(Ateneo de Manila Press, 2018)
finished reading Reine Arcache Melvin's novel THE BETRAYED. Allow me a rare "should" to say this should
be required reading for all Filipinos, even as it will delight literature
lovers beyond the archipelago. Read it to be at the birth of what's destined to
be a Filipino Classic, in part for its nuanced, elegant disquisition on the
Filipino political/economic elite ... even as its revelations on the human
condition are both timeless and timely. This novel is a feat!
write-ups (the book description on the back cover, early reviews, etc.) note
that the novel is about two sisters who love the same man. Yet I found this
ménage a trois not to be the most interesting or important element in the
novel. It’s as if that part of the tale is the framing element for something
else. That something else, to me, are
the elements that should make this
work a Classic in Filipino literature: its nuanced interrogation of the
socio-political-economic elite of the Philippines that, simply, has failed its
task of improving the welfare of the overall population. “With great wealth/privilege
comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes—but on that responsibility, this
elite has failed.
Melvin’s writing hands, that failure is displayed in a literary context of
observations, nay, truisms, about the human condition. It is that arrangement
that also makes the novel timeless (thus, Classic) and transcend the story-telling
limits of a family’s story and what formed/forms Philippine society.
“She knew these sons of privilege. Men like him needed
distractions, novelty, excitement.”
situated within the novel’s narrative to be talking about the lead male
protagonist Arturo, scion of a wealthy family that’s part of the country’s
historical leadership, resonates for also being a statement about “sons of
privilege” in ancient Roman times to today’s Washington D.C.
approach encompasses numerous elements of the “human condition” (I keep
thinking of that phrase as I read her novel, specifically the pathos of such
condition). Here’s a passage that addresses marriage:
“You want to know what I think? Why people on the same side
of the river shouldn’t marry? Because they get tired of each other. Because
they’re so used to seeing each other, smelling each other, hearing each other,
that they don’t want to make love to each other at all. That’s what happens
when you live with someone, Pilar. That’s the real taboo.”
the above passage is contextualized in the novel (in a discussion between
Arturo and one of the two lead female protagonists, Pilar) to be about a taboo
in Manila about the inadvisability of people marrying people on the same side
of the river, that rivery divide need not exist for readers to glean the
accuracy of Melvin’s proposition regarding marriage. As yet another saying—that
becomes a recognized saying for their truth and applicability time and time
again—notes: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
another example addressed by the novel’s other lead female protagonist Lali and
her mother-in-law Marilou:
“Black-and-white images of Marilou as a young bride,
voluptuous in a tight bodice and full skirt. A portrait taken on a trip to the
Vatican, early in her marriage, her sharp features framed by a black lace veil,
eyebrows arched, lips full and soft-looking. Marilou had spent more than half
her life learning to attract men. Those skills were worthless now. Every
society imposed a limit on a woman’s desirability. In Manila, the cut-off date
came early. Lali reached for her mother-in-law’s hand and squeezed it light,
sorry for her, and afraid for herself.”
statement “Every society imposed a limit on a woman’s desirability” transcends
the novel’s described context. It’s an old story—how a woman’s desirability can
be adversely affected by not just age but a willingness to speak up, curiosity
and experimentation, politics, skin tone, class, a feminist orientation, … one
can go on and on, right?
even addresses mortality. Here’s another passage:
What was it about life, Lali thought, that made most people
cling to it, even when all pleasure or possibility of pleasure was gone?
novel, the above occurs as Lali visits her bedridden mother. But anyone who
fears death, or sufficiently aged into their second half of their human age,
can empathize with the statement. Many of us, simply, do not want to die. I
don’t. There, I said it: I don’t want to die. Yet will I feel that way if I’m
bedridden and able to cope with pain only through tranquilizers, like Lali’s
mother? And if I or anyone would feel that way, as Melvin’s Lali then notes,
“What was it about life?”
matters. More than once, Melvin also writes in a way that facilitates the
transcending of her story’s particularities. For instance, look at this
paragraph written from Arturo’s point of view:
“Of course Lali had loved him. But something breaks in a
marriage. He didn’t know when it had happened, or how, but now he looked back
and knew that what he had, what he thought he could not lose, what he had spent
so much time running after and then settling into, the center, the anchor the
reason—all that, broken. And he didn’t know why.
the sentence, “But something breaks in a marriage.” Why wasn’t it written as
“But something broke in his marriage”? But Melvin’s chosen diction here is more
effective for encouraging the reader to take that thought and apply it to life
outside the novel.
one reason why THE BETRAYED is such
compulsive reading is that Melvin’s writing style also maximizes the spaces for
reader empathy. The sentences are not just about the story being shared but
might apply, for the attentive reader, to that reader’s particular life or
position in the world—another element that should make this new novel (and I
say it again because this is the first time I’ve read a new work and believe it
should become) a Classic.
sourcing reader empathy are Melvin’s thoughtfulness, provocativeness, evocativeness,
as well as a steely discipline—all lined out with unrelenting elegance.
