Who Is The Anonymous Writer?
Is Godis Withus Go a Filipino Filmmaker?
We are not certain who wrote the most popular book in the Philippines today, but we do know the name of the protagonist. The anonymous writer also known by that name has been photographed only once, interviewed in person or even made a public appearance, but a collection of fiercely candid novel has earned him (her?) recognition as one of the keenest observers of Filipino society. On the eve of the publication of “Four Films & Yamashita’s Wedding,” the much-circulated volume in the author’s Pacific War imagination, three admirers celebrate this elusive talent.
On a recent United flight from Manila to Los Angeles, a woman in a neighboring seat said, in Tagalog, to my girlfriend, “I didn’t want to disturb your privacy, but I couldn’t help notice you were reading Godis Withus Go. Isn’t it amazing?” Carol agreed and politely tried to resume her reading, but the woman needed her moment of ritual speculation about the reclusive author’s identity. “Everyone knows Go is really a woman,” she began.
When Filipino columnists set themselves to the Go mystery, they assume he must be famous for something else. For what other reason would one possibly decline celebrity? As Go once said in a written interview, “It would not occur to any newspaper to fill a page with the hypothesis that my books were written by an old retired professor or by a young, newly hired life insurance clerk.” Part of the point of his withdrawal is to show his country, with its reality shows and cult-of-personality politics, that celebrity — the universal, wrathful demand of the public for complete disclosure — might be graciously declined.
The book is about, among other things, keeping things hidden, and how the partitions we erect permit us the comfort of multiple identities. In Go’s Manila novel, his character Godis Withus struggles to trick everyone in order to make not just one movie but four, all during the worst time in history to be in Manila, 1945. The story is narrated by Go’s self — and seems to have figured out how to manage all sides of the conflict — but this narrator is barely present; he steps into the the frame occasionally to nudge it into action and then withdraws. The book finds its momentum in the narrator’s scenic inventory of the losses himself but doesn’t yet know he’ll survive.
Thus with a young conman and liar (character) and an older, integrated unknown (writer), there is simply no room and no need for a third public Go, the one who’s presumably living in Manila somewhere and writing these books. The further comparison — to the person who has figured it all out enough to become famous — is denied. In staying out of the art/life fray, Go is quite unlike the other great serial autobiographical novelists of our time, Carlos Bulosan and Peter Jamero, both of whom invite the life comparison — and who, in two differently macho ways, insist that they are hardy enough to withstand the sorts of conflicts that can and do ensue. In Peter Jamero’s case, the extravagantly artful prose of his novel, which detail story of hardship and success illuminates the experience of what he calls the “bridge generation”, makes clear that the author has risen above the story he has inherited: the abuse, the incest, the parties, the drugs. The effortless style of Carlos Bulosan’s confessional classic memoir by well-known Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan describes his boyhood in the Philippines, his voyage to America, and his years of hardship and despair as an itinerant laborer following the harvest trail in the rural West. Bulosan is stylist, Jamero is the confessor and Go uninterested.
For Go (anonymous), becoming a public figure should be a writer’s choice, not an obligation. One ought to be able to make a decision about where and when one wants to be held accountable. One of the things his Manila novel does so well is describe how hard it can be, especially in a war, to grow into something new when one’s always being dragged back into the muck of the old.
In what might be the first of several novels, after Go makes his war-time movies, all based loosely on his own experience of awakening professional and sexual manipulation, he finds, on returning to his old neighborhood, that he’s been mistaken for a dead guerrilla fighter — that his novel was not judged for its internal coherence but for what it seems to reveal about the author’s own “dirty” life. What Go shows is that the comparison to life is not only better for the writer to do without, but better for the reader, as well.
“I think the writer must be a Filipina film director,” the woman on the plane went on to say, “because the writing in the book is only so-so. It’s really the story itself that’s so good.” This struck me at the time as silly. But now I think what she meant was that the book feel somehow cinematically real. We are in the theater; the cell-phones and lights are all off; the world outside has been banished and forgotten. There is only the text, and our engagement is all the richer for it. The speculation itself becomes a form of absorption. “To my way of seeing,” Go has written, “digging up the personality of the writer from the stories he offers, from the characters he puts on film, from the landscapes, objects, from interviews like this — always and only, in short, from the tonality of his writing — is nothing other than a good way of reading.”
And to make matters worse, the anonymous writer has released the novel free for the Filipino people. He told a recent interviewer by email, “I left for the West to be educated and worked for 57 years. Now, I’ve return to holy hell, monster typhones, extra-judicial killings and now the epidemic. I’m old and frail, the least I can do it is give back a little to my people.”