On Writing Real Life, or the Hunt for Felix Canelo’s Shadow: An Excerpt from Book of the Damned
Book of the Damned is a novel that charts—through multiple narrators who may or may not be invested in the truth about a central shadowy character, Felix Canelo—the course of history during and in the aftermath of President Caesar Repaso’s dictatorial regime. Mendoza’s novel also fuses the artist (Felix Canelo) with the dictator (Caesar Repaso)—a slick metaphor for the violent complicity of the makers of history, writers, and despots alike. Book of the Damned is the first in a trilogy.
Arnold D. Gracia
Nobody writes to be suppressed. Whether born of one’s punch and play of imagination and emotion, even if it is commissioned by the powerful, accosted by threatening a writer’s life, shameless hagiography, or ordered by the holiest of holies, all writing conforms to a mold that seeks to either emancipate or redeem.
All writing conforms to a mold that seeks to either emancipate or redeem.
This is how I saw things back then, and I have clung to this belief without sweating my ass off (although I must admit that sometimes that part of my body is sticky or smells of fermented shrimp paste). Everything changed when I met Felix Canelo. Or, to show respect and fear for his power, for the fear and awe he instilled in me: President Caesar Repaso.
It is hard to write a story about someone far more accomplished than yourself. And because writing stories entails writing about oneself, the process becomes doubly hard. And more involved. People, who are always on the lookout for others to talk to, understand this truth quite well. It is hard to talk about the self because it is not every day that we get dumped by the ones we love—an event that tends to serve as an automatic stimulus for an individual to talk about himself. We also don’t die every day, though something like this is possible on a metaphorical level. Regrettably, not too many among us are aware of this gradually eroding, sort of a soft-rain-shower-tapping-against-the-roof, of death.
Premonitions of death might come to us in times when we have no one to talk to. But those were always too fleeting and barely grazed the memory. We forget about them right after drinking a glass of cold water (or a glass of beer being watered down by an ungodly amount of ice). In time, those premonitions of death become unremarkable as more contemporary fears visit us: bills to be paid, jobs to be done, rising prices of meat that necessitate creative hacks in the kitchen, the never-ending cycle of house cleaning, asses of bosses that need some licking, relatives who keep asking for money for gambling or for paying their debts incurred from gambling.
Surely, excuses accumulate, all of which draw our attention away from noticing our daily deaths. But most of all, it is hard to talk about oneself because there is no way of telling if someone out there will listen and if someone is even willing to listen. If someone is willing to listen, you still have to think of ways to make your otherwise ordinary life interesting for that person. In the end, you remain constrained by dread and the uncertainty of getting responses like, “Just continue that tomorrow, I need to go home. My wife expects me to be home at this time.” Or, something like: “Wait, man, I’m not feeling well all of a sudden, sorry, but I have to go. Maybe next time.” When conversations take these turns, there’s nothing else to do but to let go and just secretly express your disappointment through a quiet intake of breath.
This is how these things naturally unfold. There are people who navigate between light and dark. They are the kind of people who exist behind the darkest of shadows and the most blinding of illusion-illumination. They are the bold and the cheeky, charming, but always misunderstood by their fans and the people around them.
The same is true for those who are slow on the uptake and floundering: they have no idea what drives them to keep creating justifications and backstories for why they can’t stop gravitating toward those they hold dear. I am one of those types, I admit. I stand among the countless people who hinge their bet on letters, on the push and turn of my pronouncements, and my memories, for my redemption. Because it is possible the story has already ended, but not the process in which it is written—its constant retelling.
I don’t know what will come of retelling what I know and do not know. Of retelling things I believe I know and things I believe I will never understand. I don’t know if any of this helps to salvage what remains of my humanity. But I am sure of this one thing: my story will be far more real than what actually happened, more real than real life itself.
My story will be far more real than what actually happened, more real than real life itself.
I mentioned earlier that I am one of the many narrators of Felix Canelo’s life. Yes, we are many. This is not the least bit surprising. In fact, everyone who knows Felix Canelo, even those who unconsciously know him, all serve a part in the largest group of narrators of the present. On the other hand, I can count with my fingers the number of people who are aware of their present situation. Which means: they are the sort to have a decent grasp of the need to once again write a story by narrating it. And this can only be achieved by forcible intrusion, through contamination of a first-person narration.
