by Hazel Ann Cesa
First published in 2009 and a recipient of the Philippine National Book Award, Gina Apostol’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is at once an exploration of the Philippines’ revolutionary past, an evaluation of the challenges of translation and interpretation throughout the process of meaning-making, and an inquiry into the role of the intellectual1 in unveiling the politics of historical truth by countering the “authoritarian version of truth” with an “egalitarian version of truth.”2 In this story about a story, it is clear from the get-go that the author writes for the Filipino readers first, everyone else second. Gina Apostol masterfully entangles and unravels the skein of Philippine colonial history, presenting its messiness in all of its complexity.
Bold, utterly chaotic, and at times hilarious, Apostol’s novel takes the form of a fictionalized memoir by a certain Raymundo Mata, a night-blind bookworm, freedom fighter, and a fan of Jose Rizal. Providing snippets of his childhood and accounts of his participation in the revolution, Raymundo Mata’s memoir consists of forty-six diary entries, which are all muddled by a present-day foreword, footnotes and an afterword from three feuding intellectuals: a pseudonymous translator, an American psychoanalyst critic, and a nationalist editor.
There is a palpable violence and madness to Apostol’s hyper metafiction—that of the Philippine revolution and language. Our translator extraordinaire who goes by the pseudonym Mimi C. Magsalin (magsalin means “to translate” in English), the person responsible for the translation of Raymundo’s diary entries, comments how difficult it was to calmly translate the memoir and declares it “linguistically deranged.” For even though Raymundo’s first language is a curious variant of Tagalog, his manuscript has scatterings of Spanish, Latin, some pidgin, and other major Philippine languages such as Waray, Cebuano, and Ilocano. Only the last diary entry is completely written in English. The first entry is nothing but gibberish, which Apostol’s fictional erudite scholars can only presume as some kind of Katipunan code, a secret form of communication of the Katipuneros.3
Dr Diwata Drake, an American psychoanalyst critic with Filipino roots from her mother’s side, writes an addendum and describes Mata’s manuscript as something filled with “the misconstructions of the ego and the malapropisms of time” and “classic psychopathologies of the tongue (typical of the Filipino, who has an irritating penchant for puns).” For Diwata Drake, Mata’s diary is also replete with suggestive instances of “frustration, aggressivity, regression—the triad of resistances that mark revolutionary pathology.”
This madness in Raymundo’s language is symptomatic of the oppression and violence of the war against the Spaniards in which he participated. It is metaphorical madness: as the ink bled on the sheets of Raymundo’s notebook, the blood of his fellow revolutionaries stained their birth soil. The Spanish had guns while the natives4 had slingshots and slippers. As for Mata’s revolutionary circle, the Katipuneros wielded a bolo5, the literal weapon and symbol of the fight for independence. In one of his diary entries penned at the start of the revolution, Mata reveals he witnessed the rather tragic end of Matandang Leon, the first katipunero whom he saw fall in battle.
Completing the fiercely quarrelsome modern-day intellectual trio in Apostol’s novel is the nationalist editor, Estrella Espejo. In the section where she writes her notes on Raymundo’s patrimony, Estrella mentions that Raymundo Mata was captured by the Americans and was in Bilibid jail for much of his remaining days. Here, Gina Apostol hints at the unreliability of our memoirist. In entry #42, Raymundo writes down the battle of Balara as the first of the many battles of the Philippine revolution. Estrella’s footnote disputes this, citing that various commentators of our history have already noted this error. It is Pasong Tamo that is more likely the first battle, not what Raymundo has written in his diary entry. Estrella goes on to say: “Why Raymundo persists in this error is obvious: he was losing his mind.” But in the editor’s preface, Estrella also writes of Raymundo: “That the storyteller is, I must admit, flawed, maybe mad, does not diminish my faith in his story. In fact, his madness amplifies its truth.”
Apostol touches on the veracity of memory and the truthfulness of historical records over personal narratives, a recurring theme in her work. The process of remembering is a dominant topic in her more straightforward novel, The Gun Dealer’s Daughter, and in Revolution, this becomes evident throughout the fracturing narrative as Mata’s accounts are questioned, corrected, and interpreted by the three academics. As such, Mata’s fictionalized memoir serves as a montage not only of his life as reimagined in fiction but also that of the whole country. Through the linguistic interactions of Mimi, Diwata, and Estrella in the margins of the text, the reader sees how Mata’s memoir becomes a portrayal of the ways in which individuals and groups remember their past on the basis of recollected memories, both personal and collective.
