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Book review

‘Manuel Arguilla Reader’: Essential reading


SOME stories are worth a second look.

I was around 17 when I first read “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” by Manuel Arguilla. Unfortunately, the nuances and subtleties of the author’s prose were lost on me. My teenage reaction to the well-crafted story could be likened to someone who has only been eating instant noodles all her life suddenly being asked to weigh in on squid ink ramen. Now, almost 27 years later, I finally get Arguilla’s genius.

My recent encounter with “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” is through The Essential Manuel Arguilla Reader (Anvil Publishing; 232 pages; 2019). Naturally, since it’s one of Arguilla’s most well-known tales, it’s part of the anthology.

“How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” unfolds through the eyes of a boy named Baldo, who comes from a family of farmers. His stoic father tells him to fetch his older brother Leon, who is bringing home his new bride Maria to the family home in Nagrebcan, a barrio in Bauang, La Union. Since the family has never met Maria prior to her marriage to Leon, the family is naturally apprehensive about how someone born and raised in the city would fare in a quiet farming community. Perhaps, in a bid to make sure that Maria knew what she was getting into, Baldo’s father makes sure that she gets an authentic welcome. For starters, he doesn’t send a calesa to fetch them when they arrive in Nagrebcan, because nothing says “You’re not in the city anymore” like getting on a cart drawn by a carabao named Labang. Baldo’s father also instructs him to take the long way home through the fields. Thankfully, Maria does not bolt and run back to the city.

That said, “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” is a deceptively simple story. As a teenage reader, I failed to realize that it also tackles the class divide that persists in the country to this day. So many people living in rural or farming communities are needlessly apologetic to their visitors from the city. “Ipagpaumanhin n’yo. Simple lang ang pamumuhay namin (Pardon us. We live simply),” so goes their spiel. Arguilla fleshes out this elephant in the room without calling it by name. Instead, Baldo’s father asks him, “Was she afraid of Labang?”

In any case, there’s definitely nothing to be sorry for when it comes to life in the Philippine countryside. Arguilla’s words paint very vivid pictures of pastoral bliss. In “Midsummer” —about a young man and woman falling in love at first sight when they meet by chance at the village well — Arguilla describes the surroundings: “There was not a house in sight. Along the left side of the road ran the deep, dry gorge of a stream, the banks sparsely covered by sun-burned cogon grass. In places, the rocky, waterless bed showed aridly. Farther, beyond the shimmer of quivering heat waves rose ancient hills not less blue than the cloud-palisaded sky. On the right stretched a land waste of low rolling dunes. Scattered clumps of hardy ledda relieved the otherwise barren monotony of the landscape. Far away he could discern a thin indigo line that was the sea.”

Arguilla sure made the countryside sound Instagram-worthy. But just because he could do that, that doesn’t mean that was all he did. In his introduction to The Essential Manuel Arguilla Reader, author Jose Y. Dalisay Jr. notes “it’s tempting to think of Arguilla falling into mannerism, a romantic formula after Amorsolo’s or Botong’s idealized physiques.” However, Dalisay points out that Arguilla “quickly disabuses us of our idyllic fantasies, because the same terrain in which so much beauty resides, in both the landscape and the bodies of its fecund youth, is shown to be awash with blood and riven by violence.”

The violence that resides in the midst of bucolic beauty is evident in stories like “Ato,” where the quintessential alpha male titular character goes hunting and comes home to the news that his pregnant wife had been “taken by the river.” Ato — described as “a giant of a man” — goes berserk with grief.

Ato’s plight, though, is still more bearable than what transpires in “Morning in Nagrebcan.” This story sets us up with a charming opening scene: “It was sunrise at Nagrebcan. The fine, bluish mist, low over the tobacco fields, was lifting and thinning moment by moment. A ragged strip of mist, pulled away by the morning breeze, had caught on the clumps of bamboo along the banks of the stream that flowed to one side of the barrio.” Then we’re introduced to two boys obsessed with their puppies. The story takes a dark turn when the boys’ father gets irked by their bickering over who had the right to play with the black-spotted puppy. Arguilla’s description of the father gives readers an idea of the violent encounter that would ensue: “He was a carpenter. He had come home drunk the night before. He was not a habitual drunkard, but now and then he drank great quantities of basi and came home and beat his wife and children. He would blame them for their hard life and poverty.”

In “Rice,” the lead character, Pablo, is a farmer who has grown weary of being bound to the feudal demands of his landlord. It’s a classic case of the greedy hacienda owner dishing out oppression to the peasants who till the land. It’s a story that is quite timely, in light of the implementation of the Rice Tariffication Law. This is one story that the likes of Sen. Cynthia Villar — and hacienderos who would like to keep farmers in the dark — probably won’t like reading.

Arguilla is equally skilled in dramatizing the doom, gloom and tension in stories that transpire in urban settings. “Caps and Lower Case” — whose protagonist is an embattled proofreader named Alfredo Santos — offers a particularly bitter pill for rank-and-file employees surviving from paycheck to paycheck. Meanwhile, “Mr. Alisangco” and “The Man, the Maid, and the Wife” tackle brewing domestic discord.

The 25 stories in The Essential Manuel Arguilla Reader showcase Arguilla’s mastery of the English language and his versatility as a writer. Arguilla, though, was just getting started.

Alas, the author died young. In August 1944, he and other guerilla leaders were reportedly beheaded by Japanese soldiers at the Manila Chinese Cemetery. Dalisay writes: “History tells us that thirty-three can be a good time to die, if you’ve more or less accomplished your mission, as did Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great, Eva Peron and, just short by a few months, Bruce Lee. Arguably, Arguilla had much more to write, much more to achieve, when his life was abruptly cut short by the war.”

No matter. The body of work that Arguilla left behind is enough for several lifetimes, be it in the countryside or in the city. Great writing transcends locations, time and, yes, even an untimely death.

The Essential Manuel Arguilla Reader costs P250 and is available in leading bookstores.

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Today’s Front Page February 24, 2020

Today’s Front Page February 24, 2020