On Benjamin Appel’s novel on the Philippines, FORTRESS IN THE RICE (1951)


by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Benjamin Appel (1907-1977) may be the most neglected or forgotten radical-democratic novelist of mid-century United States. While his first Depression-era novel Brain Guy (1934) was re-published in 2005 together with Plunder (1952), a racially calibrated expose of underworld racketeering in war-torn Philippines, Appel still remains unknown to most critics and cultural historians. The last significant, incisive commentary on Appel appeared in Alan Wald’s Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Anti-Fascist Crusade (2007) which focused on The Dark Stain (1943), the last of the trilogy beginning with Brain Guy and The Power House (1939). The trilogy became the basis for Appel’s reputation as a novelist specializing in detective and crime fiction set in a milieu of poverty, prostitution, criminal corruption, and murder where “the morass of racial prejudice devours even those of good intentions” (University of Oregon Library 1977).
Periodicals such as the New York Times and The New Yorker praised Appel as the authentic voice of the streets of urban America. Apropos of The Dark Stain, Wald emphasized Appel’s unqualified support for President Roosevelt’s anti-fascist crusade as part of 1930’s Popular Front politics. Its message was conveyed through the trappings of a hardboiled detective novel appropriate for the conspiratorial atmosphere of a protofascist environment, Wald adds, with Dickens and Tolstoy’s psychodrama coalescing with Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser’s stylized naturalism (2007, 143). Five years after this chronicle of race war in the “internal colony,” Appel was addressing “the misery and despair of Asia–a misery and despair shared by nearly all the nonwhite people of the world” (1951, 424)–symbolized by the struggle for the “bowl of rice” that signifies the common humanity founded on material existence.  From 1945 to 1948 when the Cold War flared up, Appel’s sympathy for the underdog widened and deepened to embrace the brutalized peasants of colonial Philippines in his account of their struggle against Japanese colonialism and American racism/chauvinism in Fortress in the Rice (1951). How did this reconfiguration of the writer’s empathic sensibility happen?
The itinerary of the novelist’s imagination evinces a familiar route. From 1935 to 1941, Appel was an active member of the left-wing League of American Writers whose black members included Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and many others. Apart from multiethnic constituencies, the League provided opportunities for delegates from other countries to participate in its meetings. Appel might have encountered the left-wing Filipino delegates to the Third Congress in June 1939 where anti-imperialist speeches inspired the visitors and the committed audience. Franklin Folsom describes Appel’s stance as “independent, creative, and humorous” (1994, 254).
Appel signed the League’s “Call to the Writers Win-the-War Congress” in November 3, 1942 to “articulate the will and desires of the people,” to remember and avenge the victims of Pearl Harbor, Lidice and Stalingrad. The writers would urge the opening of a second front in Europe to defeat “the fascist enslavers and murderers of mankind.” One of the aims of using “words as weapons”  was for “the democratic integration in this people’s war of the total energies of the Negro people, by fighting with them against discrimination in any form whether in civil life or in the armed forces” (Folsom 1994, 348). Appel’s radical-democratic stance is rooted in his conviction that the people as a whole (rather than the sectarian proletarian class-in-itself) prefigures the transitional vehicle in the passage from a class-divided polity into a larger, inclusive, egalitarian order, an outlook he shares with Kenneth Burke (1997), a fellow member of the League and a distinguished theoretician of the arts. Because of this view, Appel easily identified with the Huks as an organic popular ensemble uniting all and everyone under the banner of grass-roots democracy, popular justice, and socialist-internationalist solidarity.

Trajectory of the Partisan Intelligence

Given his humanist-populist sympathies, Appel eagerly joined this mobilization of writers for victory against global fascism and militarism. But what brought him to the only U.S. colony in Asia occurred after his 7-month stint in 1945 at the Office of War Mobilization and Conversion in Washington, DC. Appointed a special assistant to the U.S. High Commissioner to the Philippines from November 1945 to March 1946, Appel arrived in the Philippines engaged in field investigations of the social, political and cultural conditions of the islands, including personalities and specific incidents, prior to the grant of formal independence. The result was the rich, data-filled compendium of letters to his family entitled “Manila Diary,” the raw material (still unpublished) of his two novels, Fortress and Plunder. I believe this 200-page plus manuscript is one of the most valuable eyewitness testimonies by an American “insider” concerning that momentous transitional stage in which the issues of wartime collaboration, agrarian conflict, military insubordination, shady diplomatic chicanery, and political opportunism dominated the headlines. It was the fateful interregnum that would decide future United States’ policies toward the Philippines after the grant of formal independence in July 1946, a precarious conjuncture coinciding with the beginning of the Cold War.
In several letters to prospective publishers, Appel delineated the background to the genesis of Fortress. He calls attention repeatedly to the “theme of the Asiatic peasant’s struggle for rice and land, anxiously emphasizing that “my hero in this novel are the billion Asiatics, the common man across the Pacific who for all his differences is not too dissimilar from the common man of the big American cities” (Appel 1977). Appel considered the vexed American-Philippines entanglement as a microcosm of all Asia. The time he spent in the Philippines “was a turning point in American policy in the Orient”:

