The Master of Tropical Baroque
Blog Critics | June 2005
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Nick Joaquin to me was sin and stories. The first due to an early memory of my father arriving home with a copy of Manila: Sin City which he cautiously placed on a high shelf, beyond my reach; the second due to Pop Stories for Groovy Kids, one set in green, the other in orange, brought back from Erehwon, then the only “serious” bookstore in our vicinity. (This was Manila, in the 1970s, during the Marcos dictatorship.) Childhood was his stories for kids; my early teens, the guilty pleasure of retrieving his book of essays from the forbidden shelf, there to read about gambling and prostitution, the heat of August and the Ruby Towers quake. The forbidden Sin City turned out to be rather tame but tantalizing nonetheless: it opened up history. Not the history of textbooks, but history written in a hurry to meet magazine deadlines.
The pleasure of the forbidden would return when I made his novel Caves and Shadows the first “serious” novel I pestered my father to buy for me, my successful lobbying made more delicious by his failing to notice that the cover featured a crab on a woman’s breast, remarkable daring in book design in then-prudish Catholic Philippines.. The book remains my favorite novel by a Filipino, made all the more precious because it long remained out of print.
Bored to tears by textbooks and the clumsy prose of historians, his A Question of Heroes opened up an appreciation of our greats that might otherwise have been impossible. His The Aquinos of Tarlac , now hard to find, but in its time the best-selling non-fiction work in the Philippines, brought forth, in turn, the discovery of political biography. His stories were now, for me, about sins: of the high and mighty, both generations gone and those in the here and now.
But it was when I found in a shop, and read with feverish delight, his Reportage on Politics, that his influence on me became profound. I had strayed from the writings of Filipinos, been entranced by the journalism-as-history of Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Pole who wrote on the decay and destruction of despots: of courtiers in hiding pining for the rule of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie; of his witnessing the collapse of the autocracy of the Shah of Iran.
Abroad, watching from afar the senile last days of our home-grown dictatorship, foreigners seemed the only ones who could write about similar cases of the curtains coming down on dictatorships. Meaning was in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch, not in anything by a Filipino. Marquez’s book told the story of a dictator’s death, and its magical realism evoked the oddities of a society steadily achieving the removal of its home-grown tyrant. James Fenton seemed more capable of writing about the flight of the conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos than any Filipino.
Then came Nick Joaquin’s Quartet of the Tiger Moon, and for once there was a rival to James Fenton’s reportage on the fall of the House of Marcos—what Filipinos call the People Power Revolution of 1986.
But it was that one slim collection, his Reportage on Politics, found one weekend in 1988, in a tattered condition, that finally gave me what every aspiring writer needs: a model to emulate. Here were the stories I wanted to read, about the period I found most interesting: the period of the fallen Third Republic (our first period of independent democracy from 1946-1972), peopled by heroes and villains, most of whom were still alive, the rest departed not so long ago; an age so vivid to my elders but totally alien to my martial law baby eyes. Here was Mrs. Macapagal, the mother of the present Philippine president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, setting out to clean a Palace now gone (demolished by her husband’s successor); here were political parties with rivalries stretching back generations; here were politicians castigating pollsters, denouncing survey results, movie idols making aborted runs for the presidency.
Most delightful of all, the book contained the finest piece of Filipino political reportage I’d ever read: “13 o’clock,” in which Speaker Pepito Laurel, drunk as a skunk, wrestles a microphone to the ground during a session of the House, and where, presiding over a sine die session in which the legislature literally commands time to stand still, a devious Ferdinand Marcos saves his senate presidency by surreptitiously restarting the clocks, allowing him to gavel the session adjourned. This was the model; the way to write about politics and politicians; this was the keen eye for detail, the mordant wit, the way to get it done. The only other literary journalist to approach his level of influence on me would be Pete Lacaba’s reportage on the First Quarter Storm (the student rebellions in 1970 in Manila)—and was he not heir to the great Joaquin?
That same year, Tom Wolfe, my preeminent writing idol of the time, published a literary manifesto titled “Stalking the Billion Footed Beast”. Profound was its influence, simple though its message was: be curious! Look, observe, inquire, and by so doing, write real stories, whether in journalism or fiction. Ten years later, Nick Joaquin would make a speech with much the same message: seek out reality, embrace it, then mold it to your will; reality was the clay necessary to produce great works of the imagination.
As he himself pointed out, before the Latin Americans had given birth to magical realism, the humid improbabilities of say, Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he had labored forth on what we like to call his Tropical Baroque. Long before Tom Wolfe published The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, there had been Joaquin with his reportage on politics, on people, events and crime (he felt great pride in the authorship of his crime pieces, bellowing an exhortation to me once, that they must be included in an anthology I was working on, something I was unable to do). And he was right; what’s more, unlike Americans like Wolfe, his journalism as fine writing has aged well. Kool Aid suffers from artifice; Joaquin’s reportage continues to shine.
He would close his more important public remarks with, “I have spoken.” A literal translation of the way the Tagalogs of old would close their more solemn remarks. General Emilio Aguinaldo, a Garibaldi of sorts for the Philippines, of whom he had written a play of penetrating psychological insight rivaled only by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional meditation on Bolivar (The General in His Labyrynth), used to close his remarks in the same way. This small detail, to me, personified the manner in which his heritage was made the world’s by his pen.