From region to nation
By Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava
When prize-winning Hiligaynon short story writer and essayist Bel Sobrevega said in 1971 that “no other writer could rightly claim to have done more for Hiligaynon literature than Ramon Muzones,” he was not exaggerating. He was speaking the unburnished truth.
Consider his achievements. In 1946, Yuhum, a local vernacular magazine, changed publishing history in Iloilo City by serializing in 30 installments a coming of age novel by a young writer named Ramon Muzones which blended bildungsroman, history, legend, romance and epic. Entitled Margosatubig, it dealt with the arduous struggle of a young Muslim hero with a talisman to regain Margosatubig, the kingdom that his grandfather lost to an overweening tyrant. The hero’s own father tried unsuccessfully to regain it at the cost of his life.
The novel raised Yuhum magazine’s weekly circulation from 2,500 to 37,000 for 30 weeks, an impressive figure considering that its nationally circulated rival, Hiligaynon, published by Ramon Roces in Manila, only averaged 12,000 a week. Margosatubig’s success inspired Mariano Diolosa, an enterprising local publisher, to print the serial into book form. An equally enterprising reader made a minor fortune on by selling hundreds of copies to homesick Ilonggos abroad for two dollars a copy. This made Margosatubig, the first international Hiligaynon best seller. Ironically, only Muzones failed to make money on the book. Trusting Diolosa, he never asked for a contract for his royalties.
Written after World War II, the novel struck a nationalistic chord with its post-war audience who read into Muzones’ portrayal of his young hero’s repeated efforts to wrest back control of his kingdom, the Philippines’ own attempts to ward off successive foreign invasions.
When the novel came out, the most prestigious Ilonggo writers of the period vied with each other in lauding Muzones for his literary achievement. Conrado Norada raved about its soul-stirring and thought-provoking quality. Santiago Alv. Mulato praised its novel approach to language while Emilio Zaldivar called it a classic, equal to the best written in the past and in the present. But the most prescient comment came from Remigio Heredia who called Muzones “the natural inheritor of the tradition started by Angel Magahum, Serapion Torre, Magdalena Jalandoni and Miguela Montelibano, whom he not only equaled but surpassed.”
In calling Muzones “the natural inheritor” of the mantle of some of the biggest names in Hiligaynon literature then, Heredia prophetically defined the role Muzones was to take in Hiligaynon literature. Muzones combined Magahum’s touch for local color, Torre’s gift for language, Montelibano’s moral purpose and Jalandoni’s prodigious output.
Although Muzones tried his hand at various genres (romantic, realistic, humorous, satirical, socio-political) and proved equally adept in all, he found his métier in the epic-historical allegory. This can be seen in his Muslim trilogy: Margosatubig (1946), its sequel, Amurukpok (1948), and Maratabat (1950), where he developed the overarching theme of eternal vigilance as the price of freedom while expressing his deep admiration for the Muslim Filipino’s tenacious resistance to foreign rule. Given his idealist and reformist frame of mind, he was to go back again and again to this genre called by National Artist Virgilio Almario as “historical fantasy” (which Muzones may have invented) for it provided him with fodder to explore two themes he was obsessed with: the concept of an ideal reader and a just society.
A CHANGING ILONGGO SOCIETY
He wrote his most nationalistic novel, Shri-Bishaya, in 1969. A take-off on Pedro Monteclaro’s controversial Maragtas, Shri-Bishaya was a commentary on the oppressive Marcos regime as well as a “visionary projection” of an imagined pre-colonial Bisayan community in Edenic Panay. In 1973, he followed this up with Bugna, which traces the odyssey of a lower class or timawa hero who ascends into maginoo (lord) and agurang (elder) status through individual effort.
