To Be Free by Edilberto K. Tiempo

to be free


Sometimes, a rare find comes my way like a gold nugget hidden under a pile of unimportant things. A book stands on a shelf and I ignore it for years until I open and read it. It surprises me - as its pages release a panorama of wonder, a Pandora's box of beauty, elegance, history and language. To Be Free by Edilberto K. Tiempo is one such find, now I understand why this author and teacher is so much revered in our country.

I describe To Be Free as panoramic because it transports me back and forth in time. Make that Philippine time. Of course it has its own weaknesses, such as the long tedious monologues and dialogues of politicians which may be interesting if one had not met them going through the same route a few months ago. Tiempo's political writing casts an amazing if not frightening similarity to what we have today, even when he talks of it in his time 1930's. And then there is the tendency to repeat certain aspects of middle chapters to one of the last chapters.

But that is just a trifling matter in this book of many matters. The matters the main character sorts through, as he traverses the period from the dying Spanish regime to the Liberation of Manila flies me to the time of my grandparents, allowing me to live through their thinking, rituals, mannerisms and code of ethics albeit for a short period of time.

Listening to the life story of brothers Hilarion and Lamberto brings to life things I only imagined before, this book makes them real, as real as the keyboard I type on: the green lush of meadows, the mountains of Sierra Madre, the beauty of mestizos, the social structure that is deprived of resentment, where masters and slaves love their positions as if they were God's gift. Loyalty and word of honor were indeed prevalent in this time and age of Philippine history. And it's nice to remember that, especially in this age when the Filipino is in a mess.

A lifetime is narrated here, a country's birth is documented. I read this book as the old ground swells under my feet. Mountains regain their vegetation, old jungles reborn, rivers become fierce, and then more...

Really, I was shocked by the tradition of 'servitude' before marriage. Dig this: At the turn of the previous century, a man has to serve a woman's family for five years before earning his right to marry her! That's a big Ouch! But quite romantic in a painful way.

Not that I have anything to do with that kind'a thing - nowadays 30 minutes is too long for me to be in a relationship. (Here I go again, I'm getting personal). Ok, erase those last lines.

But Tiempo succeeds pretty well in creating a family of multiple generations, and the change associated with them as they moved forward.

The story begins with the American Occupation, as the Americans were just starting their Manifest Destiny 'project' here. But from that point on, the novel swings in a reminiscence mode, from here to past, from past to here. The two brothers fought in the Spanish-Filipino War, they joined the Revolutionaries, they were perturbed by the American colonization, and insulted by the Treaty of Paris. They were put to jail for defiance to authorities, they fought and fought and fought. They ran in politics and won. And lost. Ran their professions and earned. Then they suddenly found themselves at war again, this time with the Japanese, and later against treacherous Makapili Filipino politicians. Mr. Tiempo's written account is so vivid and so clear in a language that is Filipino English that there is nothing abandoned or (as in my case of novel writing) lazily written. From start to finish, the language maintains a consistency like it is written for the first time.

The story continues with marriage and children born. But as soon as a new generation emerges, a new lifestyle and mode of thinking sprouts. The new generation defies the previous one and so on and so forth. For example, the first generation daughter named Teodora elopes, something shocking to a father who served five years to earn his right to marry his wife. And then the second generation daughter named Luisa becomes a single mother, a product of her liberal ways, now shocking to her own parents and pretty much revolting to the grand father.

That is the main direction of the story, the main plot, though as I have mentioned, there are lots of subplots running along the main plot. But I won't get into those for lack of time. Besides, I recommend people to read the book, not to read my reaction to this book. You must read it.

This novel is a testament of our dynamic Filipino literature in English. Once, there were Filipinos who wrote for us, about our time, about our character and history. We lament all too frequently that we don't have much to read, but as I go through the bins of our old literature, I discover writers like Tiempo who, to me at least, wrote the best hunting expedition a Filipino had undertaken. Man, you must at least read this part for you to know that our country was once a paradise.

To Be Free as a title for this book is very appropriate. Although I would also consider "Defiant" as a secondary title. It is a story of the Filipino defiance against anything he finds wrong. And acceptance to anything he finds inevitable.

Thank you Mr. Tiempo.



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