|Author’s Note: This article is a revised version of a paper printed in the 2003 Philippine Studies (51: 599-643), an issue devoted to the history of the book.
Suggested bibliographical entry: Laurel, R. Kwan. 2004. A Hundred Years after the Noli: The Three Centennial Novels in English. Available from www.geocities.com/centennialnovels.
A Hundred Years after the Noli: The Three Centennial Novels in English
R. Kwan Laurel
The three novels in English that won in the Centennial Literary Contest are very different in their approaches to imagining the nation. And yet, in some of the most important aspects of constructing a narrative of the nation, they stand in very much the same position in relation to its colonial experience. The importance of narratives in understanding current attitudes about the Philippine experience makes it imperative that these three valorized novels are studied closely and as a set. This paper argues that these novels fail to liberate for they adopt a cavalier attitude towards history and fall prey to the cultural logic of late capitalism.
Keywords: narrative, (post)colonial literature, Philippine history, state, late capitalism, centennial novels
Surely the idea that literature is important to the formation of a nation was what prompted the Estrada administration to sponsor a one-of-a-kind literary contest to celebrate the centennial of Philippine independence from Spain. The large cash prizes alone in this cash-starved nation, a million pesos for the first prize winners of the different divisions, should be enough indication of the importance of literature to the country, at least in the minds of some government bureaucrats and functionaries, or perhaps more accurately, the importance of being perceived a patron of Philippine literature, thus being a patron of the heroic, of the novelist José Rizal. Philippine national consciousness in its crucial beginnings had Rizal’s novels to help Filipinos imagine themselves as a community
(Anderson 2003, 26–27). After all, how many countries in the world can boast of a novelist for a national hero? We are probably the only one. Whatever is said about Rizal’s attitude towards revolution, “it is impossible to read Noli me tangere today in the way a patriotic young Manileño of 1897 would have read it: as a political hand-grenade” (Anderson, 2004, 232). Even if the Noli is read differently today, Resil B. Mojares (1998, 140–41) is correct in saying that Rizal’s novels “remain to date the most important literary work produced by a Filipino writer, animating Filipino consciousness to this day, setting standards no Filipino writer can ignore.”
The four novels—by Eric Gamalinda, Charlson Ong, Alfred Yuson, and Azucena Grajo Uranza—that won the 1998 literary shebang show many traces of Rizal’s Noli. Nevertheless, the novels of the first three authors—I concentrate on their work because these authors had attained canonical status in Philippine literature long before the Centennial Literary Contest was held—do not have the strong sense of history of Rizal’s novels. The three Centennial novels approach the theme of the contest in very different ways, yet with the question of how to portray the Philippine colonial experience, Gamalinda degrades the Filipino, Ong avoids the issue altogether, while Yuson tries to put a positive spin on the whole imperial project. Although the novels won in a contest meant to celebrate the centennial of Philippine independence from colonial rule (a timeline that is also problematic in that nearly half of that centennial the country was under direct American tutelage), there is much to be desired in their use of Philippine history. In fact, they have only cut and pasted certain historical moments, and have ignored history altogether. This is probably what is meant by our living in “an age that is at one and the same time profoundly ahistorical and avid for historical narratives and narrative reinterpretation of all kinds—an appetite, as it were, for poststructural gossip (including the newer histories) that is something like a compensation for the weightlessness of a fall out of history unlikely to last long” (Jameson 2000, 3–4).
These are novels that the authors themselves have embedded in the narrative of nation. One should think that, all the more, they cannot escape history. As it turns out, the writers do as they please with the history of the Philippine colonial experience, the single most intense and longest collective experience of the nation. This attitude is due to what Fredric Jameson defines as a certain kind of postmodernism or, more aptly, the cultural logic of late capitalism. Jameson (1999, 18) argues that the age of late capitalism, or the age of multinational capitalism, or what we have come to call globalization, involves a commodification of everything. Since multinational capitalism has become so fluid, respecting no borders or laws, the system supports the relativism that a certain kind of postmodernism is pursuing:
The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified: what was once, in the historical novel as Lukács defines it, the organic genealogy of the bourgeois collective project—what is still, for the redemptive historiography of an E.P. Thompson or of American “oral history,” for the resurrection of the dead of anonymous and silenced generations, the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future—has meanwhile itself become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum. Guy Debord’s powerful slogan is now even more apt for the “prehistory” of a society bereft of all historicity, one whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as “referent” finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us nothing but texts.
We must remember that the Centennial Literary Contest was initiated by the Estrada administration in the first year of its assumption to power, and that the government of Fidel Ramos had just left the scene trumpeting its success in hosting the APEC Summit in Subic and the ascension of the Philippines to the global stage with the signing of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade. Although the Asian financial crisis had begun to plague the economy in the last year of the Ramos government, there was still no clear understanding at that time of the full devastation globalization was to bring to Third World countries like the Philippines.
