Bienvenido N. Santos: Master writer

LODESTAR By Danton Remoto

The novelist, short story writer, poet, and teacher Bienvenido N. Santos died last Jan. 7, 1996, in his “sad, old house” in Sagpon, Daraga, Albay. But in my mind he remains vivid and alive. One of the country’s most popular and prolific writers, he left behind a body of work that shows how it is to be a Filipino not only in Sulucan, Tondo, but also in the “cold and lonely cities” of the United States.

His novels include Villa Magdalena (1965), The Volcano (1965), The Man Who (Thought He) Looked Like Robert Taylor (1982), The Praying Man (1984), and What the Hell for You Left Your Heart in San Francisco (1988). His short stories were collected in You Lovely People (1955); Brother, My Brother (1962); The Day the Dancers Came (1967); Scent of Apples (1982); and the retrospective collection of pre-war stories in Dwell in the Wilderness. His last project was a series of memoirs: Memory’s  Fictions: A Personal History (1993), Postscript to a Saintly Life (1994), and the two-volume Letters of Bienvenido N. Santos.

The first volume of Letters was launched by Anvil Publishing at the De La Salle University, a place the writer loved. Ben stayed at the Brothers Quarters of DLSU whenever he was in Manila. The university even named its Creative Writing Center after Bienvenido N. Santos. Such was the love showered on Ben by the faculty and students of the university that not a few of them wept openly when somebody said during the launching that, yes, one seat was intentionally left vacant for the now-departed writer.

It was an outpouring of love rarely seen in Philippine literature.

Bienvenido N. Santos  had four major loves in his life – his wife Beatriz “Aquing” Nidea; his children Arme, Lina, Lily, and Tom; his writing and his teaching; and his country.

On Aug. 17, 1941 Ben was in Manila, awaiting word on his departure for the United States as a pensionado of the Philippine Commonwealth government. To his beloved wife, he wrote: “The rains have not abated. There must be a storm somewhere. But I didn’t fail to go to church. I used the little book you gave me, and every time I read your little dedication, I brought it to my lips and there would be a tightening round my heart and I can’t see the lines anymore. In the future, whenever I feel as despondent as I feel now, all I have to do is get that book, read your dedication and I shall feel all right again. If you were here, I knew what you’d tell me, to keep my chin up, to think of the best, for the best shall be. So, in your absence, I think of this, and God knows how the week shall turn out to be. For this shall be a momentous week for you and for me. It either means I go back to Albay or I proceed to America. The Lord shall decide.”

He did go to the US, where he first studied at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign campus. The work ahead, he said, “is stupendous, voluminous.” His readings included Boccaccios’s Decameron and Proust’s Swann’s Way. But he still found time to act in school plays, mostly paying the role of a father, and write letters like this to his wife: “Please don’t economize on your teeth and other ailments. Me, I’m as healthy as a pig, only lots cleaner. My skin is molting, it seems, and my lips are breaking, that’s all, and this afternoon I sneezed. No, I have no cold, only that the girl beside me was heavily perfumed.”

But it wasn’t easy going all the way. Ben Santos had begun the first of his many years in exile. When the Second World War broke out, he found himself stranded in the US. His wife and two daughters were left behind in Daraga, Albay. How keen the pain must have been, how terrible the thoughts that crossed his mind, as Ben found his letters to the “Philippine Islands” being returned again and again, stamped with “No Service Available.” There was no news from home, but still Ben kept on writing to them, waiting for the day when the mail service would finally return to normal.

On Oct. 1, 1945, Ben Santos had just enrolled for a Basic English class at Harvard University when he received a big envelope from Washington, D.C. The parcel contained nine letters from Aquing. “I was nearly frantic with joy when I saw your picture – my first sight of my beloved wife in four long, long years. Darling, you have not changed. You are lovelier than ever. With what you have been through, how did you do it? Gosh, Aquing, I love you so! I walked through the campus, hoary with history, with your picture close to my heart. There were tears in my eyes. Sunday I knelt in the Church of St. John and gave thanks to God who continues to be kind to his most unworthy son.”

On Feb. 19, 1996, the National Commission on Culture and the Arts’ literature committee led by Bienvenido Lumbera paid tribute to Bienvenido Santos. Speakers included National Artists Nick Joaquin and Franz Arcellana, Isagani Cruz, and Jessica Zafra. One of Ben’s daughters delivered a lovely response on behalf of the family.

She recalled that Ben left the task of disciplining the children to his wife, Aquing, who also made sure the whole house was quiet whenever Ben was writing something. “We were always on tiptoe whenever he was writing. We only knew him well after our mother died. It was as if he wanted to compensate for the fact that our mother was gone, so he became both father and mother to us. He wanted all of us to read his books. Sometimes, he would even ask us questions about the specific details from his books. My sister and I would just smile whenever he asked us for answers. Ah, my father. . . he would tell me the family’s secrets during our long walks and caution me never to tell them to anybody else. But he divulged all of them in Memory’s Fictions.”

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