The premise of the disappeared is their silence. In Desaparesidos, Lualhati Baustista’s latest novel, what one is treated to is an articulation of these silences that the disappeared bear, over and above the lives that they live as names on a list of people who have been captured and jailed, raped and tortured, and killed. And while you might say Bautista has done this before, or that this story about the Marcos dictatorship is old hat, Desaparesidos is anything but a mere repetition. It is not a sequel of any sort to Dekada ’70, but is a re-telling of that time in history and how we are clearly and inextricably linked to it, even when we’d rather imagine otherwise. And it’s precisely because of this that it’s an important read for the times.
Desaparesidos is the story of activists Anna and Roy, a couple in the present who have come together in love for each other and nation, and have one child Lorena, who they left to fend for herself, in houses of relatives and friends, for most of her childhood during Martial Law. Unbeknownst to Anna and Roy, Lorena’s childhood was riddled with questions about their absence, and what it was they were doing instead of caring for her and their family. With no answers to her questions, Lorena slowly began to harbor ill feelings against her parents, the movement they were part of, and the nation they served. But child as she was, and absent as her parents were, these feelings would be part of Lorena’s learned silence about what to her was a family that had disappeared before it even happened.
But Lorena’s parents had as many silences to bear. Forced to share their experiences of Martial Law under Marcos, they re-live what had been silenced by their unbreakable belief in what must be done for nation. As part of the group that filed a class suit against the Marcos regime’s human rights abuses, Anna and Roy are made to tell their individual stories of lost families and friends’ betrayals, of rape and torture in the hands of the military, and of renewal and hope in finding each other as political prisoners, and as freed individuals.
And yet, even when there is power in articulation, Anna and Roy continue to be silenced by their need to forget, which turns out to be an exercise in futility. Their dreams are riddled by their fears of capture, their tears are always reminiscent of those they weren’t allowed to shed, their relationship(s) in the present always a remnant of an unresolved past. It is because of this that when they return to Lorena after the 1986 EDSA Revolution, the family suffers as well. That it was missing for most of Lorena’s life made it a silence that all of them had to bear and resolve.
Which only happens when many other silence(s) are resolved, and some of the missing are found. Anna’s baby Malaya, lost since Martial Law is found through Karla, an ex-comrade who decides to come clean and return a now adult daughter to her rightful mother. Roy comes clean about killing ex-comrade Jinky, husband of Karla, the one who turned traitor and was responsible for Roy’s and many other activists’ capture. Lorena finds herself as daughter, when she is faced with the truths that her mother and father have survived through, and upon realizing through boyfriend Eman – himself a new generation activist – that all of the silences throughout their childhood was worth it.
Moving from the era of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship to the present, Bautista’s writing in Desaparesidos seems more adventurous this time around. While not new to social realism and historical fiction, she skillfully uses elements of postmodern fiction here, with a non-linear narrative that intertwines the past of Martial Law with the present of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo presidency as it is lived through the main characters. With this kind of storytelling, Bautista’s use of different narrative voices becomes believable as it shifts among all the characters, across the times and spaces which they inhabit. It even becomes important that Bautista cuts her story in the middle, to tell the story of nation in the chapter “once upon a fairytale, o ang pag-iibigang Marcos-U.S.” – something which wouldn’t have succeeded in a conventionally told story. Theepilogue on the unjust outcome of the class suit filed by the victims of Martial Law, no thanks to the current President who decided that none of the victims would get anything, is meanwhile expected of historical realist fiction that skillfully intertwines fictionalized narratives with real stories of people’s lives.
And here lies the importance of Desaparesidos at a time when we are made to think that the vestiges of Martial Rule are gone, and in light of a current government that insists that many of the stories of the disappeared are exaggerations, that not all of those listed by human rights groupsare actually victims of forced disappearances or extrajudicial killings. What they forget about the disappeared are those they’ve left behind – they who have nothing to gain by making up the story of a loved one’s disappearance.
More importantly, what Bautista’s Desaparesidos points out is that more than the physical disappearance of the people who are stolen from the lives they had a right to live, there is that which is stolen from them in soul and spirit. The intangible, the unarticulated, and the most painful things that are lost – time, love, family – are those that cannot be returned. For the disappeared, those they leave behind, and those who are allowed by sheer luck to return to tell their stories, Bautista tells us that in many ways, they all continue to deal with silence. In Desaparesidos, we are reminded that we dwell in those silences, too.