As much as the state has always used literature and the arts as either deodorant (Marcos with the Cultural Center of the Philippines) or furniture (Ramos with the revival of the National Artist Award) in crafting their narrative of the state, this contest is a mere bow in the direction of Rizal. There is not any single event in Philippine history, since the time of Quezon, when the state has shown itself to be taking literature seriously. The only rulers in the Philippines who took literature seriously, too seriously, were the Spanish civil authorities and the Spanish friars during the time of Rizal. Quezon himself found it necessary to sponsor the Commonwealth Literary Prize after being prodded by writers and their patrons, using the rationale of heralding the beginning of the project of nation and to enact a provision of the constitution that mandated the government to encourage the arts (Agoncillo 1990, 216). Estrada was also prodded by writers and their patrons, principally Blas Ople, to continue the Ramos centennial project with a literary contest.
What is noteworthy is that, just before the so-called Asian economic crisis, which began in 1997, there was an illusion that globalization was working for the Philippines. In fact, the speech of then President Fidel V. Ramos (1996, 2) on 12 June 19951 commemorating the ninety-seventh anniversary of Independence Day, at the Quirino Grandstand, is entitled “Our time has come”:
My beloved countrymen: I am confident that, finally, our turn has come to rise as a dynamic and progressive country in the Asia-Pacific region.
Over the past decade, we have seen many of our neighbors rise one after the other to take their place in the ranks of the newly industrializing countries.
Now, I say to all: Our time has come.
At that time of Ramos’ speech, the Philippine economy was being floated by a highly speculative stock market, and this casino-like economy would peak with Estrada’s BW stock market scandal, which would loot billions of pesos from thousands of big and small-time investors. The consumerist ethos of anything goes so long as there is something of value to be sold and bought, whether money or land or talent, was reaching its peak during the August 1998 awards night of the Centennial Literary Contest. People were investing money in the stock market, like Manila Mining during Ramos’s time and BW Resources during Estrada’s time, and reaping as high as 1000 percent in just a few weeks. The series of bankruptcies hitting the papers were thought of as mere blips on the radar screen of global capitalism.
When Estrada agreed to the Centennial Literary Contest, there was much optimism that the boom days would be back soon. The first time such a large-scale literary contest was held was in 1940 during the Commonwealth period of Manuel L. Quezon. But there is an important difference between the Quezon and Estrada governments: the former was operating with a budget surplus (Ybiernas 2003), while the latter was operating with a huge budget deficit. During the Commonwealth years, Philippine goods still entered the United States without tariffs. This difference is instructive in showing us how the economies of the two eras affected the canonical literature produced during those times. Although the Philippines was a colony of the United States during the Commonwealth period, I would argue that our cultural production showed its semiautonomous character from the colonizer precisely because the poverty and destruction was only later to start full speed with the Second World War. Thus, it was possible for Filipinos to think of a truly independent Philippines, even if images of poverty had also begun to make their appearance in works like H.R. Ocampo’s oil on canvas called “The Contrast” (1940).
The onset of globalization that began after the Second World War gradually depleted that semiautonomy until full globalization, or late capitalism, got a firm grip of the Philippines. Before the war, the Philippines enjoyed a trade balance with the United States, which set up the country’s total dependency to the latter, although this fact would not be revealed until after the war (Agoncillo 1990, 349–70). Of course, Jose Garcia Villa, the arbiter of taste at the time of the Commonwealth days, is the best proof that the ideology of separating literature from history had already begun in the 1930s and the 1940s.
The three Centennial prizewinners in the English novel category are works that are largely formed within the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. They show a cavalier treatment of Philippine history, and they are able to do this without any trouble, and even gain the nod of the state through the literary establishment, largely because of the cultural logic of late capitalism. As Jameson said in an interview: “(Andy) Warhol is emblematic of one feature of postmodernism and the same goes for Paik. They allow you to analyze and specify something partial, and in that sense their activities are surely original: they have identified a whole range of things to do and then moved in to colonize this new space” (Stephanson 1989, 70). Artists like Warhol give us a specific image, but rob that image of its history. His take on Marilyn Monroe, for example, robs her of her historicity, yet her image as made by Warhol continues to work and earn money today. We watch a film on Gandhi made by Hollywood (Columbia Pictures, 1982), but the film is actually selling us an image of Gandhi (a harmless, uncomplicated, and asexual Gandhi), robbed of the history of the person and the country he was fighting for. As the film made waves around the world, people in India wondered what the fuss was all about as the celluloid Gandhi bore no resemblance whatsoever to the historical one.