SPEAKING from memory and skilled imagination, 16-time Palanca award recipient and Philippine Star columnist Jose Dalisay, Jr. gives another compelling retelling of one of the country’s tempestuous epochs—Martial Law.

From a quiet life in the Visayas to subversive collegiate hideouts in Manila up to autumns and winters in America, Dalisay’s Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil Publishing, 2006) tells of a pervasive Martial Law that holds captive even the freest of souls. Originally published in 1992, the book’s new edition comes with an introduction that tells of the writer’s close call with the fangs of injustice during Marcos’ time, thus lending verity to many details in the story. The afterword, on the other hand, is Dalisay’s lecture on his creative process.

The “Penman’s” four-part novel traces the 1970s through the memory of Noel Bulaong, an activist turned bureaucratic middleman, whose very generation was defined by Proclamation 1081.

Recalling a life that parallels the very struggle of the nation under a dictatorship, Noel illustrates a typical childhood in a small town, highlighted by a life in union with nature. But his innocence is broken one night when “all the power was gone from everyone’s house but a glow rose from the plaza,” the “glow” being the then young presidential aspirant Ferdinand Marcos. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that there is an encroachment upon the innocent structure of a family, as Dalisay makes an overshadowing of Noel’s father with the monolithic presence of Marcos in the child’s mind: “At that second I lost track of where Tatay was, but I didn’t mind; Marcos was father to all of us.”

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The novel then advances with the images of Noel first as a college activist, then as a passive white-collar employee of the capitalist system. Dalisay heavily employs comparison and contrast in the second and third chapters, especially where Noel says, “We camped behind this makeshift wall, students and professors alike, listening to speeches and singing revolutionary songs.” But just a few paragraphs away, he speaks of one of his revolutionary buddies, bringing to focus a totally different image: “But today Nina works in her family’s front office, and has two sons and a daughter by her estranged husband Sammy.”

Toward the end, Noel narrates his stay behind bars. He concludes his narrative with what seems to be a surrender of his soul, as he turns away from his revolutionary colleagues and from the very idea of a people’s war. But in his heart, it seems that Noel does not really let go of his Communist spirit, especially after having experienced and witnessed near-fascist atrocities: “Now I shall bury my own flesh in Kangleong, beneath the coconuts and the kapok and the narrow orbit of the bats. Perhaps I’ll read, over his (Noel) grave, an appropriate psalm: ‘Let my tongue be silenced, if ever I forget.’”

As with all great novels, this is not spared from the grand multiplicity of plots. The novel progresses from a feeling of oneness with all things to the almost irrational struggle of a teen against an evil of which he has only a very vague idea, then to a mid-life crisis of sorts, and finally to a junction where the very meaning of life is revealed in the path one takes.

Set to go with the trade winds

Dalisay’s prowess with dialogue is unencumbered by the language he uses. In this case, hardly any of the Filipino expressions’ nuances are lost in the words of his characters.

Anyone reading the novel could only reaffirm the awards it has received, including the 1993 National Book Award for Fiction, the 1993 Palanca Grand Prize for Novel, and the 1993 UP President’s Award for Most Outstanding Publication. Its prose speaks not only of beauty, but also of stark truth, so that we are compelled to say with Noel: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”


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