In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr describes memory as ‘a pinball in a machine – it messily ricochets around between image, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off.’ That’s what Filipino author Danton Remoto uses to craft his most intimate novel, Riverrun.
The Philippines edition of Riverrun was first released in 2015, and the international edition was published in 2020 by Penguin South East Asia. This expanded edition has two additional chapters that are set in London and Scotland.
The form of the novel is a memoir. It chronicles the life of Danny Cruz, a young gay man in the Philippines between 1960s and 1970s in two parts. As the title suggests, the narrative runs gently like a river. This coming-of-age story is exquisitely told through vignettes, short prose, recipes (yes, you read it right) and song lyrics. It begins with Danny learning alphabets before he enters kindergarten. His mother would guide his hand to form ‘the arcs, loops and crosses, the dips and turns of the letters’.
Remoto is a keen observer of people and situations. He has a way of presenting beautiful quotidian moments in a delicate manner that shows the longing and the depravity of a human soul. One is the tragic story about his cousin, Naomi, a bright and sassy girl, who runs away from home with a classmate at the university. Before long, she returns home not only with a broken heart, but expecting. She eventually dies from a complication during childbirth. Though the family mourns for her death, her uncle is less sympathetic. Being a staunch Catholic who reads the Good News gospel during service, he has no qualms in expressing his disdain for Naomi’s actions and how God disapproves of them. Such is precariousness of youth and the hypocrisy of Catholic faith, which many of us have witnessed at some point in our lives.
The sharing about his sexual awakening as a teenager illustrates the tension between his innate desire and the societal norms. Living in a deeply Catholic and conservative society where gay relationships are frowned upon, he can’t express outwardly what he really feels internally about his sexual inclination in those times. As a result, he often let those cherished moments slip by. The time when he and Luis are sitting on the Ferris wheel at a local carnival, and his desire to touch Luis’s hand that is within reach. The private moment he almost professes his love to Mario at a garden in the chilly air.
However, what I enjoy most about this novel is the folklore and mythologies that Remoto weaves into his story. The family’s housemaid, Ludy often narrates Filipino mythologies to little Danny during meal times. Her narration of Manananggal, an evil spirit that assumes the form of a shy and demure woman in the day and morphs into a beast with the most powerful wings by night, is most alluring and terrifying at the same time. A nymph who lives in the bottom of the village’s lake and takes the life of a young man every year becomes the centre of attention when Danny’s classmate, Felix, disappears in the lake. After diving into the depth of the lake a couple of times, a Navy frogman finally encounters the diaphanous woman in white and has to plead with the spirit to let the boy go. Here’s the fun fact: this is based on a true story.
Not only do these folklore and mythologies play an important part in Remoto’s childhood and upbringing, it adds texture and layers to the novel.
The volatile political landscape affects the lives of many who live under a corrupted military dictatorship. Remoto, who has lived through it, uses those events to give a hint of irony in his stories. Without naming the political figures, he describes who they are by indicating their idiosyncrasies, such as, the First Lady who amasses 3,000 pairs of Italian shoes. Students express their deep frustration and resentment through a mass demonstration outside of old Congress building during the president’s State of the Nation address. The confrontation between the police and the students is raw and heartbreaking.
‘The police and the military put on their black masks and began to lob canisters of tear gas into the air, in the direction of the protesters. Then they swooped down on the students, their wooden sticks and trenches swinging wildly. They bashed heads; they shattered arms and knees. You could hear the bones breaking. In turn, the students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, heaping a rain of curses on the cops and the soldiers.’
In short, Riverrun is a tender, poignant and moving novel that offers a glimpse of everyday life in the Philippines. Unlike a typical novel with memoir elements, Remoto uses evocative language to paint factual events and vivid description of places and people he encounters. The result: a lyrical prose that is filled with lovely details, such as kitsch-decorated jeepneys, the acacia tree in his home’s yard, and the food. It reminds me of reading a collection of creative non-fiction stories. But that’s what makes this novel so unique and beautiful. He said in one of his media interviews recently, ‘I wanted to show the dissonance between the official version of the news and the version that happened down there, in the real world. This is the real version that touched people’s lives, reshaping them into lives of sadness and grief.’
The description of those homely cuisines and food recipes just whets my appetite each time I turn those pages. It symbolises a spirit of home and family history. Remoto writes deftly about existing class disparity and social issues. Reading this book evokes a certain sense of nostalgia and satisfaction. Who knows, in a few years’ time, this novel might be considered to be part of the Filipino literary canon.