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The Syntax of Nightmares

A Grammar of Dreams and Other Stories
by N.V.M. Gonzalez
University of the Philippines Press

“Who am I? What has happened to me? It is when these two questions begin to prod us into self-assessments and appraisements that we might claim we have a real measure of value”, writes N.V.M. Gonzalez in the Author’s Note of this anthology. Enriched by various folk tales and reminiscences, each of the ten stories in this volume explores these questions as they relate to the Filipino sense of identity. The settings of the stories range from nineteenth-century Mindoro to Rome in the recent past.

Gonzalez’s characters are undeniably Filipino, their sentiments shaped by the colonial forces in power to fit the blueprint for the “typical” Filipino of their time. Yet an even stronger loyalty binds them: their regional identity as people of Romblon, Mindoro, and Sipolog. The provinciano in them manifests itself almost unconsciously, even when they are far from their country.

Their experiences as local folk are part of their answer to the question “What has happened to me?” while their identity as provincianos is the most pertinent response to the query “Who am I?” For some of them, these are the only answers that they need. And yet this regionalism is what makes these people distinctively Filipino – although it does not necessarily imbue them with some semblance of nationalism.

The depth of their characterization gives Gonzalez’s characters a kind of timelessness which suggests the existence of a universal Filipino archetype. Yet the characters themselves are not stereotypical, for they possess a restlessness which stems from their latent but earnest desire to establish their personal definition of the Filipino identity, to attain the “Filipino dream”.

For today’s Filipinos, this dream is usually no more than a vague, persistent longing for “a simple but fulfilled life, “ compounded perhaps with the desire to go abroad, get a college degree or win the lottery. No matter how the individual Filipino defines this dream, it being muddled by colonial and regionalistic overtones, its cornerstones remain the values and restrictions imposed by family and tradition. At the same time, this conformist definition perpetuates the illusion of the “typical” Filipino.

Whether Filipinos seek the fulfillment of this dream in the barrio where they were born of in a far-off country, they inevitably bring their social orientation, values, and norms into play. Thus, the author has interwoven local folklore, beliefs, and customs into the stories. These “scraps and shards of history and memory…become the stories we tell,” Gonzalez states in the Author’s Note.

The importance of respect for tradition in most Filipinos’ lives is emphasized in the story “A Grammar of Dreams,” in which Mr. Llorar, a retired teacher, recounts how he and a colleague had once disturbed the burial caves of the Tinu-o tribe. He believes that the death of the official who had ordered them to take skulls from the caves was the punishment for those desecrations.

Family is always part of the Filipino dream, for the ties that bind are a strong as, or even stronger than, the allegiance that each one feels for his hometown and his motherland. The families depicted in these stories come from all walks of life; some cling firmly to their provincial roots, some venture out together into foreign lands. The lives of Mrs. Baya’s clan members in “A Land of Plenty” form a quaint, fascination collection of memories, while “Under the Southern Cross’ and “Serenade” offer glimpses into family life during the Spanish and American colonial periods. These families impose the unwritten rule of “family as centerpiece,” which is justified by our society’s patriarchal culture.

However, it is also the romanticized concept of family which promotes a conservatism that hinders the characters—and Filipino in general—from pursuing the “Filipino dream.” In fact, the definition of this Filipino dream is itself distorted and restricted to a tradition-bound ideal by the myths that such fictionalization propagates. At time, Filipinos do not even consciously recognize it for what it is, much less try to redefine it, since they are blinded by these myths which gloss over their own political and socio-cultural subjugation.

The Filipina, for instance is in many ways still repressed by conservative notions of family and tradition. The culture of nepotism and male dominance perpetuated by the Filipino family deprives women of many opportunities for empowerment. Students, spurred on by their parents, enter college with an eye on eventually working abroad, but the choice to live by this distorted version of the “Filipino dream” only lead to disillusionment once the nightmare behind the glorified facade is revealed.

As a result, one sometimes loses sight of the dream and the identity. The narrator in “Confessions of a Dawn Person” seeks to rediscover his roots and recapture his youth by taking a nostalgic trip to his birthplace in Romblon. Ironically, he is also the only character in any of the stories who explicitly voices out his recognition of his subservience to colonial domination.

These colonial influences—the subservient mentality, the belief that Filipino indigenous culture is inferior to that of the West—are what gave impetus to the illusion of the “typical” Filipino, but these origins have been obscured by the country’s experiences during centuries of imperialism.

Many of Gozalez’s other characters are travelers of some sort, like the fathers who were drifters but whose sons chose to stay put. The modern-day tourists in “A Day for Cardiff” and “Never Worry Over Your Errors,” on the other hand, relate with our desire to know and befriend Europeans and fellow Asians in the course of our travels.

Again, the provinciano identity is touted as the instinct which drives Filipinos to form amicable ties with foreigners. The countryside is depicted as a blissful utopia or a static showcase of the more idyllic lifestyle of the past. This produces a conformist mentality that hinders Filipinos from adhering to clearly-defined ideologies, which might at least offset the existing regionalism if not provide a means of unification.

How then are we to assert our Filipino identity? Is this identification simply a nationality or is it a state of being? Is it enough to answer the question posed to all of us: “Who are you?” The characters in Gonzalez’ stories seem too preoccupied with the everyday affairs of their simple lives to ponder on such questions. This pragmatism leads them to believe in the same illusions that generation after generation perpetuate, creating more willing victims of this vicious cycle of repression.

Still, some of the stories, such as “On the Eve,” reflect the frustration that comes from having to sacrifice intellectual endeavor to attend to more practical concerns. “Saubadia in Lavender” also deals with a similar theme, showing some promise of a growing consciousness which may yet liberate Filipinos.

Aside from presenting different facets of ordinary Filipino lives, these stories also display a skilful mastery of local color. The smooth transitions from factual narration to vivid metaphors provide a contrast to the peculiar cadence of small-town talk. But since the dialogues are mostly in English, this sense of “authenticity’ depends entirely on that distinctive rhythm that, due to the “typical Filipino” myth, our language is supposed to have.

Entire sentences in Spanish and French are also included in some of the stories with very little attempt at translation for the benefit of the reader, which is perfectly fine as long as one is familiar with these languages. But in the same light, why can’t some portions be written in Filipino – or Visayan, for that matter – if shifts in language are that crucial to the literary technique used?

The characters in this anthology do come up with their personal definitions of the Filipino identity: “Filipino And”—Filipino and Romblon Native, Filipino and Mindoreno, Filipino and Student, Filipino and Artist, Filipino and Family Man – these and many more roles combined with the state of being a Filipino are their answers to the question “Who am I?” This reality is effectively portrayed in the stories, although it is at the same time glorified as a form of misguided nationalism, a necessary part of the “Filipino dream”.


This book is available in at least 10 libraries in the LibraryLink network! Click here to find out where!

Source: Review by Maureen Gaddi Dela Cruz. First appeared in the Philippine Collegian,


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