After meeting Sergio Osmena [then president of the Philippine Commonwealth] and Manuel Roxas [elected first president of the Philippine Republic; exonerated by Gen, MacArthur for his collaboration with the Japanese govt.] etc., I became interested in the history of the dominant Nacionalista Party over half a century. After attending the trials of General Yamashita, I became interested in the Japanese policy during the occupation, particularly in its propaganda against the West. After meeting the guerilla leaders, both American and Filipino, I became interested in unraveling the feud between the Hukbalahaps [the Communist-led guerilla army against the Japanese forces; hereafter, Huks] and the American-led guerillas. I discovered that there was one common cord binding together such historical phenomena as the Nacionalista Party with its drive for independence from the United States, the Japanese occupation, the bitter feud between the guerillla groups: who should own the land. Landlord or peasant? Today, the land-rice revolt is continuing not only in the Philippines but throughout all Asia. In my opinion, it is the greatest historical fact of our times, involving the fate of half the world’s population  (Appel 1977).

At a crucial juncture in the relations between the United States and its only colony in Asia, the Philippines, Appel found himself an informed, eager participant in, and witness to, the portentous  transition of the Philippines from subservient “Commonwealth” status to a nominally sovereign republic. As already mentioned, Appel was appointed an official historian of the Paul McNutt Commission in 1945-46. This unusual vantage point enabled Appel to scrutinize firsthand those crucial months of negotiations immediately after the liberation of the country from the Japanese occupation, painful weeks and months of restoring normalcy to a society wracked with centuries of peonage, violent pauperization of millions, rampant injustice, and ferocious class antagonisms. Those deep-rooted social maladies constitute a legacy of 300 years of Spanish domination, four years of ruthless Japanese oppression, and forty years of predatory U.S. colonial rule.
Based on his intense social investigation and wide-ranging analysis of the historical archives, Appel produced two novels about Philippine society and the role of American soldiers, politicians and assorted adventurers. While Plunder (1952) stages an interethnic drama involving American soldiers engaged in corrupt collusion with Filipinos. Chinese and other groups enriching themselves from wartime piracy, the longer novel Fortress in the Rice (1951) charts the vicissitudes of the Huk peasant rebellion in the fifties. Although the second novel has been reviewed favorably, it has not been given the serious reading and appraisal that it deserves as one of the most trenchant mapping and critique of racialized colonial ideology operating in the psyches of both masters and subalterns, with subtle discrimination of its effects in a broad spectrum of characters representing different cultural traditions, group habits, and social histories.

