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Novelist 'Celebrates' the Painful Absurdities of Life in Her Native Philippines

July 08, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Anna can't laugh, never laughs. Eliza laughs all the time, seemingly amused by everything, including death and torture.

Author Ninotchka Rosca became both these characters as she wove their fictional lives into her first novel, "State of War," but it's Eliza whom the Philippine expatriate resembles when she talks about her life and world view.

She giggles when describing the six months in 1972 she spent in one of the detention camps operated by the regime of then-President Ferdinand Marcos. Her despair for the future of her homeland makes her chuckle.

It's not that she's daft. But the dark pressures of history have twisted the Philippine sense of humor, Rosca said. "If we didn't laugh at the situation, we would probably go berserk. So we look at it as comic absurdity."

Absurdity of Life

Rosca's novel, just released by Norton, celebrates the absurdity of life in the Philippines under a fictional regime not unlike that of Marcos. With its rich cast of eccentric characters, fantastic happenings, complex interrelationships of families and folklore piled generation upon generation, the book has the magical feel of novels by Latin American Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to whom reviewers compared Rosca's two earlier collections of short stories.

But Rosca earned her reputation in the Philippines as a journalist, and "Endgame," Rosca's nonfiction account of the fall of Marcos, published last year by Franklin Watts, contains people and scenes no less peculiar than those in her often cockeyed novel.

"Someone said, because we never invented a person as bizarre as Mrs. Marcos in our literature, life had to invent her," Rosca said. What's happening in the Philippines now, with the corpse of Ferdinand Marco's mother on tour in a glass coffin, is "pure Marquez," she said.

Taken together, Rosca's fiction and reportage for several Philippine newspapers--and more recently for American publications such as The Nation and Ms. magazine--compose what some observers have called "the voice of a Philippine generation." But it's a voice not all Filipinos, there or in the United States, are comfortable hearing.

Rosca herself is a product of the '60s, an era middle-class Filipinos encountered in the Westernized media and quickly adapted as their own, she said. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez provided the sound track for the massive demonstrations that erupted in the streets of Manila against the involvement of Philippine troops in Vietnam.

Mimeographed Arrest Order

But the martial law that was only a distant concern for American radicals became a long reality in the Philippines, and as American activism began fading to Yuppiedom, charges of corruption against the Marcos regime and "basic problems of underdevelopment" inspired Philippine activists to continue lashing out, Rosca said. For activists in Manila, the '60s never ended.

Soon after Marcos declared martial law in 1972, a white, unmarked car arrived at Rosca's doorstep, she said, and escorted her to the headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary, she said. An officer handed her a mimeographed arrest order, with her name typed into one blank space. In the other blank were the charges: "Suspicion of having committed or being about to commit rebellion, sedition and/or subversion."

"It was so funny! . . . I thought, 'Wow, I made it! Heavy!"

Rosca became one of about 300 reporters, out of an estimated total of 70,000 people, detained during the nine years of martial law, she said. Her only act of rebellion, she contends, was reporting what was happening to her country.

In "State of War," a character named Col. Urbano Amor, known as "the Loved One," derives sadistic pleasure from watching his men torture political prisoners in a cell he calls "the romance room." Unlike his men, he preferred to rape "the soul" by probing detainees for the minute details of their lives, Rosca wrote.

Perhaps because of the connections derived from a middle-class background, Rosca was not tortured or raped during the six months she was detained, as were many of her friends. But the interrogations took a toll.

Even now, when asked her age, Rosca becomes defensive. "I've reached the age of consent," she said, then quickly apologized. "Evasion is my natural response," she said. "I'm not trying to be difficult. (But) I went through five interrogations with the military" during her six months in detention. Answering personal questions is still not something she likes to do.

After she was released from detention, Rosca worked as a documentation specialist with an investment company in Manila. "But everyone had a double life by that time," and Rosca was also raising money for people "who had to disappear" from government view.

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