Father’s Day

Fathers in fiction

Observed on the third Sunday of June by a number of countries, including our own, Father’s Day is an occasion for us to salute our fathers for their efforts, to reflect on how they have shaped and sustained our lives, and to celebrate fatherhood in general, including your own, if applicable (the jury is still out on owners of virtual pets, though).

The list that follows below was prompted by a writing assignment for Father’s Day in which I sought to follow a line of inquiry that seemed to me suitable for the event: how are fathers represented in our fiction? While the assignment ended up being shelved, I found the results of my research—which, owing to time constraints, must be understood as highly preliminary and provisional—to be intriguing: in three major works of Philippine literature, the father, even if acknowledged as heavily influential, is a present absence, invoked only in thought and speech by the other characters. Whether this is a symptom of a more general condition in our landscape of letters remains to be seen, but it is certainly worth mulling over, both as a phenomenon unto itself and as an indication of how fathers and fatherhood are made sense of in the larger arena of Philippine culture. (Elsewhere in the world, the novelist Andrew Martin explored the same issue in the realm of British fiction when he was asked to write and present the BBC documentary Disappearing Dad, and found that, in his survey of the English literary tradition, fathers are often missing or quickly done away with, as in children’s stories: “In the course of filming, I looked at a whole library-shelf full of children’s books, and dad had been killed off in almost every one.”)

Aeneas' Flight from Troy (1598) by Federico Barocci. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org.
Aeneas’ Flight from Troy (1598) by Federico Barocci. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org.

Duke Briseo
in Florante at Laura (1838) by Francisco Balagtas

Brought to life by way of the recollections of his son Florante, who for a good part of the poem is tied to a tree in a dark forest, bemoaning the cruel fate that has befallen him and those whom he loves, Duke Briseo is characterized as a father who practiced what might be known today as “tough love”. Florante declares that parental love involves ensuring that a child must not be indulged, spoiled, or cocooned in pleasure away from the world, for—in line with the long-held notion that suffering leads to improvement—he will be unable to develop the necessary fortitude to withstand the trials and tribulations of life otherwise, citing his own experience of growing up in what are arguably some of the darkest lines in Baltazar’s metrical romance:

“Pag-ibig anaki’y aking nakilala,
‘di dapat palakihin ang bata sa saya;
at sa katuwaa’y kapag namihasa,
kung lumaki’y walang hihinting ginhawa.”

“Sapagkat ang mundo’y bayan ng hinagpis,
namamaya’y sukat tibayan ang dibdib;
lumaki sa tuwa’y walang pagtitiis …
anong ilalaban sa dahas ng sakit?”

“Ang taong magawi sa ligaya’t aliw,
mahina ang puso’t lubhang maramdamin;
inaakala pa lamang ang hilahil
na daratni’y ‘di na matutuhang bathin.”

“Para ng halamang lumaki sa tubig,
daho’y malalanta munting ‘di madilig;
ikinaluluoy ang sandaling init;
gayundin ang pusong sa tuwa’y maniig.”

“Munting kahirapa’y mamalakhing dala,
dibdib palibhasa’y ‘di gawing magbata,
ay bago sa mundo’y walang kisapmata,
ang tao’y mayroong sukat ipagdusa.”

“Ang laki sa layaw karaniwa’y hubad
sa bait at muni’t sa hatol ay salat;
masaklap na bunga ng maling paglingap,
habag ng magulang sa irog na anak.”

“Sa taguring bunso’t likong pagmamahal,
ang isinasama ng bata’y nunukal;
ang iba’y marahil sa kapabayaan
ng dapat magturong tamad na magulang.”

Florante reveals that at one point, Briseo risks the grief of his wife Floresca to send his son, then 11 years old, to faraway Athens in order to study under the eminent and kindly teacher Antenor for nearly a decade. Floresca passes away before Florante can return, but, in spite of this unfortunate incident, Florante does not seem to resent his father’s decision, and in fact hails Briseo for the lessons that he has imparted, as well as mourns his beheading at the hands of the treacherous Count Adolfo.