Caught Between Two Worlds

The difficulty of a just estimate of Appel’s achievement springs no doubt from the US public’s ignorance of, or indifference to, the half-a-century of U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines. One example is Robert Lowry’s review of Appel’s book. Lowry claims to appreciate through the flat journalistic prose, cliches and overwiting the novelist’s “interested eye roving over the whole social scene of occupied Manila and the guerilla country beyond” which yields “a good documentary” about the “plight of the Philippine masses and the reason for their revolutionary ferment” (1951, 16, 36). Counterpointing this is Harry Slochower’s estimate that Appel’s artifice belongs to “world literature” in the same class as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Malraux’s Man’s Fate. Slowocher argues that Appel shows “greater sensitivity to the complexities of human emotions under the terrible stressess of war, loneliness and hunger” (xxx, 70). What endows the novel with permanent stature is “the story of particular human destinies,” one which “encompasses the making or unmaking of the world-wide fraternity and freedom. It shows that behind the revolution for a bowl of rice, there is the craving for dignity and love” (1951, 70). Without a doubt, the indifference of one reviewer and the enthusiasm of the other may be read as symptomatic of the confused American understanding of the complex situation of the Philippines and its people ever since the US annexed the territory in 1898.
Knowledge of the Philippines as the only direct Southeast Asian colony of the United States has been obtuse and sparse. The entry in The Reader’s Companion to American History, for example, cites the problem of violent annexation in conjunction with the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898-99: “Anti-imperialists opposed to taking over a foreign people without their consent and holding them in a colonial condition objected bitterly” after which the US poured aid. In 1946, the US “granted the Philippines their independence, though still maintaining bases and political influence there” (1991, 836).
In contrast, historians such as Howard Zinn (1980), Stuart Creighton Miller (1982), and Gabriel Kolko (1984), elaborated on the unconscionable violence and savage suppression of Filipino insurgents from 1899 through the pacification campaigns in the first three decades of the last century. Neocolonial methods were hatched in the Commonwealth period up to the defeat and surrender in Bataan and Corregidor. Conversion of the territory into a neocolony was mainly effected by the Bell Trade Act and the Military Bases Agreement of 1947, plus other agreements enforcing economic, political and mlitary conditions that perpetuated dependency and preserved the feudal landlord structures and client-patron nexus on which oligarchic power has rested for over three hundred years of Spanish, Japanese and American colonial subjugation.
Clearly, World War II caused a rupture in the system of unequal relations between colonized subalterns and imperial masters together with their native overseers. It released popular energies catalyzed by the stubborn resistance to Japanese brutality. While Filipino opposition to US colonialism never stopped despite 1.4 million casualties during the Filipino-American War of 1898-1913, concessions were granted by the US to win over the vacillating middle strata and pettybourgeois intelligentsia (San Juan 2007). However, the majority of citizens, over 80% of the toiling masses comprised largely of peasants and workers chained to peonage in the fields, mines, etc., was subjected to degrading conditions. They continued the revolutionary tradition begun in the 1896 insurrection against Spain up to the twenties and thirties, finally organizing and mobilizing themselves against the Japanese occupation. The group that led this fight was the Hukbalahap composed of socialists, communists, and other nationalist forces whose Popular Front policies supported US anti-Japanese guerillas called USAFFE (United States Armed Forces in the Far East). They were not only fighting the Japanese invaders but also their Filipino collaborators—the puppet government and its constabulary police and soldiers—defending landlord property and oligarchic entitlements, the iniquitous status quo before the war. It was ultimately what Appel calls “a battle for the land,” for the radical transformation of the economic and political structures that entrenched a privileged minority backed by the US government that has been oppressing Filipinos (Constantino 1978; Miranda 1988; Pomeroy 1992).
`    Half a century of US tutelage had resulted in pauperization of the peasantry and immiseration of the working class and indigenous or ethnic communities due chiefly to the polarization of land ownership.  Historian Jonathan Fast found that “in 1903 an estimated 81 per cent of all land holdings were worked on directly by their owners; by 1938 this figure had fallen to 49 per cent and in the post-war decade the rate of polarization increased further. By the 1950s an estimated two thirds of all the rural population were landless and of these the great majority were sharecroppers working the fields for a small percentage of the crop” (1973, 76; for updates, see Putzel 1992). On the eve of the Pacific War, with the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, the increasing rate of land tenancy, heavy rural indebtedness and massive pauperization, militant peasant unions demanded reforms for land redistribution and the end of landlord control over the courts and the bureaucratic apparatus. This is essentially what Appel, in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, referred to as the “tidal wave” whose heart is “the bowl of rice.” The image distills the centuries-long quest of oppressed people of color for freedom, justice and equality.
Private landlord armies and vigilante groups controlled by the elite suppressed any agitation, however peaceful and legal. The war changed the situation. For example, the elite mestizo Narciso Ferrer (the typical Filipino politician of President Manuel Quezon’s generation symptomatic of comprador opportunism) abandoned his hacienda for refuge in Manila and urged the Japanese-backed Philippine Constabulary (under General Mabanta) to protect his rice-fields, to no avail. Ater establishing local governments, the armed peasantry organized by the Huks implemented land redistribution, uncompromising punishment of collaborators, and the denial of rice harvests to the Japanese occupiers, the strategic maneuver called “rice struggles.”
When the US administators returned in 1944, the Huks welcomed the Americans as fellow comrades in the anti-fascist struggle and carried out an initial voluntary demobilization in their regional and local guerilla infrastructures.  But instead of being recognized for their contribution to the destruction of Japanese forces in the major provinces of Luzon (the largest island), the Huks were disarmed, arrested, and whole squadrons of fighters massacred. The Huk leaders were hounded and persecuted.  In effect, American liberation of the islands spelled the return of the old order of mestizo elite exploitation of the majority of peasants and workers. A Filipino journalist, Hernando Abaya, summed up this period of collaboration and MacArthur’s subversion of President Roosevelt’s policies in his 1947 commentary Betrayal in the Philippines (a condensed version may be found in chapters 3-5 of his 1984 autobiography The Making of a Subversive.) For Appel, that treachery was shocking. It was a profound tragic mistake of moral blindness to the past and a sabotage of the US government’s proclaimed commitment to the affirmation of nation’s self-determination, human rights, and the ideals of democratic liberties–shibboleths of the Allied countries’ wartime propaganda .

