MONICA MACANSANTOS Reviews
To Be Free by Edilberto K. Tiempo
(New Day Press, Quezon City, 1972. Seventh Printing, 1993)
Is There Only One Way To Be Free?
To Be Free, Edilberto K. Tiempo’s classic novel about revolution, American conquest, and the Second World War, was first published in 1972 and has since enjoyed seven commercial print runs. To Be Free is an ambitious work that attempts to tell the entire history of revolutionary struggle in the Philippines, a feat that few Filipino novelists have tried to pull off within a single book. However, aside from being reviewed by Fr. Joseph Galdon in a 1973 Philippine Studies article and having a chapter anthologized in Gemino Abad’s Upon Our Own Ground: Philippine Short Stories in English, it has largely been ignored by critics in the Philippines. The fact that this novel attempts to paint a complete picture of revolution, while being unique in its contemplation of the liberating aspect of foreign (particularly American) conquest, makes it stand out among Philippine historical novels of note. Surprisingly, this novel has not become a point of interest for scholars of postcolonial Philippine Literature despite its particularly divergent take on Philippine history.
Edilberto K. Tiempo chooses Nueva Vizcaya, a remote province in northern Luzon bounded by the Sierra Madre mountain range to the east and the Cordillera mountains to the west, as the center of his novel, making it unique among Philippine historical novels in moving its plot away from Manila. While the characters of F. Sionil Jose’s The Rosales Saga achieve political power and control over their destinies when they move to Manila, the brothers Lamberto and Hilarion Alcantara of To Be Free are actively involved in nation-building while remaining in the provincial capital of Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya. (Although Hilarion Alcantara moves to Manila later on in the novel, he also becomes less involved in politics when he settles down in the city.) We see in To Be Free how history unfolds in small-town Philippines, how revolutions are fought in remote hillsides and clearings where men give up their lives while defending their right to be free, and how conquest and Westernization shake up social mores in provincial communities. These are the realities of history that risk being ignored if Filipino novelists fail to envision our national history outside events that take place within the capital.
In a country where basing oneself in Manila is considered a necessity for one’s writing career, Tiempo chose a different path, settling down in the Visayan city of Dumaguete after an academic stint in the United States. Together with his wife, Edith, he founded the renowned Silliman National Writers’ Workshop, turning Dumaguete into a regional powerhouse and mentoring young writers from far-flung provinces who wouldn’t otherwise have had a shot at a literary career. If Tiempo took on the task of incorporating the stories of those living outside the center into the larger narrative of nationhood by writing To Be Free, as a teacher he championed the voices of young writers from the margins. Having lived outside Manila for much of his career could be another reason why Tiempo failed to achieve the same visibility as his peers. Perhaps, by bringing this novel back into the spotlight, we can give Tiempo’s work its fair due.
To Be Free opens at the tail end of the Nineteenth century, right after the Philippines has won its independence from Spain only to find itself being sold to the United States in the Treaty of Paris of 1898. We are shown how a small contingent of American soldiers arrives in Bayombong on a hot, humid evening in 1899, taking over the town with a humane efficiency yet unseen by the town’s inhabitants. The American military governor, General McIntosh, pays a visit to the Alcantara family residence to invite them to supper at his house, and members of the family who are present that day are taken aback by how courteous he is to their patriarch, Tan Lucas, and how respectful he is of their local customs. He asks Tan Lucas to take over the governorship of the province of Nueva Vizcaya from his son, Hilarion, who has joined the armed resistance against the new invaders and refuses to recognize the new government. Tan Lucas is initially reluctant to accept the offer, but is eventually swayed by what appears to be a willingness on the part of the Americans to recognize the hard-won freedoms of Filipinos while placing them under American rule. In deciding to accept the American military governor’s offer, Tan Lucas ensures the survival of his clan under the new regime, as well as their survival into the future. His sons, Hilarion and Lamberto, shoulder the same responsibility.