I got hold of Felix Canelo’s manuscripts through a good friend who had entrusted them to me. He said he wanted me to take off from and finish what he had started.
I could not forget that day. It was March. A hot and humid March. I was busy with my novel on the military informers and intelligence operatives of the Marcos regime—a novel I did not finish because of what was put in motion after talking to my friend—when the phone rang. I answered, pure muscle memory had me place the receiver against my ear, unaware of the potential ramifications of buckling under the force of habit. A familiar voice sounded. I quickly broke the silence and uttered the first name that came to mind: “Arnold?”
He laughed, a laugh that said, “I thought you’ve already forgotten about me.” He asked me how I was doing, if I was still drinking. I told him nothing much had changed about me, I was still doing the things I used to do, still writing even if critics kept calling my novels pretentious, fudging up excuses that these were the only things I knew how to do and what I wanted to do in life, that at least I had teaching as my source of livelihood. Of course, and most importantly, the answer he was waiting for: I told him I did not stop drinking.
Our conversation went from catching up to opinions on the stifling hot and humid weather. He asked about the other writers we know and about newly released books. We talked about who had kept on the consummate and terminal path to writerhood and who had been the most adept at juggling writing gigs and rackets.
Arnold also asked how my wife and kids were doing, something that really cracked me up. I knew he was joking. I told him I was still single and did not have a family. Up to that moment, I was not suspicious of him calling me up out of the blue. I figured he was simply making up for lost times with a friend he had not seen or talked to in almost five years. But like what Vladimir Sorokin had said about how enigma enshrouds people’s attempts to reconnect with each other. And sometimes, too, this enigma presents itself in the form of bad news.
It did not take long for Arnold’s tone to change. His usual cheerful banter turned somber and guarded. Still, I did not find that fishy, treating the phone call as just another means for long-lost friends to reconnect. The sudden shift in tone was him running out of questions and finally being forced to reveal the purpose of his call—a problem that he wanted to address and receive advice for. True, he did have a problem that time.
It was also true he was hoping to hit me with it so I could give him helpful advice. But what was not true was the resolution. Because all in all, it was not enough to listen to someone talk about his problem and offer a way out of that problem, as none of us could possibly be rightful originators of solutions. Those solutions and their iterations, those customary responses to the different problems besetting our friends—all those varied things came from books that were not yet written. Our real conversation began when I realized all this while listening to Arnold’s “problem.”
There was a time when I believed us soldiers are a cut above the rest, that we can commit crimes and not be jailed for them. That our position will automatically absolve us even if we did something stupid or dangerous. It isn’t always like that, right? Time changes things, so to speak. There’s a possibility we can be held accountable. Never in the name of justice, that’s for sure, but in the name of who’s next in the seat of power. I get it. Part of our job is to help incumbent politicians get fattened up. As long as he is popular, whether it’s the president or just about any jackass, we will treat him like the commander-in-chief. We will obey him, even at the expense of the constitution and the people. It won’t matter, really, the kind of position he holds. That’s just a label, a title. Where we come from, the moment you let things get into your head and start to take your title seriously, you will no doubt be put in your proper place by the next day.
But it’s been said that those days are gone. We are no longer expected to find new people to detain every day. We are not supposed to keep killing anyone who so much as criticizes the government. I heard about this moments ago from our sleepyhead warden’s radio, while jogging with my fellow soldiers at the activity area of the detention center. It is time for democracy. A time when everyone has a voice. Nonsense, I thought. No such thing as democracy. The only thing that’s real is a new ass to be licked. I’ve heard all this before.
Nonsense, I thought. No such thing as democracy.
For some reason, I suddenly think of Mang Caesar, the boss chief. How is he? Did the fucking two-faced dogs of democracy finally get to him?