Epiphany and  Intervention

In that fortuitous assignment to the Philippine theater of class and racial antagonisms, Appel felt he was “living at the center of a typhoon,…a year of momentous decisions when all Asia held its breath, waiting for the United States, the world’s supreme power to point the way to the future…And weren’t the 1950s and the 1960s decades of wars and civil wars in Asia? And wasn’t the United States itself torn apart by violent dissenssion?”  He assumed a self-conscious, transnational perspective:  “…No sensitive person could have been in the Far East in 1945-46 without being aware that the American alternatives in Asia were limited. It was a choice between the mailed fist, a restoration of the pre-war status quo, or a recognition of the ‘rice bowl” revolution. And my novel reflected what was to come…” (Appel 1977). Appel’s vocation as historian-educator thus sprang from pedagogical and hermeneutic motivations. The thematic burden of acquiring a mature vision, a knowledge of the multidimensional sociohistorical totality, may be discerned in the effort to extract a glimpse of the future from the judicious recording of surface events. The artist was both a witness and protagonist of the unfolding drama of the Filipino people’s revolution.
We can formulate the writer’s task as a kind of cunning ventriloquist.  Appel needs to solve the dilemma of staying as an objective, faithful observer aligned with the colonizer while functioning as a conscientious partisan of the masses. But as the novel’s central intelligence, he had no choice but to exercise narrative authority and calculate the relative worth of his characters, their actions and possible consequences. It was a matter of balancing hypotheses and inferences in ironic, often ambiguous lived experiences and situations.
Georg Lukacs once theorized that “the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God…The novel tells of the adventure of interiority, the content of the novel is the story of the soul that goes to find itself, that seeks adventures in order to be proved and tested by them, and, by proving itself, to find its own essence” (1971, 88-89). By “essence” here, Lukacs designates the character’s destiny, the ethos and signature of her position in a specific historical process. To concretize this hypothetical adventure of interiority, Appel fabricates the narrative of the helpless MacVey, typifying the white American pettybourgeois individual, buffeted by the forces of racist prejudice, sexist brutality and violence in the arena of wartime Philippines. The dynamics of his survival equals his experience of learning the discrepancies between his consciousness and reality, parallel to Appel’s belief that objectivity is a mask for compromise with the status quo. The only alternative is a courageous method of realism leavened with ironic distance and humor. MacVey as anti-hero learns the disparity between illusory conceptions of life and the brute contingency of his actual environment, finally deciding to translate his new knowledge into practice–the practice of speaking truth to power, the practice of writing as an instrument of people’s emancipation and empowerment.

Exploring Dangerous Terrain

It was a new historical and geographical venue for the novelist but his instincts easily furnished the coordinates of aesthetic judgment. It was a new setting but an old game of tactical options and moral choices. Given the sophisticated realism of his earlier novels and his proletarian or plebeian bias, Appel cannot but adopt the viewpoint of the common people, the Filipino tao. The essence he is in search of is the validating quality of collective humane relations in a world devoid of cosmic moral norms or universal communal standards. This is carried out by the invention of typical characters representing social categories, such as MacVey, Narciso Ferrer, Careo, etc.  Apart from the fidelity to multifaceted actuality, the novel’s realism is complicated by a need to profit from the hazardous journey of discovering the truth behind illusions both official and psychological. The sublimation of romantic ideals embedded in tradition and social conventions proceeds through scenes of love, fantasies and experiences of disappointment, anger, joy, longing. What results is the ironic revelation of the limits of metaphysical hopes and idealist promises vis-a-vis the unyielding facticity of real life.
We confront the classic burden of  the education plot syncopated with social satire and lyrical episodes of transcendence. Appel’s hindsight-become-foresight informs the novel’s prophetic charge, somehow a performance of the novelist’s responsiblity to render in dramatic scenes what he calls the “timeless” truths of compassion, pity and love. This is condensed in the closing paragraph of the novel. After surveying the corpse of his erstwhile comrades, in particular the Huk leader Major Careo, Dave MacVey, the central protagonist, is seized with “a paroxysm of grief and rage.” After the death of Col. Ryker, Careo served as MacVey’s father figure, an epitome of resourceful compassion and solidarity between Filipinos and Americans. After prying open the knotted fist of Careo to recover palay (unhusked rice grains) symbolic of the noble ideals of the peasant resistance, MacVey shouts at Major Ortala, the opportunist officer who carried out the execution to please the reactionary landlord-oligarchs:

“You’re not getting away with it! I’ll tell what I know!  Here! Back home!  I’ll tell the whole world the truth!” He spun around, looking down at the major who was a corpse. “Manuel, nobody’ll stop me. Manuel, I swear in God’s name, Manuel!” And he turned from Manuel, the first in the row of Hukbalahaps, as if even now in death he were leading them, toward Major Ortala and the sergeant and sentry.  “You killed him! Killed all of them for the hacenderos!  For the hacendero collaborators!  You killed them, but they’ll hang you!” And with the motion used in tossing a hand grenade, he drew back his arm, his fist opening, and into their faces he flung the rest of the palay. (1951, 423).

