Cuentos Filipinos: Colonialism and condescension

Cuentos Filipinos, Jose Montero y Vidal, 1883, translated by Renan Prado

Well, I was supposed to have a baby four days ago, but she has yet to make an appearance. I am so enormously pregnant that my feet are like balloons and I have developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands (yes, this is apparently a thing) so my activity is basically limited to sitting on the couch with my computer. I feel like a giant slug, capable only of binge-watching Stranger Things and occasionally writing a blog post about terrible 19th century short story collections so, here goes. This might be my last post for a while, assuming this whole pregnancy situation can’t continue indefinitely.

Jose Montero y Vidal was a Spanish colonial administrator who lived in the Philippines from 1868 to sometime before 1896 (at which point he was sent to Cuba, though there seem to have been some intervening years spent in Spain; he’s not a popular enough historical figure for complete Wikipedia devotion to detail, and I am not about to waste more time on him by seeking out and reading a more in-depth biography), acting as a minor official, a magistrate, and eventually as the governor of various Philippine states. I don’t know how he was as a government official (judging by the rampant racism and paternalism expressed toward indigenous Filipinos and Chinese immigrants in this book, he probably wasn’t the best), but hopefully better than he was as a fiction writer. This book reads like an ambitious fifth-grader’s very creative social studies report.

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La Cala de Mijas, 2017

The most interesting parts of the book are the detailed descriptions Montero y Vidal provides of different provinces and cities, with their attendant rampant generalizations about the inhabitants, full of startling gems such as the fact that the residents of Malate “are mostly office clerks and are skillful in embroidering slippers” and “the Barrio of Sampaloc…is well-known for its residents who, almost without exception, serve as typesetters in the first printing press established in the Islands. The women of this barrio are laundrywomen.”

Later he writes that “Europeans occupy many houses in Sampaloc,” although I have the sneaking suspicion that they are not included in his typesetter-and-laundrywomen count.

“Wait,” you might be saying, “isn’t this supposed to be a book of short stories? What’s with all the third-rate travel guide stuff?” Well you might ask. The stories, such as they are, seem to be mere pretext for Montero y Vidal’s actual goal, which is to provide descriptions of Philippine provinces and their people. He also works in some very condescending advice to the colonized people of the Philippines (you would think that this might speak to some confusion about the identity of his audience, since presumably the slipper-embroidering office clerks of Malate who might benefit from his great wisdom would also not need to be told about their own famous exports and industry, but Montero y Vidal writes in his introduction that people like reading about themselves, and thus he is giving “the natives of the Philippine Islands something useful by writing this book,” which, according to him, would “acquaint them with their own customs” and thus be so interesting to them that they would spontaneously learn to read Spanish).

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San Francisco, 2017

Consider this little bit of instruction, coming at the end of a story of a murderer who confesses ten years after the fact because he gets scared by a large bird during a thunderstorm (seriously, that’s the entire plot of “The Vengeful Calao,” the book’s penultimate story):

No matter how one hides a crime…Providence provides the means for its discovery and inflicts the deserved punishment. Providence abhors crime and does not allow the culprit to get away with it. May this episode in the province of Pampanga serve as a valuable lesson to the natives throughout the Philippine archipelago.

May they not be carried away by their passion to the point of criminality, the worst form of human degradation.

The stories themselves are occasionally charming, often bizarre, and generally a bit lacking in dramatic tension (not helped by the interposition of pages of general description right at crucial parts of the plot). Despite Montero’s prejudice (his writing about Chinese characters is particularly lazy in relying on stereotypes), it gives a picture of a very diverse society, where Spanish colonists, Chinese immigrants, and indigenous Filipinos (called indios in this book, whereas Filipinos are people of Spanish descent born in the Philippines, not to be confused with Peninsulares, who are born in Spain, and mestizos, who can, it seems, be any mixture of ethnicities) all mix and intermarry freely. The Muslim regions of the Southern Philippines receive a small nod in “The Sultana of Jolo.” Granted, the Muslims in this story are pirates and bad guys, who kidnap a beautiful and guiltless Filipina, who then helps to bring about their defeat at the hands of righteous Christians, so… It’s problematic representation, but representation nonetheless.

However, the stories are clearly less important to Montero y Vidal than the asides, the geographical and cultural descriptions that are the main point of the book. Cuentos Filipinos is, essentially, an object lesson in why it’s probably best not to attempt to disguise your travel guide as a work of fiction. I mean, I could imagine such an attempt succeeding in the hands of Nabokov or Bolaño, but a playfully savage postmodern genius Montero y Vidal is not. For that, we’ll have to wait another hundred-odd years (and twelve books on my Philippines list) for Jessica Hagedorn and Dogeaters. Stick with me, we’ll get there eventually.

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New Mexico, 2005

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