The Young Emmanuel
[Excerpt from novel-in-progress]
Emmanuel was a young man from the windblown island of K. After graduating valedictorian from the provincial high school, where he edited the student organ called The Mighty Pen, he applied for a Journalism scholarship at the Royal and Pontifical University. He was accepted.
Now the friars had not yet fully recovered from the routing of the Spanish clergy at the turn of the century. They walked about the sprawling grounds of the university as if they still bustled about the old hacienda: everything, everything as far as the eyes could see, would be theirs. Still, they hewed closely to the rigours of the old Vatican, closely monitoring the books their students were reading, making sure the students did not read any of the books proscribed in the Index of Forbidden Books. They grudgingly admitted women into the university because of dipping finances. The friars’ Headquarters in the Vatican had been complaining – in official meetings only, of course, with all the heavy doors closed – that the remittances from the Philippine Province were dwindling every year such that they had to make do now with wines of inferior quality and cheaper cuts of meat for their dinners.
And so they accepted female students who, of course, were separated from the men. Thus, you had one university with two wings, for him and her, and a strict and bearded old Indian had been tasked with ensuring that no one talked to the women.
And so into the vortex of that world, the young Emmanuel plunged, finding the city as if it were another world. But soon he grew tired of school – of teachers who constantly asked you to parrot their answers, who completely and uncouthly ignored his questions in class, who gossiped scandalously about their neighbours one moment and then stood still as saints in the Holy Mass afterwards.
Moreover, the scholarship only paid for tuition, miscellaneous fees, and books, and he still had to ask for an allowance from his mother. His father had died when he was five, swept upriver by the typhoon on his way home, and his mother, a public- school teacher, brought him up on her own. Even if she had only one child to raise, still she felt that every payday, her pockets were holes into which her salary fell. She could only scrounge around enough money for the young Emmanuel by denying herself the basic things: she went to school in her old shoes, the patent leather beginning to crack; she ate vegetables she grew herself in her backyard, sometimes mixing them with hibe, those small dried shrimps in plastic bags that she bought cheaply in the market; she sold sweetmeats of tocinoand longganisa and even underwear to her fellow teachers for extra income; she had no television set and only listened to the radio for the announcement of another typhoon blowing in from the Pacific, learning this lesson keenly after her husband’s death.
The young Emmanuel knew this, and so one day he turned up at the office of the Evening Express, then the country’s top-circulation broadsheet, and asked to see the Editor-in-Chief.
Mr Nilo Perez was small and brown and rotund. When he looked up from the manuscripts piled on his desk, he reminded Emmanuel of a rat.
In between his words, he constantly sniffed: Emmanuel showed him an essay he had written in school, which he scribbled off ten minutes before class began, and which got a flat 1.0 from his teacher to his great elation and dismay.
Flanked by the photos of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, er, the President and the First Lady, the editor read the essay, his fingers flying over the page, then he looked at the young Emmanuel with rapturous eyes: “I like it! You know how to write. You began with a quotation. And ended with one.”
The young Emmanuel fidgeted in his seat (God, the world is full of morons), and smiled his PR smile, the one he had practised every day before the mirror: a wide smile that showed fully his white teeth, a smile without any meaning.
And so post-haste the young Emmanuel was hired, and the next day began churning up “think pieces” for the Express. “What makes the Filipino tick?” is counterweighed the next day with an incisive essay on “The ungovernability of our race.”
After that, letters began pouring into the Express in praise of this Wunderkind. The young Emmanuel was promoted to Editorial Writer and Assistant Editor (much to the chagrin and envy of the senior editors, bloated egos you can find in any newsroom). Thus, he was able to buy long-sleeved shirts no longer from Quiapo’s bazaars but in Escolta’s shops, and remit money every month to his mother.
One day, the President’s Information Minister, Gorgonio Balbacua, died. Minister Balbacua had an appetite for sex-matched only by his incredible diction. On nationwide TV he was quoted: “We should wage a nationwide campaign against smut and all forms of pornography.” He pronounced smut as “smooth.” His ghostwriters, a group of highly-paid brats from Manila’s most exclusive universities, had a grand time trawling for polysyllables from Roget's Thesaurus for the speeches that they wrote for The Boss. Asterisks became “Asterix,” labyrinthine was lost, and by the time he had reached “anthropomorphism” (delivered before a group of society matrons who raised tiger orchids for a hobby and whose avowed aim was to “Exterminate All Aphids”), the Minister’s tongue was gone.
But his ghostwriters were children of the Social Register themselves, in this country owned by forty families, and thus, they could not be fired from their jobs.
And so he just vented all his frustrations on his sex life. His latest gamin was Ylang-ylang Ysmael, the lead star of that monstrous hit called Nympha. Her earlier box-office hits included the movies Saging ni Pacing (Pacing’s Banana), Bisaklat (Spread-Eagled), and Uhaw (Thirst).
Ylang-ylang Ysmael had long black hair that streamed down her body like a caress, and she ruled over the dark movie houses of Manila with her voice. Low and throaty, a voice perfect for purring, for teasing, and for playing. And when the Empire of her Voice began to moan, her hair dishevelled and her eyes closed, the men of Manila tugged at their zippers, pulled out their dicks, and began masturbating until the whole world shivered and exploded.
Danton Remoto's novel, Riverrun, has just been published by Penguin Random House South East Asia. He was educated at Ateneo de Manila University, University of Stirling, and Rutgers University. Book Riot chose "Riverrun, A Novel" as "one of the five most anticipated books by an Asian author for 2020." He has published a book of stories, three books of poems, and five books of non-fiction, all written originally in English. His writing is included in The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Literature, and The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. He has taught in the US, the Philippines and Malaysia. His last posting was as Head of School and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia.