Immersion and reticence
Like a “method actor,” Eric Gamalinda says he loves immersing himself in his characters, keeping their personas alive inside him while he charts their lives and identities in his novels.
While writing “My Sad Republic,” a novel set in Negros, chronicling the Filipino struggle for independence from Spain and the interloper America, Eric told the audience at a recent Manila appearance that he wanted to write it by hand—as his main character, Dionisio Magbuelo, would have. “I began writing it with a pen,” he confessed, “but I found it too hard, so I ended up writing the novel by hand with a ballpen.”
People who write for a living know how “writing tools” can affect not just the speed with which one writes, but even the thought process that produces the writing. For instance, I find that I can no longer write efficiently on a manual typewriter, since crossing out words with “xxxxs” interrupts the flow of my thoughts and breaks up the sequence of sentences.
As for Eric’s (disclosure: he is a friend from college days) revelations, the first question that comes to mind is: How long did it take him to write his 300-page or so novel? And as a grade schooler once asked me when I gave a talk during career day: “Don’t your hands get tired?”
Well, whatever the answers, Eric’s method apparently worked. “My Sad Republic” won the Philippine Centennial Literary Prize in 1998, competing against and besting the cream of Filipino fictionists with a novel that combines historical fact and fantastical fiction, leading some critics to compare him with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende.
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In town the other week for the launching of his latest novel “The Descartes Highlands,” Eric failed to disclose what method of immersion he employed in writing this latest work.
Still, he must indeed have immersed himself fully in his characters since it took him all of 10 years, in fits and starts, with swings in character development and even novel structure, to finish the novel. A version, written in sequence with each of the main characters telling his story, was short-listed in 2009 for the Asian Literary Prize (formerly Man Asian Literary Prize), an annual award recognizing the previous year’s best novels written by an Asian writer in English or translated into English.
But after working with an editor for his publisher, Akashic Books, Eric says he decided on a new format, letting each character’s story emerge as it intercuts with those of the others.
Telling the story of three men: two brothers and their father, “The Descartes Highlands” is a novel of yearning, needing, discovery and reticence. It chronicles each brother’s search for their American father, who had sold them for adoption to foreigners—a single woman who runs an abortion clinic in New York and a French couple who work on documentaries and edit archival films—and the father’s experiences just before and at the height of martial law in the Philippines.
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In a way, “The Descartes Highlands” could be read like a detective story, as the brothers hunt down clues and follow leads in New York, in Manila and in a coastal Philippine town called San Crisostomo in search of their father’s identity and of their own.
But each of them—Jordan in New York, Mathieu who grew up in Southern France but works as a documentary filmmaker in Asia—is unaware of the other. And when their paths seem near to crossing, they choose to communicate through other people: Janya, Mathieu’s Thai girlfriend who undertakes the hunt, and Jordan’s Japanese “girlfriend” Yuki who points him to begin the search on the Internet.
As detective stories go, it’s frustrating and opaque. While the genre follows a certain logic and builds up the “evidence” towards the revelatory climax, “The Descartes Highlands” dives deep down into the memory, feelings, fears and fetishes of Jordan, Mathieu and Andrew Brezsky, their father.
At the novel’s opening, Jordan tells the reader about a “game” he and his mother played. Each time he had questions about life and himself, he was told to post a letter to Mr. Brezsky, who lived in the moon, in the Descartes Highlands to be exact, the area where Apollo 16 landed.
So in a way, Jordan is writing to himself, sending off missives to thin air, framing his thoughts and free-floating anxieties. So does Mathieu in his obsessive viewing and re-viewing of the footage his parents shot in San Crisostomo, ever on the lookout for clues and hidden messages.
But we never do know what brought Brezsky to Manila, why he finds himself in detention, and what his intentions were to “make it up” to his sons.
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One reads “The Descartes Highlands” instead not for answers or the settling of doubts, but for moments of insight into the human condition, in language at times breathtaking in its clarity, harsh in its honesty, and even painful in its depiction of reality.
Filipinos, for instance, might be disappointed in the way Manila and even San Crisostomo is depicted: the world’s capital of squalor and sleaze, where everyone is out to exploit everyone else, where secrets are kept and confidences violated.
At some point in his conversation with readers during the Philippine Literary Festival, Eric spoke of being asked, each time he submitted a work for publication (he is a poet, short story writer and filmmaker in addition to being a novelist) if he didn’t want to somehow make his books more universal in their appeal, to make them more sellable in the “market.” One member of the audience even asked Eric if he wanted to adapt his novel into a computer game.
I was taken aback by the audacity of the suggestion. How does one play a game, after all, in which the conclusion is entirely in one’s imagination and daring?
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