Unrelenting, I say, because the writing is so elegant I couldn’t help becoming
attentive to it until I began waiting for the elegance to break. It doesn’t.
Ever. What an achievement. Here are
“Ghosts are so personal” (160)
“She couldn’t live a life without wanting.” (283)
; the evocativeness
of (and how I deeply appreciate this one)
“… there’ll be a kind of beauty. It comes out when things
are broken.” (262)
“Survival trumped virtue—even the nuns understood this”
which made me pause to meditate over the challenge to virtue (stubbornly) existing if it’s ever
“trumped” by survival.
writing also hearkens poetry in more than one way, including how Jose Garcia
Villa once insisted about a poem—that each word be “necessary.” Here’s one of
many examples where a poetic (rhythmic) music, too, can be gleaned from the
contrasting long paragraph followed by two abruptly-short sentences:
“…The horror other people had expressed, months ago, when
that ship had sunk on its way to Manila from a southern island, and almost all
the children abroad had perished. She had felt horror, too, but not surprise.
Men had trampled over children in their struggle to get out. Little boys and
girls wailed in the corridors and on the deck, survivors said, but there weren’t
enough lifeboats for all of them. Almost all the women had died, perhaps in the
futile attempt to comfort the terrified children. Foolish women who gave
tenderness when ruthlessness was necessary. Of the 3,000 or so people on the
ship, less than 400 had survived, all but two of them young men. Life was for
the strong, strength for the unsentimental.
Lali would have trampled.
And when it was done, she would be free.”
of it is masterful writing.
Melvin’s mastery does not surprise me. As a poet, I certainly noticed how
nearly all of the sections bore the epigraph of an excerpted poem. (Poems were
written by Eric Gamalinda, Maria Luisa Igloria, Nick Joaquin, Emmanuel Lacaba,
Barbara Jane Reyes, Angela Narciso Torres, Ricardo M. de Ungria, Alfred A.
Yuson, and (full disclosure, me) Eileen R. Tabios.) For this reader, the
narrative link between the epigraphed poem-excerpt and the section’s narrative is not (always) linear. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist as such link can be
based on (instead of narrative) mood or tone or something else—which is to say,
the link is sufficiently subjective so that Melvin displays a trust in the reader.
That trust bespeaks a maturity leading to mastery. That trust also highlights
the importance of her writing style—that it has to be sufficiently fine for the
reader not to be put off by the many and complicated layers to the story.
said, Melvin’s novel is replete with statements exemplifying larger matters than
what contextualizes the specific acts taken by individual characters in the
book. It’s why, at one point of reading through the novel, I felt that if one
was to excavate out the specifics of story from the book to leave behind more
general observations, the result would be a pretty good psychology book as
regards the human condition.
as an aside, Melvin’s parsing of marriage evokes Erich Fromm. While I’ve read
Fromm, it was sufficiently long ago (and my memory is frail) that I choose to
quote instead from fictionist Murzban Shroff whose relevant Facebook post I
happened to read while writing this review; in his post Shroff says:
Fromm, Freud’s most astute disciple and critic, I have found some amazing
insights into man-woman relationships. According to Fromm, it is the
proprietory aspects of marriage that kills sexual love, when a woman is reduced
to a mere provider and an inanimate object. Fromm hints at a strong and equal
role for women, especially in matters of physical intimacy. He goes on to say:
sexuality is fickle, and more so in men, who are roving adventurers, than in
women, in whom the responsibility of child-bearing gives sex a different and
Shroff on Fromm (Greatness and
Limitations of Freud’s Thought) simply because I had the thought about THE BETRAYED serving, too, as a
psychology text—I could cite more examples.
does occur to me now that perhaps my initial approach in engaging this book is
giving short shrift to the novel’s actual story. Conflating and fictionalizing
from real life characters in the Philippines’s history from Ferdinand Marcos’
rule to the current political regime under Rodrigo Duterte, THE BETRAYED is about a rebel who brought his family out
of the Philippines for their safety, his two sisters, and, following the
rebel’s assassination, the sisters’ lives back in the Philippines after their
return. The sisters returned because one, Pilar, married the dictator’s godson,
thus ensuring their safety. From there, the tale goes on to present a narrative
touching on the politicians, countryside hacienderos with their private armies,
Communist guerillas, and always the dispensable poor. Towards the end of the
book, Arturo returns to his familial roots of becoming a politician by choosing
to ally himself with another corrupt man who would become the country’s next
above may be an inadequate summary of the novel; I acknowledge its inadequacy
because I don’t want to dilute the (impressive) complicatedness of Melvin’s
narrative. But if I can’t rise to sharing more about the actual narrative, it
undoubtedly is for the same reason I preferred first to focus on Melvin’s fabulously
nuanced writing versus story. I would have preferred to ignore the actual story
because it’s both, for Filipinos, a tediously old story as well as that it
doesn’t have a happy ending. More specifically, the novel doesn’t provide
lessons on how now to improve the Philippines’ state of affairs, mired as it
is in the hands of the same long-standing ruling political and economic elite
that’s crumpled ethics against the brutishness of their inherited contexts. The
story ends, for instance, with Arturo preferring that his children move out of
the Philippines before he stayed on and, in staying on, became “corrupt” and
the best that can be concluded is how his particular corruption didn’t entirely
delete everything that was good in him.
