NEW YORK—Recently, a cache of 2.5 million files was leaked to the media, files that named holders of offshore bank accounts, mostly in the Caribbean, and shell companies of those attempting to dodge taxes. The group responsible for obtaining and releasing the files was the Washington, D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. According to The New York Times, those named included Maria Imelda Marcos Manotoc, otherwise known as Imee. For Filipinos, who have long suspected that the Marcoses had stashed away enormous amounts of ill-gotten cash, the revelation was no surprise. Referring to these secrecy-seeking account holders, the Timesreporter Andrew Higgins put it very well: “All have money and share a desire to hide it.”
Whatever the apologists for that benighted couple may say about this will be shoehorned into their unvarying spin on how his- and her story should be constructed, that the conjugal dictators were benevolent visionaries who sought only the good, but not the goods, of the country, rather than selfish, egocentric despots who brought the country to its knees by systematically raiding the public till.
The news item made me think of Gina Apostol’s novel Gun Dealers’ Daughter, released last year. The novel continues Apostol’s fascination with the interstices and shadowy corners of our history. On full display in her previous The Revolution According to Raymond Mata, its narrative set in the chaos of the late 19th century, where Rizal is the object of veneration, and where the arc of history is the subject of ongoing debate and discussion among contemporary scholars. In Apostol’s latest novel, the workings of the martial-law years are examined through the consciousness of a pampered college-age daughter, Soledad Soliman, of fabulously rich parents—fabulously rich, for they are arms dealers and closely connected to a notoriously corrupt regime.
It’s a story that is familiar: the sympathy the sons and daughters of the middle-class and the well-off, educated in liberal institutions, have for their less privileged peers, the masa. Sometimes that has led them to actually forsake their comfortable even predictable lives, take up arms and go to the hills. During the tumultuous Marcos years, when militarization was at fever pitch, and even as misery and the national debt was soaring (to satisfy the many greedy snouts, under the protective gaze of the dictatorial regime, feeding at the public trough), there were notable examples, from the socialite and beauty queen Maita Gomez to the scion of a sugar baron,
from student leader Edgar Jopson to poet and bohemian Emmanuel Lacaba, turning their backs on society and putting their money where their mouths were.
The narrator of the novel, Soledad Soliman, gets caught up in radical campus politics, mainly due to her attraction to another immensely wealthy student, Jed, and partly to the search for excitement and sense of belonging that is noticeably absent in her sheltered, perfumed life, a kind of Patty Hearst figure. She is well-read, bookishly smart, wielding a vocabulary that is impressive, but otherwise clueless to the realities that her poorer classmates have to endure. She is, as she finds out later on, described as a “useful fool,” somewhat similar to Raymond Mata. Her wealth and connections prove to be of strategic value to the movement, but she isn’t aware that she is being used. And not just by the underground but by the corrupt establishment, of which her parents are prominent figures. In short, she becomes an unwitting pawn for both sides, as the plot twist reveals towards the end.
Not being that interested in narrative twists and turns, the question for me was whether or not to believe the narrator, whether or not she was able to secure my sympathy. She did annoy me a great deal, in particular the manner in which she fumbles her way into the world that she knows next to nothing of but if I hadn’t known real-life Soledads, privileged wannabe anarchists and revolutionaries used to being chauffeured around while spouting progressive jargon, I would have had a difficult time believing in this character. But Apostol draws a portrait of this young woman who is both endearing and irritating—simultaneously ineffective and eminently believable. Even her attempts at self-destruction are laughable, though they serve to focus everyone’s attention on her, particularly that of her Uncle Gianni, in many ways the novel’s charming, brilliantly cynical, amoral counterweight to the novel’s left-wing actors. I found myself wondering what the novel would have been like had it been written from his perspective—this is not to fault the choice of Soledad but rather to attest to the skill with which this character was drawn, in a novel that is by turns funny, elegant, and keen-eyed in its depiction of the haut bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Another book that deals with the same period and ideological struggles but from multiple perspectives is Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years (Anvil, 2012), by Susan F. Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo. These are accounts by the middle-class sons and daughters of one couple, put together by the youngest daughter and the second-oldest son, of how each of ten siblings responded to the urgency of the time, ranging from joining a conservative religious cult to participating in the Communist-led movement to overthrow a murderous regime. This is full-blooded history on a personal scale, one that may not have been written by the victors but impresses us with the depth of commitment to meaningful change and is ultimately a testament to the enduring qualities of the human spirit.
Copyright Luis H. Francia 2013