• Remembering Franz Arcellana (Part 2)


    Now I like to share my experience in the selection of Franz as National Artist (1990). I was then chair of the literary arts committee under a subcommission of the arts headed by Eddie Romero in the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). In the multi-layered process of selection, the nominations for each category in the arts were discussed by the members of the heads and members of the subcommission (together with the arts department heads of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The chosen one is then endorsed to the board of the CCP meeting jointly with the commissioners of the NCCA. The final decision was made in the Palace.

    At our level Franz and NVM turned up with the highest and uncannily the same number of votes. It was a big quandary for us. Both were equally deserving of the award. What followed are now hazy. But in the second balloting to break the tie, Franz won by one vote over NVM.

    I was glad for Franz but I also felt that now we in the U.P. must work hard to have NVM named the next National Artist for Literature to follow Franz. The problem was that the interregnum took several years and when nomination time came, Gemino Abad as director of the U.P. Creative Writing Center and I as former chair of the NCCA literary arts committee jointly signed a letter strongly endorsing NVM. The literary community was overwhelmingly supportive of NVM as National Artist. Not long after he got the award he passed away.

    One time Franz got miffed with me when I included in my essay “Remembered by the Clowns” (about the U.P. Writers Club) a line which read: “The 1940 Literary Apprentice did not come out for reasons known to the editor.” He felt alluded to, and rightly so, for he was the editor. He wrote a letter to the literary editor of the New Collegian Review, quoted this line, and said: “What is this traducing?” He then recalled that at the time there were no worthwhile contributions to the Apprentice. He asked, who would think of putting out an Apprentice with no contributions?

    In our mellowed years, we would meet in writers workshops and seminars and talk about literature and the “canon” (“ah, Elmer’s favorite term, the canon,” he once said) without incident. He would also accede to suggestions that the experimental stories turned out by young writers did not need to have the usual closure. But one time, a story titled “War in the Countryside” upset him because “it is not a story.” Indeed it did not conform to the Aristotlean form of conflict/resolution, but the teaching staff voted it the best story of the workshop by its sheer progression d’ effet. After a while, Franz also agreed about the power of the story.

    All in all, very few writers have created characters that have left distinct impressions on me like those in Franz’s stories: the grief-stricken father in “Mats” and “The Flowers of May” or the writer, impoverished like everyone else during the war, trying to sell his books (classics all) in a sidewalk of downtown Manila and finally deciding to keep the books after all, or the bedraggled middle-aged man listening and empathizing with the tale of the tragedy of a young girl’s family during the war (“The Yellow Shawl”). Every story of Franz is intricately woven, deriving its lyrical and narrative power largely from the repetition of words or phrases with variations – which is what rhythm and cadence is all about. Lyrical prose is what he has achieved not only in his tales but in his essays. Franz was really a poet writing in prose.

    Email the author at eaordonez2000@yahoo.com


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