Earlier, in the sociopolitical novel Malala nga Gutom (Malignant Hunger, 1965), he set in contemporary times his concept of a just society by capturing the post-war socio-economic and political changes in Ilonggo society. He followed the dispersion of political power from Iloilo’s socio-economic elite represented by former Vice President Fernando Lopez to its entrepreneurial middle class epitomized by former Sen. Rodolfo Ganzon, the prototype of Muzones’ biblically named hero, Ismael Apostol. Apostol’s political ascendance was facilitated by the rise of an independent-minded Ilonggo voting public. In the process, Ganzon irrevocably changed Iloilo City’s political scene, paving the way for a more egalitarian Ilonggo society.
Muzones lived during a time of great socioeconomic and political ferment which he experienced firsthand. He was born in Lambunao, Iloilo, on March 20, 1913, to cochero Santiago Muzones and housewife Florentina Larupay during the second decade of American rule when elite nationalists, realizing the futility of armed struggle, shifted their energies to social and political reforms. Muzones became part of the change he wanted to ensue.
The period was marked by the flourishing of reform movements. Among them was the Asociacion Feminista Ilongga, the Philippine Independent Church, mutual aid societies, labor unions (which Muzones joined), and literary societies working for changes in language and literature (and which Muzones led). He threw his hat into the political ring as two-term city councilor in hopes of making a difference with his concept of timawaism (social and economic uplift through education) which served as the linchpin of Ganzon’s program. But Muzones was destined not to be a politician but a writer in Hiligaynon. Though he started as a writer in English, then in Filipino, once he embraced his native tongue as the language of his literary creations, his commitment to Hiligaynon, which he found richer and more nuanced than our national language, became total.
With Ernest Hemingway as his literary icon, he strove in Hiligaynon for a crisp, lucid, spare style characterized by short, staccato sentences, and terse presentation imitated by younger writers like Conrado Norada and Purita Araneta. They had him as literary model.
Starting his literary career at a time when the novel was just starting to emerge from the shadow of the corrido, Muzones brought about its most radical changes and ushered in modernism with his emphasis on dramatizing (“showing”) technique associated with the American tradition rather than the expository (“telling”) technique associated with the Spanish tradition. In so doing, he freed Hiligaynon literature from the influence of the corrido with its linear plotline, black and white characters, traditional pat happy ending and florid literary style exemplified by Jalandoni’s kilometric soliloquies, Torre’s lengthy digressions and Magahum’s elaborately detailed, catalogue-type descriptions.
THE DOMINANT IMPULSE IN HILIGAYNON FICTION
A literary colossus, he was hailed by his peers as the longest reigning (1938-1972) among the “Three Kings of the Hiligaynon Novel.” This was a title he shared with Torre (1920-1933 ) who represented the residual impulse and Conrado Norada (1973-1988) who stood for its emergent impulse. Representing its dominant impulse, Muzones lorded over the field for four decades with an unprecedented 61 completed novels. Nevertheless, Muzones’ importance lies not only in the quantity but in the quality of his literary output. In his 53-year literary career, he accomplished the following:
- Extend with remarkable versatility and inventiveness the Hiligaynon novel’s scope and style;
- Enrich Hiligaynon literature’s dramatis personae with his well-rounded yet flawed quester heroes and feisty heroines who, in meeting life on their own terms, often outsmart her heroes;
- Raise the level of the weekly serial with his well-crafted creations;
- Reinvent himself by pioneering in “first attempts” like the first Hiligaynon roman a clef (Maambong nga Sapat [Magnificent Brute], 1940), the first Hiligaynon feminist novel (Ang Bag-ong Maria Clara [The New Maria Clara], 1941), the first Hiligaynon novel of humor (Si Tamblot, 1948), and the first Hiligaynon political satire (Si Tamblot Kandidato Man [Tamblot is Also a Candidate], 1949).
Combining the best of the native and foreign traditions, he seamlessly integrated indigenous forms like siday, binalaybay, hurubaton with literary devices he picked up from Western literature like irony, allusion, and paradox in novels like Si Tamblot where he switches from prose to poetry and back with admirable comic invention.
