Nick Joaquin, the foremost chronicler of 20th century Manila, died early this morning, aged 86. His niece, Cecille Joaquin-Yasay said that he had not been been ill: "He was fine. He was drinking beer and writing.”
At his best Joaquin could reach heights of lyricism not reached by many. Here is Bitoy’s final speech from Portrait of the artist as Filipino:
Well, that was the last October the old city was ever to celebrate. And that was my last time to see it still alive – the old Manila, my last time to see the Naval procession advancing down this street, and to salute the Virgin from the balconies of the old Marasigan house.
It is gone now – that house – the house of Don Lorenzo el Magnifico. This piece of wall, this heap of stones, are all that’s left of it. It finally took a global war to destroy this house and the three people who fought for it. Though they were destroyed, they were never conquered. They were still fighting right to the very end – fighting against the jungle.
They are dead now – Don Lorenzo, Candida, Paula – a horrible death, by sword and fire … they died with their house and they died with their city – and maybe it is just as well that they did. They could never have survived the death of old Manila.
And yet – listen! – it is not dead; it has not perished! Listen Paula! Listen Candida! Your city – my city – the city of our fathers – still lives! Something of it survives, and will survive, as long as I live and remember – I who have known and loved and cherished these things!
(Nick Joaquin, A portrait of the artist as Filipino, 1966)
Any actor worth his salt would die for lines like that.
I went to the opening night of the brilliant gender-bending performance of Portrait – starring Behn Cervantes and Anton Juan as the old maids Candida and Paula – at the CCP a couple of years ago. A few minutes before the curtain rose, the author took his place in the front row. I nipped down with my tatty copy of Portrait to ask him to sign it. Nick looked flattered and asked my name. “Al” I said. “What?” “AL”. “WHAT?” “AL” his female companion and I both bellowed (by now the whole theatre was staring at these three lunatics shouting AL at each other). In a moment of inspiration I tried a new tack: “AL, AS IN ALFRED”. “Why didn’t you say so” he grumbled. And that is how I came to possess a copy of Portrait inscribed “To Alfred. Happy viewing”. I treasure it.
Nearly all of Nick Joaquin’s vast output concerned his native city. Only last month I gave a departing friend a copy of Manila, My Manila, handsomely bound in its Bookmark edition, as a memento of her stay here. He was a popular historian, not only in the sense that he tried to make his histories lively and accessible, but because he strove to reflect the story of ordinary Manileños. Here is an extract from his interview with Dr Gisbert “one of the few male survivors (probably not more than fifty in all) out of more than three thousand men who were ‘collected’ by the Japanese garrison, herded into Fort Santiago and, two days later, were bombarded by a cannon, placed at a distance of a hundred metres from the prison building.” Dr Gisbert tended to the sick and the wounded at San Agustin during the carnage perpetrated by the Japanese troops:
“The real heroines at San Agustin were the prostitutes: they were the ones who helped me. The Japanese had set up whorehouses all over Intramuros for their soldiers, there must have been hundreds of prostitutes in Intramuros at the time: the Japanese used to make them line up like troops. I used to look down on their profession, now I look up to it. Whenever a Japanese soldier was about to hack down a Filipino, a prostitute would come running and coax the soldier away, promising to make him happy. During those days before we were liberated it was the prostitutes I depended on as I nursed the sick and wounded. I would tell them I needed whisky or rum, to use on my patients, and they would come back with four or five bottles of Marca Demonio. I’d say I needed bandages and they would bring me US army linen. I’d say I wanted all the dead bodies cleared away and those brave women would carry out the corpses and bury them”. (Nick Joaquin, ed, Intramuros, Inquirer, 1988)
In addition to his writing, Nick Joaquin worked hard to make San Miguel the Philippines' largest company. Soon after I had arrived in the Philippines I attended a literary dinner above Solidaridad bookshop. Towards the end of an urbane and literary evening, the calm was shattered by the arrival of Nick, somewhat dishevelled it must be said, and in a rambunctious mood, but nevertheless witty and entertaining.
Behind the booming voice and devil-may-care attitude was a dedication to writing. Joaquin could hardly have produced the volume that he did without strong internal discipline. The excellent biography of him on the Magsaysay awards site notes his writer’s routine:
He has zealously carved out private space in his home where he writes reams in longhand or on a typewriter. Though he gives strangers the impression of someone careless and even dissolute, Nick is a very disciplined writer. He wakes up early to read the newspapers, takes breakfast, and, from 9:00 AM to 12 noon, retires to his library on the second floor of his house where no one is allowed to disturb him. In his clean and spare study, with books on shelves lining the walls and, in the center, a chair and a table with a manual typewriter, Nick does his work. From 1:00 to 3:00 PM, he takes a siesta and, often, his second bath of the day, and then from around 4:00 PM onwards, he is out of the house to go to the editorial office or explore his favorite haunts in Manila.
I can’t really thinking of a way to sum up his life, except to say that he dedicated it to his native city, which he loved, criticized, railed against, and described better than anyone else.
… Races and empires and religions have washed over it; the warlike have used thunder to claim it and the city, smiling, has allowed them their foolish moment. Age after age, its lovers have hailed its rebirth or bewailed its perishing, while outside continued the traffic for strange webs with Eastern merchants. And all this has been but as the sound of lyres and flutes. (Nick Joaquin, Manila, My Manila, Bookmark, 1989)