time, the atmosphere of dread during Martial Law—and we know this from our lessons and textbooks, but this novel gives names and faces to the actors of this tumultuous era. “The best antidote to fake news is true fiction,” says Butch Dalisay. Dekada ’70 is one of those vials of truth that stand against those who want to erase the lessons of Martial Law, and not only because it is already out there, in print, an unchanging document unlike the internet. It is also because it is fiction of the truest kind: false only in its small details, but authentic in its larger history, and in the spirit, wisdom, and humanity of its characters.

The novel’s substance is thus obvious and clear, but its form, its perspective, is the pleasant surprise. Bienvenido Lumbera identifies these virtues of the work in his introduction to the novel. The first is the portrayal of its central character, Amanda Bartolome. Lumbera writes:

…ang pinakamahalaga, bukas ang isip [ni Amanda] sa mga ideyang dala ng nagbabagong panahon. Marami nang tauhang ina ang nagyao’t dito sa ating panitikan, teatro, pelikula… subalit mangilan-ngilan lamang ang maituturing na namumukod sa pagiging indibidwal. Sa mga akdang nasa wikang Pilipino, halos iisa ang hulmahang pinagmulan ng mga tauhang ina—ang Birheng Maria sa pasyon, inang mapagkalinga, matiisin, mapagpatawad, inang natatangi sa kanipisan ng pandama at (pansinin) sa kababawan ng talino. Naiiba sa mga ito si Amanda Bartolome…

Bagamat ang pamagat ng nobela ay tumatawag ng pansin sa nilalamang pangkasaysayan ng akda, ang tagumpay ni Bautista ay nasa pagkakalarawan sa isang babaeng nakatatap sa kanyang identidad bilang indibidwal sa isang panahong ang lipunang kanyang kinapapalooban ay dinadaluyong ng mga pagbabago.

Lumbera therefore identifies not the historical-political content of the novel, but its portrayal through the point of view of a fully-formed female character, as Bautista’s greatest achievement in Dekada ’70. The work should not be seen as merely a ‘Martial Law novel’, but as a strong feminist story in its own right. Lumbera notes that the story starts with Amanda’s personality already whole; the novel merely traces her enlightenment, her growing awareness to the conditions of the society around her, and as it does this, it reflects the country’s own progressive awakening under Martial Law.

The other virtue of Dekada ’70 according to Lumbera is an aspect of the work that was in fact a cause for disapproval by ‘pro-language’ critics.

Mayroon nang mga makawikang nagpahayag ng kanilang pasubali sa lengguwahe ni Bautista sa Dekada ’70. Ang magkahalong “Taglish” ay hindi siyang wikang Pilipino na matutunghan sa ibang mga akda ni Bautista. Sa nobela, ang wikang namamagitan sa mambabasa at sa nilalaman ay palatandaan ng uring panlipunang kinabibilangan ni Amanda Bartolome at sagisag na rin ng dinamikong yugtong sikolohikal na kinapapalooban ng tauhang ito. Samakatwid, ang “Taglish” ni Amanda Bartolome ay isang pampanitikang teknik na mahalaga sa pagbibigay-buhay sa pangunahing tauhan, na siya na ring sentral na sensibilidad na nagsisilbing lagusan ng mga nais sabihin at ipahiwatig ng manunulat tungkol sa Pilipino sa dekada 1970.

The novel’s rebellious cover imagery suggests that it employs the formal language of Filipino nationalists. But Bautista subverts such expectations, and instead uses a conversational tone with a decidedly non-purist diction. Here are a few sentences from the first chapter:

Okay, fine. Pero minsa’y nakakasama rin ng loob ang Diyos. Bibigyan ka ng limang anak na lalaki at presto, inaasahan Niya na alam mo na kung pa’no ka magko-cope. Oo nga’t para sa ‘kin ay mababait ang mga anak ko—may masama bang kanya?—pero mula sa kapitbahay ko sa kanan, sa kaliwa’t sa likuran hanggang do’n sa hangganan ng subdivision namin, duda ako kung may isa mang kukumporme. Masama ang rekord ng Bartolome boys.

The brilliance of this language choice is two-sided: not only is it, as Lumbera notes, an effective literary technique for communicating Amanda’s character (in being informal the language becomes more authentic, more truthful to Amanda’s middle-class background), but it is also a crucial factor in popular acceptance of the novel. The friendly language, combined with Bautista’s light-footed storytelling, renders an otherwise-distressing story readable, enjoyable even.

Bautista deserves praise for wading against the current of expectations from the literary establishment, and writing in a pedestrian style. The effect is unexpectedly powerful. Amanda speaks such an authentically middle-class Pinoy idiom that I paused on several occassions while reading the novel, because it sounded like it was my mother talking to me. Amanda’s voice is the very voice of my mother and grandmothers and titas and many other women I’ve encountered in my life.

My own family’s remembered history in relation to the Martial Law is thin. Unlike the Bartolome family in the novel, my parents had enough troubles to sort on their own, before they could even try to engage in the troubles of the nation at large. But while reading Amanda’s hopes and concerns—and they are personal as well as societal—I felt like I was listening to the stories of someone true and dear to me. I may not have truly felt what they felt, but I listened, and I think I understood. Up close, personally, intimately.

That is when abstract concepts like history and nation and justice become most powerful—when they descend from the realm of public discourse, and become private matters of personal relations.


3 thoughts on “On Lualhati Bautista’s ‘Dekada ’70’”

  1. Yo, we had to read this in high school! The language reminded me of Filipino pocketbooks and it made me realize how “malalim na Tagalog” does not always equal “mahusay na akda.” Dekada ’70 and Jun Cruz Reyes’ Utos ng Hari were a big part of my youth, probably the reasons why I easily gravitated towards the Left early in college.

    Anyways, I agree with your conclusion. Indeed, abstract concepts take familiar shape when seen through a personal lens. But at the same time, your point also reveals an inherent bias among us — that unless we are personally affected by these concepts, unless we directly suffer oppression, we rarely worry about these ideas at all. Which is okay; my parents also have “thin” memories of the era. I just think that people like Jules (or ‘yung anak na naging NPA) deserve way more credit for choosing to join the struggle despite having the choice to stay home and remain relatively unaffected. And this applies even to this day, even when there is no Martial Law (yet? huhu).

    Thank you for writing this! Marami pa akong gustong sabihin kaya lang isang buong post na ang comment ko haha. Galing mo talaga! 🙂

    1. While I was writing the conclusion, I was thinking of this essay by Jonathan Franzen. (I feel that Franzen’s work, collectively, is the biggest influence on my thinking about a lot of things, like novels and modern life. Similar to how Bautista & Reyes influenced you, I guess.) In the essay he relates how he used to be so angry about everything that’s wrong in the world, like any intellectual liberal, but that it burned him out. Until he took up birdwatching, and this personal encounter with nature brought out a less angry, yet more involved, more selfless part of him. So more than about direct experiences of oppression, it’s also about directly taking pleasure from what it is one is trying to save, or fight for. He’s actually talking about love, but he gets to the essence of it so convincingly that when he uses it, the word stops sounding cheesy. Needless to say, I recommend reading the entire essay.

      It’s my pleasure to reach readers like you. 🙂

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