Don Rafael Ibarra
in Noli Me Tangere (1887) by José Rizal

Don Rafael Ibarra, the richest man in the town of San Diego, is widely known to be just and honorable, and so it is a shock to his son Crisostomo when he comes home from Europe after seven years and finds out from Señor Guevara, an old lieutenant, that Rafael died in prison, accused, among other things, of being a subversive and a heretic. Worse, Crisostomo eventually discovers that Rafael was denied a proper place for his final rest: though initially placed in a grave, his body was later ordered exhumed and transferred to the Chinese cemetery, but ended up being tossed by the gravedigger into the river, on account of the weight of the corpse and the inclement weather. Determined to continue his beloved father’s good work, Crisostomo strives as best as he can to avoid trouble, even when he learns that Father Dámaso, the former curate of his hometown, had precipitated the persecution of his father, and considers him an enemy as well. Crisostomo finds that he cannot help himself, however, when, at a dinner hosted by Captain Tiago, which follows the ill-omened laying of the cornerstone of the schoolhouse that Crisostomo orders built for the village, Dámaso, “getting fat from so much scolding and so many beatings”, appears  and makes a point of insulting not only him, which he already did from the pulpit earlier that day, but also his father: outraged, Crisostomo pounces upon the portly Franciscan and takes up a sharp knife as if meaning to kill him, condemning the friar for insulting “what is to a son the most sacred of memories”, and challenging the members of the gathering to do the same:

“You who are here, priests, judges, could you see your aging father go without sleep for you, separate himself from you for your welfare, die of sadness in prison, sighing just to hold you, seeking one person to console him, alone, sick, while you are abroad… Could you later hear his name dishonored, could you find his tomb empty when you wanted to pray over it? No? You say nothing! Then condemn him!” (From the translation by Harold Augenbraum)

Don Lorenzo Marasigan
in A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino: An Elegy in Three Scenes (1952) by Nick Joaquin

Also referred to as “el Magnifico”, the same epithet associated with Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of the Republic of Florence during the Italian Renaissance and patron of such notable artists as Michelangelo Buonarotti and Sandro Botticelli, Don Lorenzo Marasigan is a scholar, a patriot who fought in the war for Philippine independence from Spain, and an artist who is said to have been a rival to no less than Juan Luna. While he never appears onstage during the performance, which is set in a house in Intramuros just before World War II, his presence, indexed by the titular painting that hangs on the fourth wall and thus is invisible to the audience, exerts great power. The great canvas, painted about a year before the narrative present of the play, depicts a scene described in the Roman epic Aeneid by Virgil: Aeneas carrying his father Anchises on his back as they flee the doomed city of Troy (Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, is, curiously, not included). What makes the picture a striking and—for most of the characters—disturbing sight is that both figures bear the face of Lorenzo: one as a young man, and the other as an old man. Because of Lorenzo’s reputation, the dual self-portrait provokes fierce competing interests: Candida and Paula, the daughters who live with Lorenzo, refuse to sell the work despite the poverty that creeps upon them day by day, while their siblings and the other characters urge them to give it up, together with the decrepit family house and the once-glorious days that it represents. As their lives slowly unravel, Candida and Paula struggle to hold fast to their values, and they become estranged from one another for a time. Finally, Paula realizes that the painting reveals a path to emancipation, albeit not the kind that the people around them keep urging them to seek, and sets her feet firmly upon it, taking her sister with her—a bold, if not reckless choice that reunites them with Lorenzo:

CANDIDA: May God forgive me for ever having desired the safeness of mediocrity!

PAULA (rising and drawing her sister up): Then stand up, Candida—stand up! We are free again! We are together again—you and I and father. Yes—and father too! Don’t you see, Candida? This is the sign he has been waiting for—ever since he gave us that picture, ever since he offered us our release—the sign that we had found our faith again, that we had found our courage again! Oh, he was waiting for us to take this step, to make this gesture—this final, absolute, magnificent, unmistakable gesture!

CANDIDA: And now we have done it!

PAULA: We have recognized our true vocation!

CANDIDA: We have taken our final vows!

PAULA: And we have placed ourselves irrevocably on his side!

CANDIDA: Does he know?

PAULA: Oh yes, yes!

CANDIDA: Have you told him?

