NewsfeaturesSECRETS OF THE EIGHTEEN MANSIONS

SECRETS OF THE EIGHTEEN MANSIONS

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By Elmer A. Ordonez
The Other View
Manila Times
29 January 2011

This is the title of a book written by Mario Miclat, one of the underground (UG) group who were sent to China before martial law; he returned with his family soon after EDSA in 1986, and rejoined the mainstream by teaching in UP Diliman where he is now dean of the Asian Studies Center.

The intriguing title recalls a Chinese classical novel, Dream of the Red Chamber (the last word also translated as Mansion), but no comparison is intended here. Suffice it to say that both are set in China, two centuries apart. The author of Secrets was a young expatriate who spent 15 years, together with his wife, Alma, and two children, in the exclusive compound for political foreign guests—where the secrets are not really about life in the compound but about the Philippine revolutionary movement and some of its leaders, particularly during the late 60s and early 70s.

Published by Anvil as a novel, Secrets was long-listed in the MAN 2008 literary contest for fiction. The top prize went to Miguel’s Syjuico’s Ilustrado, winning over Jose Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister, also published by Anvil. I know Anvil is open to memoirs from writers in the ideological spectrum; Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions fits into The God That Failed type about disillusioned communists. Such books were available at the USIS (United States Information Service) library in Escolta after World War II—frequented by students deprived of the good libraries (UP and National) destroyed during the battle for Manila.

While young aspiring writers read about the confessions of intellectuals in The God That Failed—mostly literary people drawn to the anti-fascist movement during the 30s including Richard Wright, Arthur Koestler and Stephen Spender—they became curious and read the Marxist classics that surfaced after the War. The results were of course mixed. Some without reading the original texts became Cold Warriors/anti-communists; some suspended their judgment and became moderates or wishy-washy liberals, and others, after more study, decided to make a class stand on the side of the oppressed masses—a step away from the Party.

Secrets is an engaging narrative using the epistolary/diary form but the entry dates, the author says, signify when the parts were written—in notes filed over the years, retrieved and collated long after his moment of truth, the realization that he had “lived a lie” all those years in the movement. The unwary reader may be fascinated by the narrator’s experience in the early years of radical activism, life in the compound and the commune during the Cultural Revolution, and work in Radio Peking. However, one who lived through the period, starting with the 60s toward the First Quarter Storm and martial law, may have been not just an observer or witness but a participant in the events narrated.

Inevitably there are reactions to Secrets for real characters are given fictitious, disguised and actual names—as in a roman a clef. And what is purported to be fiction are actual events and situations, embellished or masked by poetic license.

An early reaction by one Gary Vicente in the website: https://reviewsremarks.wordpress.com/ calls Secrets as “Mario Miclat’s Disinformation and Snitch Piece.” Vicente, a pseudonym, could have been part of the UG group in China, for he seems to know whereof he speaks.

Another reaction is by a columnist in PDI (“Secrets of the Communist Party”) 12/2/10—who uses Miclat’s book to denigrate the movement of which he was once a part. This was countered by Leo Ramirez in http://wellgrubbed.blogspot.com/ with a piece “Houston, we have a problem: Roberto Tiglao’s Sisyphean task?”—tracing the columnist’s history as activist to “principal apologist for a recent ruling regime notorious for rampant political assassinations and some say the most extensive fleecing of the public till in Philippine history.”

I must say I have mixed feelings reviewing Secrets since I have known the author as colleague in UP, his gracious wife Alma, and two gifted artist daughters, the late Maningning and Banawe, to whom Mario writes a letter “by way of a prologue” and closes the book with another letter to her.

The radical movement covered by Secrets was still young and mistakes were made. I suppose the “secrets” had to be told as personal demons to be exorcised.

Anvil’s Karina Bolasco (when asked why the preponderance of “memoirs” written by “rejectionists” in their booklist), said the “reaffirmists” (RAs) should submit their own version of the history of the movement.

For now the RAs in struggle write comments in blogs to counter the “histories” and “memoirs” of the disaffected ones. The war is ongoing but there are “hopeful” signs of fruitful peace talks to be held in Oslo. When it is all over, then perhaps the full story can be told.

Edward Said, Palestinian leader/literary critic, was said to be annoyed with The God That Failed: “Why as an intellectual did you believe in a god anyway. And besides, who gave you the right to imagine that your early disbelief and later disenchantment were so important.”

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