06 June 2016


Option #37: Empire of Memory by Eric Gamalinda
(See the Giveaways page for more details or scroll down for the Rafflecopter)

"Oye, you lucky bastards are going to write a book . . . The [president] wants you to finish volume one of his encyclopedia for the New Society. Leatherbound, gilt-edged, a national heirloom. He wants it by September. A martial law tenth year commemorative project . . ."

. . . "What's the first volume going to be about?" Jun asked.

"Philippine prehistory."

"That's going to be a short subject," Jun said. "A Brief History of Philippine Civilisation, in ten pages."

Tarantado, the [president] isn't joking . . . You've been here long enough to know that."

To know, that is, that the president had been planning an ambitious book project to 'reinterpret' the history of the Philippines leading to the declaration of martial law and the founding of his New Society.

You'd think that a historical novel whose two protagonists have to dig through all sorts of historical sources in order to write a historical encyclopedia would be historically accurate, but Eric Gamalinda's Empire of Memory includes the disclaimer: "Although portions of this novel were based on actual sources, no attempt at historical accuracy was made." Wow, right?

Then again--and this may be Gamalinda's greater point--why does anyone need to care about the facts of history in the Philippines, where no one ever remembers anything anyway? There's something fitting about a book set during the Marcos era playing fast and loose with history, given what Ferdinand Marcos himself did with the same. (And just now, I have decided that the official theme of this Philippine Literature Month is Marcos Pa Rin. Usually meaning, "I'm still for Marcos," here I use it to say, "Marcos is still with us." For he is totally still with us.) Take the tribe Gamalinda makes up for his story, the Isneg . . .

You wouldn't think that a tribe as small as this would incite fear among a sensible community of hard-working men. Compared to the headhunters of Mount Pulog, these people were as gentle as rabbits. True, there were a lot of curious things rumoured about the Isnegs. Among them:

They wore clothing of bark and twined rattan, and they did not comb their hair.

They ate crickets, wild chicken and wild boar, but during typhoons they subsisted on salt and tubers.

They lived in caves . . .

If you remember the 1970s, then you probably remember the Tasaday people, a "stone-age" tribe discovered in a Philippine rain forest. They became quite the international sensation, peaking with the August 1972 cover of National Geographic and a gorgeous spread inside. So many people wanted to study them that the government, for the Tasaday's own peace, made their territory a protected area and barred all visitors from entering. After the Marcos administration fell, a Swiss anthropologist decided to check them out again . . . and what he discovered just didn't add up.

It's a fascinating story, all the more so because it "doesn't end there," so I can see why Gamalinda riffs off it in Empire of Memory. But the Isneg tribe are just the first of his inventions that don't quite live up to the reality (Ahem!) of the Marcos era. I guess it was a trade-off: the time he would have spent doing research on the Tasaday would have held up his writing, and he felt that he could make the same point with something totally made up. I just happen to disagree.

Even the encyclopedia that Gamalinda's two protagonists are tasked to ghostwrite is based on a real history book that Marcos commissioned (then grabbed all credit for), that implies that our journey to a national identity reached its zenith with his administration. Forty years after its publication, it's easy to dismiss it as blatant propaganda that deserved to fall into obscurity . . . and to forget that Marcos was absolutely right about Filipinos lacking a real sense of history. And that he also hit the nail on the head about why it was so important that we have one:

I have chosen Tadhana as the title of this History because to my mind the story of a people is not merely a heritage but a destiny; it is their condition and their goal, their past informing their future. Implicit in Tadhana is of course heritage, but it is an active heritage, not an inert mass of artifacts and memories, because by common purpose it is harnessed to mobilize the national will and the national pride for the attainment of ideals. A sense of history cannot but stir a people to improve their lot.

It is the greatest irony in Philippine history that we remember so little about the man who cared the most, and did the most, to harness our memory. Yeah, I know we all "hate" him now, but how many of us haters know he wrote that? How many of us can give him credit for his vision, even as we hold him to the wall for his sins? I'd also ask, "How many of us have even read his side of the story?" but that's an unfair question: his books have been conveniently out of print for thirty years. And the historical novels he has inspired don't necessarily shoot for historical accuracy.

But to be fair to Empire of Memory, we should judge it by the marks it does aim at. One of these would be the world building of Isla de San Miguel, which seems to be the entire archipelago in microcosm and in disguise. Such a clever disguise that I didn't figure out, until I was done with the novel, that its own "first family" are a satire of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I still haven't figured out who the half-Filipino, half-American stage performer and Crucifixion reenactor Sal X (What?) is supposed to be. The Philippines itself, perhaps. (Oh, the horror. But I can't un-see it.)

Then there are the books within this book, all of which are equally questionable as historical sources. Take the encyclopedia that the protagonists have to weave out of the straw of sketchy records . . . and its parallel writing project, an "encyclopedia" of total fabrications that they wrote to parody themselves. They also discover a diary and an old historical novel (!), which are both true artefacts of the past and possibly lies by a writer with an agenda. Who can tell these days? And how? I'm not a fan of Gamalinda's answers, but I'm really glad he asked the questions.

You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you want to learn lots more about the Marcos era and don't mind doing your own online fact checking to do it.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Image Sources: a) Empire of Memory by Eric Gamalinda, b) Tasaday


Jenny said...

Interesting. I actually find it fasincating that some people write books that aren't necessarily real. I'm never outraged. Usually just amused.

Enbrethiliel said...


Not only is it not necessarily real, there are at least four more books inside it that are not necessarily real in their own world!

If you'd like to be amused by this book, well, the Rafflecopter is right there . . . ;-)

cyurkanin said...

Really interesting about the Tasaday, I don't recall ever learning about them though my memory is a bit blurry for a certain portion of my life. So it turns out that the hoax wasn't really a hoax, just some taking advantage of a situation?

Enbrethiliel said...


That's the best part. I DON'T KNOW!!! LOL!!!

On the one hand, Marcos crony Elizalde's involvement is extremely suspicious--and the efficiency with which the government set aside funds for the protection of the Tasaday, with Elizalde in charge (of course!) makes the whole thing seem like a clever way to steal money and get the country some international publicity at the same time. (This is so Marcos era that I anachronistically can't even!)

On the other hand, this doesn't mean that the Tasaday hadn't truly been living in isolation and that Elizalde, as you put it, simply took advantage of the situation. And I personally didn't find anything damning about the Tasaday wearing modern clothing in the 1980s: there had been contact with the rest of the world by then, and it would have been perfectly natural for them to be attracted to some of our modern conveniences. There's no rule that says a "stone age" tribe always has to be in the stone age . . . especially when they're actually in our age.

Anyway, while the people involved are doubling down and no one with insider gossip is coming forward, this will have to remain one of those tantalising Marcos mysteries! At least it will for me. =P Gamalinda has definitely picked a side.