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Books, history, and family

As children, growing up in Malate (displaced from war-torn Ermita), my sister and I soon discovered reading for pleasure. She was into Honey Bunch, Nancy Drew, and the Bobbsey Twins, and I was into Hardy Boys.

This later gave way, on my part, to a passion for cowboy and detective stories (in the latter genre the killer was always the one “least likely” to commit the crime).

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I wrote fan letters to many Western writers, among them Louis L’Amour, Luke Short, Elmore Leonard, and Jack Schaefer, author of “Shane.”

In his reply, L’Amour praised my English and, to my pleasant surprise, asked if I was related to Leon Ma. Guerrero, whose works on Philippine plants he was familiar with. (The first Leon Ma. Guerrero, Father of Philippine Botany, was a great-grandfather; he was the brother of Lorenzo Guerrero, mentor of Luna and Hidalgo.)

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As for Leonard (who later became a popular crime writer), he recalled that he had served in the Philippines during World War II and that Manila was “pretty well torn up” in February 1945, when American warplanes leveled the districts south of the Pasig River and Japanese troops went on a rampage of destruction.

I devoured the whodunit thrillers in the collection of aunt Josefina Celis de Guerrero (which was how she signed her books), widow of uncle Efrain Ma. Guerrero, and uncle Antonio Zacarias, widower of aunt Evangelina Guerrero, the poetess, eldest sister of my father Dr. Tristan Ma. Guerrero — missing since the Battle for Manila in 1945.

For some reason, I was not into Erle Stanley Gardner and his lawyer hero Perry Mason. And Mickey Spillane was considered too racy for a sheltered teenager.

You can still see some Agatha Christie titles in Manila’s bookstores, but poor Ellery Queen has been forgotten. This makes me sad, because it was Ellery Queen (actually the pseudonym of two cousins) who published my first short story, retitled “The Traitor,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in New York way back in 1961.

It was all about a noble Huk commander who was betrayed by one of his men in the “Kaikulan Mountain.” Frankly I don’t know where I got that name; and I was admonished by aunt Lily Guerrero Santillan: “Debias de mencionar a Mt. Arayat porque alli estan los Huks” (you should have mentioned Mt. Arayat because that is where the Huks are).

Wow, I was sent a check for $100 for that story, and I exchanged it for pesos with uncle Dr. Renato Ma. Guerrero (I think the exchange rate was 2-1 then). Yet another uncle, Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, was so proud of my little feat that he reported it to Rosalinda Orosa, who dutifully wrote about it in her column in the Manila Chronicle.

Eventually, in reading, I graduated to heavier stuff, the usual Hemingway and Faulkner, the all-time favorites Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov (his short stories resonate within me more than his plays); Flaubert (read “Madame Bovary” in the original, although I am not fluent in the language), Balzac, Proust, Mann, Camus, and so on down the line.

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Among English novelists, Joseph Conrad is tops on my list. On the national scene, the favorites are Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, aunt Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, and Lazaro Francisco, the Tagalog novelist and National Artist who should be read in the original and not in English translation.

Another outstanding writer is Renato Madrid of Cebu, author of a collection of stories, “Southern Harvest,” and two terrific novels: “Devil Wings” and the startlingly titled “Mass for the Death of an Enemy.” He is none other than Msgr. Rudy Villanueva, a trained composer and conductor, among other accomplishments.

One, of course, should not be limited to fiction, however great. I also have a passion for history (Philippine, Asian, and European), and biography, especially the lives of famous artists and writers, and infamous dictators like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Marcos (look up “Waltzing with a Dictator” by Raymond Bonner).

And there’s poetry, the queen of the literary arts. In recent years, I have been reading and rereading the best poems by the best poets. The favorite is William Butler Yeats (“I have spread my dreams under your feet/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”). And there are the 154 sonnets of Shakespeare, to be read or reread one by one.

Literature — and all the other arts — has made me a better person, or so I’d like to believe. These are “essential services,” not to be relegated to second priority by some Philistine regime. As the writer Katherine Anne Porter declared in 1940, with Europe in flames, the arts “represent the substance of faith and the only reality.”

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Amadís Ma. Guerrero, 79, is an author, short story writer, and freelance journalist who has been contributing to the Inquirer since 1992.

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TAGS: Amadis Ma. Guerrero, High Blood, History, Reading
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