Monday, March 8, 2021

Speaking of tyranny: Manuel C. Lahoz’s ‘Of Tyrants and Martyrs”

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Reading Manuel C. Lahoz’s political memoir took me back to some of my earliest bad memories. I was born in 1972, just a bit over three months after Martial Law was declared, just about the time Typhoon Undang exited the Philippine Area of Responsibility and whipped Vietnam. Revisiting those years are not my cup of tea, quite frankly, but Lahoz writes so eloquently of them, and so I revisit those years as seen through his lens.

I’d first heard of this manuscript during a lunch gathering from Lahoz himself, during one memorable lunch at the Purple Yam Manila hosted by Asian Journal’s Prosy Delacruz a couple of years ago. He’d told me he was writing a political memoir set in the bloody years of Ferdinand E. Marcos’ Martial Law. “It will be a very painful read,” he’d told me then. He left it at that and we partook of some excellent pork belly lechon that had been braised in coconut water and spices and roast until the meat was fork-tender and the skin on the pork belly roast was crisp and perfect. As wonderful as that lunch was, I anticipated this book with more relish than I’d enjoyed the food and conversation at the Purple Yam.

I’d already made up my mind about the as-yet-untitled book manuscript: I would have to read it, painful read or not. History is rarely pain-free, and one must navigate the painful parts in order to know what should never be repeated. Martial Law ala Marcos is one of those things for which the phrase “never again” was crafted. We must learn from our mistakes—and the more a mistake hurts, the more we should learn from the hurt.

Fast forward to the National Book Awards, where “Of Tyrants and Martyrs” (University of the Philippines Press) was adjudged the Best Book of Nonfiction Prose in English. Amid the ambience of prestige of the NBA awards night on Nov. 24, I was fortunate enough to meet Lahoz again, and shake his hand in congratulations. I was one of the NBA judges from the Manila Critic’s Circle, and that afforded me a chance to read “Of Martyrs and Tyrants.”

Lahoz’s memoir is written with such generosity and candor—something that authors can learn from and recreate in their own work. We talk so much of the unsung heroes of Martial Law, have been doing this for more than three decades. Lahoz tells the stories of those unsung heroes he’d known during those dark days.

This insightful and detailed account of the heroism of these people he names and writes about with such empathy could well serve as inspiration and guide, as well as that closer look at tyranny that we all need so badly in this era of historical revisionism.

Had this book come out earlier, I believe that there would have been more vocal opposition to the burial of one plunderer in the hallowed ground holding the nation’s heroes. That said, this book is still an excellent read, especially for the generation of Filipinos who were born after the 1986 Edsa Revolution.

We are a people who thrive on stories. We need to know about the heroes we so desperately seek, and we need reminders like this book to inform us that the heroes we seek are not distantly mythical. They walk among us. They could be us, given the necessary circumstances. In fact, our heroes are as human as we are, with all our fears and with all our cares. Lahoz’s memoir achieves this effect quite admirably, with simple, accessible language and a precision that shows just how much thought and work the author put into the text.

There is so much talk of radicalization at the grassroots, especially now, with some functionaries of government red-tagging journalists, peasant workers, whoever dissents to the way government operates. These functionaries of government and their trolls conveniently forget what begins the process of radicalization: Disenfranchisement, systemic and openly obvious corruption and the dearth of much-needed government services that results in widespread poverty. The hungry will always cry out in anger.

“Of Tyrants and Martyrs” brings us into the world of the disenfranchised and radicalized during one of the darkest eras in our history. It shows the process by which ordinary folk are pushed to fight for their rights and the rights of our people. It shows just how dearly these people paid for their words and actions, nevermind that it was the Marcos administration, its cronies and its enablers that created the fertile ground upon which the seeds of these people’s dissent fell.

This is more than just a tome that was worthy of its place among the best books of 2018, as per the National Book Awards. It is a political memoir that should be read by all Filipinos, especially schoolchildren.
After all, National Hero Jose Rizal, himself a writer, did say: “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan (Those who do not know how to look at where they’ve come from will never reach their destination).” Lahoz’s book gives us a good look at what the Martial Law era was like, a light we can shine on the present political reality of our nation so we won’t go fumbling in the dark like we did from 1972 to 1986.

Buy it. Read it. Keep it for your children and your grandchildren. Never forget. Neve

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