To understand the context of this commentary, please read GITARISTA first.
On writing the novel…
Music defines time periods. Music brings back memories. The most difficult thing in writing a book with a lot of music references is that you would rather let your readers listen to the music instead of letting them read about it. So there will be an accompanying music soundtrack which will be released
soon someday but I do hope that you check out all the timeless pieces of music that were featured in the story. They’re all one Youtube click away in the MUSIC FEATURED post.
If you’ve read the book, you probably noticed how descriptive everything was (and all those details you had to endure!). Aside from a text outline, I wrote GITARISTA by drawing storyboard panels , treating it like a movie screenplay. One of my goals is to educate an international readership about how the Philippines became what it is today. Though I really love details. It’s kind of my writing style. I hope it did not get in the way of the story.
Several times, I’ve been asked the question “What was your inspiration for writing GITARISTA?” and I still have no answer for it. I was writing something else, decided to drop it, then gave more than a year of my life for research and writing this book. It gave me the perfect excuse to visit libraries, shoot around Old Manila, and talk to people who were already adults during that time. During my research, I fell in love with Spanish music, culture and architecture too.
The second popular question is “Is this story based on your life?” and other variations thereof.
Though what Alejandro experienced is what most musicians, such as myself, go through. How do you expect to play a musical piece so beautifully when your world is crumbling down? Ah yes, musicians have that problem all the time. Those who are able to overcome it are called: professionals.
The characters I could relate to the most would be Gabriel and Dani. They were both brilliant mavericks who ended up hurting themselves and the people around them. I’m no brilliant maverick but I did end up hurting myself and the people around me.
*Weeks after writing this commentary and re-reading my novel for the 1,000th time, I just realized that Maestro Rocca is me. How could I have missed this?
Update: People have been commenting: “What happened to Dani?” While I wanted her to be the embodiment of things that are found and lost, she comes off as a very shallow character, doesn’t she? This was purely intentional. She is the only character whose thought process was never described (even the minor characters like Professor Valeras or Mang Rudy’s perspectives had more depth). You will not empathize with her, you will not cry for her, you will not cheer for her. All we know is, Alejandro had fallen for something desirable minus all rationale. Aye, that’s love…and love lost: a question mark like Dani.
And how do you write about a main character who barely talks? Everyone around him would have to do a monologue. But that’s how we are around quiet people like the phlegmatic Alejandro Sebastian. People like him make the best kind of friend.
On interpreting history…
I had 2 questions. Questions that wished to debunk certain “truths” schools have been teaching all these decades.
1. The 1970s in the Philippines, was it ALL just bad?
2. Being under Spanish colonial rule, was it ALL just bad?
Please note, I have no intention to glorify or defame the political figures, media personalities and their actions featured in this book. Given their prominence and iconic standing, it would have been absurd to hide them behind false identities. If you belong to the patriotic generation of baby boomers who lived through martial law in the 1970s, you were probably expecting a narrative that dwells on the treachery of the Marcos administration and was gravely disappointed to find so little of it.
Many Philippine books written about that period, whether fiction or non-fiction, already focus on how the government was its own terrorist, how freedom fighters made a stand, the First Quarter Storm, how the city was guilty of ludicrous spending, Malacañang atrocities, the executions, etc. etc.
This isn’t one of them.
In fact, my goal was to steer clear from political slants—but, of course, found it impossible given the government’s great role in shaping the lives of common folk. I was led to believe that the 70s were a depressing time in Philippine history because of martial rule. And yet every adult I interviewed, whether for or against the government, had colorful memories highlighted by nutribuns and milk powder beverages (food supplied by the government), public education, sleepovers (thanks to the imposed curfew), shopping in the thriving cities of Manila, Cubao and Makati, and, of course, enjoying the music nightlife. These may sound like shallow things but these were activities that promoted family time, nurtured relationships and friendships, and built careers—pretty much the same things we strive for in this decade.
Unlike several political figures, the general populace—though greatly sympathetic to advocates of true democracy—were not locked up in cells and simply enjoyed a normal life. “Normal” of course is subjective for different countries and cultures. Life in Manila has always been a colorful struggle. Despite lawlessness, life simply went on. The relentless spirit of the Filipino had always prevailed.
