Penman No. 53: Manila, femme fatale

Manila-NoirPenman for Monday, July 1, 2013

FIRST OF all, I’d like to invite my readers to the launch this coming Saturday of a unique and exciting new book, a collection of stories to which I made a modest contribution. The book’s title is Manila Noir, and it contains 14 stories written mainly by Manila-based authors, with each story focused on a specific district of the metropolis (mine, not surprisingly, was Diliman).

Edited by the accomplished Jessica Hagedorn, whose own Dogeaters made waves in international publishing in 1990, Manila Noir is the latest book in a long series published by Akashic Press—a series that includes books set in places as diverse as Chicago, Copenhagen, and Delhi. This local version (reprinted by Anvil Publishing) features pieces from Gina Apostol, Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo, F.H. Batacan, Jose Dalisay Jr., Lourd de Veyra, Eric Gamalinda, Jessica Hagedorn, Angelo Lacuesta, R. Zamora Linmark, Rosario Cruz-Lucero, Sabina Murray, Jonas Vitman, Marianne Villanueva, and Lysley Tenorio.

Here’s what Publishers Weekly says about the book: “While certain cities in past Akashic volumes might appear to lack an obvious noir element, Manila (like Mexico City, which shares many of the same problems) practically defines it, as shown by the 14 selections in this excellent anthology. As Hagedorn points out in her insightful introduction, Manila is a city burdened with a violent and painful past, with a long heritage of foreign occupation. The specters of WWII (during which the city suffered from U.S. saturation bombing), and the oppressive 20-year reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos live on in recent memory. The Filipino take on noir includes a liberal dose of the gothic and supernatural, with disappearance and loss being constants.”

As the French word for “black” suggests, noir is a mode of storytelling that dwells on the dark side of human nature, with crime as a central element or a specter hovering above the story.

In her introduction, Hagedorn herself notes that “I think of Manila as the ultimate femme fatale. Complicated and mysterious, with a tainted, painful past. She’s been invaded, plundered, raped, and pillaged, colonized for four hundred years by Spain and fifty years by the US, bombed and pretty much decimated by Japanese and American forces during an epic, month-long battle in 1945. Yet somehow, and with no thanks to the corrupt politicians, the crime syndicates, and the indifferent rich who rule the roost, Manila bounces back. The people’s ability to endure, adapt, and forgive never ceases to amaze.”

And this book, I guarantee you, will not fail to amaze. Join us—Jessica and my co-authors—for a round of brief readings, a Q&A, and a book signing session from 4 to 6 pm, July 6, at National Book Store Glorietta 1 in Makati. See you there!


IT WAS with deep sadness that I received, by text message, the news of the sudden passing of one of my dearest friends, Luverne Gueco. Luverne was also a brother in the profession, having served as foreign news editor at the Inquirer for many years. But more important to me than that, he was my kumpare, my confidante, and my partner in crime 30 years ago, when we were all in our mid-20s and romping through life like young men do. Luverne and I were part of a rather remarkable stable of writers and artists in the Economic Information Staff of the National Economic and Development Authority, a group recruited and supported by our visionary boss, Dr. Gerry Sicat.

It was a group that included former newsmen Jun Medina, Wilson Bailon, and Efren Cabrera; the now-Canada-based poet Patty Rivera; writers Fidel Rillo, Lilia Santiago, Jess Santiago, Reuel Aguila, Eric Caruncho, Joey Papa, and Minnie Quemuel; the future lawyer and now Undersecretary Rey Cruz; and let’s not forget a pretty artist named Beng, who worked with fellow artists Anna Nolasco and Herick Ventura. Not surprisingly, our immediate supervisor was himself an artist, the tenor Frankie Aseniero.

Although we were working under martial law, the NEDA then felt like a kind of Camelot, and we were all grateful for the little haven that Dr. Sicat created for long-haired, irreverent types like us (another officemate, albeit in another division, was the renowned playwright and another dear friend, the late Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega). As an ex-detainee, I failed my security clearance check, but Dr. Sicat took it upon himself to cover for me and sent me to the Development Economics program in UP to cool off for a year.

Luverne was in the thick of all this, one of the most dependable writers in the group. He had also been with the Left, and the stories he shared about what he had gone through seared themselves into my memory, so much so that I used the most painful one—about a rebel who took it upon himself to execute his wife after discovering she was an enemy spy—in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (1992).

After hours, our friendship developed in countless pool halls, beerhouses, and girlie bars (we were certainly no saints). We played pusoy, darts, and billiards with wild abandon. Luverne was a gifted pool player—this was the dawning of the age of the Pinoy pool champion, when Amang Parica was still king and young bucks like Bata Reyes and Django Bustamante were still hungry for glory. (I, on the other hand, was what the pros derisively called a “tama-bola,” a guy who could barely hit the target with the cue ball, let alone pocket it.) When Luverne married his wife Judith and became a dad, I became godfather to his son Elias. Luverne was always a motorcycle kind of guy, and had his share of bad spills, but when he went out looking for his first car, I convinced him to get the same car I already had—a VW Beetle.

Perhaps fittingly, Luverne collapsed while doing what he loved doing most—playing pool. I’m not sure if it was a stroke or a heart attack, but the end came swiftly. He was only 62.

I’m devoting all this space to the passing of someone who lived the quiet, uneventful life of a desk editor not just to mourn the loss of a friend, but also of the kind of friendship forged in the real world. Ironically, I didn’t see much of Luverne after NEDA—these past 30 years—and our last meeting was about a year ago, but there was never a moment during those decades when I wouldn’t have listed him among my six closest friends, people whom I could count on to help me in a bind, no questions asked, and to whom I would throw the same lifeline. How many people have earned your trust and affection like that?

I’m not on Facebook—one of the country’s last holdouts—for one stubborn reason: I can’t accept the Facebook definition of “friend.” To be my friend, we should have broken bread and maybe a few precious other things together; we should have rejoiced and despaired together; we should have found each other’s weakest spots, but let them be; we should have disagreed on many things, but agreed on more. On Facebook, “friendship” is a convenience, just as easily disposed of with a mouse click to “unfriend.” I’d much rather wait five years to talk to someone like Luverne and pick up where we left off as if those five years had been just yesterday.

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