The novel’s seamless intertwining of the characters’ lives with contemporary Philippine and Chinese history brings to life the so-called First Quarter Storm of student activism and the formation of the New People’s Army in the Philippines, and China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The movement goes awry resorting to terrorist tactics, summary executions and betrayals of faith
This was a surprising read: surprising in the sense that I thought it'll be a long and boring read, but it wasn't. It's 354 pages long, font size 8, and the first part of the book did not made sense at first since it was not arranged chronologically. Reading the book afterwards, I had to go back to the first page, just to have a feeling of closure about the events that happened.
Reading this book gave me a sense of how it is to live and think like a Communist: Discussion Groups, Armed Struggle, Marxist-Lenin-Mao Tsetung Thought, "Sexual Oppurtunism", Criticism-Self-Criticism. Kinda eerie that these Ideologies, they're like Religion for some people - something that the actually live and imbibe, something that they actually leave their former lives for. Most of the Communist characters in the novel were from UP, and no wonder my parents, who lived through the Seventies, had hesitations when I said that I wanted to go to UP. Their fear had a basis.
Also, it made me curious about the Plaza Miranda Bombing. So was Marcos really right that it was the Communist that did it? This book said it was, but then it's a ficitional work after all. Made me reasearch the Plaza Miranda bombing in Wikipedia.
Disappointing. Nothing less can describe the supposedly untold stories unveiled by Mario Miclat in Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions.
Miclat’s uninspired narration of his misadventures as a youth activist in the Philippines in the late 60s and early 70s and his subsequent exile to the People’s Republic of China only manages to share some of the most worn out black propaganda against the Philippine legal progressive movement and the underground revolutionary movement.
For starters, we have the usual gossip against the Philippine communist party founder Jose Ma. Sison’s supposed romantic entanglements. There is also the not so-secret bungled arms shipment from China, of which communist party statements assessing the negative experience can be readily accessed online. And then we also have the supposed role of the Sison in the Plaza Miranda bombing.
A constant theme running throughout the book would be the denigration of the sacrifices and hardships entailed by serving the people wholeheartedly in the revolutionary underground movement and legal democratic people’s organizations in favor of the bourgeois comforts that Miclat has attained. This is not surprising for his changed circumstances into a high ranking bureaucrat in the University of the Philippines came alongside a 180 degree about face from his former convictions.
Miclat, for instance, denigrates the youth and student movement that led the First Quarter Storm (FQS) for allegedly wrecking the lives and leading to the deaths of thousands of young Filipinos. He seems to have forgotten that it is precisely this very movement which became the core that galvanized an entire generation in the life-and-death struggle against the brutal Marcos dictatorship.
More specifically, he looks down on the likes of the late FQS veteran Monico Atienza who committed himself to the struggle for national liberation and genuine freedom up to his last days. Concerned only with surface appearances, Miclat can only sneer at Atienza’s meager salary as an assistant instructor at the University of the Philippines.
This propensity towards the selfish taking of the easy way out, myopic careerism, and indifferent minding of one’s own business that characterizes the bourgeois class is emphasized in his expression of gladness over his daughter’s having passed a world that “is not as tumultuous as ours.” He talks as if his relatively comfortable stay in China, pampered as he was by the luxury provided by the Chinese “comrades,” was really that “tumultuous” to begin with in contrast to the life and death struggles of the tens of thousands who directly organized and mobilized against the Marcos dictatorship and the subsequent regimes.
Tying all these threads is Miclat’s confession that his writing “may be subject to lapses,” that the text is “my [his] version of the event… They are honest” and that of the approximation “of what the characters might have said.” Not only is the accuracy of the text here made problematic but more importantly, his construction of the narrative in accordance to the leisured reactionary position from which he views the past and present in retrospect is exposed.
Fortunately, Miclat’s own experiences does not reflect the overall practice of the tens of thousands who partook in the heroic anti-dictatorship struggle and the present-day continuing movement for national liberation and social justice. The first edition of Benjamin Pimentel, Jr.’s biography of Edgar Jopson, Lualhati Milan-Abreu’s Agaw-Dilim, Agaw-Liwanag, or even Jun Cruz Reyes’ Armando provides a better perspective of these struggles.
In spite of the long list in the 2009 Man Asian Literature Prize, Miclat’s novel/personal memoir ultimately fails as a literary text, an autobiographical document, or a social commentary. In the ambitious stab to be all three, Miclat ends up with a haphazardly interwoven amalgam of bland reminiscences, petty intrigues, half-baked theorizing, and the most reactionary ideas.
Far from offering any stunning new secrets about the underground movement, Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions merely rehashes the same old tired tirades against revolutionary currents.