THE eminent writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, wrote the following of her fellow writer and friend: “Abe Cruz attracted a host, larger I think than he ever bargained for, of friends of all kinds indeed: adventuresses, playboys, pushy parvenus, princes and princesses of mind and spirit, magnates, statesmen, writers and rogues and rakes of all sexes, the high and mighty as well as the dregs. Everywhere he went, Abe was loved . . . But there is one quality that Abe had, the most precious but the most difficult to explain. It was his understanding of the human condition. He was forever seduced by humanity and clearly saw its height and depth, the nobility and endearing heroism as well as the triviality and idiocy.”
Gatbonton on Abe
Their mutual friend Johnny Gatbonton wrote this about Abe in a piece titled “An antihero larger than life” commenting on Nick Joaquin’s book “Abe: A frank sketch of E. Aguilar Cruz.”
“National Artist Nick Joaquin’s last book celebrates the life and times of one of his most gifted contemporaries: the writer, painter and bon vivant Emilio Aguilar Cruz. ‘Abe’—as he was known to friend and foe alike—might have been an antihero in one of Joaquin’s own fiction.
“For he was larger than life: cynical, romantic, intellectual, sensual, earthy, epicurean, he was [as his life-long barkada, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, noted]‘forever seduced by humanity and clearly saw its height and depth—the nobility and endearing heroism as well as the triviality and idiocy. Abe grudgingly admired virtue in high and low places, but was amused by vice in its many forms.’
“Growing up during the formative period of the Philippine modern history–his family had migrated to Manila from the Central Luzon province of Pampanga during the frenetic period of peace between the world wars–he plunged exuberantly into the primate city’s intellectual life and into its floating world of pleasure, before and after its holocaust in the Pacific War.
“At various times, free-lance writer, gatekeeper at Manila’s mental hospital, journalist and Sunday painter, he became an editor of the country’s largest newspaper-chain, his country’s Francophile Ambassador to Unesco, and then, in active retirement, a professional painter, a respected social critic and promoter of Capampangan cooking, history and culture.
“Nowadays life all too soon often grinds the uniqueness out of people and shapes them to fit technological specifications, so that each new individual is a repetition of another. “Personalities like Emilio Aguilar Cruz have become few and far between. Nick Joaquin’s frank–and loving–sketch of his friend and contemporary is a nostalgic and bitter-sweet account of one such man and of the spacious times that made him possible.”
Abe would have been 100 in June. The National Museum has an exhibition of his paintings, along with those of the artists of the Dimasalang Group. It was he who gave that group, which included SYM, Romulo Galicano, Ibarra de la Rosa, Andres Cristobal Cruz, that name.
I am lucky to be one of the unimportant persons whose lives Abe touched. Perhaps just as he did while he was enrolled in the Escuela de Bellas Artes, where he simply watched the great Fabian de la Rosa paint while not paying much attention to his academic lectures. From just watching he learned –not how to paint—but how to approach the artistic work of painting. In the few occasions that I could watch Abe I saw how to be a kind man, a sharp but sparing intellect and an artist at both the easel and the typewriter.
Abe and my Papa Max
My awareness of Abe’s kindness began when I was a child. Abe and my father, the Cebuano writer and editor Max D. Bas, were friends. Even before Abe became the revered man of letters and art-world mover and shaker of the post-WW II era, Abe and Papa Max were together as workmates and were both doing intelligence work as guerrilla officers undermining the Japanese Military’s Hodobo propaganda office, which had conscripted Filipino writers and editors.
While Abe—from the time he accepted his first job as a journalist in 1938 – was always a prized talent who got top-echelon salaries—my father, good enough to be chief editor of Bisaya magazine for years, was paid a salary that was often short of meeting the household needs two days before the next payday. Abe was invariably the secret provider of the cash to cover the shortage and I was often the bearer of the payment of the debt which I delivered to Abe’s and his Mrs. Fely’s home in Santa Cruz, Manila, which was only a short walk away from our own place in Felix Huertas.
This family background is the reason the late outstanding Manila and Asian regional journalist, Larry J. Cruz, and I were bosom friends very early on in our lives. I was even the one who took care of Larry’s enrolment at FEU when he moved there from San Beda. And apart from the intertwining of our journalistic careers, Larry and I shared so many happy and sad times.
When I was working in Hong Kong as an editor (with Johnny Gatbonton, Arnold Moss, Noli Galang, Bert Gallardo and the multi-racial teams of writers and editors under Adrian Zecha) and later with Amitabha Chowdhury and Alan Chalkley (under the flag of the Press Foundation of Asia, Depthnews and Media Magazine), I never failed to look up Abe when I came home to Manila twice or thrice a year. On these occasions, I would be with Abe for a whole morning or afternoon imbibing knowledge and wisdom from one of our country’s greatest intellectuals.
Abe and Summa Contra Gentiles
It did not change our friendship (or mine with Larry) that at a certain point in my life I decided to take my being a Roman Catholic seriously.
A few friends who know both my deep commitment to my Faith and Abe’s and Larry’s agnosticism, have asked me how my closeness to them could continue happily. My answer has always been a notion that I got from being an admirer since my college days of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Jacques and his wife Raissa first lived fiercely as Protestants. Jacques converted and became one of the greatest Catholic thinkers and philosophers, an exponent of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Christian Philosophy.
A book that I found at Jess Po’s P&P Bookshop on Azcarraga, now Recto—and still have and treasure — is Maritain’s “Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry.” It helps one understand the creative process—and appreciate the creativity of artists as nothing less than a grace, another fruit of God’s munificence. He shares His creative powers with us His human creatures. A page in Maritain’s book is about the artistic excellence of great poets, musicians and painters whose sexual norms and lack of reverence are outrageous. Maritain’s position is that the Lord, in His unbounded Mercy, has a special way of dealing with these souls.
Nick Joaquin’s “Abe: A frank sketch of E. Aguilar Cruz” tells of when the celebrated short story writer, Greg Brillantes, a serious Roman Catholic, had a pleasant encounter with Abe at P&P. Abe told him he was looking for a copy of Aquinas’ “Summa Contra Gentiles.” “He found the Summa, and visibly pleased, went on his way to Calle Florentino Torres and his editorial office.”
One of my mornings with Abe was when the Metrocom attempted to raid a female students’ dorm at the University of the Philippines. This was way before the First Quarter Storm. Molotov cocktails were flying from windows of the dorm. The bolder members of the UP community rallied around the dorm to prevent the police from rushing in. Abe and I talked to some of the Metrocom cops, reminding them that the people inside the dorm were kids. Then we joined the massed bodies of aktibistas trying to keep the security forces at bay.
We left the UP and went to have lunch at one of those unlicensed restaurants in the reclamation area where the Philippine Cultural Center complex now is. Our meal of broiled fish was delicious. But, as always with Abe, the greater food that I consumed was for the mind. I never cease thanking God for making me one of His creatures whom Abe rewarded with his conversation.
I wrote today’s Sunday Times Magazine cover story. It’s about Abe as an artist and a major contributor to the development of Philippine art.