Alberto Florentino

Saturday, March 12, 2005

A Stream of Consciousness

First, the mini or micro book— selling at a peso, a "salapi," a "peseta," a "rupee," and what-have-you— has a century- or 50-year story, and a world-widephenomenon.

In my own experience I have known books selling in church-yards in my youth, spread out in a "bilao," consisting of missals, "estampitas," poems by JoseCorazon de Jesus, etc.

Before I started the peso books I had known the mini-books in mini-editions put out by pioneer bookmaker (a Filipino) Nid Anima, on subjects as exotic as cock-fighting.

There was the "Little Blue Book" coming out of the USA in (ca.) '30s, published in Chicago by a certain (Mr or Mrs?) E. Haldeman Julius.

I have seen the small books selling in India on the sidewalks (where I also could and did buy bits of rubies and opals and emeralds gleaned from old abandoned mines or swallowed by dishonest workers and regurgitated (sp? my spellerhasnt worked for years) once out of the well-guarded mines) of a few pages,selling for one or several rupees: the cheapest paper available (3rd class newsprint, mimeograph paper, folded once or twice to make a 16-page book, usually including a self-cover, to make a small book that a boy in kindergarten or ingrade I could buy with his "baon" (one centavo in my time). (No, I never foundone such book selling for a "'sangkusing" or one "kusing" or half a centavo, although the Peso book I first issued in 1961 was worth one peso then but decades later the peso would be equal to 2 red cents or a British "tuppence" (2 pennies).

The littlest book on record was once recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records which was made in an edition of only 1, virtually a little piece ofpaper folded several times over to make a many-signatured book, one so small thatone could open it only with a tweezer and read its 6 or 5 pt. type with ajeweler's or photographer's hand-held lens (sorry I forgot their names—Lupe?).

Nobody has beaten the mini-kiosk in the street fairs in Manhattan in the '80s where a Chinese youth had a paraphernalia of: a cup of rice (big-grainedCalifornia rice), an ink bottle and a brush consisting of 2 or more sable hairs. For a dollar (or more, or less) in a minute or 2, the enterprising young man would paint the names of your loved ones (like "Eva," "Amihan," "Tala," "Tess"), only to arrive home missing one of the names! (If only the rice-poet-miniaturist could have put them all in a small empty matchbox where boys used to housetheir fighting "gagamba" (spiders) or their miniature car collection.

A few years back the Penguin books (do I remember this right?) issued minibooks in two batches of 60 titles to celebrate the company's 60th anniversary. They were bestsellers but they did not make the New York Times bestselling list.

And 42 years ago I started my own peso books; before I relocated to New Yorkwith my family, I had issued 75 titles of works by Filipino prewar or postwarwriters in English, selling at one peso (then = to 2 US cents); 10 years laterthey were followed by the first of my 30 titles of "chapbooks," a limited edition: a back-to-back booklet of poems and stories by my first 2 granddaughters at ages 7 and 9, which I composed on my MacSE and formatted into a 36-page signature printed at one of the Kinko's copiers. I asked for 50 copies and I was told to take a walk and have a coffee (no Starbucks yet then) and I collected the 50 copies of the chapbook in one small box. I would return to Kinko's 3 or 4 times for more copies. No, I never made money or got back what I spent; I just gave them away to friends.

I just now remember the first Peso book I put out in the printery of the U.P. Press in the basement of the Filipiniana library in UP-Diliman. The huge"flatbed" (letterpress) carried the widest cut of bookpaper and the operator wouldhand-feed the sheets, first on one side, then on the obverse side, and then cut them in the middle to make 3,000 cps!; and the book binders (mostly young women and old) would hand-fold them into signatures and saddle-stitch theself-cover book that contained the first Peso book: Poems 55 by then-visiting poet in exile from the Village, Jose Garcia Villa.