I was stumped for a while there after Arnold dished on a problem he first disguised as small talk. I was silent because I chose to be silent, not because I did not know what to say to him. It was the silence that conveyed respect for a lucrative project taken on by my friend, a project that later ended in failure and slowly stirred up unrest (these were the words he used to describe his current disposition), which motivated him to find in his old notebooks (weird, but true, as he was not known to save contact numbers on his cellphone) the number of any friend who might listen to him talk about his latest predicament, and where the ones he called before he got to me said almost the same thing: “Sorry, Arnold, I’m just busy right now.” The responses that he elicited were what gave him the idea to not instantly unload and to ply me with casual talk in preparation for what he was about to tell me. He wanted me backed up against a corner where I could not refuse what was to be entrusted to me as a good friend (he emphasized “good”) and as a writer who could be trusted (again, this was how he phrased it) with a project he thought he was no longer able to finish, a project he had given up on and would rather pass to another person instead of shelving it completely, instead of keeping everything under wraps and in the dark, much like a tikbalang smirking as it was reminded of its failure and weak spirit.
My silence was also a way of saying yes.
My silence was also a way of saying yes. That I wholeheartedly accepted the proffered mission to cast out the ghosts of Arnold’s unrest. I knew, too, that after our talk, the moment we put down the telephone, that Arnold would find some comfort in the fact that he had finally enlisted a companion in the madness that he so willingly embroiled himself in and then realized too late it was too much to handle and now wanted out.
Arnold D. Gracia
For any writer with a modicum of conventional self-respect, it is a great sin to write about the self, to devote the bulk of a work on the self in order to draw attention to a much larger message that’s thoroughly divorced from the self. For writers such as myself, however, writers who don’t believe in conventional self-respect and fake humanism, I see the need to use my personal experiences when writing stories. And to prove to others the effectiveness of this kind of storytelling, I decided to write a novel based on it. But along with it, as I’ve mentioned earlier, it is also a novel about us, narrators behind the life story of Caesar Repaso and/or Felix Canelo.
Over cups of lukewarm coffee, I shared this particular idea of mine with my close friend, Pochoy. Aside from a few otherwise reasonable questions he had, I think I managed to convince him of my project’s importance to the literary discipline. In fact, he became more interested (or pretended to be interested, one thing beyond my control) when I mentioned that even though I had yet to write the paper, the novel was basically already a work in progress because one of its characters was Vic Pacheco, one of my few good friends, and who was also named Vic Pacheco in the novel I planned to write. So when Pochoy asked me how that happened, a question I expected from my inquisitive friend, I told him: because I entrusted Vic Pacheco with the primary problem and central artifact of the novel—the manuscripts of Felix Canelo.
Arnold asks me to meet up somewhere and talk about the novel he is cooking up. At first, I cannot muster the energy to talk to him, or to anyone, especially if the topic has something to do with writing. For me, if you are truly a writer, your job is to write and not talk about your plans to other people. Like me, for example, after my eight-to-five job in a bank, I no longer think about which of the agents under my division will fail to hit the investment quota again. When I’m driving, I don’t answer calls from work, except when it’s my boss calling me. And as soon as I get home and while having dinner with my family, I don’t explain the concept of consumer banking to my kids. Nothing, nil, nada.
And so, I am not really into talking about things in inappropriate places. That’s just stupid, I think. And, of course, a waste of time and energy. But since Arnold is a friend, and we have been friends since college, I agree again to act as his sounding board. I agree to listen to his endless plans. Endless plans, because none of them are ever going to be actualized. Because he just can’t finish them. I wonder why I still listen to him. I think part of me is hoping he will at last come up with something special. That he will still reach the literary greatness that his talent deserves. Maybe, this time. I hope I don’t regret this.
Silvia Gosengfiao Sabaybunot
It’s been months since my husband was jailed. Just after President Repaso’s sudden disappearance, that is it for my husband. The same thing has happened to his companions who are supporters of Repaso. One by one, they were arrested by the state agents of the new administration. Actually, he was not hunted down, nor was he captured. He surrendered. That is what happened.
I did not ask him why he surrendered. I also did not think about the reason for his not finding a way to get into the good graces of the new government. Basically, what he said the last time we talked was something about doing what he did in the line of duty. He said I should not worry because he had made provisions for us. So, at the end of it, I figured he was simply being practical. I made up my mind that he only did what was best for us.
