Sunday, March 27, 2005
When I want to ponder on the nature of God, I often cannot help but recall the stories of Gregorio Brillantes. He is perhaps one of our best short story writers -- even the greatest of them all
, as poet-critic Gemino Abad once confided to me one summer night in Dumaguete, while talking shop and drinking beer in Cafe Memento. "But if not the best," he qualified, "then he is certainly my personal favorite."
For one trained as a New Critic, that is hardly surprising of Sir Jimmy, considering that the stories by Brillantes are replete with the Formalist gems of metaphor, tension, epiphany. Most of Brillantes's tales are about seeking answers to age-old questions regarding our place in the universe, regarding our search for an Almighty that will define our lives for us.
For him, the search is often futile and ripe with existential angst -- but I find that sort of narrative voice as a kind of comfort, perhaps because I am naturally suspicious of cut-and-dried, dogmatic spirituality. The best spirituality for me is one fraught with struggles and gray areas. My writing teacher, Timothy Montes, once gave me the perfect metaphor to describe such: that biblical image of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. "To know God," Tim said, "is to struggle in the pursuit of knowing."
Born in Tarlac in 1932, Brillantes has written three collections of stories -- The Distance to Andromeda
in 1960, The Apollo Centennial: Nostalgias, Predicaments, and Celebrations
in 1981, and On a Clear Day in November, Shortly Before the Millenium: Stories for a Quarter Century
in 2000. Note the very images that run through those titles: space and an expanse of nothingness and distance, and the reach for some divine yet far away goal.
One story which I think reflect his religious themes well is "Faith, Love, Time, and Dr. Lazaro
," a classic I revisit once in a while with my Philippine literature classes, because it constantly provides me with new meanings embedded within the text, and gives me insight about my own Christian faith.
In this story, Brillantes confronts the most important questions or mysteries of our lives as Christians: Does God exist? If so, what is the nature of God?
I remember Tim telling me that Brillantes succeeds in telling a compelling story because he never preaches nor subverts. That he allows the reader to experience, rather than solve, the problem of God's presence or absence.
The story is deceptively simple: an aging medical doctor and his young son are called in the middle of the night to minister to a poor family, whose newborn baby has a terminal case of tetanus. The journey towards the family's home, however, seems to take on a different level when it also becomes a spiritual journey, most especially for Dr. Lazaro, whose beliefs and disbelief about God, faith, love, and time seem to haunt him with a pressurized intensity -- and all because he sees a wide chasm between him and Ben, his son, in terms of how they see life: he has lost so much faith in God and life, while Ben -- intent on becoming a priest -- seems so infuriatingly fresh and positive.
At this point of the story, I make my students try to understand the characters better by using the device of opposites to appreciate their subtleties: That while Dr. Lazaro is scientific, cold, and rational, Ben is spiritual, warm and intimate, and delicately emotional. While Dr. Lazaro is a figure of disbelief and doubt, Ben promises belief and faith. While Dr. Lazaro is old, pessimistic, and bitter, Ben is young, optimistic, and hopeful. That while Dr. Lazaro seems mechanical and "dead," Ben is human and "alive". That while Ben is the car's driver
, his father seems content about being the passenger
. If one can't get the metaphorical undertones, especially the last one, I don't know what will.
It is especially interesting to note how we are introduced, in the beginning of the story, to the character of Dr. Lazaro. Brillantes writes:
From the upstairs veranda, Dr. Lazaro had a view of stars, the country darkness, the lights on the distant highway at the edge of town. The phonograph in the sala played Chopin -- like a vast sorrow controlled, made familiar, he had been wont to think. But as he sat there, his lean frame in the habitual slack repose he took after supper, and stared at the plains of night that had evoked gentle images and even a kind of peace (in the end, sweet invincible oblivion), Dr. Lazaro remembered nothing, his mind lay untouched by any conscious thought, he was scarcely aware of the April heat; the pattern of music fell around him and dissolved swiftly, uncomprehended. It was as though indifference were an infection that had entered his blood; it was everywhere in his body. In the scattered light from the sala his angular face had a dusty, wasted quality; only his eyes contained life. He could have remained there all evening, unmoving, and buried, as it were, in a strange half-sleep, had his wife not come to tell him he was wanted on the phone.
