May 10, 2013

OPEN SEASON: The Crocodiles of El Fili

The month of May approaches full bloom. Pollsters and fraudsters are upon us. Rain, elections, predators. Tilde wanted to discuss something in keeping with the times. Therefore, crocodiles.

Originally, we wished for a follow through to the Bakunawa project, that is, our irresponsible gallivanting in the realm of folk narratives [1]. However, Rizal finally caught up with us. Maybe it was really only a matter of time.

El Filibusterismo, his novel, opens with a scene on the upper deck of the steamship Tabo as it cruises along the Pasig river on the way to Laguna. The second chapter takes us down to the lower deck. This shift sets us up for what would become the dynamic of the entire book: we begin with scenes of the high life, the Spanish elite, the priests and the attendant insulares, only to step "down" to the view below, in the company of students, tenants, the various dispossessed. This is one of the chief ways that the novel establishes it causes and effects: excesses from above result in suffering below, acquiescence or struggle from below stabilizes or destabilizes the powers above.

Simoun the jeweler traverses the strata with ease by means of network and subterfuge. His acts and interactions effectively stitch the novel together (and I find this aspect of Simoun analogous to Rizal's performance as an author, in particular, how he displays then dramatizes an internal contradiction of his novel: that it was born into Spanish, into the then-foreign novel form, but that it was written it for the sake of the indios, the vast majority of whom were incapable of reading its contents). Rizal's delivery of the crocodile narratives seem to me illustrative of the aforementioned design.

There are two crocodile stories, the first appears in "Chapter 3: Legends". Fr. Salví tells it to the other bosses of the land, the widely traveled, the wealthy, and most importantly, the literate: "...once upon a time the river, like the lake, was infested with crocodiles so huge and voracious that they attacked boats, overturning them with a blow of the tail. Our chronicles record that one day a heathen Chinese, who had up to then refused to be converted, was going down the river past St. Nicholas Church when suddenly the devil appeared before him in the shape of a crocodile and overturned his boat to devour him and take him to Hell. Inspired by God at this crucial moment the Chinese called for help to St. Nicholas and immediately the crocodile was turned to stone. The old-timers say that in their day it was possible to recognize the monster in the fragments of stone that still remained of it; I myself can say that I was able to make out the head of the reptile and judging from it the monster must have been enormous!'" In [2].

In "Chapter 4: Cabesang Tales," the crocodiles resurface between two illiterate farmers, Tales and his father Selo. Tales suffers the loss of his wife and daughter to the fever contracted while clearing a piece of land. The remaining family perseveres, but "on the eve of their first harvest, a religious order which owned lands in the neighbouring town had claimed ownership of the newly cleared fields, alleging that they were within the limits of its property, and to establish its claim immediately attempted to put up boundary markers. The administrator of the religious order's estate, however, let it be understood that out of pity he would allow Tales the enjoyment of the land for an annual rental, a mere trifle, a matter of twenty or thirty pesos." In [3].

Rizal describes Tales as "peace-loving, "averse to litigation," and "compliant to the friars". Old Selo would reinforce his son's inclination to "give in under such pressure" by advising him in this wise: "'Patience! You will spend more in one year in court than if you pay for ten years what the white Fathers want. Oh well, maybe they'll pay you back in Masses. Make believe you lost the thirty pesos gambling, or that you dropped them in the river and a crocodile swallowed them.'" In [4].

Every year, however, the friars made it more and more difficult for Tales to make ends meet. Accordingly, Old Selo's fiction attempted to compensate: "'Patience,' said Old Selo to console him. 'Make believe the crocodile has grown.'" And: "'Patience,' said Old Selo with a placid smile. 'Make believe the crocodile's family has joined the party.'" In [5]

Let us compare Fr. Salví and Old Selo's crocodile stories. As the adversary of both stories, the crocodile presents a harmful, overwhelming, and inescapable force, one beyond the control of either the Chinaman or Cabesang Tales. Both protagonists take defensive routes, but their reactions are markedly different. The Chinaman prays to a saint he does not subscribe to, that is, one external to his belief system. On the other hand, Tales concedes his earnings to the crocodile. In his case, there are no saints, or if there are, and despite the fact that he subscribes to them, such saints are external to him in the sense that they belong to the enemy, the friars.

In [6], Fr. Salví begins his story this way "...since we are talking about legends, you should not forget the one that is the most beautiful because it is the truest, the one that tells of the miracle wrought by St. Nicholas, the ruins of whose church you may have seen," that is, we are given to believe this as a fact. On the other hand, Old Selo repeatedly counsels his son to "make believe," but this means at least two fictions in one. First, Tales must make believe that the claims of the friars on his land are truthful. Yet, since this fiction violates his family's honest struggle and corrupts the memory of the deaths that sanctified this long work, another set of make-believes must ameliorate the cruelties of the first. So, according to this fiction, while the land still belongs to Tales, he loses a portion of the produce either to gambling (fate), or dropping in the river (accident) and its crocodiles (nature). Fate and nature co-habit the land, all the world in fact, "co-owns" it in the sense of being able to affect its progress. Perhaps Old Selo finds consolation in the fact that neither fate nor nature has the human agency to consciously direct the land's development, to truly enjoy any of the gains.

However, the second fiction also wreaks violence because of the fact that a separate entity reaps what it did not sow, feeds on land for which it did not bleed. That entity is human, customarily expected to bear reason and truth. On top of this, these frauds are of the holy orders, the purported well-springs of compassion. So maybe a third fiction is possible, one that ameliorates the amelioration, justifies (and contradicts) the justification. As a fiction, it is at once the most obvious as well as the subtlest, for it restores Tales to the truth of things, grounds him there, even though he will not be able to look it in the face, not until he becomes Matanglawin.

In the case of the Chinaman's crocodile, the priest is our storyteller; in the Cabesa's crocodile, the priest is itself the animal.

[1] Bakunawa begins here. Tilde's crocodile illustration sourced here.
[2] José Rizal. El Filibusterismo. Trans. by Leon Maria Guerrero. Quezon City: Guerrero Pub., 1996: 21-22.
[3] Rizal: 25.
[4] Rizal: 25-26.
[5] Rizal: 26.
[6] Rizal: 21.

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