Tuesday, March 10, 2009

AN AFFAIR WITH BOOKS

This volume is an anthology Francisco Arcellana's works containing the most number of his stories in one book. Published by the U.P. Creative Writing Center under the directorship of Prof. Amelia Lapena-Bonifacio way back in 1989. Book Design by Bernie Solina. I remember doing the drawing for the cover of the book using a charcoal pencil.

...and that's what he wrote on the first page. I've kept this copy for more than 20 odd years.

I love books. When given the choice of choosing which to buy – a pair of pants I sorely need or a good book, I would choose the latter. A body can be naked and is defined as beautiful, but a naked, empty mind is a tragedy.

The first time I remember holding a book was the day my mother brought home a small bundle that morning she came from school. I was five years old then and in a few days I’d be walking down the street in my crisp, newly starched and ironed white shirt and dark blue shorts with a batallion of similarly dressed children of my age to begin a new life called Kindergarten.

She laid the bundle on the floor and I excitedly went for it. I grabbed the one on top. It was a big orange book with white letters on the cover. They looked quite familiar and I traced with my stubby finger a capital A and thought that this looks much better than the one my mother would trace with a felt tip pen on brown craft paper. It also had a picture underneath it of a big red apple. Now, this apple definitely looks much better than the one my mother drew. In fact, all the pictures and illustrations in it was a definite improvement of what I got used to with my mother’s drawings. It was also around that time that I started to draw my first apple.

I was ten when I read my first non-picture book. It was Charles Dicken’s unabridged version of A Tale of Two Cities. Dog-eared and frayed on the edges, it was a very dusty affair that I found stuck behind a cabinet in our old house. Bound in black cloth and embossed with gold letters on the cover, I leafed through it and was mesmerized by the jumble of words typed on every leaf of the book. But it wasn’t just the magnificence of the words flowing on every page that amazed me; it was the smell of the book paper. It was that same combined smell of book paper and printer’s ink that would later bring me back again and again to the school’s library. When I took a whiff of that book, I knew I had to read it.

It took me about a few weeks to finish reading Dickens. With the help of a big dictionary, a pissed off mother who I kept on badgering to bring me to London (as if it was just a train ride away) and Mrs. De la Rosa, our grade school librarian who seems to be pregnant every year. She allowed me to rummage through Funk and Wagnalls, Encyclopedia Americana and Britannica even way beyond school hours to give me a clearer picture of Dicken’s Victorian-era London. Even when she would be locking herself up with Mang Ed the maintenance guy in her office, she’d let me stay at the back end of the library to read. She’d just call out my name when she’s done with her business with him and I would hurriedly mark the page I was reading to return to it the next day.

At thirteen, I discovered a treasure trove of adult reading my older brother was hiding in his bed. He had several Playboy and Penthouse magazines neatly stuck inside the mattress I accidentally discovered while I was looking for my journal that I was sure he had stolen again. (Later I found out I left it on my desk at school and became widely read after a classmate decided to share it with the rest of our class.)

I turned every eye-popping page after another oggling at pictures of women at varying poses of undress, and lustfully, to my teenager’s eyes, I’ve bitten into the forbidden fruit of knowledge. To avoid being caught by my brother for stealing and reading his precious collection and an equally dangerous mother who I sure would freak out if she finds me even holding them, I would sneak into the bathroom, lock the door and there I’d eagerly look at the pictures and read the articles and stories, lapping every word with pleasure.

It was during one of those ventures of groping inside my brother’s mattress to find more carnal literature when I discovered a thick pocketbook with a closely cropped picture of a naked couple in a tight embrace. I leafed through it and thought that this would take some time for me to read considering the thickness of the tome. And for several afternoons, while my brother was at school, I would return to his bed, sneak out that book and retreat inside the bathroom to read it until the last page. But unlike the Playboy magazines I read, this book had more magic than carnality – of a woman ascending towards heaven borne in the wings of a thousand butterflies, of a man who was tied to a tree to be eaten by ants and a daguerreotype with images of half-naked American Indians. Unwittingly, I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the same novel that my classmates struggled through when I got into college. They had to read it because it was part of a course requirement in English Lit. I read it because at thirteen I thought it was a porn novel.

_________

When I turned seventeen and a sophomore in college, I met Francisco Arcellana. He reminded me of my scholarly looking Tito Sinforoso with his thick glasses, shrub of white hair on his head and shaky voice. “So, you’re the young man who made the drawing for the cover of my book,” he told me in his halting voice. “Yes, sir,” I said sheepishly in the presence of this giant in Filipino literature written in English.

I first read his short story (where, I don’t remember anymore) A Death in the Factory in high school. In just one page, he captured the sheer helplessness of a widowed young wife as she was handed a few measly pesos for the death of her husband in a factory accident. It was so powerful it moved me, and I’ve kept it in my memory as my most favorite piece of written literature. And there I was, at that moment, tiny and young, in front of an overwhelming pillar of a writer.

“Sir, I read in the introduction of your book that you were sixteen when you wrote A Death in the Factory?” I shyly asked.

“Yes, that is right,” he said as he took out a pen to write on his salutations for me on the first page.

“Uhm, it is my most favorite story… sir,” I said as I cleared my throat of phlegm for the umpteenth time.

“I am glad. And I am more glad that you caught the spirit of my stories in your drawing,” he said with an old man’s smile as he handed me back my copy with his written note in it.

Through the years since I first held a book I was part of designing, I’ve always held the idea that someday, I’ll be doing more of these. I’ve also held the thought that if I can’t be a writer, I’ll design great books.

I still smile every time I see the cover of this sophomoric work and read the words the writer scribbled in the inner page for me.

Naks!

6 comments:

Bella Sinclair said...

Wow! How wonderful that you got to illustrate the cover of a great book. And at 17, too! Very impressive. And I'm with you -- give me a good book over a piece of clothing any day.

Congrats on a successful launch! The pictures are fabulous. Lots of happy, smiling people. And kids just love you!

Bella Sinclair said...

Oh, and I forgot to add that you're a fantastic writer. I enjoy reading your posts. You probably could write a really engrossing novel, and then I wouldn't be able to buy that shirt I've been eyeing because I'll buy your book instead. :)

palma tayona said...

@ bella: Yes, yes, yes!! that sunday afternoon book launch was indeed fun, even if the next day i got a nasty cold. it was all worth it.

oh, and just a moment ago before i wrote this, i bought a bundle of new books i bought... again. :-( i've been, literally, trying to buy me a pair of pants but i always end up coming home with books instead. sigh... oh well...

Björnik said...

Naks Dan! Dati ka pa pala humahataw eh. Galing!

palma tayona said...

@ bjornik: yeah. since i was a kid. but the thing is, napakarami kong detours along the way. it's only the past 5 years that i've actually become serious with what i do. :-)

nutart said...

when i saw this, Dan, my eyes grew big then misty...gosh! we're part of a great writer's work!!! I read Mr Arcellana's short stories too and the sheer clarity of his prose still makes me want to kneel in front of him! I recall his humility and warmth when I first met him. The second time, I thought he wouldn't recall me but he said he did! I felt elated until he said another name. Yet, it didn't matter because he did say he remembered me! :-) such is the thing called admiration haha!