Monday, November 4, 2019

THE BETRAYED by REINE ARCACHE MELVIN

EILEEN TABIOS Engages


THE BETRAYED by Reine Arcache Melvin
(Ateneo de Manila Press, 2018)

I just 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!

Most 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.

In 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.

Thus, a statement like

“She knew these sons of privilege. Men like him needed distractions, novelty, excitement.”

while 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.

Melvin’s 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.”

While 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.”

Here’s 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.”

That 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?

Melvin 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?

In the 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?”

Diction 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.

Consider 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.

Indeed, 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.

Also 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 examples:

the thoughtfulness of

“Ghosts are so personal” (160)

; the provocativeness of

“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)

; and the steel of

“Survival trumped virtue—even the nuns understood this” (162)

which made me pause to meditate over the challenge to virtue (stubbornly) existing if it’s ever “trumped” by survival.

Melvin’s 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.”

The all of it is masterful writing.

Yet 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.

*

As I’ve 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.

Indeed, 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:

Reading Erich 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 serious meaning.

I cite 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.

But: it 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 president.

The 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.

After 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).

Meditating 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.

But then 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.

This is 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). 

If 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.


*

But. 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?

Is it 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.


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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




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