He anticipated trends. Before feminism became a buzzword, he penned a series of women-centered novels from the 1950s (Himuga ni Eva [Eva’s Crime], 1957) to the 1960s (Kabuhi Sa Kabuhi [Life for Life], 1961) which dealt with the “woman question,” the double standard of morality, violence against women and sexual politics.
A rabid regionalist who got caught up in the “back to the native movement,” he exerted efforts to promote his native tongue. He authored a Hiligaynon dictionary and grammar to combat the youth’s growing preference for English. To address the downgrading of Hiligaynon to the language of the marketplace, he founded two writers’ groups dedicated to the enhancement, preservation, and perfection of his language which he wanted to decolonize, stripping it of its foreign borrowings. The first one was called Talapuanan Hiligaynon (Hiligaynon Society 1946) which upon his initiative fused in 1948 with Donato Flor de Liza’s Tulaling Bagacay (Reed Song) and Francis Jamolangue’s Talapuanan Sidlanganon (Oriental Society) to form Gakud ni Sumakwel (Knights of Sumakwel) or Sumakwelan, the biggest and longest existing group of writers in Hiligaynon throughout the country, where he served as the first president.
A prolific writer who cut his teeth writing three-fourths of his class’ themes in high school, charging 20 centavos per composition, he sometimes ran two serial novels of entirely different genres simultaneously, e.g., the humorous Si Tamblot and the romantic tale of supernatural haunting entitled Sandugo in 1948.
Muzones’ literary career spanned all the significant developments of the Hiligaynon novel, running through all its “isms” from feminism to magic realism. Not surprisingly, he is Hiligaynon literature’s most awarded writer. In 1988, he was conferred the Gawad Balagtas Award by the Unyon ng Manunulat ng Pilipinas; in 1989, the Gawad sa Sining trophy by the Cultural Center of the Philippines; and in 1998, the Gawad Bonifacio sa Panitikan award by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts for being the most outstanding Hiligaynon writer of the century.
MORE THAN A REGIONAL WRITER
Given his achievements, his talents are too vast to be contained in a region. He belongs to the nation.
Decades after his death, Muzones wears well as evidenced by the comments of such eminent personages as National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera who hails him “a master novelist who claims his rightful place in national literature” with Margosatubig. National Artist Virgilio Almario announced his support of Muzones as National Artist as early as 2012 in his foreword to an English translation of Margosatubig.
Prize-winning Ilonggo writer Leoncio Deriada calls him “a writer of epic proportions… whose recognition as National Artist is long overdue” while literary critic and writer Winton Lou Ynion contends that by writing in a minority language, Muzones succeeded where Rizal failed because the latter wrote in a foreign language that “only the wealthy and the privileged during his time could comprehend.” On the other hand, in the elusive search for the great Filipino novel that reflects “the Imaginary body of a nation,” Ynion holds that “literary circles manned by Manila who wrote in English and Tagalog/Filipino resulted in the neglect of a non-center representative language.”
Given that we are a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual people, the late National Artist Rolando Tinio contended as early as the 1970s that “the tradition of Philippine literature must necessarily be vernacular with literature in Spanish and English as minor phases in the historical continuum.” Nevertheless, it took 45 years after the Order of the National Artist was instituted to break the dominance of writers in English and Filipino in the National Artist awards. A study of the Gawad Bonifacio sa Panitikan awardees of 1998 shows regional writers can hold their own against their metropolitan counterparts. In the case of Muzones, while not the Renaissance man that the late Cebuano writer and politician Vicente Sotto was, nor the nationalist firebrand that the late National Artist Amado Hernandez was in comparison to his provincial peers, he was primus inter pares miles ahead of Waray Iluminado Lucente, Bicolano Mariano Perfecto, and Ilocano Leon Pichay in achievements. Considering his many groundbreaking accomplishments, it is only fitting that Muzones should be the first regional writer writing in his native tongue to be named National Artist in Literature.