Conrado de Quiros is among the country’s most articulate and widely-read political voices. His weekly column called There’s the Rub consistently causes pundits and politicians to either lionize him or accuse him of persecution. To put his influence in perspective, he is one of the very first people who called for Noynoy Aquino to run for the presidency, writing “Noynoy for president” in August 2010, following the death and funeral of Former President Corazon Aquino. Noynoy was not even contemplating the bid at this point, but the phenomenal outpouring of grief during Cory’s funeral and the call of people such as de Quiros snowballed into a movement and eventually became the state of Philippine politics today.
Tongues on Fire do not contain materials from his columns but are either speeches or longer essays that are not necessarily political in nature. However, many of the pieces allude to different administrations–from Marcos to Macapagal-Arroyo–and the scandals and indignities to which they have subjected the country. De Quiros is a political animal and it shows, with even speeches about the Boy Scouts of the Philippines containing jibes about corruption. In one essay (“A real book”), he talks about well-meaning friends and usiseros telling him that his talents can be better showcased in other ways, since writing about Philippine politics is an ultimately doomed endeavor. He blithely tells them to get lost.
I vaguely remember buying this book during a previous Manila International Book Fair (I can’t remember which year) because I’ve enjoyed his columns and wanted a more thorough experience of his writing, but I sort of left it languishing unread until this month. It’s interesting to read it with a degree of distance from the issues he had alluded to, including his very vocal criticism of both Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Judging with the luxury of hindsight isn’t fair, but I wish more effort was made to tweak some of the pieces so that they achieve greater universality. Tongues on fire, the speech from where he took the books title, referenced not only GMA’s support of WTO-GATT but also Eminem and Limp Bizkit, for example. If Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” contained references to General Lee or other personalities of the Civil War, it wouldn’t have the same resonance it has today.
Still, de Quiros is a highly engaging writer. The most interesting parts for me occur in latter pieces, where he talks about his past as an activitist during Martial Law and his subsequent disillusionment in the Leftist Movement. He overuses rhetorical devices such as parallelism and repetition whenever he lapses into polemics but when it comes to narrative, he is spot-on. He injects seemingly mundane subjects and anecdotes with a lot of sardonic humor.
There is a lot to learn about fearlessness here, especially from his recollections of his younger self. He is an example of a Filipino who has lived his life as passionately and fully as possible, enduring through all the vagaries of Philippine politics. One of the main things he rages against is a sort of apathy and despair that drives Pinoys to give on their country. We are a product of colonialism, corrupt government, and sheer bad luck, it’s true. But history has shown the Filipino’s capacity to rise above benightedness for a cause that is bigger than themselves. The trick, he says, is not simply to be willing to die for democracy, but to live for it.
(I wrote this review back in August for a challenge hosted by the Filipinos Group at Goodreads.)