I first read Lualhati Bautista in high school. They gave us a list of books and we had to read one book from the list. I chose Dekada ’70, since that was the title I was familiar with: I’ve seen the film, or, at least, a part of it. I got myself a copy of Dekada ’70 and I started reading. It didn’t take me long.
By the end of the year, I had read all three of the Bautista novels in that list: Dekada, Gapo, and Bata, Bata, Pa’no Ka Ginawa? To this day, I still consider those three to be the canon of Lualhati Bautista’s work; her essential trilogy of contribution to Filipino literature. You can’t just read one without reading the other two. They’re not related by plot, but collectively they paint a picture of Philippine society that is harsh, corrupt, and yet still humane. Bautista’s trilogy shows us that the Philippines, although saddled with a rotten government that actively works against its people, is filled with an entire nation of thinking, feeling, emphatic people.
Desaparesidos, her newest novel written after twenty or so years, is much like this trilogy. It can be said that Desaparesidos is a companion piece to Dekada ’70 because of the similar setting, and indeed they’re like two sides of the same coin. Dekada ’70 was about the struggle of a middle class family in Manila trying to survive Martial law, while Desaparesidos was about the struggle of former rebels and political detainees in a post-Marcos environment. The two novels sort of present the two sides of Philippine society: middle class urban Manila, and the rural barangays of the rest of the country.
The two books also present two different time periods. Dekada has readers follow the characters as they try to survive the events of an entire decade. In Desaparesidos, the characters have already survived Martial Law. The struggle is no longer in trying to live during those tough times, but rather, in trying to cope after Martial Law. The main characters, Anna and Roy, both try their best to live in the post-Marcos Philippines. The era of armed struggle is over for them, but they still wake up at night with visions of soldiers.
In that regard, Desaparesidos is much more relevant than Dekada ’70 is to the modern reader. The main message of the books is that twenty, thirty years on, the shadows of Martial Law still linger on in our society. Like wounds that never really healed, people can still feel the hurt, and the things they fought for before are still worth fighting for today. We’re living in a post-Marcos society but we still have the same problems. They’ve evolved, changed their appearances, but they’re still the same problems.
Bienvenido Lumbera wrote a great introduction for Desaparesidos, and he talked about how the term desaparesidos applied in the work. Anna’s baby, Malaya, was ostensibly the desaparesido being described in the title, but eventually, the term itself crosses the literal and goes to the metaphorical. Lorena laments about how her parents were never really there for her, how they were still stuck in the past and refused to live. Martial Law birthed an entire generation of desaparesidos: some of them disappeared into the ground, while the rest were left behind by time and never really recovered.
Bautista shows us her style in this book. Reading Bautista is like sitting down with her and sharing a few beers. It’s not a book; it’s the author telling a story while you wait for sisig at your local carinderia. The way she sets her tone is perfect, and the way she shifts it whenever she wants to punctuate something as serious makes you notice. Bautista also has a penchant for repeating passages and themes as a way of showing different points of view and connecting certain things. Anna and Roy are connected by the shared pain they’ve had in losing their loved ones. Lorena and Eman share the same circumstances of being the children of former rebels. Anna and Roy’s experiences in detention are repeated to remind us that they never forgot. Karla’s memory of that fateful night with Anna’s baby is revisited twice to show us the truth behind the story. And so on. Sometimes it does get lazy, but Bautista makes it work most of the time.
Desaparesidos is reconciliation. It talks to an entirely new generation about an era they never knew. Dekada ’70 was a catharsis, a proud voice talking about the things most people knew but didn’t want to talk about. Desaparesidos is not just what happened, but what happened after. I think the saddest thing about these two novels is that until now, almost 30 years since EDSA, they’re still relevant. We still can’t look back at these as reminders of a bygone age. The problems they faced back in 1975 are still relevant in 2015, and that’s just sad.
Next week I’ll be reading Memories of my Melancholy Whores. Or maybe not.