A friend & writer now turned poet and publisher, discovered 35 years later a copy of Villa's Poems 55 in her friend's library in the West Coast, and she asked her friend where he bought the booklet and he said I bought it, for onepeso!, 10,000 miles away, in Manila, where, of course, the book had by then goneout of print (after 3 reprints! for poetry!).

I later told my friend I, myself, do not even have a single copy of Poems 55, nor Nick Joaquin's or Franz Arcellana's Peso books of short stories. Ioffered to look for a copy in Manila and on one such trip I found a "preowned" copyselling for 100 pesos! in the UP Writer's Night at the Bahay Lanay, and I didn't have a hundred pesos, so I went to the UP Bank near the UP Mini Mall to change my dollars and when I returned to Bahay-Lanay somebody had bought what could have been the last Peso book on the market.

God willing, I may be able to publish the Last Peso Book on my golden wedding anniversary in 2007 and perhaps sell it for one peso each!*

[On the condition he must buy a minimum of 50 copies to give away as gifts oruse as whatever it is we use to lay down the beer bottle and not wet theburnished table. Doilie?]

I would title the Last Peso Book RICE WINE by Wilfrido D. Nolledo, in honorof the last membership of the "Dead Poets Society" in a sort of Festschrift convened in Heaven. The 5 stories would be:

Dead Stars by Paz Marquez Benitez+

A chapter excerpt from America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan+

The Mass of St. Sylvester by Nick Joaquin+

The Yellow Shawl by Franz Arcellana+Rice Wine by Ding Nolledo+

Afterword (essay): The Higher Life in Manila's Elite by "Quijano de Manila"(aka Nick Joaquin)

The last peso book, anyone?

Monday, October 06, 2003

Rizal’s Third Mystery

When Jose Rizal died on December 30, 1896, on Bagumbayan (now the Luneta), he brought with him, to his grave, three mysteries of his life that have continued to baffle his countrymen—from the man in the street to the Rizalist-scholar:

• Did Rizal make a retraction on the eve of his execution?

• Did he “make an honest woman” of Josephine Bracken before he died?

• When did he write his “valedictory poem” (“Ultimo Adios”)?

Scholars have differed in their beliefs regarding the precise time when Rizal wrote the 14-stanza poem:

• Some say Rizal wrote “Ultimo Adios” long before he knew he was going to die in the hands of the Spaniards.

• Others claim he wrote it over several days during his incarceration, long before he learned of his sentence (death by musketry).

• Still others believe that he wrote it in one day—or in one evening, on the eve of his execution.
The first speculation—that Rizal wrote the poem over several months or years would give credence to the theory that Rizal choreographed his life and worked out the scenario for his eventual death and martyrdom.

The second speculation—that he wrote it over several days—seem most realistic. After all, a poet, even one of great talent, usually needs time to write a poem with power and beauty.
The third—that he wrote it in one day or less—is the most alluring: the image of the condemned poet, on the eve of his execution, surrounded by his jailers and guards, receiving his relatives and friends (and even some of his enemies), dashing off the poem in one sitting, unseen by anybody in the midst of the turbulence going in around him.

The last version taxes the imagination much, even if it underscores the ability of a genius—which he was—to write a poetic masterpiece in a creative frenzy under the conditions of a crowded, well-guarded cell.

All these speculations raise questions which invite further speculations:

• If Rizal took days or weeks to compose the poem, did he write drafts? Do geniuses write drafts?

• If he did, where are the drafts? Did he compose and rewrite the poem in his head until he put it down on paper in its final form?

If Rizal composed the poem in his cell during his incarceration—between the sentencing and the execution — and made drafts, they would have been found among his papers.

But Rizal was so closely guarded that even the original—written on both sides of a small, single sheet of paper in almost-microscopic handwriting—had to be smuggled past the guards inside an alcohol lamp which he handed to one of his sisters with a whispered message in English: “There is a poem inside.”)The poem, of course, survived and reached the Filipino people and the world.
Like the other two mysteries, this third mystery continues