The push and pull between external forces, in this case the relentless annotations of Apostol’s intellectual trio, add to the maddening cacophony of voices remembering the past and the stories about stories being told. One voice writes and records, another one translates, while another one edits, and yet another one opines. This goes on and on as Apostol, with her asynchronous storytelling, takes the reader through the various threads in her novel.
In the footnotes of the three feuding intellectuals, Apostol leaves clues on how to approach, and what to expect from, the text: “[K]nowledge occurs by distortion—for a mirror is never truth, and yet for a while it relieves us of the burden of not knowing,” and “[T]he storyteller at one point indulges in infinite recapitulation to avoid decapitulation, a literal instalment.” The narrative spawns these infinities in the translation, interpretation, and retelling of Mata’s telling.
Where does the modern Filipino reader lie in this vast labyrinth? How does one reexamine the relationship between the past and the present and the manifold functions of cultural memories for the constitution of one’s identity? Gina Apostol does not provide clear-cut answers. Instead, through Raymundo’s accounts and the dizzying annotations of the intellectual trio, she shows that the rendering of cultural memories tells a lot more about the rememberer’s present than about actual past events. Their unquestioning acceptance or vehement denial is proof of the role of memory and the social dimension of dialectical truth6.
This layer to the novel leaves the present-day reader with a simultaneous sense of hope and dread. In the era of post-truth where historical revisionism runs deep in Philippine society, it is a revolutionary act to read Apostol’s novel. The victims of our country’s bloody history (whether they be 19th-century revolutionaries rebelling against colonial forces or the Desaparecidos of the Martial Law Era7) may remain just footnotes, their memories suspended over time, their stories negated by fascist narratives. In the case of Apostol’s protagonist, a freedom fighter once a footnote in history but granted his own footnoted memoir through historical fiction, there’s barely extant evidence in the manner of physical details to allow an effective tracing of his life. But we later see that dates and localizations are largely insignificant in the discourse of pain and violence. To borrow Diwata Drake’s words, “I have no wish to deny Raymundo’s story.”
Apostol’s novel does not deny historical truthfulness. It does, however, question historical accuracy. This is evident in the blending of the fictional with the factual. Raymundo Mata, with his initiation into the secret society, meets the founder of the Katipunan—Andres Bonifacio. In the teaching of our history, Andres has been inaccurately portrayed as the Great Plebeian, when in truth, he came from a middle-class family. Mata’s memoir depicts him as the well-read person that he actually was, a reader of novels like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. The annotations of the nationalist editor, Estrella Espejo, prove especially helpful, filling in the gaps in our history where Andres Bonifacio and other key players of the revolution are concerned.
One rather intriguing twist is a comparison between Mata’s fictionalized memoir and Dr Pio Valenzuela’s actual (and very controversial) autobiography. When news of poet-ophthalmologist Jose Rizal’s exile in Dapitan broke out, Andres Bonifacio commissioned Dr Valenzuela to seek Rizal’s advice. Would Rizal give the green light to rise against the Spanish authorities?8 As Raymundo is half-blind, Andres deemed him fit to accompany Pio to Dapitan. Any contact with the exiled Rizal would have been suspicious, so it was only fitting that Mata be introduced as Valenzuela’s patient and that their trip to Dapitan was only made in pursuit of Rizal’s medical opinion.
Our historians have long since noted the inconsistencies in Valenzuela’s version of events. And Apostol blends fiction with history to demonstrate this. In Raymundo’s thirty-first journal entry, we read about how Valenzuela travels under an assumed name, Procopio Bonifacio, and was accompanied by our night-blind bookworm, Raymundo Mata himself. Editor Estrella adds a footnote on the discrepancy in the two versions of Valenzuela’s memoirs. The first one states that Valenzuela was accompanied by Raymundo Mata and Rufino Magos, both residents of Binakayan, Kawit, Cavite. A later edition specifies that Valenzuela was with Mata the blind man and Magos as Mata’s young aide. Estrella notes: “The truth of Raymundo’s memoirs asserts Rufino Mago [not Magos] was an old man while he was the young patient. In addition, while they were both from Binakayan, Kawit, they were residents at the time of Manila: further proof of Valenzuela’s notoriously unreliable testimony.” In writing Raymundo’s fictionalized memoir, Apostol offers a counter-narrative where Valenzuela has written down misleading or inconsistent information.