The emphases are mine. From that description alone, we get the sense that this man is, for a lack of a more apt term, a virtual "zombie." But why has Dr. Lazaro become like this? Well, he has lost faith in God. How so? Because of unfulfilled dreams, and the growing humdrumness of his life. Once a doctor of promise, he has instead "wasted" a life in a far-flung town, tending to common people who cannot even pay him, except in kind (like farm chicken, or bananas).
But he has also lost his faith because he has been a witness to countless, seemingly random deaths: there is a patient with cancer, whose racking pain even morphine can't assuage anymore; there is the baby who is now dying from tetanus; but most of all, there was his eldest son who, we later learn, committed suicide. From the latter, the Lazaro family "died" to each other as well: it made the doctor focus mechanically on his job, just to forget the pain, and his wife became more immersed in religion than in family.
For Dr. Lazaro, what kind of God would allow pain? What kind of God would kill a baby? What kind of God would take away a son? Is there really a God? (Many of my students invariably answer that perhaps God allowed this to happen to test their faith. I happen to believe this as well, but I pose for them another gray area: "That may be true, but tell that to a dying man in excruciating pain, or to a father who has tragically lost his child. Sir, you are in pain because God is testing your faith. Seems cruel, isn't it?")
These questions are compounded by the images and symbols that are replete throughout the story -- that of loss, distance, emptiness, and dark ominousness: "a view of the stars," "the country darkness," "the lights on the distant highway at the edge of town," a "humming of wires, as though darkness had added to the distance between the house in town and the station beyond the summer fields," "the long journey to Nambalan," "the sleeping town, the desolate streets, the plaza empty in the moonlight."
And being the quintessential Formalist narrative, the story contains several symbolism understood best through close-reading.
There is, for one, the realization that Dr. Lazaro represents a kind of "living dead." Besides the zombie-characteristic invoked in the first paragraph, his name easily evokes the Biblical "dead man brought to life": Lazarus
. There is also the parallels of the baby and Dr. Lazaro -- that while the baby has actual tetanus, Dr. Lazarus, on the other hand, has tetanus of the soul: "It was as though indifference were an infection that had entered his blood; it was everywhere in his body." He needs new life, we soon realize, and he needs to be resurrected from the dead. In a sense, his journey to Nambalan with his son becomes a journey in a quest for redemption: he has to save the body, to save an idea of himself and his place in the world.
But there is also that other metaphor: of God as a futile God
. As a doctor, Dr. Lazaro "heals," which is very God-like, if you think about it. In one scene, Esteban, the baby's bewildered father, calls the doctor over the phone -- like the prayer of a desperate man to God. The distance between Esteban and Dr. Lazaro, through the humming of the phone wires and the resulting bad connection, is a good metaphor for the distance between God and man. Can we call God? What if all we get is a busy signal?
the story seems to say. But finally, Dr. Lazaro cannot heal the sick baby, who eventually dies -- and we are left with this unsettling question: what does this say about the Great Healer?
And yet, by the end of the story, it is spirituality that saves. As the defeated Dr. Lazaro leaves the dead baby on the mat, he sees his son Ben -- the hopeful priest-to-be -- go to the baby's side, to give it the final sacrament of Extreme Unction. And he finally sees his darkness, and his son's saving light.
Dr. Lazaro epiphany also becomes ours, but his quickly ends with abortive fear. In what is one of the most famous endings in Philippine literature, we read:
With unaccustomed tenderness he placed a hand on Ben's shoulder as they turned the cement-walled house. They had gone on a trip; they had come home safely together. He felt closer to the boy than he had ever been in years.
"Sorry for keeping you up this late," Dr. Lazaro said.
"It's all right, Pa."
"Some night, huh, Ben? What you did back in the barrio -- ," there was just the slightest patronage in his tone -- "your mother will love to hear about it."
He shook the boy beside him gently. "Revered Father Ben Lazaro..." The impulse of uncertain humor -- it was part of the comradeship. He cackled drowsily: "Father Lazaro, what must I do to gain eternal life?"
As he slid the door open on the vault of darkness, the familiar depths of the house, it came to Dr. Lazaro faintly in the late night that for certain things, like love, there was only so much time. But the glimmer was lost instantly, buried in the mist of indifference and sleep rising now in his brain.
Which may be the saddest of all epiphanies. That given the chance to have resurrection, to see the salvation's light, so many of us -- like Dr. Lazaro -- quickly turn away, strangely "comfortable" in the sad, wallowing darkness of disbelief.
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
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