At this point Appel was not inventing a scandalous episode. The actual historical incidents Appel translated into fiction occurred on Febuary 5, 1945, when Huk squadron 77 was waylaid by a Filipino colonel, Adonais Maclang, who then killed 130 unarmed Huk guerillas with the knowledge of the US Military Police. At that time USAFFE guerillas accused the Huks of all kinds of crimes; they persuaded the US Counter-Intelligence Corps to arrest well-known leaders such as Luis Taruc, Casto Alejandrino, Silvestre Liwanag. Only one American official, Air Corps Col. Gwen Atkinson, protested the outrage. Further substantiation of the veracity of this historic conjuncture may be found in the Huk leader Luis Taruc’s autobiography, Born of the People (1953), which came out two years after the publication of Fortress (see also Abaya 1947).
Under the Roxas administration, Huk leader Juan Feleo and labor militant Jose Joven were kidnapped and liquidated by landlord-controlled military police who were supposed to be protecting them, testifying to the dominance of landlord-reactionary politicians and military chiefs (Agoncillo and Alfonso 1967, 533-536). This was one of the unforgettable horrible developments that outraged Appel, compelling him to write his two Philippine novels.

Between Romance and Realism

To be sure, Appel then had no intention of achieving a kind of documentary pastiche that one associates today with Capote’s In Cold Blood or with the raw if now banal naturalism of Zola and Norris. He disclaimed being a political reporter or foreign correspondent. In a letter to the editor of Macmillan, Appel confessed that  the novel is the “story of one American’s education in the Far East—an education begun so long ago in an American schoolroom—and what he learned of the new colonialism so ominous for all the peoples of the world. It is the story of sixty days, a moment of history, that lost all Asia” (Appel 1977).  One may describe this cognitive episode as a successful learning experience in understanding the failure of the promised emancipatory mission of the victorious Allied forces, which then becomes the lesson to be taught to others willing or ready to be disenchanted.
Drawing from the facts of his personal involvement in the historic  convergences of the time as an interested observer, and as a fabulist, we can define Appel’s project as both wrestling with ethico-political and aesthetic problems. It is clear that he had been deeply moved by the epic struggle of the Filipino masses for genuine democracy and equality, encapsulated in his phrase, “the rice bowl revolution of landless peasants,” an epic struggle to which American “leadership at all levels is pathetically blind… All colonialism is doomed but our leadership remains blind” (Appel 1977).  Appel’s urgent task is to awaken not only the leaders but the broad audience of his work about this ethico-political blindness, this wilful ignorance, bred from a long history of colonial hauteur. His advantage over previous historians is that he happened to be a witness-participant at “a turning point” when the main contradiction between Japanese fascism and the Allied cause of free-enterprise democracy clashed head-on with the revolutionary tide in the Philippines. “To know, to understand and to act in the democratic tradition” was Appel’s ethico-political motive, a duty as witness to testify to the truth and an obligation to incite the audience to action in order to prevent what was to come—the disasters and misfortunes of humanity–born from the reality of the unexamined benighted past.
On the other hand, as a socially responsible artist, Appel conceived his task as the traditional one of rendering into concrete dramatic scenes the meaning of what he witnessed, investing acts of misery and despair with pity, compassion and love. The burden of artistic representation centers on constructing a narrative that would flesh out the manifold contradictions of that historic conjuncture in a specific milieu in which the conflicts of classes, races and nations would assume what Appel calls “an imaginative unity” that would attain timelessness in and through the timely, ephemeral circumstances of the media headlines. His prime novelistic strategy prompted maneuvering in the Philippine geopolitical milieu a contrived plot of one young American’s education about the deceptive nature of “the new colonialism.” This “personal-history scaffolding,” for Appel, would give the work “a certain timeliness” enough to appeal to his contemporaries.
Time functions as the main framework for the accumulation of experience and the discovery of the truth behind the seeming façade of normal life. The mapping of space follows the contours of the war-torn Philippines, with Manila being the focus of hypocritical masquerades while the countryside (Lawang Kupang, the Huk fortress; or the USAFEE hideouts) embraces the contested areas of fighting, the liberated zones as well as the vast wilderness and the idyllic Dingalan Bay oceanfront which provides a reprieve for MacVey before his final lesson.
We are introduced into a complex social panorama of class/national conflicts into which the adventuring hero, MacVey, is plunged to work out his own salvation. The spatial horizon is fixed, more or less, but the process of existential engagements has no limit—except death. Three blocs of character-types articulate this narrative of learning and discovery, an apprenticeship for the witness/testimony bearer, which the fabulist narrator uses to establish the ironic unfolding of history. First, the Filipino hacenderos and oligarchs (personified by Narciso Ferrer, the minister of justice in the Japanese puppet setup, General Mabanta, etc.) with whom American business is tied. Diverse Japanese officials interact with the Filipino collaborators to demonstrate their astute manipulation of their new subordinates. Our American hero, MacVey, associates himself with this native mestizo elite through Ferrer’s aristocratic daughter, Teresita, after which he becomes involved with Sisa, an outlaw mistress, shared with his devil-may-care compatriot Joe Trent.
The second group are the American USAFFE officials such as Ryker, Peterson, and Ackroyd; and the villainous Joe Trent who functions as MacVey’s diabolic shadow-emanation. The third group consists of the Filipino Huk guerillas represented chiefly by Major Manuel Careo. In between them and the Japanese are the outlaw group of Sisa and Atong; and the opportunist USAFFE band of Major Ortala, supported by landlords and fascist elements, who summarily executes Major Carreo and his companions. The first and second groups represent the forces of colonial domination and conservatism while the Huks and their peasant-middle class followers represent the partisans of “the rice bowl revolution” which, for Appel, signifies the protracted, long-range collective endeavor to fashion an emancipated, just and democratic future. This repertoire of character-types acquires significance only in their roles of advancing, complicating or subverting the plot of education replete with ironic twists and suspense-filled rhetorical closures.

