17 June 2016

+JMJ+

Option #38: Killing Time in a Warm Place by Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr.
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I was the last to be called in a batch of "detainees" that formed a queue at the processing centre, outside a special room called the "Exclusion Area," and the shorter the line got the more desperate it became, because of all the thuds and screams that spilled out into the already-ugly air. No one came out the way he came in, because they had another exit into another hallway or, for all we knew that first time, a hospital, a morgue, or a crematorium for the swift disposal of exhausted tissues. By the time they got to me my nerves were mashed, but they were pooped, "they" being a smallish, balding intelligence officer who sat behind a desk, a stack of folders at his feet, a clerk, a soldier in a T-shirt and fatigues, and an orderly or janitor, who was mopping the floor; they were all sweating despite the late December pall, and the officer was tipping a cigarette out of a pack into the soldier's hand when I stepped in, having been called by name. The orderly left the room and returned with a bottle of Coke for the chief, a bottle so fresh that the gas was still wisping at the mouth when the orderly stood it beside the table, beside my file.

After the wild imaginative sweeps of Option #37: Empire of Memory by Eric Gamalinda, I thought we should ground ourselves in some Marcos Pa Rin realism with our next book. And I almost went with some non-fiction until I remembered Killing Time in a Warm Place, a novel based on journalist Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr.'s memories of his own student activism and illegal detention during the Marcos Era. The story is told in flashback, with an older, possibly sadder protagonist thinking back to his heady years of fighting for a cause . . . and the subsequent sober years of having "sold out."

Boy, do I hate that phrase. Just a few weeks ago, on Twitter, a former colleague, who had quit the corporate world three years ago to focus on her art, announced she, too, would be "selling out" by getting another job. It was a saddening decision for her, made even worse by her belief that she was letting down a lot of other people; but the fact was that she simply couldn't afford to pay rent and buy food on an artist's income any longer. I replied to say that sometimes what we think of as "selling out" is really growing up, and that this could still be a positive move for her. In any case, I argued, we should be careful about whose labels determine how we feel about our lives. Now I wonder if I would have said the same to Noel Bulaong, a young Filipino with a history of Marxist reading, violent protests, family estrangement, and military torture, if after his release he considered getting a job with . . . the government.

And this was me now, reincarnated, writing speeches and editing papers for the Ministry of Public Welfare as a special assistant to the Deputy Minister, the DM, himself.

The job put me in touch with personages of all kinds: Assemblyman Napoleon, a soft brown ball in a tailored suit who would roll without fanfare into the DM's room and settle there for the rest of the day in his favourite chair, sipping scotches while receiving callers--the DM's and his own--and plying all with stories of his latest sojourn to Nairobi, or Bangkok, or Geneva, wherever the trade winds blew the chairman of the Subcommittee on International Agreements; Governor Fortuno, who would arrive in the afternoons, pinking all over from his sauna bath and massage, in a heavy toilet-water cloud from the corners of which his security men peered, like wakeful cherubs, for signs of hostile life in the anteroom; General Nieves, recently retired and now special consultant to Laser Venture Corporation, a Houston-based company with agri-business interests in Mindanao . . .

Can't you smell the corruption from here? That description has just enough innuendo to make me wonder whether I should spell out exactly how each of our protagonist's new colleagues is milking government for his own ends.

And in case it wasn't clear, our guy Bulaong isn't working for a new administration, but the very same one that violated his human rights and those of his best friends. (What do you think the Coca-cola in the first excerpt was used for?) And his job isn't something that lets him look the other way and tell himself that he's working for good on the inside: he disseminates propaganda and writes blatant lies worthy of George Orwell's Ministry of Truth. Neither can he say he was blinded by the authority of a well-meaning but mistaken leader; he answers to a glorified go-fer whose errands include arranging abortions for the director's teenage mistresses. "Selling out" is far too tame a term for this character arc.

So what do you think happened to him at the "processing centre"? I'll bet the first excerpt reminded you of that other Orwellian creation, the Ministry of Love--and if it didn't, well, I waved Nineteen Eighty-Four at you in the last paragraph. But the similarities are superficial. Noel Bulaong is no Winston Smith. His experience at the centre may change him . . . but it doesn't break him. The government may have the worst human rights record in the world at that point, but its business is with bodies and not with minds. There is no Room 101 whose secret we, too, already know; but there is another room, as familiar to us as any in our own homes, that can show us something we never could have guessed.

The real question for anyone who would call Bulaong a sell-out is: what if he was never the person he originally imagined himself to be? What if this job reflects his true self more than his activist days ever did?

Killing Time in a Warm Place has flashbacks to several different stages in Bulaong's life, and keeping them straight can be confusing. There are his student activist days in the early 1970s, his detention in 1973, his new life in government in 1980, and his self-imposed exile in the US in the mid-1980s. There's a cinematic quality to all the back-and-forth shifting, and I feel that the scattered frames of these four stages would be much clearer if we watched them in a movie. But there is immediate poignancy when the narrative jumps far enough into the future so that some young people we have just met suddenly appear as their older selves. Perhaps it is some comfort to Bulaong, who is also our narrator, to reflect that he wasn't the only young revolutionary to have a future that makes little sense in the light of his past.

As for this blog's past . . . The idea of "selling out" reminded me of "doing something for a fee but without any conviction or belief." And you may or may not recognise that line from Option #14: Ermita by F. Sionil Jose, where it is the definition of prostitution. Where Dalisay is content to wonder how many in modern Philippine society are sellouts, Jose didn't stop until he suggested everyone in modern Philippine society is a whore.


You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you have your own strong feelings about "selling out."

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Image Source: Killing Time in a Warm Place by Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr.

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