Book Review: Poverty of Memory by Renato Redentor Constantino

HOWEVER cleverly written, newspaper columns have never been given a decent break.  Treated as the poor cousin of the essay, opinion columns and other similarly-configured pieces of writing have been disallowed membership into the literary club.  Which perhaps explains why in the early nineties, Adrian Cristobal decided against asking fellow columnist and current Makati representative Teodoro M. Locsin Jr. from writing the foreword of Pasquinades, a collection of Cristobal’s pieces printed in the weekend supplement of the defunct Daily Globe, of which Locsin was publisher.  “…I believe that a collection of newspaper columns in book form is sheer vanity: what is perishable—and newspaper pieces are perishable—should be allowed to perish without benefit of clergy,” Cristobal said in his book’s introduction. “[B]eing a ruthlessly honest writer, [TeddyBoy] might go at it too well for my comfort, and I happen to perversely value his friendship more than his honesty.”  Although Locsin was able to defend himself in a speech he delivered at the book’s launch which was later published in the Philippines’ Free Press, their witty exchange emphasized the amorphous position occupied by well-written, non-straightforward news pieces published in dailies, weeklies, and some glossies.  Are such pieces simply just passing fancies, perishable goods to be consumed today and discarded tomorrow? Is there a clear demarcation between the non-fiction piece written under a tight deadline as opposed to the one that was produced leisurely?  An easy enough answer is provided by American critic Cristina Nehring in a May 2003 Harper’s Magazine essay.  “[T]here is only good writing and bad writing, strong thinking and weak thinking,” she said, in a piece entitled, Our Essays, Ourselves: In Defense of the Big Idea.  Going by the Nehring protocol, the collections and anthologies of a number of Filipino writers are not going to lose their luster anytime soon. Besides the work of Cristobal and others, among these anthologies include Renato Redentor Constantino’s The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire.  With four sections discussing an impressive array of topics—an American anti-imperialist group protesting US annexation of the Philippines to a profile of Iran’s pro-poor prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh—Constantino’s collection is more than just a samples of good writing and in-depth research. It is proof that combining talent, tenacity, and noble intentions can do more than just beat deadlines: it can stimulate ideas, widen perspectives, and help propose alternatives to the current local millieu, which has only helped to deepen oppression, encourage mediocrity, and tolerate ignorance.  In “The vitamins of Erma Geolamin,” Constantino relates the life and times of a domestic helper who has spent 14 years in Hong Kong only to find out later that the money she sent home was squandered by her husband who has been living with another woman.  “Another familiar story…It’s like the relationship between overseas Filipino workers and the Philippine government,” Constantino says, referring to the larger, menacing yet often-overlooked form of squandering: the Philippine government’s automatic provision of using precious dollars earned by the likes of Geolamin to pay for fraudulent, graft-tainted debt, exemplified by the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). These automatic debt payments, Constantino adds, is “a monumental barbarity that re-exports the dollars remitted by overseas Filipino workers.”  While also celebrating the achievements of these unsung Filipinos, Constantino nevertheless offers a few rules for those intending to secure a brighter future for everyone.  “Rescuing tomorrow from those who wish to appropriate it carries some requisites,” he says in the introduction. “History must penetrate memory. Memory must permeate history. Act deliberately but with dispatch. Understand. Listen. Reach out. Act with others. Rescue tomorrow together. Hope abounds. “The future’s already here,” said the writer William Gibson. “It’s just not widely distributed yet.” Thankfully, in less than 300 pages, Poverty of Memory succeeds in its attempt to enrich and enliven Filipinos’ collective consciousness.

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This shortened version of a longer unpublished review will finally see print in the March 2 issue of Personal Fortune, the monthly magazine of Business Mirror, a Philippine broadsheet

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