Reprise and Extrapolation

At the outset, we encounter the young naive MacVey marooned in the Philippines at the advent of the Pacific War, isolated in the abandoned hacienda of Narciso Ferrer.   Panicked at first, he is comforted by the landlord’s overseer Jacinto. The first lesson MacVey learns is the peasant’s revenge against centuries-old humiliation: the slaying of Jacinto is witnessed by the helpless American. With psychological acuity, Apel renders the impact of the oppressed’s newly-found power on the anguished white man whose only refuge is to assert his national/racial identity—even though he has already rejected his mother’s white supremacist  arrogance:

In this room become a slaughter pen Dave looked from the killers to the killed. On the overseer’s hand—the hand that had an arm—he recognized his wrist watch and glimpsed his own murdered self, as if bound, indeed, to the Filipino. Jabbering, the killers walked to him, and although he shouted, “Don’t kill me! I’m an American! Amigo!  Americano!” there was a part of him that seemed as utterly dead as the overseer (1951, 45)

Before the close of this first time-segment of the novel, the last thirty days of 1943 comprising the first part (consisting of Chapters 1 to 18), MacVey’s encounter with Joe Trent offers the second lesson of self-discrimination in Chapter 10. After Trent raped a helpless native woman, MacVey vows to bear witness to this epitome of colonial/racial/sexist terrorism: “He could have wept for her and for himself. He could have wept for this evil thing Joe had done to her and to all Americans. But what was the use? In this hut who would care or understand? “Joe,” he said, “when we get to Lawang Kupang I’m turning you in, Joe. I’m telling Careo” (1951, 105). MacVey fulfills his promise, but their enrollment in Col. Ryker’s USAFFE group submerges Trent’s guilt. However, despite the frustratiion, his role as testimony-bearer and witness has been convincingly set up, anticipating the challenges of what’s to come.
Meanwhile, Teresita Ferrer has joined the Huks after her father’s patriarchal blow finally severed the tie between them—never to be healed even as she succumbs to the courtship of a self-serving USAFEE opportunist, Casiano Bunag. Before that twist in her life, Teresita and MacVey are joined in a rapturous experience in Lawang Kupang, the Huk fortress, after which they are married by Major Carreo. In this section, Appel is accused by critics of indulging in some purple prose (see pages 193 and 195) when he registers the interior monologue of both lovers, although he doesn’t fully shift to a stream-of-consciousness mode which is vulnerable to further sentimentalist abuse. Neither erotic nor sentimental, these lyrical passages celebrate the loss of that narrow ego-centered psyche or mentality underlying class, racial and national divisions among humans, a loss harmonized with the border-cutting, cosmic rhythm of nature:
Before them a dark slope lifted, and they listened to the mountain stream gurgling and tumbling over unseen pebbles. If the mountain slept, its voice was always babbling—of lovers’ farewells and the passing of love, and of death. Down, down to the hills, the stream sang, down to the uplands, love passes, down into the green and golden rice, down to the plain, love passes and death awaits….He kissed her gently on the lips, his eyes closing, and in the silence the stream still sang of love and death. “You’re here, and I’m here!” he whispered. “The biggest fluke.”

