Vibora, as any student of Philippine history knows, was the nom de guerre of General Artemio Ricarte, the first chief of staff of the Philippine Army formed by the Aguinaldo revolutionary government after the Tejeros assembly in 1897.
Ricarte when captured during the Philippine-American war refused to take the oath of allegiance to the US. He was exiled to Guam together with Apolinario Mabini. On their repatriation Ricarte again refused to take the oath with Mabini and was put on a ship for Hongkong.
He slipped back into the country and tried to foment a renewed rebellion against American occupation. He was arrested and put in prison at Bilibid for six years (1904-1910)—after which he managed to seek political asylum in Japan where he spent about 30 years until his return in 1941 to the Philippines together with the Japanese invasion force. He fled to the Cordillera when the American forces returned to retake the islands. Starving and hunted by guerrillas in the mountain fastnesses, he died of illness. He was in his late 70s.
National Artist Frankie Sionil Jose wrote Vibora, a historical novel based on the life of Ricarte—a project that had preoccupied the author for years. When he showed me a copy he made a dismissive gesture with a remark that sounded like he was through with this “collaborator.”
The issue of collaboration—which also goes by the term “cooptation” —is indeed the burden of the novel. It is an issue which, in the words of Jose, “riles” many Filipinos particularly those who experienced the brutal Japanese occupation. But one can go back in time to note instances of cooptation and collaboration during the colonial period—defining the relations between the colonizer and the colonized, the privileged (like the principalia) or the less or underprivileged of the indios.
Mabini and Ricarte who were true to the revolution saw for themselves how ilustrado members of the Malolos Congress commuted by train from Manila to Malolos and back on the same day or weekend and consorted with the Americans who needed their services in aspects of early city administration like sanitation and the judiciary. When hostilities broke out between Filipino troops and American soldiers many ilustrados simply crossed over to the American lines. They would form the Federalista Party with statehood as their goal.
During the Pacific War, Ricarte returned to the Philippines in the uniform of a shogun, complete with boots and samurai sword, and was said to be linked with the Makapili, the dreaded militia as notorious as the Japanese in committing atrocities. Commonwealth officials collaborated with the Japanese in running the bureaucracy on the pretext that they were a buffer to harsh Japanese rule. After the war these collaborators, charged and sentenced, were given amnesty by their “untainted” colleagues in elite politics. A case of noblesse oblige.
The author maintains his aesthetic distance from this sensitive material through the use of what Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad would call “rendered and reported speech” —the use of multiple narrators (including several historians, a treasure hunter, a Japanese researcher, Ricarte’s wife and a grandson, and Ricarte himself) cited by the principal narrator, Ben Singko, a novelist (sounding sometimes like Jose’s doppelganger) encountered in an earlier work. This emphasis on “multivocality” enables the telling of the saga of Ricarte from the time of the revolution, years in prison, exile in Yokohama, to his return and last days in the Cordillera in 1945.
The aging and ailing narrator Ben wants a “definite answer to this issue which riles many Filipinos to this day” and stands before the statue of Ricarte in his hometown of Batac. Ben taunts him by calling him a “traitor.” At this point, Ricarte suddenly comes alive and admonishes the novelist:
“And you did not betray your people by siding with the Americans? Look at what they have done to you, to all of you who now look at me with condescension, who demean me. They did not kill you with the sword—they did it with their schools, their sweet admonitions, their goods. It is the same—they stole your soul!”
Then Ricarte swings his sword “gleaming for an instant” before it cuts across Ben’s face. A clever dream device, aided by suspended disbelief. Ben actually loses consciousness—a blackout said to be common to the elderly because of the broiling heat, tensions, or something he ate.
There are two stories here: that of Vibora and that of Singkol. Singkol has his own daemons to wrestle with: a diminishing health, the memory of a loved one tortured and killed in Fort Santiago, the anxiety for a daughter who has joined the underground, and what bugs one who believes in a purposeful existence: “What have I really done with this life?” His life quest is ranged against that of Vibora who perished unlamented and unsung for all the years of patriotic dedication to Filipinas. Frankie thinks of this steadfastness or recalcitrance as a stubborn trait of the Ilocano. Sheer cussedness? I suggested, thinking of my Ilocano father. He nodded.
Ultimately the novel is a sustained meditation on the revolution, patriotism, loyalty and betrayal, and on the narrator’s self-reflexive quest for meaning, truth, justice, and moral certainty. A short but profound novel.