PAULA: But what need is there to tell him?

CANDIDA (rapturously): Oh Paula!

PAULA: He knows, he knows!

CANDIDA: And he has forgiven us at last! He has forgiven us, Paula!

PAULA: And we will stand with him?

CANDIDA: Contra mundum!

My daughter keeps a picture of us at her desk

It is a somewhat faded photo of us on the beach taken when she was probably two or three years old. In it we appear to be making our way back from having spent some time by the shore. Although the sun is not in the frame, it appears to be a sunny day (we both have our hats on—as the ultra violet rays can be quite severe in the southern coast of Australia) with the white clouds and light blue sky behind us providing a fitting backdrop. She is wearing a plum tank top with a matching bikini bottom (her tummy sticking out), I, a plain white shirt and a pair of long navy blue shorts. Apart from an elderly lady with her back turned towards and standing far behind us, we seem to be the only ones on the beach.

As she skips on the hot white sand towards our tent, I on the other hand appear to be keeping a watchful eye over her. My left arm outstretched seems to be guiding her back to where my wife who was taking the photo was. My eyes are covered by my beach hat, but a smile is noticeable on my face.

Surrounding this photo, which is pinned up on a cork board are trinkets of objects and art work that she has collected in her short life (she is now ten), projects she has undertaken with Bella her best mate and cousin, a digitally altered CD sleeve jacket of High School Musical with her image inserted among the cast members given to her by Denver her favorite uncle (for Christmas I believe), an invite to a Japanese themed sleepover party from Bella artfully crafted with a handmade figure of a lady in a kimono.  Ours is the only photo in the whole collage.

I was struck by the importance my daughter conferred on it.

I do remember that day. I had come from Manila, which is where our family was based at the time. She and my wife along with our newly born son had been in Australia visiting my in-laws for several months (since our marriage, and before we moved here permanently five years ago, my wife made it a point to shuffle to and from to reconnect with her parents and brothers who are all based here). At the time, I was busy spending 10-12 hour days, six to seven days a week throughout the year expanding my father’s business.  As a result I seldom had time to spend with my first two kids (we now have a third, a boy) during their formative early years. This was one of those rare opportunities for me to do that away from the phone calls, meetings and appointments.

They seemed too young to remember anyway, I must have felt. My role as the sole breadwinner was to provide for them a stable home and a secure future through my hard work. So I thought. A day at the beach—how it all seemed so frivolous and self-indulgent to me at the time. But seeing it through the eyes of my baby girl (who sometimes acts these days like a bratty teenager) I have come to find the true meaning of that singular event. To her, the photo of us together on the beach symbolizes the fact that I was there. I was there even though she was too young to remember. I was there even though there must have been a ton of things I left behind (and on my mind). I was there despite all my hang-ups and misgivings about it. The precocious child that she is, she recently remarked that I was simply pretending to enjoy myself during our family outings (she is not mistaken there). So perceptive, she probably recognizes the difficulties I experience at unwinding.

As she enters puberty in the next year or so (she turns eleven in a few months), I am mindful of the fact that she will soon want to detach herself from our family life (she has already begun to some extent). Recently, I have been making it a point to spend tender moments with her. I will often invite her to sit with me for no reason. I will then wrap one arm around her. We sit as couples sometimes do in silence. When she is troubled she sometimes comes to me and just rests her head on my shoulder. These occurrences I know will not last for very long. Soon she will be embarrassed to receive or demostrate any affection towards me. At some point the photo hanging on her board will be that of her and another boy. She will attach greater significance to other things more proximate to her, to experiences new and exciting to her young and vibrant life.

For now though there it still hangs—an image, a memory, a remembrance of an event. For one it seemed inconsequential. For the other it might have meant the world. So many daughters have few or no fond memories of their fathers at all to speak of. So many teenagers are lost with no idea about who their parents were or how they felt about them. I am glad my daughter will not be one of them. Although it may have meant little to me at the time, I now assign the greatest level of significance to that day. Long after that photo gets pulled down from her wall and is consigned to some old shoebox, I will remember it and cherish it for what it symbolized to her, and for what it means to me now, now that I know…

To all my fellow fathers, Happy Father’s Day!