SIGNIFICANT literary traditions in Philippine fiction in English were tackled last June 29 commencing the University of the Philippines (UP) Likhaan Centennial Lecture Series, titled, “Fiction as Response to History: Philippine Fiction in English,” by Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, UP Vice President for Public Affairs and former Likhaan director.

Hidalgo discussed the subject using four of the historical novels published within the last thirty years: The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café (1988) by Alfred Yuson, The Firewalkers (1992) by Erwin Castillo, The Sky Over Dimas (2003) by Vicente Garcia Groyon, and Banyaga: A Song of War (2006) by Charlson Ong.

History in action

History does not merely denote setting in these historical novels.

“History (in these novels) is not setting. It enters into the motivation of the characters; it propels the plot,” Hidalgo said.

Historical fiction has been tagged with the term “alternative history.” Called “history from below” by Hidalgo, the historical narrative focuses on the perspectives of ordinary individuals during the time historical events took place. They contain implications by focusing more on figures who may have been overlooked.

“These contemporary novels are steps toward retrieving the nation’s fragmented past and making it whole, rewriting the story written by the conqueror,” Hidalgo said.

For example, in Ong’s Banyaga: a Song of War, the story focuses on the Chinese community in the Philippines, who are still alienated in a country where they came uninvited. In a separate essay, Ong said, “Our memories are not of China but of Chinatown… Ours is not a history of conquest, or even of mythicized barter but of occasional persecution and continual accommodation.”

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And even though Yuson’s The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café makes allusions to figures such as Rizal and Aguinaldo, they only represent the novel’s message.

“Rizal and Eman Lacaba, Leon Kilat and Roberto Aguinaldo marching arm in arm down Manila’s streets led by Behn Cervantes, dramatize the continuity of revolution–only the enemy is different,” Hidalgo said.

She also stated that historical fiction may be an adaptation of merged foreign styles but the difference lies in the Filipino authors’ usage of these approaches to narrate stories that recreate history.

“The roots of these novels lie in the rich tradition of local oral narratives—including tales, epics, the pasyon and the corrido, the lives of the saints, manuals of conducts, etc.,” Hidalgo said.

The Philippine literary carnival

Alluding to literary critic Soledad Reyes’ essay, “The Philippine Komiks: Text as Containment,” Hidalgo emphasized the novels’ “carnivalesque” mode, which she defines as “the ‘crazy mixture’ of serious devotion and farce, sublimity and earthiness, traditional and modern, earnestness and frenzy, vulgarity and loftiness, high and low, all of it punctuated by ‘boisterous laughter.’” A perfect example of this tradition is the Philippine comic been published before 1952, long before Marquez started writing with magical realism.

This carnivalesque tradition is portrayed in Castillo’s writing style in The Firewalkers. It was written in the “fairy tale” mode, such that the book opened with, “Once upon a time…” It also made use of extravagant words and fanta stical elements, although the heroes and villains are far from being fairy-tale like. The Sky Over Dimas, on the other hand, employs melodramatic telenovela-like touches, which Groyon refers to as “the continuing soap opera starring George Torrecarion.”

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The purpose of using the fantasy mode is to wrap the reader in a state of mysticism.

“It is almost inevitable that tales about them should partake of the wondrous and the wonderful, for that is how we imagine them, remembering what was told us by our ancestors who lived during that time or heard of it from their elders,” Hidalgo said.

Stories to heal

Historical fiction attempts to heal the wound colonialism had inflicted on the “soul” of national literature.

Hidalgo cites Resil Mojares’ concept of the nationalistic soul from his essay, “The Haunting of the Filipino Writer.”

“There are three reasons for “soul drift” or “soul loss”—shock, seduction and sin. The shock—the trauma—was obviously the experience of colonialism. However, colonialism turned out to be not just an invasion but a prolonged seduction. In surrendering to it, we turned our backs, not only on our old selves, on what we were before the invasion, but on many of our own kind,” Hidalgo said. The sin that Mojares refers to is the Filipinos’ failure to explore the variety that is inherent in their Filipino souls.

The four novels also emphasize the use of humor as a redeeming factor in response to the strife that the characters, as well as real-life Filipinos face.

The darkness of each story is eased by comedy and humor, reflecting the Filipino’s tendency to use laughter as a defense mechanism.

“It is the life force triumphing over sorrow and adversity, triumphing even over death. To this day, this quality—the Pinoy’s irrepressible humor—both exasperates and heartens,” Hidalgo said.

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For Hidalgo, the writers of historical fiction in the Philippines seek to mend the broken Filipino soul whose stories have been repressed by the old ways of telling them.

“Perhaps they are luring the drifting soul back home,” she said. Myla Jasmine U. Bantog and R. L. Reyes

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