Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

Sept 2010

(Novel) Empire of Memory by: Eric Gamalinda

(Reaction) Hope of Memory by: Antonio Conejos

View other reactions on works by Eric Gamalinda.

"A book... of imaginary beings... or beings real and imagined."

The combination of magic and realism is counterintuitive. How can one be magical and otherworldly, yet at the same time be tangible and realistic? Empire of Memory though fuses the two elements together to create a story filled with both the magic of illusion and the harshness of reality.

At first, the task given to Jun and AL seems deceptively simple, to pen an epic stretching from the shadow of prehistory all the way up to the present. The epic must glorify Philippine history, culture, and by extension, the Marcos family itself. Doctored sources and invented facts were placed at their disposal, "There'll be obscure authors with obscure references." The truth was seen as a malleable object to be passed through the fire of "historical accuracy". Thus, the planned epic was merely a construction of more illusions to shield and beguile the reader from the reality that the Philippines really has had no history of itself.

In numerous ways, the epic of Jun and Al is similar, yet at the same time very different from, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both use supernatural imagery to chronicle the events of a certain region or country. Marquez attempts to reveal the sorry state of affairs in Latin America. However, the "anti-history" book of Jun and Al is designed to cloak the truth about the Philippines that "we sound like fucking Latin America" in that it is ruled by a dictator who fears any challenge to his rule. Furthermore, the independence of both Latin America and the Philippines have been hard won, both lands having been colonized by foreigners. The two writers are even given implicit instructions that, "We can say anything, but don't make it sound like Gabriel Garcia Marquez."

"...generations leave no trace of themselves... Because of this we have no memory..."

Yet from the beginning of the novel of Jun and Al, it is acknowledged that the work is not simply merely for the glorification of the Philippine race but rather a "search for the Filipino identity" as well. Fittingly this is what Empire of Memory strives for as well.

Memory, its creation, loss and recovery is a central theme found throughout Gamalinda's work. Marcos's declaration that, "We shall weave a fabric of such memory", signifies the creation of a new history, a new blanket of truths mingled in with half-lies to cover up the memories of a nation, "that had never, for long periods of its history, showed proof it was passably sane."

Yet any memory or history is preferable to no memory at all. "Memory is the last of the graces, I think. Without it we will surely not be alive." Thus in the very first volume of Jun and Al's epic, they touch upon the "hallmarks of an advanced civilization" namely: war, justice, language, religion, an early start, an instinct for pleasure, and a sense of history and destiny. Each category is contorted to fit the distorted view of history that Marcos is aiming for. Memory is integral to the survival of an individual or people.

The loss of memory is akin to the loss of life itself. "The firebrands of the revolution, forgotten after five years by a people who refused the burden of memory, had succumbed to pneumonia and tuberculosis." Each new upheaval in Philippine society is followed by a cleaning of the slate in that as a nation we forget what has happened before, "everything is constantly wiped out by clockwork destruction: typhoon, tsunami, earthquake, drought." Every era of Philippine history experiences memory loss, an amnesia that forces the new generation to fill in the gaps as best it can. Thus, "the firebrands of the revolution", "stones and gems" from a long lost ship, the "German studios along Calle Escolta in Manila," each is a memory consigned to the forgotten. Yet each is a memory with value that can no longer be tapped for it is gone. We let go of "secret memories" for they bring "back nothing at all, too little and too late," we have forgotten who we are.

However, while memory is intrinsically linked with the past, it holds the promise of the future as well. "It had never seemed possible that any man could exist in this world without any memory...". While the absence or loss of the past is tragic, it is possible to replenish memory, "Everything seemed to carve in her a vacuum into which she could now pour new memory, new beginnings...".

In a constantly changing world there are always new lessons to be picked up; moreover there are always lessons to be relearned. For "their minds still searching for truth", is how Empire of Memory describes the youth, the truth being the memories behind a nation stunted by continuous upheavals, calamities, revolutions and amnesia. Even old men can change and again find new memories. General Zabarte, a man who has certainly seen his share of the harshness of life, "felt he had come to the end of a journey that had taken him all his life to walk, and all he wanted was to retrace his steps and begin where he had left so long ago." Thus the beauty and pitfall of memory is that it is cyclical, once lost, it can be regained; one simply has to remember.

"Now his own life could begin at last."

No other character in the novel personifies this quest for memory, the search for an identity, more than the "Kristo of Akeldama", Sal X. Like the Philippines, Sal is a product of the mingling of different cultures and backgrounds. He, like the country, is a montage, a hybrid of different beliefs, race and most importantly, memories. Even his name smacks of Western influence, the letter X often being tacked on to add mystery and allure to any product. The challenge for Sal is the integration of these conflicting ideas into a single identity. His own, unique identity.

