The painter is dead: Barthes, and Nick Joaquin’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino’

How does the ‘greatest Filipino play’ illustrate our nation?

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The reputation of Nick Joaquin’s 1951 play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, towers over the landscape of Philippine literature. Its achievements demand nothing but superlatives; on the theatrical poster of its 1965 film adaptation is this call to attention:

The film, the stars, the setting, the theme, the story, the director—all the things that make this the motion picture to see if a Filipino can go to the theaters only once in his lifetime!

This year (Nick Joaquin’s birth centennial) will see the release of another cinematic adaptation entitled Ang Larawan. At the end of the teaser trailer for the film is a less self-important, but nevertheless equally grand, assessment of the source material: “The greatest Filipino play, now on film.”

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On Lualhati Bautista’s ‘Dekada ’70’

Not merely a ‘Martial Law novel’.

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.

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Pagsasalin, paglalayag

Sa pagsasalin ng mga kuwento, ang mga banyagang kaligayahan at pasakit ay ganap naring nagiging atin.

Takaw-pansin ang makulay na pabalat ng Layag. Tila pino itong lambat na humuhuli sa madulas at malabnaw na atensiyon ng mga katulad kong mahilig luminga-linga sa bookstore. Nang makita ko kung tungkol saan ang aklat, hindi na ako nakatakas sa pang-aakit—madalian ko nang binili.

Paano ba naman, nagkataon na may kasalukuyan akong pagsisikap na magbasa ng mga akdang klasiko. Minsan hindi ko matiis ang pagbabasa ng ‘importanteng’ panitikan. Isang antolohiya ang Layag ng mga maiikling kuwento at salaysay ng mga sikat na Europeong manunulat, ng mga tulad nina Guy de Maupassant at Luigi Pirandello. Halos lahat ng mga awtor ay pinanganak noong gitna hanggang hulihan ng ika-19 na siglo; karamihan ng mga akdang kasali ay naglalarawan ng mundong Kanluran sa panahon ding iyon, at sa mga batang dekada ng ika-20 na siglo.

Sa totoo, akala ko dadagdag lang ang Layag sa tambak ng mga babasahing iniipon ko sa bahay, ngunit sinimulan ko agad at mabilis ko itong natapos. Hindi ko kasi maitanggi ang husay ng sari-saring estilo na itinatampok sa lipon ng mga kuwento. Iba-iba ang pakiramdam na dinudulot nito: may nakakatawa (Ang Pagligo sa Araw ni Janko Jesenský), may nakakasabik (Pagtakas Tungo sa Buhay na Walang Hanggan ni Stefan Zweig), may nakakapanlumo (Ang Hosier at Ang Anak Niyang Dalaga ni Steen Steensen Blicher), may nakakatakot (Ang Horla ni Guy de Maupassant) o nakakakilabot (Satan ni Ramón del Valle-Inclán). Ngunit, pinakamadalas, ang naiiwang pakiramdam ng mga kuwento ay pagkalumbay. Marahil ay dahil ito sa paksa, lugar at panahon na pinagmumulan ng mga kaganapan: ang romantikong Europa ng nakalipas na siglo. Sa pagsunod ko sa mga kaganapang inilalarawan ng mga salita, kusa na itong ipinipinta ng aking isip sa mapanglaw na mga kulay. Natural sa Layag ang taglay nitong nostalgia.

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Sophisticated men, and men’s magazines

A sort-of defense of the decent kind of men’s magazines.

I recently had to spend a night out in the city, waiting for the sunrise. It was already past midnight, and on a whim I boarded a bus to Makati. Nowadays, these buses with brightly-lit cabins ply the city’s highways all night. Other souls were shuffling on and off the bus, going around the metropolis for leisure or for labor; it was hard to tell which, here in the offshore-outsourcing capital of the world. They all looked impatient, in any case.

Up until a year ago, I worked graveyard hours in Makati myself, and I’ve memorized the night-time pulse of its wealthy streets. The place always feels safe, even in the most ungodly hour. On a weekend, it is even serene, but not dead. Every turn of the district is illuminated by lights spilling out of innumerable convenience stores; every intersection, by the blinking of traffic lights.

I planned to kill the time by reading in some 24/7 restaurant, picturing myself like Mari Asai in Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, digesting a hardbound at a Denny’s in Tokyo. I didn’t have a book with me then, however, so I dropped by a Ministop and grabbed the current issue of Esquire from the magazine rack. I had to stand and wait a few moments in front of the cashier before the sleepy clerk, who was catching up on some shut-eye, sensed my presence.

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Umaapaw by Ang Bandang Shirley: singular feel, many possibilities

This music-video is Shirley at their heartstring-plucking best, visualized with sublime storytelling.

Awit, masaya ang mga tenga
Sa aking alaala ito nagsimula

In life, as with music, there is movement and then there is stillness. There is sound and then there is silence. When the action becomes too much, we leave the town looking for solitude.

We all have our own places where we turn to for comfort in loneliness. Sometimes it is an old, empty parking lot, at the fringes of the city, close to the forest and free for tired souls to inhabit. You would come there for solace, but what happens when someone else comes wandering into the space you would rather have all to yourself?

Panaginip ang dumalaw

You may choose to keep to yourself, retreat into your thoughts; or you may be enchanted by this other soul. You see her lost in smoke and clouds of thought, and you hear questions in your mind, prodding you to explore, to find out what it is that you share with her that drives both of you to seclusion. You may choose silence; or you may take a deep breath, and open a connection, offer a distant but firm handshake.

A man and a woman share a handshake in the Ang Bandang Shirley music video for Umaapaw, under handwritten lyrics, “Panaginip ang dumalaw.”
Screen capture from the Umaapaw music video, youtube.com/watch?v=9pXZCO3A_8w

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