The question of whether history defines people, or people define history, is one of the running themes of this book. Between the two brothers, Hilarion is more actively engaged in shaping his country’s destiny, especially at the beginning of the novel. While earning his law degree in Manila, he joins the Katipunan, the armed revolutionary movement against Spain. When the Philippines loses its hard-won but brief independence to a new colonizer, and General Aguinaldo orders his men to cooperate with the new colonial masters, Hilarion joins General Malvar in the Sierra Madre, where holdouts of the Katipunan engage in guerilla warfare with the American military until they finally accept defeat. Although he is left unconvinced of America's benevolent intentions in colonizing the Philippines, he volunteers to fight for the Americans in France in the First World War because he believes that it is his duty to fight for other people’s freedoms. He also rejects the customs of local Gaddang society, refusing to marry a woman in their community and questioning the tradition of working for a woman’s family as a common servant before marriage. In his later years he finds himself unwilling to participate in electoral politics under the Philippine Commonwealth because of the compromises he’d have to make to win an election. Although he is a man of the world, he feels uncomfortable within his own society. After living in Bayombong for some time, he ends up moving to Manila, starting his own private law practice and withdrawing from public life.
While Hilarion rebels against authority and spends the majority of his life outside Bayombong, Lamberto toes the line of tradition and remains in Nueva Vizcaya. It’s love, more than loyalty to his home province or family, which has tied him to the land and its customs. While studying at Letran College in Manila, he falls in love with Luisa, a local beauty, while at home during the school break, and he swears to do everything that’s necessary to have her, even if this means giving up his studies and working for Luisa’s family as a common servant for several years. Although he eventually succeeds in winning Luisa’s hand, he loses the chance to study in Europe as was his father’s wish, fails to earn his university degree, and has little opportunity to leave Bayombong after marrying Luisa. In many respects, Lamberto is the more conventional brother, following Gaddang tradition, raising a family, staying on in Bayombong, entering local politics and even participating in fraud to win an election. Yet Tiempo chooses Lamberto, and not Hilarion, to be the hero of his novel. After all, it is Lamberto, not Hilarion, who steadily loses his footing in the world as the traditions he believed to be constant disappear within a couple generations.
Lamberto is a man who doesn’t aspire towards greatness, and whose potential heroism lies dormant until historical circumstances bring it to the fore. His actions are often contradictory and difficult to accept as one reads this book. As a young man, he accepts Luisa’s constant bullying as he works as a servant in her family’s house, and yet he refuses to acquiesce to Spanish colonial authority and assaults a guardia civil when provoked. Years later, when asked to run for governor of Nueva Vizcaya, his party mates propose to buy votes for him and hire armed goons to intimidate voters, and he weakly raises his objections before giving them his consent. The novel attempts to make Lamberto a complex and flawed character, the kind of person whose growth one would like to watch, especially when social upheavals force him out of his position of comfort to choose between good and evil. Yet I would’ve also liked to have a glimpse into that part of his character that informs his decisions and ultimately makes him choose good over evil when history requires him to do so. This brings me to one of the main problems I had with the book—although I did get the sense that Lamberto was a flawed but decent person, I wasn’t sure if I was getting close enough to Lamberto to understand the motives behind his decisions.
The problem may lie in the novel’s narrative voice, which informs us about the actions of the novel’s characters without stepping into their shoes. Their lives are reported upon, but not inhabited, and thus it is difficult to chart their inner growth as they gradually begin to make wiser decisions. I would’ve liked to see Lamberto struggling with the idea of buying votes to win an election, and eventually creating an elaborate justification for his involvement in electoral fraud. His conscience doesn’t seem to nag him when he buys votes, or allows his party mates to hire armed men to intimidate voters. He only suffers from pangs of conscience later on, when Hilarion learns about what he has done to secure the governorship and confronts him. Lamberto is a character who isn’t lacking in action, but one doesn’t really know if there is an inner voice guiding the decisions he makes because we hardly get a glimpse into his inner life. Sure, as an old man we see him reflecting upon the past and the choices he has made, but in the scenes in which he makes these choices, we barely know what is going on in his mind.
There are other times in the novel when Lamberto shows his fundamental decency. When the Japanese take control over the Philippine Islands and attempt to turn him into a puppet for the Japanese, he refuses to cooperate and joins the rebel forces instead. But to fully understand why he refuses to collaborate with the enemy, I’d also like to see why he fails to live up to his principles at certain points in his life. One would want his character to have a certain interiority that grows and develops over time, that is both affected by events in history and responds to these events in a way that reflects an internal movement towards wisdom.