Throughout the novel Sal is portrayed as a Christ figure. He is literally nailed to the cross every year with the only reason given as "I'll keep doing it until I find my father." His is not the messianic Christ, the Savior of all, but rather the suffering Christ who undergoes pain and suffering in search of a greater goal. Accordingly, if the Philippines is to regain its memory, it must accept all of its history; not merely the times of glory depicted in Jun and Al's book, but also the times of suffering, of defeat, of loss. Sal sees himself as "someone who takes on all the tribulations of the country, and sacrifices himself for all the sins of the world." His internal struggle for a unique identity separate from those of his forebears is a microcosm of the struggle of the Philippine nation to find its own roots, and as such, find its own identity.

Eventually Sal arrives in Manila where "everybody listened" to his music, so much so that a healing effect was attributed to listening to his tunes. This "toning" was all that gave people hope and the "Kristo of Akeldama" has become the "Kristo of Metro Manila." Both worlds of the Philippines, rural and urban, thirst for the same thing: a savior to show them their identity. "People here say I'm a prophet," say Sal at one point; certainly he is a harbinger of a new identity that manages to fuse the heterogeneous mixture that is Philippine culture into something new, unique and homogenous.

"God Help Us."

Empire of Memory is filled with biblical allusions: aside from Sal X as a suffering Jesus Christ, there are references to the crucifixion, "students were holding up crowns of thorns", Tonio Paredes as Zaccheus, the man who climbed the tree to get a better glimpse of Jesus, Akeldama as a modern Sodom, and perhaps even the coat of John Lennon as an allusion to the coat of Joseph the Dreamer. The titles of the chapters themselves seem borrowed from the bible (Brothers at War, Blood and Glory, Promised Land).

These parallelisms are important as the bible too is a book of history. It chronicles the journey of the Jews who themselves were in search of their own identity amidst the desert. Both Empire of Memory and the epic of Jun and Al are exhortations to remember the past and through it, conceive the future. That Empire of Memory so explicitly alludes to the bible is a suggestion that only through the passage of suffering and remembrance of the past can we hope to journey towards a better future. Both the bible and Empire of Memory remind us that the path of a nation, of a people, is long and arduous.

Perhaps the novel's most striking allusion to the bible is the story of two brothers; General Jose Zabarte and communist rebel Antonio Zabarte. Each is filled with loathing for one another yet both profess love of country, only showing it in different ways. Just as Cain and Abel struggled to fashion an identity in the new world created by God, so too do the Zabarte brothers strive to come to terms in a new nation searching for its identity. Just as Abel respected the authority of the Lord while Cain rebelled, Jose takes the path of the government while Antonio eschews authority.

Fortunately, unlike Cain and Abel, the Zabarte brothers reconcile without bloodshed. Jose proffers the proverbial olive branch, "We have fought this war long enough... Let there be peace at least between us." In the end we are our brother's keeper and the quest for identity need not end in violence and death.

"They are weary from waiting... yet... they stagger out of their homes, hoping this one, at last, will bring salvation, reprieve, more hope."

After the suffering, the loss of memory and the harshness of life, it may be thought that the Empire of Memory is an empire of the damned, consigned to repeat the same mistakes and pains all over again. Yet the novel ends not with loss but with hope. Sal X finally comes to terms with himself and forges his own identity, eventually ending up with Meg. Fittingly their child is named Siddhartha, perhaps named after Siddhartha Gautama, more popularly known as Buddha. Gautama preached a religion of peace and tranquility whose key was the mastery of one's self. Similarly, Sal stills the turmoil within him. His final cathartic act was the composition of Empire of Memory, a piece that combined the disparate parts of his past (American and Filipino), "using strings, bamboo flutes, gamelan, drum synthesizers, percussion, acoustic piano, winds and five voices" to establish a fusion of cultures and oneness of identity.

Echoing Christ, suffering need not be simply suffering but rather a means towards salvation. This is expressed in the drowning of Lolita, of whom the elders murmur, "death; 'salvado,' redemption." It is in the suffering, the turmoil of the quest for memory and identity, that we find redemption and the hope that, finally, after this "last deluge" will come a time of promise and prosperity. We undergo one trial after another, like Christ, in the hope that they culminate in redemption.

Culminating the biblical allusions is a star which "fills the sky with a purple glow, it bursts into a thousand pulsing neutrons... and they cascade in tiny flickering rainbows". Just as in the bible the birth of the Savior is announced by a star, so too does the novel end with a star, in waiting and in hope.


For my money this book is a strong contender for the great Philippine novel. During my stay in college, I got the impression that the work traditionally feted as the great Philippine novel is A Woman with Two Navels . Don't you believe it. Empire and Woman topically share the shame theme of identity and searching. The title alone of Woman implies two mothers, or at least, two sources of nourishment for an infant. Personally though I found Woman to be staid, and well, boring. (This is not to knock Nick Joaquin, I like some of his short stories, particularly May Day Eve.) Empire on the other hand is alive; it's opening chapter after all details how Filipinos chased the Beatles out of the country! Pop, love, treachery, rebellion, fantasies, hip, remorse. If for nothing else Empire captures perfectly what a crazy country the Philippines is, an exasperating, befuddled country of forgetful romantics.

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