EMMANUEL was a young man from the windy island of K in the Bicol region, an island apparently adrift in the Pacific Ocean. After graduating from high school, where he edited the student organ called The Mighty Pen, he applied for a journalism scholarship at the University of Santo Tomas. He was accepted.
In the whirlwind of this world, the young Emmanuel plunged, discovering the city as if it were another world. But soon he grew tired of school.
Additionally, the scholarship only paid for tuition, miscellaneous fees, and books, and he still had to apply for a stipend from his mother. His father had died when Emmanuel was five, swept away by the typhoon on his way home, and his mother, a public school teacher, had raised him alone. Even though she only had one child to raise, she still felt that every payday her pockets were holes in which her salary fell.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera is an edifying story against the erasure of memory operated by dictatorships. PHOTO OF FABER AND FABER
Emmanuel knew this, so he dropped out of school and looked for work. One day he walked into the office of the Evening Express, the largest newspaper in the country, and asked to see the editor.
Mr. Nilo Perez was short, dark and chubby. When he looked up from the manuscripts on his desk, he reminded Emmanuel of a rat.
He snorted between his words. Emmanuel showed her an essay he had written in school, which got an A from his teacher. Flanked by photos of the dictator and his wife, the editor read the essay, his fingers flying over the page, then he looked at Emmanuel with delighted eyes: “I like it! You know how to write. You started with a quote. ended with a.”
Emmanuel fidgeted in his seat and smiled his public relations smile, the one he had practiced every day in front of the mirror: a wide smile that fully showed his white teeth, a meaningless smile. He was hired and the next day he began to prepare “reflections” for the Express. “What makes the Filipino vibrate? was balanced the following day with an essay on “A Legacy of Big Egos”.
After that, letters began pouring into the Express in praise of this prodigy. Emmanuel was promoted to columnist and deputy editor. Thus, he could buy long-sleeved shirts no longer in the bazaars of Quiapo but in the shops of Escolta, and send money every month to his mother.
One day, the Minister of Information, Mr. Balbacua, died. Minister Balbacua had a sexual appetite matched only by his incredible diction. On national television he was quoted: “We should have a national campaign against anthrax and all forms of pornography.” He pronounced coal as “smooth”.
His ghostwriters, a group of kiddos from Manila’s exclusive colleges, had a blast tracking down polysyllables for the Boss. The asterisks became “Asterix”, the labyrinthine was lost, and by the time he reached “anthropomorphism” (delivered before a group of worldly matrons who raised tiger orchids as a hobby and whose avowed purpose was to ” exterminate all the aphids”), the ministry of language had disappeared.
But his ghostwriters were children of social registry themselves and therefore could not be fired.
So he just vented all his frustrations about his sex life. His last child was Ylang-Ylang, the main star of a movie called “Nympha”. Ylang-Ylang had long black hair that flowed down her body like a caress, and she ruled the cinemas with her voice. Bass and guttural, a perfect voice for purring, teasing and playing…
Furious was the way the dictator acted when he learned of the death of his information minister. The minister was in the city of Tagaytay, inside the villa he owned, which had an unforgettable view of the Taal volcano, a volcano in a lake in a volcano in a lake. “Imagine,” the president fumed, “dying having sex?”
“At least he died happy,” said the jokers, buying up their tabloids and listening to the double meanings of AM radio commentators.
So the vacancy. Among the shortlisted candidates were Mr. Juan Gabuna, who was the editor of Asia Magazine, the continent’s best; Professor Justiniani Culiculi, who taught at the state university and had a posh accent; and young Emmanuel, who was the dark horse.
Mr Gabuna declined the offer, saying he had just signed another five-year contract with Asia Magazine. Professor Culiculi also said “No, thank you” and stuck to the teaching.
Thus the cloak fell on Emmanuel’s shoulders.
He indulges in it willingly, like a diver plunging into cool, clear depths. He brought dynamism to the office. At least press releases now spell “opportunity” correctly, the header doesn’t have a leaky pen for a logo, and secretaries don’t walk around in their cheap Baclaran slippers anymore. He also wrote speeches filled with fake news.
When the military regime was declared, Emmanuel became an antiperspirant and an anti-deodorant at the same time.
“Ehem,” he said solemnly on national radio and television, which we watched on TV. He only repeated the words of the dictator of the day before, his eyes like those of a statue.
Just then, he produced a list. “Here are the names of the undesirable elements of our society. To protect the interests of the state, they were placed in rehabilitation centers.” Then he read the names of 70,000 people, deep into the night and early in the morning, his voice monotonous. From time to time he would bend over and pull up his socks. And sometimes you could see a dagger of fear in his eyes – or was it just drowsiness? – as his voice buzzed.
The moment my dad fell asleep on the couch, I turned off the TV. Emmanuel disappeared and turned into a little white dot as my weary compatriots turned off their televisions one by one and prepared for a long night of the soul.