In the novel’s last chapter titled “Epitaph”, Diwata Drake states that Raymundo’s memoir “seems cousin to other vibrant forgeries and textual ambiguities that have plagued this fervid democracy’s highly imaginative history.” A neo-Freudian psychoanalyst critic right through to the end, she maintains that the textual deceptions in the annals of our history “underline without a doubt the eternal trauma of the Philippines: like everyone else, it is a contingent being, born of words.”
The nationalist editor, Estrella Espejo, writes that “the Philippines may be the only country whose war of independence began with a novel (and a first novel at that)—Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (‘Touch-Me-Not’). Our notion of freedom began with fiction, which may explain why it remains an illusion.” Before that statement, she writes: “The American revolution had farmers and dentists; the French revolution had a mob of lawyers. Our prime mover was a poet.”
A longstanding debate is whether the national hero Jose Rizal was in favour of the revolution. It is said that Rizal believed a premature revolution would only set the country to failure, the blood of freedom fighters unnecessarily shed, their deaths unwarranted. There’s also the inconsistency in Pio Valenzuela’s memoirs, which simultaneously incriminates and vindicates Jose Rizal. For Valenzuela was never clear on what transpired during his meeting with Rizal in Dapitan. Gina Apostol’s gifts of insight enabled her to humanize Rizal, who has long been idealized by radical propagandists and the general public alike.
Before Raymundo Mata joined Pio Valenzuela to meet the exiled hero, he too put Rizal on a pedestal. We read in the thirtieth entry in his fictionalized memoir: “Despite my bravado, this is what I knew: I would be terrified to speak to the man. I was glad that I had not brought my copy of the Noli—no need to ask him then about an autograph and risk looking like an idiot.”
Apostol sets enough tension in the scene where Mata eavesdrops on the conversation between Pio Valenzuela and Jose Rizal. Raymundo notes his admiration towards Pio, fulfilling his mission as the Supremo’s secret messenger to seek Rizal’s signature, the sign that the hero has given the go-ahead. As things stand, there is only one right answer for the Katipunan. Raymundo then shifts his focus to Rizal, noting that the hero knew damned well what they were up to. Here, we read a moving epiphany from Mata:
“It’s true. His bones did not matter. We wanted of him what was air and nothing, such as his name, a ghost louse-scratch. As for his novels, his words? Not futile but culpable. Blameless, but still: bloodstained. This pained him. I was shocked. This is what I got for my crime, arrant listener. Struck dumb: for this must be our Medusa, worse than a hero’s death was a hero’s truth.”
Through Mata’s eyes, we see Rizal in his humanity—a gifted polyglot, polymath, and patriot, who despite his knowledge of medicine, mathematics, and engineering, is stuck in a bind. To agree to a revolution or to warn against a premature one? In humanizing the national hero, Apostol provides a critique of the nation and nationalism.
And like a rabid member of the Rizalist cult, Raymundo Mata steals the manuscript of Jose Rizal’s third novel, Makamisa (a mix of Tagalog and Spanish, ‘after the mass’ in English). Apostol cleverly crafts the last entry in Raymundo Mata’s memoir as passages from the stolen manuscript. In the words of Diwata Drake, Mata’s conclusive memoir entry, written completely in English, interlaces with Rizal’s third novel. Our pseudonymous translator Mimi Magsalin adds that there is a resemblance between Rizal’s Spanish and Mata’s English. The novel’s anti-colonial sentiment shines here; the interlacing of Rizal’s Spanish and Mata’s English is symbolic of their motherland’s long colonial history. First, under the Spanish and later, the Americans9.
