Ster­ling, ir­re­place­able Filipino writer


Philippine Daily Inquirer - - LIFESTYLEA­RTS&BOOKS - By F. Sionil José

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.

De­col­o­niz­ing our­selves

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.

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