Brother, My Brother (Ben Santos)
Reaction To Bienvenido Santos' Brother My Brother
(circa 2005 by AMaskara)
I always feel consoled when I read any of the works of our master storytellers. Our storytellers are perhaps the most gifted and kindest among us. I never thought this way about them until I chose to live permanently in the USA. Choosing to stay in another country is fine until you discover how different you are from the rest of the neighborhood. There are occasions you stop from whatever you do and divert your eyes towards a far away destination, and, just like the black slaves, would dream of flying away. Flying away is such a comforting thought. Wouldn't it be nice if all of us humans could have wings? If all of us could just soar up to the skies without calling a travel agent? Yeah, that's definitely heavenly.
Somehow, nearly fifty years ago, a Pinoy named Ben Santos who, while living in the USA thought of flying to his native land and fixing his time by writing his local stories in a short collection called Brother, My Brother. Now I have the privilege of reading it and I'm so thankful for this work. This work joins the ranks of those written by F Sionil Jose, NVM Gonzales and other authors I can't recall right now in helping me live the life I would have lived had I opted to stay home. And this I consider a gift given to me.
Brother, My Brother brings me back to the midst of the small town Philippines, the old urban Philippines and of course, our history; I am listening to the tales of ordinary citizens. Mostly using the first person narration, here is Ben Santos as a young man and his experience and the people that had surrounded him. Here is Ben Santos, young and full of energy, oblivious of the swift passage of time,( so swift by the time he was introduced to my young mind, I already found him much much older and his tales inappropriate for my young age.) Haven't we all gone through that childhood stage anyway? There was a time we felt we were so young we thought everyone around us were very very old.
Now the world is changing and I am changing. Gone are the days when eternity smelt and felt real. Now, I am sensing the reality of getting old and how in the passage of time, so much is being lost. Strength, dreams, positive outlook, quests, adventures - these seem to be disappearing as the years pass by.
On the inside of the book cover is this written:
'Brother, My Brother collects stories that stand on their own, and yet cohere together into a literary document about the Filipino at home. Tondo, Albay, and Manila provide the setting and shape the mood of many of these stories. Here Bienvenido Santos' characters are no longer the expatriate Pinoys longing for home, as in You Lovely People, but downhome priests, salesmen, school teachers, and students. For the author, who has lived abroad for many years, the stories are, critic Leonard Casper had said, "A painful journey back to his heritage..." For the reader they are a recognition of the human, and a discovery of the Filipino.'
I've just finished reading the 23 stories, the first 7 I vaguely remember. Just like any other story collection, there are good stories and bad stories. Of course, I will be ill-hearted if I judge them based on my current age and time. His stories seem to cover the decades 30's to the 60's and they certainly have different significance compared to what I think is significant in my current 21st century. His stories about Literature students were bland to me but his stories about the war and his friendships and his townfolk were marvelous.
To me, Bienvenido Santos started an ongoing theme for many stories to come out of us Filipinos - the diaspora stories - because we haven't really changed much since his days. Or Bulosan's. We've always been telling stories this way: we left the country, we constantly think of the country the way we remember it as we struggle daily in the strange country we opted to work in, and we will return to the country and find it no longer belonging to us or us to it.
That is where the sadness of the Filipino will be confined, the sadness of being separated from one's own country and the very very rare visitations and homecomings that fail to validate local kinship, instead, they slap the face with unexpected alienation.
There was something familiar with stories of Santos despite him having written all these decades ago. And I for one, am probably following his footsteps. And majority of Filipino writers will follow those foosteps.
Perhaps there is some form of unified pattern in Filipino thinking. Perhaps we are all one and the same no matter what time we were born, or where. We'd all come to the same manner of looking at things, because I guess, we all have the same pattern of life.
Our society remains homogenous - and especially with Santos - I feel to possess a greater affinity with him because he claims to have been born and spent his childhood in a town where I come from: Lubao
So it is really easy for me to follow his stories - childhood in Sulucan, growing up years in a different place and time, struggles between the rich and poor, the war and how Filipinos coped with it, and then, the departures and returns.
In all these tales, despite their very simple, very native language in English, Santos organizes and presents the Filipino psyche with utmost clarity. It actually surprised me as I read through these stories - they would probably be the same stories I would compose only using different settings, characters, lingo and thinking.
The first story relates the return of a native son after 7 years of absence. The son returns well-to-do and starts talking about how time and distance have distinctly created a wall between what he is now and what he used to be...And Men Decay is a very poignant but familiar tale to all Filipinos who decided to leave.
From this starting story, Santos brings us to a past which, though not reflecting his real life, presents the sentiment, thinking, lifestyle of his era.
Childhood in Sulucan - is about his childhood playmates.
The Man Who Knew My Father - tells about living in the past, as if in returning to the past, life remains hopeful and better. But when the present confronts the past and one discovers how dissimilar they are, he turns quiet and subdued.
End To Laughter - is a violent tale between the poor and rich or to make it more appropriate, between the powerful and the powerless. Its violent end is a theme constantly played by us Filipinos.
The House That I Built - proclaims something informative. Listen: 'As soon as President Quezon made one peso the minimum daily wage of Philippine government employees, I hurried to Clara's house early that evening, riding the old bicycle I used as the town postman, and told her as calmly as I could that we could get married now.'
Imagine how much we changed since Quezon!
There are stories that won't take my eye off the book and stories I could hardly wait to see their endings.
The stories about teachers and students did not affect me that much(Dear Miss Samonte, Theme: Courage), as they all appeared too childish, nothing really worth learning from. But the tale Old Favorites (despite it being about students and a teacer) was sharp in its message.
And then there were tales about ordinary people and tales about tragedies and failed romances adding dimension to this short story collection.
I did not like The Excurtionists at all - about this naked young boy who was at the mercy of city dwelling excurtionists.
The stories I liked the most included The Common Theme, a tale of missing brother who would years later write to inform his family that he was in the Army. The story ending was poignant and sad.
Early Harvest narrates the lives of a townfolk facing the harshness of the war. It symbolizes the resilience of the people, their faith and eternal hope.
The Naked Eye is about the war as well, this time, the townfolk confront a helpless enemy about to die as they reflect on what to do with him.
And then, his final stories are perhaps the best as they reflect the maturity of the writer, as he projects the feelings of so many of us in the diaspora:
The Transfer - is about getting old and not being able to do the things you always thought you could do. In this tale, the old priest was about to face the inevitability of the end and the sorrow and loneliness that accompany that.
And the story that took hold of the book's title - Brother My Brother - is a true diaspora tale, about the Pinoy leaving and returning. Remembering places, people, events, here and there as he confronts painful realities. Perhaps this is what we, the OFW's will always be in the future - in fact, I have to admit I am already one - my mind is always in the center of some unknown forces I could not fully describe and explain. I want to return back to my homeland, full of excitement and plans only to discover the country I am returning to is no longer the same. The ones I expect to greet me are dead and the ones I meet are no longer recognizable. Worse is the discovery that the home I am looking forward to becomes the home I have built in my adopted country.
I am always saddened by this. I've got great expectations when I first went home - I wanted to build a business, to enjoy my childhood playmates company, spend my days with family, visit relatives, and maybe climb the same guava tree I used to climb as a kid.
None of those remain.
What remained, as I discovered, was just a memory.
And that's why, just like Santos, I write my diaspora tales now, as if in writing them, I make them stay forever, even in the realm of my imagination.
Then, I return to the country that I now call my home, America.