Gina Apostol takes the revolutionary fervour and psyche-searching of a historical novel and moulds it into a kaleidoscopic work of reflecting mirrors and looping intrigues. As per Raymundo Mata’s thirty-sixth entry, written in English and unpunctuated: “Like a novel revolution is never finished.” The statement could be interpreted as a subject-puzzle, as Mimi Magsalin suggests in her footnotes: “Like a novel revolution, [something] is never finished.” Another interpretation is conventional, using splice, “Like a novel, revolution is never finished.” Or perhaps it is none of these or all of these at once. In the end, the reader is left with an awareness that there is something beyond the intellectual exercise of writing, translating, and reading: something inexplicable, unfathomable, but still somehow understood.
1 Filipino poet, fiction writer and playwright Eric Gamalinda writes this blurb for Gina Apostol’s novel: “The role of the intellectual, according to Edward Said, is to present alternative narratives on history than those provided by ‘combatants’ who claim official entitlement to official memory and national identity–who propagate ‘heroic anthems sung in order to sweep all before them.’ In this fearlessly intellectual novel, Gina Apostol takes on the keepers of official memory and creates a new, atonal anthem that defies single ownership and, in fact, can only be performed by the many–by multiple voices in multiple readings. We may never look at ourselves and our history the same way again.”
Intellectuals, according to Antonio Gramsci, fall into two groups. Firstly, there are the “traditional” professional intellectuals, literary, scientific, and so on. In the second place are the “organic” intellectuals, distinguished less by their profession but are nevertheless the thinking and organizing element of a particular social class. For Gramsci, the intellectual has the responsibility of keeping society together and in harmony, creating a new consciousness for a social strata and bringing meaning and understanding to one’s role in life and society.
Gina Apostol’s novel asks the question: who are the intellectuals, what are their social functions, and are they even relevant in the modern world?
2 From Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual. Drawing upon Gramsci’s views of the roles of intellectuals in society, Said writes that the intellectual should critique power and authoritarianism of all kinds at any cost to ensure social stability. The critical concern for the intellectual, according to Said, is the search for the Truth, which would counter oppressive power structures and fascist narratives.
3 The members of the revolutionary secret society organized by the Supremo Andres Bonifacio, they launched the Filipino independence struggle in 1896.
4 Spanish colonists called the natives of the Philippines indios. Interestingly, the term Filipino did not exist then as we know it today. It was once synonymous with Insulares, the term used to call Spaniards born in the Philippine islands.In one of Magsalin’s notes on translation, we read: “Spanish caste terms are particularly troubling for a translator of nineteenth-century Filipino society.” Magsalin asks what a translator should do when met with the term indio when translating colonial era texts. Using such a denotative term would mean taking on the Spanish prejudice but using Filipino would mean translating the text inaccurately. She writes, “I took the path of least resistance and just footnoted.”
5 Only using traditional pre-colonial single-edged knives, Filipino freedom fighters had little chance of victory against the Spaniards armed with guns and cannons.
6 On Hegelian dialectics. Hegel postulates that Truth is correspondence. We uncover Truth in the idea of others, questioning them and revealing their myriad contradictions and convolutions.
7 During the Marcos dictatorship, over 1,600 people disappeared. None of them were ever found. The fate of the disappeared remains a question mark in our history.
8 Although Jose Rizal was not a member of the revolutionary secret society, the Katipunan revered him for his revolutionary novels and sought his advice on whether or not they should start a revolution.
Rizal thought otherwise as he believed the freedom fighters needed more sophisticated weapons and a more organized strategy to mobilize the masses into rising up against Spanish authority.
But in the end, a premature revolution broke out when the Spaniards learned about the secret rebel society.
As for Rizal, he was tried and convicted of sedition. The Spanish authorities believed his novels incited indios to rebel against them.
9 The Spanish-American war ended with the Treaty of Paris. Spain sold the Philippines to America for twenty million dollars.
Born and raised in the Philippines, HAZEL ANN fell in love with reading and writing at a young age and went on to pursue Literature as her area of study in university. Her writings have appeared in national and regional publications in the Philippines, including a now-defunct multilingual folio of performance poetry Bukambibig and an anthology project telling the struggles and joys of being a young Filipina, Inday-Inday. Her review of Gina Apostol’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is her first work to be featured in an international literary magazine. She shares mini-book reviews and literary musings on her bookstagram, @literary.hazelnut.