Review: Riverrun Tells the Story of a Poor Filipino Boy Growing Up in Chaos
Danton Remoto was one of the four instructors at the helm of my very first Creative Writing Workshop course at the Ateneo in Manila, the summer of 1988, my senior year in college. At the time, he was teaching at the English department, and already starting to publish work. He was a little less intimidating than the poet, Ramon Sunico, more vocal and volatile than the poet, Rofel Brion, and not as kindly empathetic as the essayist, Doreen G. Fernandez. Nonetheless, he was a supportive,generous and vivid writing teacher, and I hear he remains so to this day.
We have kept in fair touch over some 30 years, keeping up with each other’s doings in the way that friendly fellow writers are wont to do. I knew he went to England and then to the U.S. to pursue further studies, and now, apart from being an acclaimed writer and professor of literature, he is a columnist for the Philippine Star. He even embarked on a political career, running for city council representative in the last elections, a run I wish had been successful. But I have hope; he is young still, and there is time.
In 2015, a version of Riverrun was first published in the Philippines, but I had been unable to get my hands on a copy. Which is why I was excited to hear that Penguin Random House SEA would be publishing a new, expanded version of this unique and idiosyncratic novel that I had read was in part, inspired by Milan Kundera, likely, by his novel of seven seemingly stand-alone parts, The Book Of Laughter and Forgetting.
Riverrun is a novel-length collection of short prose pieces or vignettes, all of which run, river-like, along a very gentle narrative arc: the coming-of-age of one Danilo Cruz, a sensitive (and we find this out quite gradually, almost as an afterthought) homosexual, boy who becomes a man during the Martial Law years of the Philippines. Through small, often lovely quotidian moments at home and in school, as his family moves from rural Pampanga to urban Quezon City, and beyond, who Danny is and what he wants in life—to be a writer and to find love—is revealed to the reader.
Individually, the prose pieces, most of them are short and disparate—one is about his grandmother’s recipe for taro leaves in coconut milk or laing. One is a musing on a terrible typhoon where the river rises and torrential water tumbles down mountains deforested by uncaring governance for profit, so entire town communities drown in the floods and those who survive have little to show in terms of government assistance but a couple of cans of sardines, some mung beans and rice, a gift from “The First Lady and Family.”
One is about his cousin Naomi whose uninhibited sensual exuberance lands her a tragic end. One charts how he hears first-hand the horror of the construction workers given the task of finishing the Manila Film Center on an impossible deadline, plunge to their terrible deaths in a pit of quick-drying cement. There are more than a few about school where Danny is painfully aware of socio-economic differences, thrust at once among rich boys who do not seem to do as much with the plenty they are given, unlike Danny who works hard, obeys his parents, gets high marks and eventually wins a full scholarship to one of Manila’s top universities.
Throughout the book, there are wonderful descriptions of green nature and food and cooking alongside constant water imagery and the landscapes of this sad country and its people in the cruel times of the dictatorship. Some of the most moving pieces involve Danny’s relationship with his parents. The understated pathos in How to Survive as a Nouveau Poor rings with deeply-felt emotion, part sadness, part pride inherent in its matter-of-fact enumeration. The pieces slip in and out of time chronology and are of such broad variety — with lists, recipes, songs in Tagalog alongside English translations, lines of prose akin to poetry, and rich popular culture, for instance, a seven-page treatise on the 1970s Miss Universe beauty pageants. Readers might stop and think—wait, what is this? Poetry? Flash fiction? An essay collection? A memoir?
But it works as a novel, simultaneously, romantic and exotic, both in story and in language. Frequently, the turn of phrase in the pieces may sometimes strike readers as strange, slightly foreign in some instances, the way new music sounds at first hearing. In cadence, word choice and usage, it is unmistakably Filipino English—as the protagonist would actually speak it if you were to meet him. “I was not afraid anymore of carrying my blue school bag with its lined pad paper, pencil and crayons.” The Filipino English choice of saying, “dress up” as opposed to “get dressed”, the quaint choice of pluralizing nouns like shrimp, fruit and fish and using “ness” to nounify—whiteness, grayness, blueness, instead of white, gray and blue, already nouns.
And then, of course, there are the many hypnotic, liquid lines that wash over you, gliding like water with music and sensuality. These are sentences wrought by someone clearly at home with the work of words.
“Together we ran in the rain, in the summer of our twelfth year, the year I would leave for the city. Everything seemed to be melting, but not me. Warmth ran through my limbs, flowing like blood in my veins. We ran and ran until we reached the river fringed with weeping willows.
“He laughed and began wading into the water. I was torn between lust and the fear of drowning. Perhaps, I thought at that moment, they’re the same?
“The river parted, and Luis entered it. I watched him swim, his strokes clean and quick. His buttocks were like islands rising and dipping in the water. I envied the river that tongued his body. I watched him swim farther and farther away from me, until his hair had become one with the sound of the rain.”
Ultimately, Riverrun, with its carefully observed transformational moments, is more than the sum of its parts: this picaresque story of a poor boy in the chaos of growing up in a chaotic country. In it, Remoto has crafted something invitingly, insistently and seductively readable, and in that reading, he brings us genuine pleasure and joy alongside real pathos.