Thursday, December 17, 2009
When Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War (Mandaluyong City: National, 1988) was published in novel form, the University of the Philippines-bred activist girl best known for her Marxist short fictions has embarked on imagining a larger picture of the NATION, a recurring topic for most if not all of the Philippine novels in English. Ninotchka and other Filipino novelists, because they are in the most privileged position to tell stories (of the country, for instance), make use of the subject Filipinas or what Filipino critic Bienvenido Lumbera coined in 1972 as “The Growth of the Nation” because in doing so, they all resolve at some extent the question of the Filipino as an exile—someone who cannot accept or change his history due to his country’s colonization by Spain, the United States of America, Japan and, again, the U.S.A. This way, Ninotchka (who was a literal exile, having been banished as a result of her criticism’s incurring the ire of Martial Law dictator Ferdinand Marcos) confronts the bedeviling problem of self-search by imagining a country in all its amalgam of Western influences and Oriental cultures. State of War is one novel that depicts the Filipino identity through the consciousness lent by its author.
Philippine history as a whole has a hand in shaping the boundaries of the novel because of its integration into the text—a powerful means of illustrating the Philippines. The mention of Philippine-specific details from the Spanish conquest to Martial Law regime crystallizes the text as an authentic evidence of Philippine imagination as Ninotchka describes it. The country’s history provides a rich material for Filipino authors to mine, and Ninotchka was successful in producing a masterpiece that will help Filipino readers identify themselves and their nation in Anna, Eliza, and Adrian and these characters’ spatial setting, the Central Philippine island of K—. The Philippines, if one must be reminded, is one such country that is always in the state of war against colonialism: colonialism by foreign powers, colonialism by poverty, colonialism by feudal, patriarchal and ethnic oppression, and colonialism by capitalistic imperialism.
Then as now, Ninotchka (she was christened a Russian-sounding name by no less than the literary giant Nick Joaquin, since this UP activist writer was truly endeared to him) championed the cause of the oppressed, organizing a labor union strike in her first job at the desk, criticizing the human rights violations of the Martial Law up to now, when she speaks around the world in behalf of Purple Rose, a global network tasked at stopping sex trafficking of Filipinas the world over. Her activism is obviously infused in the novel in question as well as her other literary works. For a few months, Ninotchka was included among those held presumably because of sedition or rebellion at Camp Crame. She declared to having sketched her second story collection there, an anthology that was to be published in Australia ten years after. She saw to it that her half-life in Camp Crame detention was congruent with the larger prison of the nation in general.
State of War is similar to Ninotchka’s short fiction anthologies like Bitter Country and Other Stories (1970) and Monsoon Collection (Brisbane: University of Queensland, 1983) and her follow-up novel, Twice Blessed (Manila: St. Scholastica/Gabriela, 1988), in that all her fictions reflect her Marxist ideology (class struggle) largely informed by her radical upbringing in the State University, renowned for being a bastion of student activism. On one hand, she is being criticized for coming on too strong with her hard-fisted political fictions that intensely batter the Philippine macho ideology. On the other hand, she is said to interpret nationalist and feminist power in the context of the country’s colonial history through pessimistic protagonists who take risks in order to survive.
Ninotchka strategized a narration that spawns an analysis of palpable social conditions. Fittingly, this analysis maps out the subsequent tactics: the use of female sexuality to injure the totalizing patriarchal hegemony, the insight of power relations in terms of class struggle rather than the social equilibrium, and the establishment of these means of intrusion towards larger-than-life proportions to strengthen the faith and ardor which lead to liberation.
State of War ambitiously attempts to encompass centuries of Philippine history through the intertwined lives of Banyaga, Villaverde, and Batoyan families, and it is noteworthy for its familiarity through the development of vivid details, its flowery language, and its ironic worldview reminiscent of Filipinos’ comic perspective about tragic events. State of War signifies much about the Philippines as "a singular and a plural place."
Ninotchka employs history to imply the infiltration of foreign powers into the Filipino people’s lives. She weaves her time setting from the late era of Marcos’ dictatorship (who is simply referred the Commander), during The Festival (supposedly the Ati-Atihan) celebrated yearly on the Visayan Island of K—, to a narration of centuries of colonial paralysis of Philippine bloodlines, visible in the Banyagas, Villaverdes and Batoyans, with the ultimate comeback to The Festival as it gets reduced into a frenzied yet aborted assassination try. The purpose of this strategy is to suggest that Filipinos have been shackled in a recurrent state of war against military, economic and cultural conquests dating back to Magellan’s intervention in Lapu-lapu's tribal affairs and loss of his life in Mactan; henceforth, the author provides an indirect yet dramatic plea for a wholly nationalistic independence.