The novel tries to present several facets of life in the capital: the poor, the middle-class, the rich, the powerful, criminals, the wrongly-accused, activists, educators, businessmen, mixed races, etc. Of course, things would have been different if I focused on activists, instead of regular folk, who were more concerned about patriotism than family life.
Some old timers say the country achieved the peak of economic progress during that time. I agree with this entirely but also wish to attribute the country’s progress to the previous administrations of presidents Carlos P. Garcia and Diosdado Macapagal. Now if it was indeed the peak during martial law, as loyalists claim, then it was all downhill from there. Don’t be surprised but the problems of the city back then (squatting, floods, pollution, wages, price hikes, transportation) are exactly the same problems the city has now, multiplied by a hundredfold because of overpopulation, greed, and environmental negligence too.
Most Filipinos have an earful to say about the Marcoses. Yet it is a fascinating sight to see when one of their family members are within sight. Even an anti-Marcos person would scramble to have a glimpse, shake their hand, snap a photo and share it on social media sites. I find it hilarious. That’s how Filipinos are when their presence is acknowledged by a media personality, politician or some celebrity: Ay mabait pala sya (Oh, so he/she is nice after all). And suddenly they’re fans and forget what they loathe. Hilarious.
On the state of classical music in the Philippines…
Much has already been said about The Steel Butterfly and Ferdinand Marcos. I can enumerate several things I detest about her activities and her philandering husband’s governance (I can likewise speak the same of the governments that followed). But I can not deny their great contribution to the country’s cultural program. So I aimed to highlight what they did right. For that alone, artists will forever be grateful.
Philippines + classical arts + 1970s = Imelda Marcos. There is no denying that, regardless of the exorbitant amount of taxpayers money that was spent in creating a metropolis “worthy” of being paraded across the globe.
Some will say: “Yes, but at the expense of a struggling nation.” Well, congratulations. It’s been almost half a century and we’re still alive. In his prime, brilliant orator Ninoy Aquino (whose exposés and righteous stand are duly respected) condemned the Cultural Center of The Philippines. Will you make a stand and call for its destruction today? Most are grateful that the institution exists. The country made Ninoy a hero for other reasons, perhaps with the same reasons that made José Rizal the Philippines’ national hero.
Unfortunately, cultural programs are not one of those reasons, nor has it been the succeeding administrations’ priority. In fact, to the dismay of local artists, Imelda Marcos’ contributions to arts and culture have yet to be surpassed or even equaled by today’s leaders.
While it is impossible to be politically neutral, please know that I believe the government’s abuse of power was wrong. I believe dictatorship, though sometimes highly revolutionary (think Steve Jobs), is intolerable. I despise what the Marcos administration did—as much as I despise what future administrations did. I have come to realize that family dynasties, down to the municipal level, will forever have an undying thirst for influence and wealth; and loyalists, to whatever political affiliation, regardless of what is morally right or wrong, whether it is the wise choice or not, will always support their “heroes” to protect their own interests.
On historical fiction…
This book is by no means an attempt to rewrite history as we know it. Although the phrase “as we know it” was one the greatest obstacles in writing a historical novel based on available references. Because Philippine history has one of the most poorly documented (if documented at all) histories in the world, one may find discrepancies, pinpoint inaccurate data, or dispute facts presented in this novel.
To which I say: Please don’t read just one history book (or a blog, for heaven’s sake), listen to your parents or relatives, and think you know everything. Go find the truth yourself. Gather resources, read plenty of books, cross-check them with other references, and best of all, talk to people who lived during that time—hopefully what they remember is accurate. What the mind chooses to remember can be hilarious too.
Historians will most probably challenge the authenticity of certain references in the story. Let me address your disappointment now: This is a work of fiction. The story takes precedence—the first goal is to entertain. Though it is not as “true to life” or “loosely based” as a lot of historical novels claim to be. Some deviations, however, were intentional for creative purposes and moving the narrative forward.
I hope you thought of Forrest Gump, Slumdog Millionaire, Titanic, The Last Samurai and other excellent (albeit historically controversial) pieces of literature and cinema that have helped people have an appreciation and respect for the past. All were made to give a glimpse of history, as accurate as possible, under the guise of a story.
* * *