When Lamberto chooses to sacrifice his studies in order to become a common servant for Luisa’s family, I wanted to know what aspect of his character allowed him to make such a huge sacrifice. When Luisa constantly pushes him around, makes all sorts of unreasonable demands (like making him wear a G-string in front of guests at their marriage proposal feast to embarrass him), we are told about his anger and frustration, but not once do we see him questioning the sacrifice he has made for this woman during his five years of servitude. His love for Luisa is difficult to understand—it is repeated several times in the book that Luisa was a great beauty, but beyond that, we are not made to see other qualities in Luisa that would make a man throw his future away to win her heart.
Lamberto’s courtship of Luisa is shown to us through flashbacks that frequently occur in this novel, making one believe that the wooing of Luisa is a motif from which the novel draws its themes. It’s implied that even Hilarion was in love with Luisa at some point, and when both brothers talk about Luisa years after she has passed away, they speak of her beauty and passion with adolescent awe. And yet I’m not sure if Luisa is the passionate woman they make her out to be; she is cruel, spiteful, and oftentimes inconsiderate. During Lamberto’s period of servitude, her stepfather tells him, “The best way, Bettu, is to understand her. She’s not like us really. She has the blood of the Castila. You mix basi and domecque and the result can be explosive. All we can do, Bettu, is to have patience. You may tie her to a post later, if you want. I’d like to see you do that for a change. Or gag her. Do whatever you want. Show her and everybody you are the master. But for the moment, patience, son.” Luisa’s presence in the novel is mainly emblematic, and one begins to suspect that Luisa has been typecast as a fiery woman to take away her potential for growth. Whatever the author’s intentions were, it is difficult to see why Lamberto’s love for Luisa endures beyond his initial infatuation.
Lamberto constantly returns to the years he wooed her with his servitude, wondering whether there was any value to the suffering and humiliation he endured, and convincing himself that earning Luisa’s love demanded such sacrifices. As the decades pass and the marriage customs he once thought were constant are broken within his own family, first by his daughter who elopes with her boyfriend, and then his granddaughter who has a child out of wedlock, he holds on to his memories of Luisa, believing that the traditions to which he submitted in order to win her hand in marriage made their love more precious, their bond unshakeable. Lamberto’s courtship of Luisa represents a more innocent time when there was dignity in servitude, and when a man didn’t question the sacrifices he made for the woman he loved. However, as a one-dimensional character, Luisa fails to endear herself to the reader, and she is an emblem without charm whose frustrations remain unexplored. She shows some potential for complexity when she finally tells Lamberto, after his period of servitude ends, that she never wanted to be a prize to be won, a piece of merchandise to be haggled over. This opens up the possibility for her complexity to find expression in their relationship, but little is shown of their marriage after they tie the knot. If we were to find value in “the old ways” to which Luisa belonged, it would perhaps help if Luisa were a more nuanced and complex character. But since she is merely an unlikeable person, it’s puzzling how she inspires such deep feelings in the men who meet her.
One also begins to question the true level of involvement of these characters in the political upheavals that form the bulk of the novel’s plot when they risk little in their involvement, and emerge from these events seemingly unscathed. While it is true that Lamberto is imprisoned for standing up to the Spanish guardia civil and Hilarion risks imprisonment or death when he joins the guerilla resistance against the American colonial government, we aren’t fully aware of the dangers that they face, especially because neither brother comes fully into harm’s way. Luisa’s decision to leave home in order to help the revolutionary effort against Spain also loses its sense of urgency when we aren’t shown the possible hardships and dangers that she and her mother face when they move to the hills with members of the local guerilla unit. Years later, when Lamberto refuses to comply with the Japanese and moves, with his tenants, deep into rebel-controlled territory in the Sierra Madre, Lamberto is barely involved in the resistance against the Japanese, and much of his days are spent in his private hut in the Sierra Madre reminiscing about his years of servitude in Luisa’s house. Hilarion, who is living in Manila during the War, is arrested by the Japanese when he refuses to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court under their regime, and despite being imprisoned in Fort Santiago, which is known to have been a death camp for many prominent figures in Philippine politics, he miraculously survives. Although he makes references to his suffering in jail, we aren’t given a full glimpse into the emotional wounds that he carries with him, and neither do we find out how he escaped death in the hands of the Japanese. One of the most absurd moments in the novel is when Lamberto tours Manila two weeks after its “liberation” by the Americans: although he observes that the city is in ruins, his daughter’s family is safe, their house is untouched by American bombs, and his granddaughter Louise, named after her grandmother Luisa, teases her grandfather and flirts with an American military officer who accompanies Lamberto to Manila, entertains a bevy of suitors, and behaves as though she has never been through a war. One wonders if Lamberto’s family has been affected by the war at all, since they act as though they were untouched by its horrors. It seems unbelievable to me that any family living in Manila during the Japanese occupation would’ve emerged unscarred; the Japanese broke into homes and massacred entire families as the Americans carpet-bombed Manila to liberate the city, and a girl like Louise would’ve at least had friends who were raped and murdered by fleeing Japanese soldiers, if she were lucky enough to be spared. I could no longer suspend my disbelief when Lamberto is told during his visit that Louise works for an advertising firm, for what is there to advertise if your city has been leveled to the ground?