The lead characters Eliza and Anna, sun and moon deities respectively, infuse color from and shower color to The Festival. They are an alluring duo. Both aged 27, Anna Villaverde is the depiction of vengeful widowhood while Eliza Hansen is the depiction of frivolous independence. Meanwhile, Adrian at 23 is sketched as a rich scion who discovers Anna as his employee who would be his love object. Eliza’s feelings for Anna appear sometimes to be shared consciousness, other times sentimental sisterhood, or even latent lesbianism, yet never quite acknowledgment of their kinship as cousins. The nuns have discoursed Mayang to be sexually docile even with her husband; however, it is lust at first sight with Hans. When Manolo tries to slay Rafael, his wife Anna stabs her knife into his head’s back. Eliza dies in the melee in a melodramatic manner. Later, Anna listens to her husband, amazed at his tapes and whether this decision rendered him heroic or not. Anna does not think about such queries and, yes, will sire a son to her. Here is a son in a literary production where women seem more invulnerable than the opposite sex.
Anna and Eliza are beautiful representations of 20th century women, but holistically for prospective extents sadly left shapeless. There are other things presented but not discussed which might have permitted Ninotchka a way out of her characters' or culture's matrix. Anna listens to Guevarra say, "We begin as accidents and end as the sum of accidents. The rites of this land seize us by the hair ad force us into a design begun a long long time ago." Anna fails to reflect in that text or is incapacitated to do such. How is Anna able to digest Guevarra’s words? How is her interpretation parallel with the notion that her forthcoming son will become "the first of the Capuchin monk's descendants to be born innocent, without fate?" Her statement is simply one more romantic dream, timely in the heel of tiredness after so many lives lost in The Festival. It is deemed only the compulsory solitary silent note, like skylark atop the forest after an earth-shaking sound play.
In both the Monsoon Collection and State of War, to juxtapose two of her works, her protagonists seem incapable of finding love and loyalty compatible and, under pressure, are ready to sacrifice the beloved to a generalized ideal. This penchant of supplementing to natural double-bladedness by cutting characters short is evident in the short fiction anthology, while the abandonment of the alleged beloved for some undefined principle pictures the central development in the novel in question. The ideal in its elusiveness may crumble into a justification for self-congratulation. If persons are instantly disposable (Guevarra's wife and son, for example), then why exclude characters? It does not matter if sympathies become artificial or transferable at own volition, for as long as the author remains to be perceived as sympathetic in her portrayal of the characters.
Ninotchka never misses a beat in the course of her fluid narrative as she profiles the lives of leads Anna Villaverde, Adrian Banyaga and Eliza Hansen, molding a concoction of plots and subplots, of libido betrayed through history, how the names and faces get altered but never the circumstances. Finally, the state of war being manifested here is the isolation ubiquitous in life, however intertwined people’s lives may look.
The author is most sympathetic to the character of Anna, whom one might consider as Ninotchka's alter-ego. Anna is an underground person on the island of K—, requested to help implement a conspiracy to bomb the stage where some political stalwarts are about to explode into bombastic speeches. She is the daughter of the last foot-bound Chinese woman and Luis Carlos Villaverde, a man obsessed with a saxophone. She survived the sexual molestations of her military captors while detained, as well as the electrocution on her nipples. Anna's presentation is that of survivor.
Eliza Hansen is a lady who defies pigeonholing: she is gorgeous, yet elusive as ever. She traipses about with transvestites in the town square doing the hala-bira rhythm, and acts as buffer to the "stormy relationship" of Anna and Adrian. She has this liaison with a high-ranking military officer, whom she uses to cover the tracks of Anna. In more ways than one, she is the other woman, and her frailty is the cause of her doom: she ends up as the festival's sacrifice to the sea, representing the only deliverance from her chained existence.
There is no lack of humor, either, as in the oft-repeated phrase about how “Magellan, crazy old coot, took some ships and circumcised the globe.” There is the ever-present image of the cock, the protruding symbol in a patriarchal society such as ours where, ironically, a woman is the central figure. There are the sexual interludes that Ninotchka seems to revel in, relationships based on equal parts caring and suspicion.
Anna is irresistibly lured into the festival mob dancing around the village plaza-"her feet found their niche in the drumbeats...the intricate pattern they wove on the asphalt, a pattern of small steps and halts"—and through her mind occurs "the disquieting thought [that] she was dancing the pattern of her life." Dance is translated into a metaphor for the process of one's life or, since this is inside a novel, narrative.
Ninotchka stitches together the novel's three movements by the use of an ostinato, a recurring popular song “Skyboats” which describes “a boat in the sky bearing a woman who said no, she'd rather not, thanks but no.” This image initially refers to Anna's grandmother Mayang, who becomes emotionally estranged from her husband, but later refers to Anna herself, as she joins the anti-government resistance and then endures police torture.
Ninotchka is relentlessly postmodern: her characters are assailed on all sides by the crushing forces of society, the schizoid montage of late-twentieth-century life, the haunting, double-edged beauty of an endangered world. Against such a tangled backdrop, the drama of State of War is embodied in questions of individual physical survival and, by extension, moral revival—questions which revolve around the person as well as the body politic, the singular as well as the plural.