all that’s happened—and not to Arturo and his family but to the larger Filipino
population that bears the brunt of their inadequacies—it’s hard to swallow that
the best one can hope for is that, like Arturo, we retain some of our “goodness.” But at least there’s goodness,
some might say; some people never have goodness (like another character, Ricky,
the Philippine president by the time the novel ends and who Arturo decided to
back). But that’s a pretty low threshold, isn’t it? That we should be happy
with the outcome—that Arturo still retained some of his goodness—because others
aren’t even good? Tell that to the character who was beheaded because he was
dispensable and goons wanted to give a show to a visiting U.S.-American
journalist (he was a character in the novel but, in real life, many Filipinos
have suffered similarly).
over this made me think at one point about the People Revolution that overthrew
Ferdinand Marcos. One of the elements admired about that revolution was its
bloodlessness. But look at the aftermath of that revolution. It makes me believe
that perhaps revolutions should be bloody.
I look at the aftermath of various other bloody revolutions throughout human
history and … I hear Alice calling from deep within the rabbit hole. Human
condition—you are a disgrace.
why, to quote-paraphrase a poet friend Marthe Reed, “I love my friends but hate
the human race.” I do offer a way out viz living in the "micro" versus the "macro," differentiating between the micro of one’s individual, day-to-day acts versus
being immobilized by the unrelenting arc of the macro which points to
destruction of existence (if interested, see my interview, “The Arduity of
Poetry,” where I expand on these views, published in HUMANITY, a 2018
anthology from Paloma Press).
justice existed, Melvin’s THE BETRAYED
would cause such epiphanies that people would change their behavior, opening
the way for the Philippines to develop positively its potential such that so
many need not leave its territory for better lives elsewhere. But THE BETRAYED is fiction and if real-life
narratives have not sufficed to create this result, should we be optimistic? All of this, of
course, also points to the aptness of the novel’s lack of a happy ending. With
utter sadness, the novel affirms my conclusion a long time ago by noting that
the best one can do is live positively in the micro instead of changing the
macro—of nonetheless doing our best to be good people for the sake of family,
community, and the rest immediately around us. The macro is lost: humanity is
the most dangerous species on the planet.
Wait. Shortly after reading THE BETRAYED,
I read Grace Talusan’s courageous memoir The
Body Papers (which I write about HERE). The two books overlap in their concern
over family, specifically the Filipino family. Talusan suffered from a
grandfather who was a pedophile but whose abuse was covered up or dismissed by some relatives.
Such, is loyalty for and within family. In the larger setting of Filipino
culture, one can see the debasement of what should be a positive force—family—viz
a viz how politics and business are governed by family and clan relations. I
suspect diluting patronage concerns and bias may go a long way to diluting
corruption—but is it possible?
possible, I ask and laugh … at myself. There I go evincing faith in humanity.
Where faith is rewarded, it seems to me, is
(mostly) in the micro. Here, we can create or enjoy art in all of its forms.
Art is the opposite of corruption.
Melvin has created a classic work of art: she
comprehends the bathos of providing alternatives to the human condition that
she has described with such nuance, care, and wisdom. The elegance of her
writing and the commitment inherent in being able to understand various
elements in order to write about them in the way she has done are more than
enough to warrant the necessity of this novel. Her words can lead us to despair
over the human condition and perhaps such despair is the last word—but neither does she
shut the door to the occasional leap of faith that humans can find redemption.
If such redemption is only or mostly possible in what I call the “micro,” we
should note also that it is on that terrain where Love exists.
UPDATE: My hope that this novel becomes a "Classic" is given a boost by the book receiving this week the Philippines' National Book Award for the novel as well as the Palanca Award for the novel -- congratulations to Reine Archache Melvin!
Eileen R. Tabios has released about 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in ten countries and cyberspace. In 2020 she will release a short story collection, PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku, a 21st century diasporic poetic form (whose 15-year anniversary in 2018 was celebrated in the U.S. with exhibitions, a new anthology, and readings at the San Francisco and St. Helena Public Libraries) as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences, which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into ten languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com