Indeed, the main actors in this novel are handled with a delicacy that one suspects is brought about by the author’s fear of hurting them. Lamberto and Hilarion join revolutions and are thrown into jail at certain points in their lives, but a certain authorial protectiveness keeps them from being maimed or killed. On the other hand, when Lamberto’s manservant, Rufino, is presumably killed by the Japanese after successfully carrying Lamberto’s documents to the Alcantara family in Manila, one wonders why none of the Alcantaras suffer the same fate. While members of the upper class are portrayed as major players in the history of the nation, they are also safe from history’s clutches. Ordinary men like Rufino, on the other hand, are made to bear the brunt of history’s violence.
Could it be that the elite in this book are allowed to grow old because they must survive history in order to bear witness to it? It seems ironic that those who are allowed witness history in its entirety are also those who suffer the least. As readers, we are kept safe from the horrors of revolution and conquest because it is the lives of the Alcantaras that we follow, and they are kept out of harm’s way, no matter how turbulent the political climate of their country becomes. At the same time, we are kept at a safe distance from the characters themselves, and one begins to wonder if this is a reflection of the author’s own fear of becoming too involved in his characters and their inner lives. To inhabit a character’s skin, one must risk feeling that character’s pain, and I suspect that Tiempo was reluctant to put himself, or his readers, through such agony.
Despite its many flaws, To Be Free remains an achievement in Philippine literature, both for its ambition and for the important questions it raises about foreign conquest that few novelists in the Philippines have dared to ask. As Lamberto watches the succeeding generations of his family slowly liberate themselves from tribal customs, he asks himself if American colonialism has allowed his countrymen to enjoy a level of personal freedom they have never before experienced. This brings us to the question of whether loosening oneself from the grip of one’s culture is the price one has to pay to achieve freedom. At the end of the novel, Lamberto contemplates the easiness with which he has accepted the new freedoms introduced to Filipinos through conquest: “In the most natural way he had fallen into an almost painless acquiescence to the demands of a new morality. He chucked at the last words. New morality? What sort of animal was that? No generation could claim an authentic vision of it as it worked into conventions. The stern code of the Sierra Madre was just one of the ways it showed up.”
As To Be Free shows, freedom comes in many guises, and it is simplistic to think that one culture’s interpretation of freedom pales in comparison to that of another culture. After Louise has a child out of wedlock, she reconsiders her negative attitudes towards her grandfather’s submission to the tradition of servitude in order to prove his worthiness to Luisa’s family. She says to herself, “Her grandfather had rightly accused her of having the kind of emancipation that had resulted in a degrading bondage of her. Her grandfather’s servitude had been an expression of a unique form of freedom: the voluntary submission of self, something she had had to learn with pain. The freedom to act or to choose meant setting limits, a self-built cage.” We may choose to disagree with the social codes that make Louise consider single motherhood a “degrading bondage”, but there is validity in her realization that there was a certain dignity to be earned when voluntarily sacrificing oneself to tradition. Lamberto proves his worth to the woman he loves by sacrificing his personal ambitions to become a servant in her house, and there is a certain pride to be earned when making such a self-sacrificing gesture. In a sense, it’s like dying for one’s country in which one achieves dignity through selflessness. “What mattered finally was preserving a bedrock decency that would be honored no matter what the time or place,” Tiempo writes at the closing chapter of the novel, reminding us that to be free means choosing to live with dignity, which means refusing to be enslaved by our own selfish desires. Selflessness, in the end, is what makes us free.
Monica Macansantos was born and raised in the Philippines, and earned her MFA in Fiction Writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington, New Zealand. Her fiction has appeared in Day One, The Masters Review, Thin Noon Journal, The Fictoneer, Shirley, and The Philippines Free Press, and her work has been recognized with residencies from Hedgebrook and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.