The last phrase is symptomatic of Apel’s ironic tactic to curb romanesque impulses from distracting us from the larger perspective, a gesture one would expect from a veteran story-teller of tough-guy escapades and stoic self-disavowals.

Reconnaisance and Denouement

We know the eventual resolution of the Pacific War in broad strokes, but not the particulars. In the next half of the book comprising the first thirty days of 1946, Appel intended (as he told the Macmillan editor) to describe the restoration of the feudal landlords to power, the renewed war against the Huks; and the accompanying ideological psycho-warfare—the device of independence is one means that would solve the problem of oligarch-landlord collaboration with the Japanese, requiring the betrayal of the Huks and other nationalist forces that facilitated MacArthur’s return. The last phase of MacVey’s education occurs after his desperate escape from the Constabulary prison through the sacrifice of Andy Peterson, the antithesis of Trent and the only person caring and decent enough to allow MacVey to save himself.
Well before that event, in Lawang Kupang, Macvey had already absorbed the wisdom of Major Careo who drives home the cathartic value of the process of self-examination: “You are ashamed of the prejudice. That is the first step, my friend. To admit your life as it has been, to understand your own past. Only then can a man begin to understand the lives of others different from himself. Once we understand, we will have no use for prejudice.” Complementing this self-enlightenment is a view that the past is not immutable, proof of which is the wedding of two persons representing opposites, disparities, incommensurables : “You will open other doors, all the doors of your past, this prison that holds us and keeps us from being brothers” (1951, 197).
That memorable exhortation converts the act of binding people into a trope of liberation. In the concluding chapter entitled “The First Liberation,” we are confronted with the morality of decision, sharply enunciated as the antithesis of what is and what ought to be, a choice between resignation to the static actuality of everyday life and defiance in attempting to change the drift of things: ”The way things are, Dave thought…But what about the way things ought to be? Lifting against the chorus of the way things are, he seemed to hear voice after voice,….for always there came a time of decision. Alwas a man has to raise his own voice or be still against the steady, repeated everlasting chorus of the way things are” (1951, 409-410). This classic philosophical contradiction between is and ought, what is dead (the past) and what ought to be vibrant (the future as present), axiomatically expresses the theme of the novel.
Clearly MacVey’s internal ruptures can no longer be suppressed. Earlier, when he joins the outlaw band of Sisa and Atong, we reach a critical point in his education for witnessing—his experience of release from family, nation, and the relentless compulsion of sexuality. It is a moment of liberation from self-centered concerns, even an anarchistic moment of self-dissolution. After being assured that he has equal claims to Sisa in competition with Trent, MacVey begins to admire Sisa as a free agent, even “a perverted female Robin Hood, loyal to her wine-stealing, raping bunch of tulisans.” Even “Caveman Joe Trent” has been redeemed for MacVey: “Zambales was ‘under the bridge’ for Joe, with the damn war and Cavite and the America that had given him birth. But what about MacVey himself? Whom was he loyal to? Whom was the little idealist, the little speechmaker loyal to? Masters back on Zambales, HIS COUNTRY in caps, HIS WIFE, in caps? Better not to think, better not to remember” (1951, 348).
A disturbing tone of irony and cynicism punctuates this meditation. MacVey recovers immediately, repelled at the thought that he was metamorphosing into that vicious persona he had fought tooth and nail, his Trent double. Finally he resolves his doubts: “Manuel Careo was right, a thousand times right, Man made himself. Man made or could unmake his conscience—and in the making, the doing, man freed what was best in his soul, or freed what was worst” (1951, 349). We overhear the voice of the historian’s conscience in this instructive judgment. But is that statement of principle a conclusion or a point of departure?
We can interpret MacVey’s decision to make the long perilous trek back to USAFFEE headquarters as proof of his graduation into becoming a reliable full-fledged witness. This function is analogous to the artist’s vocation. But before he fully assumes that role, he confides the truth of Trent killing Atong to Sisa in order to find out her reaction; but he is surprised to find out that “she didn’t care…. Abruptly as he had taken Sisa, abruptly he left her.  Of all the emotions surging through him—sexual release and drunken shame and guilt and the knowledge that Atong and Joe and he himself were all one tool of gratification to Sisa—he was tormented most by the feeling that he was Joe” (1951, 355).  With the moral schism appeased, the psychic split dissolved, MacVey proceeds to become the truth-bearer of America’s treachery against the Huks (who valued the promise of American democracy) as demonstrated by the exoneration of collaborators and its grant of phony independence to the Philippines. Acknowledging his Trent-double, MacVey thus accepts responsibility for America’s failures and hypocrisies.
There is more at stake. What ultimately the narrative accomplishes here is the legitimation of MacVey’s testimony as a mode of overcoming alienation based on private property. We have at the outset seen his patriarchal-patronizing mentality in his attitude to peasants and women in general, reducing him to conformity with the code of white supremacy and masculine superiority. His ego depends on the seduction of women (see the passages in Chapter 10 where he relishes his sexual conquests (pp. 92-93). While knowing the facts, he wrongheadedly fantasizes that Teresita is Spanish, not Filipino, so that he is uneasy about being the father of a “brown kid,” a fatality “too remote for him to grasp” (1951, 248-49).
MacVey is puzzled by so many discrepancies between ideas and real situations. Later on, when he is told that Teresita is married to somebody else, he resigns himself to what he believes is given fact, with a cynical rationalization: “Well, that’s the way things were. Amen and hallelujah.,, [Teresita] was the way she was. She was the way he was. The flesh was weak stuff or strong stuff, depending on how you looked at it.  You had ideals, faith, but you also had a body greedy for its own life…. His pregnant wife, made pregnant by some other bastard. Maybe he ought to go back to America without seeing her…—who could blame her? Life went on, and the living still needed what the dead could no longer give. He reviews the persons he had invested in, including the whore Serafina and Sisa the tulisan, finally resolving the antinomy: …“let the past keep the past…” (1951, 417). MacVey finds himself dispossessed, no longer claiming rights of ownership over Teresita and over comrades he respected, especially Careo. He reaches a stage when “need and enjoyment have lost their egoistic nature”(as Marx once envisaged), when  the complete emancipation of all the human senses and attributes occurs with “the superssession of private property” (Marx 1975, 352).

