Sterling, irreplaceable Filipino writer
NOW IN her late 80, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil—Chitang to us in her generation—exudes the ethereal essence of that plastic phrase “growing old gracefully.”
The first volume of her beautiful autobiography series (“Myself, Elsewhere,” 191 pages; “Exeunt,” 130 pages; and “Heroes and Villains,” 118 pages, all by Circe Communications) evokes resplendent images of a bygone era, the placid, comfortable life of upper-class Manila of the ’30s up to the ’40s as seen by a sensitive native.
Chitang is two years older than me. I came to Manila from the village in 1938 and had wandered on occasion in this special precinct, Ermita-Malate, which she describes with fidelity and clear-eyed scrutiny. This is not just one of those narcissistic reminiscences—this is what distinguishes a first-rate writer from the humdrum reporters who muddle the pages of our lifestyle newspaper pages.
My initial personal contact with the formidable Guerrero clan started shortly after Liberation. When I went back in college in 1946, the University of Santo Tomas was not yet open, so I enrolled in the pre-med course at the Manila College of Pharmacy and Dentistry on Oroqueta. The MCPD later on becameManila Central University.
One of my professors, Dr. Mario Guerrero, Chitang’s older brother, was also adviser of the Pharos, the college paper, and he urged me to be a staff member.
Then there was Carol Guerrero, who was society-page editor in the oldManila Times; and afterward, Leon Ma. Guerrero, whose prewar writing I already read. In more recent times, there is Amadis Ma. Guerrero who is a member of PEN.
It is Chitang Nakpil whose work I know best. I recall very well how I first met her in the late ’40s—I was then at the University of Santo Tomas and I went to the Saturday Evening News Magazine office on Soler Street in Santa Cruz to hand over one of my short stories to NVM Gonzalez, who was then editing the magazine.
I had read her by then, and appreciated her brilliance. NVM introduced me to her—I don’t think she really noticed me, a young awestruck squirt.
Soon after, my future wife and I were invited to her apartment in Ermita—together with Johnny Tuvera and Kerima Polotan. All I remember of that evening was the cozy atmosphere, the literary talk and, again, her regal presence.
I liked her brothers, particularly Leoni. As ambassador to London, he entertained me every time I visited. He even tried to help me get a visa to China when it was verboten for Filipinos to visit that once-hermit country unless there was a green light from Malacañang.
Leoni showed me the cable from Manila that President Garcia had denied my request. Came a time when he was in Manila, and Leoni acceded to my request that he deliver our annual PEN José Rizal Lecture.
On one occasion, Chitang and I were seated together on a flight from Jakarta where both of us attended one of those regional gabfests. She was all light and sweetness.
I have always admired Chitang the craftsman; her felicitous command of English is equaled perhaps only by Kerima Polotan and Gilda Cordero Fernando.
The Guerreros of the vanished Ermita did not really belong to the country’s upper crust, which, to borrow an ancient indictment, was nothing but a lot of crumbs. They were comfortable uppermiddle-class, Spanish-speaking, well-educated, and self-sufficient. If there are skeletons in their closet, Chitang does not say so.
For those of us familiarwith the places and people she describes, there is in them all
From page E1 that ineffable quality of parochial endearment. Particularly moving is her retelling of her personal travail during the Liberation ofManila in 1945.
This is a rather unusual way of reviewing Chitang’s books: It is impossible for one who belongs to her generation and who knows her—not perhaps too well, but well enough as a writer—to be objective the way she never was herself.
The better writers are never objective, whether they are writing fiction or nonfiction. This non-objectivity or emotional involvement is what gives their prose its pepper and salt, which then makes their prose absorbing and interesting.
When one of her books was launched at the Ateneo in Rockwell, I went but I became uneasy when I saw that the crowd was composed mostly of the mob that had pandered to Marcos. On the way out, I met Bobbie and Satur Ocampo, and I almost asked them what they were doing there, aware, of course, that they must have had that same question about me on theirminds.
Chitang relates how she was hurt when her friends whowere critical of Marcos and his wife distanced themselves from her.
Those of us who knew her for so long, her liberal views, her identification with the Left, did not expect her to dance with the Marcoses. I can understand why Conrado Estrella and Cesar Virata stuck with Marcos to the very end—they were high up in the power hierarchy, they had duties. Her brother Leoni was in the Foreign Service—he could explain adequately why, he, too, served the dictator.
Chitang did not have to.
I completely agree with her, though, in her conclusion in the first volume of her autobiography, that we must decolonize ourselves, and be the Filipinos that we proclaim we are.
For so many of us who have no sense of the past, her last book on our history, “Heroes and Villains,” is one more precious building block in this flimsy structure that we call the Filipino nation.
For those who know our history professionally, there is nothing new in what she has written. For instance, the story of Enrique, Magellan’s slave—was he Cebuano? the first to have gone around the globe? All this was narrated to me in the ’50s by Carlos Quiririno when he was director of the National Library.
What Chitang has done, which I hope our historians should always do, is bring out these old, forgotten mummies and dress them up in new and attractive attire so that they will be noticed and remembered by today’s uncaring and ignoramus generation.
She did this with such aplomb that even an old gizzard like myself found pleasure in reading about them. There are many more such personalities that need to be resuscitated from the oblivion to which apathy had relegated them. Rey Ileto, Ambeth Ocampo, Resil Mojares and so many others are doing this capably, but all of them lack the charm and wit with which Chitang lavishes the narrative of the past.
At the conclusion of this splendid autobiography, Chitang descends from the heights and rejoins humanity by admitting to that one flaw all of us have in our genes—vanity. As she proclaims, in a kind of euphemistic mea culpa, “we need only God. Everything is vanity. All is Vanity.”
But the brilliant diamond that she is, that flaw is dimmed because she is also honest—an attribute which many of those who consorted with Marcos did not have.
These little misgivings aside, I salute Carmen Guerrero Nakpil for her perspicacity, her candor, her excellence as a writer which, even in her twilight, have not faded with time. That takes some doing—passion, longevity, the richness in spirit, whatever, for when she goes, as all of us must go, there goes a sterling irreplaceable Filipino writer.
The author is National Artist for Literature.