EXILE AND MEMORY are attractive themes for writers in the Third World, where social dislocation and political exile are common. Bienvenido N. Santos, a Filipino novelist who writes in English, knows exile well, having spent half has adult life in the United States, as a student and visiting professor and, since the proclamation of martial law in the Philippines of martial law in the Philippines in 1972, as a political exile. He published six books there before 1972, and in 1965 won his country's prestigious Cultural Heritage Award. This is the first collection of his work to appear in America.
Most of Santos' fiction examines the problems of progress and nationalism in the Philippines since 1945, but in this collection he deals with those problems indirectly, through the stories of Filipinos who find themselves stranded in the United States. These stories form a loose suite, alternating between two narrators in order to portray two different generations of exiles. Ben, the first narrator, is an autobiographical figure, and the group of "hurt men" in his circle of poker-playing college friends -- sons of landowners and professionals -- who have been caught in wartime Washington by Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Philippines.
Teroy, a budding rightist, is the son of a brutal landowner accused of collaboration with the Japanese. Leo, the son of a university president, loses his whole family in the sack of Manila and becomes an embittered radical, prophesying the inevitable overthrow of the old social order. Val's aristocratic father, a benevolent landowner, is brutally beaten when Communists organize his workers. And Doc, Ben's gentle roommate, loses his wife when the Japanese capture Manila, then loses the rest of his family when the Americans liberate the city; shattered and cynical, he later returns home to cultivate rich patients in the corrupt postwar years.
These privileged young Filipinos remain self-absorbed until Ambo, an old gambler, introduces them to an earlier generation of exiles. From Ambo we hear stories of the Pinoys or "old-timers," Filipinos who have stayed abroad so long that their memories of home are shot through with nostalgic despair. They are rural peasants, for the most part, who came to America as plantation workers in Hawaii, as servants in San Franciso and as menials in a dozen dark cities. Few have gotten ahead, and, although many have become U.S. citizens, they have never been assimilated.
Santos is more sympathetic to these older, often destitute exiles, who are desperate to renew their fading memories of home. In the title story, a poor Pinoy farmer in Michigan drives a hundred miles just to see another Filipino; despite 20 years in America and an American wife, this simple farmer remains more genuinely Filipino than Ben's sophisticated, Americanized friends. Similarly, the faceless figures loafing in the sun in Chinatown parks retain a gentleness, simplicity and endurance that are vestiges of a bygone era in the Philippines. With slowly accumulating irony, Santos suggests that the homeland the old-timers long to remember may in fact no longer exist, its culture destroyed by war and independence.
One of the strongest stories in the colection is "The Day the Dancers Came," in which a retired hospital orderly in Chicago goes to see a visiting troupe of Filipino folk dancers. The old Pinoy is snubbed by the young dancers, who are proud and aloof in their new sense of national identity, which the Pinoys never knew. When the old man plays back a recording of the traditional songs and music for a dying friend, he finds that he has erased the tape. To be unable to go home, to die abroad and without memories, is the worst of the exile's fate.
Santos is a writer of deceptive simplicity, one whose graceful storytelling conceals considerable political commitment. He is determined to remind his countrymen of the price they are paying for economic development, and to record both the cultural riches they have already lost and the human misery that still remains. His stories capture with warmth and deep humanity the pain of exile and the cost of progress.