Dialectics Unbound

One can invoke the penultimate chapter of the book, entitled “A Look Into the Future,” as the realization of MacVey’’s mission or purpose in the universe of the novel. At this point, the narrative voice declares the truths of the present and its fearful consequences for the future. Its concluding affirmation, however, belies its desired effect. Appel’s focus on “democracy” is undercut by the concluding chapter in which Major Ortala (representing the USAFFE, General MacArthur, Commonwealth officials, and Paul McNutt himself as the High Commissioner standing for the Roosevelt administration) destroys the finest tribunes and defenders of the people.
Appel’s metaphoric index of the hungry masses is meant to overshadow MacVey’s bitter disenchantment at the end, with its dreadful aura of futility. The imagery and rhythm of this passage exemplifies  Appel’s finely controlled rhetoric. His prose style here is neither overly optimistic nor cautiously genteel. The narrator inventories the polarized forces confronting each other and speculates on what may reconcile them as he anticipates boldly a utopian future that clearly escapes being captured by the rubric of “American democracy,” a future the historical specifics of which defies elucidation:

(The design will be blood-red, and its words will spell out Law and Order. The smoke of burning Hukbalahap barrios will spell out Law and Order, a Law and Order of the hacienderos…Mailed fists and rebellious land-hungry peoples on the march.  Who will help them? They will help themselves. Who will hear their ancient cry for land and rice? They will hear themselves. America, great land, land of the free, will you help, will you hear?  Will you undersand that the revolution of Asia is a revolution of hunger and that the hungry are reaching for more than a bowl of rice? Reaching for the land that has never belonged to them, and for more  than the land. Reaching for their own manhood, for dignity, for love. Yes, for love, as the revolution kills and burns in its march toward power. For the marching peasant soldier is the father who sold his daughter to keep the family from starvation; the marching peasant soldier is the son who watched the police torture his mother; the marching peasant soldier is the brother whom nobody called brother but the organizers and leaders of the revolution. America, you must understand that if the mailed fist is strong, American democracy is stronger, and only American democracy can win friends in Asia. Only democracy.) (1951, 395).

At best, the two concluding chapters are meant to produce a mixed feeling of subdued hope, vigilance, and anger. It is the conflict between the romance-oriented alazon of masculine bravado and the deflationary eiron, the detached, shrewd observer of human folly, oscillating in MacVey’s character-role. The twin spirits of narrative genre seem forever locked in tense combat, energizing both its prophetic and memorializing reserves for deployment by future practitioners.
Despite ambiguities and ironies in the narrative flow, Appel’s ethico-political objective of articulating the emergence of American necolonial hegemony in the Philippines and in Asia fuses with his artistic goal of synthesizing the complex motives of humans caught in a turbulent crisis of a system—monopoly-capitalism in its highest stage, imperialism—that is inevitably dying, while the egalitarian future nourished in the womb, like the palay grains in the bloodied ground, is still struggling to be born. This is the universal message of Fortress in the Rice, a powerful artistic creation by the forgotten American chronicler of the Filipino revolution in the twentieth century, Benjamin Appel.

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About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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