a glimpse of the past, present and future

Posted by Marie on Monday, January 03, 2011 in , , , , ,
Letras y Figuras: Business in Culture, Culture in Business – Jaime C. Laya
Non-Fiction, Culture, History, Slice-of-Life, Filipiniana; ISBN 971-27-1143-9; Anvil Publishing, 2001.

(Thank you to Anvil Publishing for my complimentary copy. Thank you to Honeylein de Peralta for coordinating this. :))

“Ordinary people live through all these grand events, against the broad sweep of history. Their names do not appear in history books, but theirs was the labor (and much of the money) that built churches and convents, roads and public works… With all of these, one can say that a town’s history can be viewed through the eyes of its residents who were players in the events of the past.”

There is not one genre to firmly categorize Jaime Laya’s compilation of essays, Letras y Figuras, except perhaps under that rather too-encompassing word, Filipiniana. While he had roughly organized his articles in six chapters (Times & Places; Rituals & Celebrations; Past & Present; Artists & Craftsmen; Possessions; and People, Words & Numbers), the essays’ topics are very diverse. Many are about history, but there are also some about culture, about places, about people – let’s just say about everything that is Filipino. But some are also autobiographical; there are vignettes about the author’s life, his work, his hobbies, and even his ideas. It’s hard to believe that these multi-faceted pieces were written by a cut-and-dried accountant and businessman (although a very successful one) and, if one believes the blurb, a hobbist that only dabbles on the culture and arts in his spare time.

Although I ought not to, it is difficult to resist comparing his historical essays with my other favorite historian, Ambeth Ocampo. While Ambeth Ocampo writes history with the gossipy pizzazz of a teacher (which he is) that deftly knows how to grab today’s attention-deficient generation away from their cellphones, iPods and laptops, Jaime Laya writes history like a grandfather (the look-at-my-mole grandpa from a Bear Brand commercial in the 80s comes into my mind) who feigns exasperation and finally sits down to weave the stories of a younger, cleaner Philippines to his delighted grandchildren. This translates into the most entertaining and assorted Filipiniana trivia and miscellany I’ve ever read outside of an Ambeth Ocampo book. My favorite one is an entry about how people relieve themselves during the Spanish times and up to the turn of the century - apparently ladies, did the deed, when necessary and hidden under their saya (and need I say, free from any frilly impediments too?), standing up. Gross and tacky, yes, but it’s not something that Agoncillo or Zaide would insert in their texts, so I like it.

The heroes of Mr. Laya’s essays are the ones taken for granted: the common folk unwritten in books, the places and locations now ignored and suffocating in pollution and urban blight, the ordinary people’s rituals, traditions and heritages that are now slowly vanishing. The pieces almost lack the usual dramatis personae – Rizal, Bonifacio, Aguinaldo – except via passing mentions. Mr. Laya did feature known historical art personalities such as Luna, Hidalgo, Amorsolo, as well as a few lesser known artists such as Damian Domingo and Ang Kuikok. It is as expected, considering his work in various cultural, artistic and historical organizations, museums and collections. The pieces about bahay na bato and other traditional houses were delightful, and were begging to be read while touring that new historical resort in Bagac, Bataan (Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar is the name, according to Google).

(Image: Malacanang of the North, Paoay, Ilocos Norte)

Indeed, the initial impression I’ve got reading the first chapter is that of a travelogue. His footnotes in his Intramuros and MalacaƱang essays inform us that these are abridged versions of lengthier guidebooks (of which I’m now hunting). The book is best read while traveling - I imagine myself consulting the essay in MalacaƱang, while walking from door to door of that palace (barring rooms unauthorized to the public, of course).

Perhaps Anvil can release two further editions of the book? The first one is an illustrated version, in full color, perhaps into one of those pricey coffee-table books (I’ll probably see it in a bookstore and then sigh in yearning). But the version I’ll appreciate more is of a pocketbook size, as I had decided to include in my new year resolution making time to (re)visit and (re)experience those places and celebrations mentioned in his articles.

His personal essays were the most lyrical. While the piece about his childhood home in Sta. Cruz was very vivid, my favorite is a short one about his wife, titled “A Valentine Story”, as this woke the romantic in me:

“The wind was in her hair, he remembers, as he pointed to the city, the bay and the ocean far below a high ridge. In the flood of his memories are a swan on a quiet pond, a balustraded terrace on a misty hillside, a meadow at dusk moments after a festival of fairies, startled, had fled, scattering millions of little white flowers in their haste. Later, in the chill of the evening, he could not tell where the city lights ended and the stars began.”

Needless to say, I highly recommend you read this book. It is my best book for 2010.



Sounds very interesting. I'll give it a go sometime this year.


This comment has been removed by the author.

Yup, you should. :)

Oh, and I forgot to mention in my review that the book won the 2001 National Book Award for Essays.

back to blogging! :) yown! you made me want to read it, which is good, and winner yung last paragraph.

it got me at the "hair" part. haha!


Hahaha! I never left blogging Joko, just paced myself really, really slow. :-D

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