Tuesday, November 27, 2012

After "Agueda"

"Agueda" (the novel) is ambitious in that it seeks to imagine the life (both exterior and interior) of a Filipino servant at the turn of the 20th century who is able to climb her way out of her social class and into an upper class--which seems to me at least, to be a quintessentially Filipino narrative, one that sits beside and therefore competes with, not only victim narratives, but also revolutionary narratives.

Curiously, Agueda (the character) is portrayed as largely passive in her climb up the social ladder. She learns the languages her Spanish amo suggests she learns (Spanish and English, both being keys to social mobility)--not necessarily because she wants to, but because she is told that it is good for her; she becomes the lover of two men who hold power over her,  unapologetically, saying, "It isn't as if I had a choice." Consequently, she remains innocent, even virginal, in spite of her repeated "fall". Which is why (it seems to me) she is allowed a kind of Cinderella ending: Without having to resort to seduction or trickery (for she has to remain innocent), she is allowed to marry someone very rich, who understands her, and who makes her into a woman of his own social class. Again, it is this man who "recreates" Agueda--the narrative tells us this, even though we can admit the possibility that she desires his desire too. This innocence and lack of agency (demanded by the fact that Agueda stands in for the Philippines, plaything of Spain and America), however, made it difficult for me to sympathize with her.

F. Sionil Jose writes the other blurb at the back of the book. He says: "[T]o reveal the plot of this beautifully unfurled story is to deny the reader the giddy pleasure of discovery." This pleasure is most palpable when the reader comes upon the detail of daily life in old Manila, and the daily rituals of the elite, whom Agueda (an orphan and then a servant) observes and then emulates. But the "struggle" to get "there" didn't feel like much of a struggle to me (although it must have been) because Agueda is portrayed, from childhood, as strong and stoic. And when I am told that she feels "great pain" after what is supposed to be a significant incident in her life, I find myself unable to empathize. 

Though she largely comes off as passive, Agueda is no victim. If the author's intention was to revise our view of the Philippines (whom Agueda represents) so that we stop talking about ourselves and our history as a history of victimhood--then I think she has met some success in that regard. This being an allegorical novel, the literary narrative follows a particular view/narrative of Philippine history (That the "Philippines" is "Agueda" and not some other character, for example, her left-leaning brother, Pedring; or the fact that Agueda cautions her brother against moving to Mindanao--those details tell us which "Philippines"(which social class, which Philippine "world") is the subject of the novel). What this historical narrative is, and how well the novel "argues" for this historical point of view (how persuasive it is, both intellectually and emotionally) matter. 

The story rushes purposefully toward its "end"--which is really not an end, (being more like an introduction to its sequel) because, as Butch Dalisay says in his blurb for the book, this "fascinating novel of discovery...just like our history...remains...far from finished, awaiting its next installment." Yes, there are two more installments coming after this. I look forward to the trilogy ending with some kind of answer to the question, "But if we are not victims, then, what are we?"

I want more than just cameos of Quezon, Osmena, Roxas. (Now that would really be interesting.)

I wonder, though, whether in these installments, Agueda will remain an allegorical stand-in for the Philippines in a narrative that merely replicates a particular kind of historical narrative about the Philippines and its heroes--or if the next two books (perhaps the last one) will leap into an elsewhere, and propose a different narrative, a new vision of the Philippines. 

Will I pick up parts 2 and 3? Yes.

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