But for some reason, I don’t know why I’m not sad and choked up about things. And how come the days feel like they are simply passing by and nothing has changed. It is as if everything is just normal. The former high-ranking officers’ wives I drink cocktails with all feel the same way. They don’t seem to mind having their former distinguished military officer husbands lose their connections to the top brass. As long as they can still go about their shopping sprees, they don’t seem to mind. Just one day ago, I went to Greenbelt to accompany Colonel Cordova’s wife. I was surprised by her spending; the way she bought numerous signature bags and shoes (Hermès, Fendi, Prada, you know, the works) was just like stocking up on groceries. The most shocking of all was her invitation to shop with her in Bangkok next week. I said, sure, I’ll just tell my husband. And her response was: Is it okay to shop in Chatuchak?
Basic fact: Here in Jogja and in other cities in Java, people like to read. Rich, poor, whore, corrupt politician, student, thief, banker, boxer, farmer, worker, businessman, everyone reads. For now, it is not important what and whose books my fellow countrymen are reading (that’s a different matter altogether), what’s important is that they read. This is the tradition started by the generation before my generation, the generation before me.
Among those we idolize, the most brilliant, of course, is Pram (Pramoedya Ananta Toer). He is one of the few writers who continued to write during the conflict years. And he is also one of those who dared to refuse to go along with the era of the silenced and the playing blind. Despite being jailed, he kept writing into the memory and emotions of his fellow tapol his novels on the true meaning of individual freedom and collective struggle. In a time when silence can weigh as much as human life, Pram reminded my countrymen of the value of words, of resisting through words. If only Suharto and his opportunist anticommunist puppies weren’t a bunch of stark raving mad screwballs, Pram likely would have written more books.
Pram is also one of those who dared to refuse to go along with the era of the silenced and the playing blind.
And so when the dictatorship collapsed, people never forgot the value of writers. And, more importantly, the value of literature and reading. As a matter of fact, it is both heartening and disturbing that there is now an industry here for pirating books. We call it buku bajak or bajakan. Think: a pirated book. Subversive and reactionary at the same time. But then again, I don’t think this is such a big deal. Like what I said earlier, which echoes the opinion of my friend Andrea Hirata who is also a famous author in and out of Indonesia—what’s important is that people read.
One day, as I was walking the smoky, car-riddled part of Jl. Senopati, near Malioboro and Pasar Beringharjo, I happened upon a pirated version of my own book. It made me happy. It was a splendid copy. Flawlessly placarded. I approached the merchant, carefully considering the appropriateness of introducing myself as the author of the book. I mulled over the consequences of doing so. There’s a possibility that the merchant would not believe me, thinking that I was just out to stiff him when my intention, really, was to introduce myself. Then there’s no denying the possibility that nothing would happen. I was thinking of what to do while the merchant excitedly talked about the plot of my book. An astonishing scene: your own book being sold, its story being summarized, complete with commentaries, in front of you. I ultimately decided not to tell him who I was and to just buy the copy of my book. I handed him the money, 100,000 rupiah. He was selling the pirated copy of my book for 38,000 rupiah. In Gramedia and many other toko buku, my book is priced at 120,000 rupiah. Amazing, I thought, the discount was almost 50 percent. The merchant quickly went inside a tent to get some change.
While waiting for him, I scanned the other book titles he was selling. In the middle of the bundled titles authored by familiar names, something extraordinary caught my eye. The author’s name was Felix Canelo, obviously not Indonesian or Malaysian. I picked up the book and opened it. It was in Bahasa Filipina (the languages share some history, so we use some of the words that they use) as evidenced by the distinctive use of “dapat” and the spelling of “salamat.”
When the merchant emerged from the tent to give me my change, I asked him the price of the book that I was holding. He thought for a moment and gave me the price. I still have enough money left over from what I had paid for a copy of my book. I told him I also want to buy the book that I was holding. While counting the remaining change on his palm, he offered me a cellophane bag for the two books. I thanked him and politely refused the offered plastic bag. I also did not take the change. I told him he could keep it as a tip. I happily walked out of the toko buku.
Translation from the Filipino
Editorial note: From Aklat ng mga Naiwan, copyright © 2018 by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III. English translation copyright © 2022 by Kristine Ong Muslim.