Nick Joaquin had the look of a dissolute emperor and the discipline of a monk. He lived, worked, and died in the city of his birth. He loved San Miguel beer, walking around Manila, and attending Mass. He spoke Tagalog, Spanish, and English, plus kanto-boy Tagalog and street Englishes. His style has a term: Joaquinesque. His command of voice, language, and form is absolute. Some of his sentences are like labyrinths that if you pulled a string through, you get this architectonic surety, a marvel. As a writer, I am always falling in love with him again. I study his sentences. Puns lurk in his precision. His favorite is “going for lost”: inside the phrase is Tagalog, nagwawala, meaning both to lose and to go nuts. He likes gerundizing (Tagalog is verb based) and history puns. For Filipinos, Joaquin is sui generis. Almost maddeningly Manileiio, subversively religious, pitch-perfectly bourgeois, preternaturally feminist, historically voracious, Joaquin’s work has a fatality–it simply is.
I read him when I was a child in Leyte. MacArthur had landed on my island in 1944; and since May 1, 1898, when Spain’s ships fell to American cannons in Manila Bay, the Philippines–condemned on that May Day to English–has made art in English from seeds of violence.
For the Philippines, an archipelago geographically fragmented, linguistically fissured, occupied by not one but two invaders heralding a fierce but frayed republic dominated by the oligarchic spoils of our split, postcolonial selves–in a land tectonically and climatically doomed to dissolution–for the Philippines, perhaps it is only through its fictions that it can conceive itself a unity.
These fictions are in multiple tongues. Some say the country is distinct because it was created by a novel—José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. Joaquin is tonally different from Rizal not only because he wrote in English, Rizal in Spanish, and Rizal wrote before war, while Joaquin, like Aeneas carrying Anchises, bore war’s effects. But Joaquin is equally oracular, with that slippery, ironic humor of the triple-tongued (or double-naveled) who writes in a conscious, resistant space between translation.
Rereading Joaquin, I feel ghosts, all of them women. Time-traveling Natalia in “Guardia de Honor,” always about to lead the La Naval procession, the celebration of Manila that Joaquin loved. Child-heiress Guia in “Melkizedek,” who undergoes metamorphoses: an array of freedom-hungry desires none of which guides her to liberation. The Grandmother in “Cándido’s Apocalypse,” soother of psychosis. Above all, those twin indelible figures, desperada and despot—Agueda of “May Day Eve” and my favorite, Lupeng of “The Summer Solstice.” That searing moment in “The Summer Solstice”—when the husband Don Paeng “clawed his way across the floor, like a great agonized lizard… lifted his dripping face and touched his bruised lips to [Lupeng’s] toes and grabbed the white foot and kissed it”—is stamped like a fever in my brain. I realize I was too young when I read that. And the scene in “May Day Eve” of Agueda staring at the mirror at her prophesied demon is an abiding portrait, since the Philippines still grants no divorce. I may not be the only Filipino for whom both empowered Lupeng and tragic Agueda embody two sides of one electrifying, inescapable Mother.
It is especially through his women that Joaquin diagnoses the spiritual horror of impassioned but truncated lives—his existential theme. His cure lies in the same women: they are daemons of the life-spirit—babaylan and Tadtarin and witches and supernatural powers that run through Joaquin’s work. Joaquin is prescient and contemporary because he excavates what’s ancient—women are vessels of transformative godhood: versions of Mary, animist, earthly.
The 1899-1904 Filipino-American war is a blind spot–we do not remember it. A brave, anti-imperialist war is the birth right of the Philippines: the nation was founded on revolt against imperial America in the aftermath of the so-called Spanish-American War of 1898, when the United States decided to occupy its ally against Spain rather than liberate it. The Philippines commemorates its 1896 war against Spain when it celebrates its revolutionary history; the Filipino-American war that succeeded the Spanish war is, oddly, forgotten. Joaquin once famously noted that he wrote to “bring in the grand fathers, to manifest roots.” Some fault Joaquin for Hispano centrism: but his gaze toward Spain is not nostalgic; it is a tool in his arsenal–a weapon in his critique of empire. That failed revolution, the wound of the American war, is the invisible scar in Joaquin’s stories.
His unapologetic, Calibanic choice of English is both rebuke to the occupier and revenge upon it.
Joaquin “queers” history. His slant is invariably transgressive, questioning the norm—the revolutionary is catatonic, enslaved women are bosses, the virile are a mess, a GI, an ally, witnesses the destruction he made as if it were only illusion. Joaquin reads his country like the visionary madman in “Cándido’s Apocalypse”: people walk about exposing their truths, naked. But they do not know their own truths. Anachronism, psychosis, time traveling, fantasy, mirrors, ghosts: these are structures with which Joaquin sets the view awry in order to see it more right.
Joaquin wanted to be a priest. Instead, he wrote nonstop for seven decades. His journalism was as psychologically sharp as his fiction, his poetry as prized as his histories. He wrote his miraculous prose through terrible times with his integrity intact: a difficult feat. He had stature like no other. He lived like a hermit. Chosen National Artist of the Philippines by Ferdinand Marcos in 1976, Joaquin almost refused. In a jujitsu move, he accepted on one condition–that the dictator free the imprisoned poet Jose F. Lacaba. Thus Lacaba went home. Joaquin’s gesture was long unknown. This tact occurs in Joaquin’s stories: it’s his characters’ ability to live that matters. He is interested in vitality. Born of war and occupation, like his country, he sat every day in a monkish room with only books, a desk, and a manual typewriter, and he wrote. History is only precursor; the past is a ruin his prose survives. Writing is his triumph.
Reading him is ours.
From The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic by Nick Joaquin, to be published on April 18th by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Foreword copyright © 2017 by Gina Apostol.
Gina Apostol won the Philippine National Book Award for her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. Her third novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize and won the PEN/Open Book Award. She lives in New York City and western Massachusetts.