Canadian journalist Bryan Johnson describes his book on the Philippine revolution, part of the first wave of more than a dozen books on the subject due out this year, as "a fusion--at times, it may seem an uncomfortable one--of first-person narrative and journalistic history."
He has reason to be concerned. The odd mix in Johnson's "The Four Days of Courage: The Untold Story of the People Who Brought Marcos Down" teeters uncomfortably, alternating among compelling eyewitness accounts, often oversimplified psychological analysis, interviews and sentiment.
His infrequent and oddly placed personal interjections merely break up the flow of an otherwise rapid-paced narrative.
Descriptions of the remarkable events and courage evident throughout the 1986 rebellion that ousted Ferdinand Marcos, colorful and heart-rending in their mere description, tend to snag on passages like this:
"Someone (in a group of journalists meeting after the presidential election in which Marcos had attempted to cheat his way to victory) launched into an unexpected spiel of romantic nonsense about the Catholic church. 'Cardinal Sin and the Catholic church won't let this happen again,' he said. We all turned toward the source of this naive paean to the Cardinal and I was astonished to discover it was me."
Johnson's strange, convoluted attempt at humility mixed with the implication that he alone knew what was to come sheds no historical light on the revolution, or on his own feelings at the time.
The list of those whose street duty "earned the right to a little grandiloquence" apparently includes Johnson himself.
Toward the end, when he describes jumping for joy along with his Filipina wife, the reader is left caring little about Johnson's own exuberance but wanting to know more about his wife, who appears at his side on a few occasions but is never given any substance in the book.
With the exception of an overreaching first chapter, describing the Philippines and establishing historical groundwork, "Four Days" is well laid out, however, building a heightened sense of drama as the Philippines races toward an unknown and potentially violent denouement.
His descriptions of repentant soldiers melting into the arms of their new civilian comrades, and the fear-turned-to-teary exuberance of the momentous defection to the rebels of a squad of helicopter pilots captures completely the flavor of those four days, fleshing out the television coverage followed by millions around the world.
When he follows the straight narrative, we are placed effectively inside the rebel camp, among some of the Marcos loyalist officers as they agonize over their orders, and in the streets, where average citizens untrained in the iciness of war, rise to their heroism in the face of tanks and guns.
Unfortunately, Johnson has limited himself, picking his own cast of heroes, omitting some key figures and falling prey to propaganda from those who were included.
He leans heavily on members of the reformist military group whose initial rebellion spurred the revolution. Perhaps he has ignored the fact that several of those who provided him details of their own roles still have a political agenda; the reformist officers continue to plot against the new government.
Johnson forgets that Sin, whose support for the rebels was vitally important, had to be nudged by more activist bishops to abandon his "critical collaboration" with Marcos in the months before the revolution.
The "declaration of war, Sin versus Marcos," described by Johnson, suggests that Sin has finally found someone as impressed with himself as he is. Sin continues to participate in the country's politics, contrary to his own injunctions to his clergy, recently asking Filipinos to vote against candidates in upcoming congressional elections who favor abortion or divorce.
The church certainly did not "hand-pick the opposition candidates" in last year's presidential elections, as Johnson claims.
On the other hand, some key heroes are left out of "Four Days."
No mention is made of Louie Beltran, the corpulent opposition publisher, Marcos' most strident newspaper critic, who stood off loyalist officers who came to close him down, seated at his desk, a grenade in each hand.
One brief line is given to Gen. Fidel Singson, who was given the first order to blow up the rebel helicopters the first night of the revolution, but delayed, putting off an inevitable fire fight when the rebels were at their weakest.
Most astounding, Johnson missed altogether the crucial role played by Gen. Rafael Ileto, now secretary of defense. Ileto, a respected military man banished by Marcos to an ambassadorship, acted as the main mediator between the Marcos and rebel forces. It was Ileto who first persuaded Marcos' chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, to postpone an attack on the rebels the first night.