Exploring the teenage roots of Graciano Lopez y Jaena’s heroism, The Ghost of Friar Botod makes for an entertaining companion for historical detectives
A Book Review by:
WB EDMUND CORONEL
Associate Editor, THE CABLETOW
(Volume 89, No.6, March-April 2013)
The Ghost of Friar Botod
By: Ignacio V. Illenberger
VW Ignacio Illenberger is a different kind of writer. First, he is a Mason. It is ten times easier for Masons to donate money for a 5-story hospital than to contribute a 5-page readable article to THE CABLETOW. One story I had asked for Christmas was handed to me in Lent the year following.
Second, he finishes what he writes. Most writers will do anything to avoid writing. I don’t know why. But after writing my first paragraph here, I stood up, took my lunch, took a nap, woke up, slept again because it was still siesta, and got up at 4; okay, 5 p.m. Back to my writing desk, I was all fired up and ready to pound on my PC keyboard when it struck me that a hundred million pesos was in the pot for 6/49. So, I rushed out of home, placed my bet at a lotto outlet, and sat down with neighborhood pals celebrating a birthday at the sidewalk. In short, I wrote this paragraph 24 hours after the first. This makes Illenberger a different writer. Moreover, he writes with a crisp language that makes his novel.
“The Ghost of Friar Botod”, an easy and fascinating read. It is about the pre-exile, teenage life, of Graciano Lopez Jaena, one of the most illustrious sons of Iloilo City as much as Philippine Freemasonry. Easily, The Ghost qualifies as a historical novel alright. But Illenberger loaded his work with subtle twists and styles which make the book and interesting and different read.
Illenberger is the current editor of the Far Eastern Freemason, the official publication of the Philippine Scottish Rite. He has been a staff writer for THE CABLETOW a long time ago. No doubt, he is savvy with the language which, actually, is rare among combat officers in the service.
Graduating with an economics degree from the Central Philippine University (CPU) in 1971, he served in the Philippine Marine Corps in the next 32 years. His tour of duty included postings in the faculty of the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP) and later, as Director of the Philippine Navy Museum at Fort San Felipe in Cavite City.
Known & unknown
The novel opens in June 1996 at the YMCA lobby in Iloilo City where Graciano Lopez Jaena Lodge No. 194 is located. The Bros had just begun its stated meeting when they were surprised by an unexpected guest.
An aged Mason from Hong Kong of Portuguese-Macau origin, one Senhor Claudio Jiao Lopez, was admitted into the lodge while being pushed in a wheelchair. He introduced himself as the grandson of Claudio Lopez, the former Portuguese honorary vice-consul in Iloilo in the mid-1800s and more importantly, the paternal uncle of the hero Graciano Lopez Jaena. He handed a briefcase over to the Worshipful Master containing family heirlooms in the belief that they present better use and benefit for the lodge than to anyone else.
After the turnover, Claudio Jiao Lopez left as quickly as he came. An air of mystery suddenly loomed over the lodge. Baffled, the Master ordered the Lodge Custodian of the Works to go after the ailing guest and find out everything he could learn.
With the Stewards of the lodge, the Custodian caught Claudio Jiao Lopez behind the YMCA building which is actually located along Iloilo River. Lopez was confined in a wheelchair, after all – and boarding a sailboat that had carried him across the South China Sea.
Invited aboard the vessel, the Custodian played detective – snooping around the deck and cabins, asking questions and poring over crisp, aged letters. He pieced together the known historical facts and the untold family stories that Claudio Jiao Lopez told about his grand uncle, Graciano Lopez Jaena, comprising the novel’s actual story.
Fact & Fiction
Readers will immediately spot Illenberger’s distinct styles. The characters were named after real-life Masons like Benjamin Yu and Kalaw. The settings were taken after real events, real places in real-time like YMCA-Iloilo. Actually the author was Past Master of Graciano Lopez Jaena Lodge No. 194.
He didn’t spare even himself from his own literary devices. Except for adjectives of “handsome”, “brilliant”, “sublime” and “great”, you will never discover that Illenberger is the Custodian.
As a fictionist, Illenberger is privileged with literary license – like weaving facts into fiction. But he is not just after fiction. He wanted to save certain old handed down stories that cannot qualify as facts by sheltering them under fiction.
Growing up in Iloilo, Illenberger had heard of many century-old stories from the old folks about this historic city and the people that shaped it. He even had a grand nephew of Lopez Jaena for his pal and neighbor. No wonder why Illenberger was laden with stories – but nowhere to go. Not a professional historian, he took refuge in fiction.
The Ghost played around the biographical facts of Lopez Jaena from ages 12 to 17. History had it that he was born in Jaro, Iloilo City in 1856, with a seamstress for a mother (Maria Jacoba Jeana) and a general repairman for a father (Placido Lopez). But his dad was among the few Ilonggos who had been primary schooled in his time.
Similarly, Graciano went to school at age 6 in the Colegio Provincial in Jaro. But he transferred to nearby Semenario de San Vicente Ferrer which opened in 1869 during the term of liberal Governor-General Carlos de la Torre. Frail and a bad-dresser, yet the boy Graciano had impressed his teachers with his intelligence, independent-mindedness, and public speaking abilities.
Not counted among Iloilo’s swells yet, Graciano’s dad had a better-off cousin who made his career as honorary vice-consul of Portugal in Iloilo, Don Claudio Lopez. The city had increasingly become cosmopolitan since Nicholas Loney, the British vice-consul in Iloilo, regularly shipped Visayan sugar to Australia; hence, opening the local port to international trade. The Americans, Italians and Swiss followed, putting up consulates and buying local sugar for export. Businesses boomed. Imported goods poured in.
Amid this setting, Uncle Claudio employed his kid nephew as his secretary. He frustrated his cousin-in-law’s plan of priesthood for the boy by exposing Graciano early to the ways of the world. But after his minor seminary education – approximating to secondary education only – Lopez Jaena sailed to Manila, backed by relatives, for his bid to earn a degree in medicine.
The Ghost covered this brief 5-year span of Lopez Jaena’s life. And Illenberger interspersed the untold stories between the facts.The novel’s actual story begun at dusk on November 6, 1868. Col. Enrique Fajardo, Iloilo’s guardia civil chief, was visited by his neighbor Placido Lopez with a request – to keep the playing field leveled for his son Graciano, who was beaten up by three Spanish boys.
Fajardo and Placido were close. Discrimination of the natives by the Spanish colonials was common. It was a small favor to grant. Not until when Fajardo had learned of the cause.
Gossip had trailed Graciano from Colegio Provincial to the seminary. But the adults who knew it hushed up the kids. The Spanish bullies demanded Graciano for proof of the rumor. But he rejected them. Until the monicker the kids had attached to Graciano reached Fajardo – caballo de Catalan, of the best breeds of Spanish horses next to the Andalusian. Central to all the gossip was Graciano’s big natural endowment. He was, in short, a “totoy mola” – but still uncircumcised.
From the handed-down family story, Illenberger now goes into possibilities.
Fajardo had Graciano sent next to the Club Cantonese at the Aldeguer Triangle in the city. He headed up to the third floor which was the headquarters of the Cheung Chau Hakka, a Chinese goon squad that the British vice-consul Loney had brought from China to keep the peace in and run the port area efficiently.
Not exactly hoods, the Cheung Chau Hakka was a branch of the Hung Mun fraternity – known widely as the clandestine Chinese “Masons” – a band of trained killers who hired themselves out to bidders. Looking up to runaway Shao Lin monks as their founders, they practiced the Hung Ga Kuen martial arts tradition.
So, Loney’s Chinese enforcers began teaching Graciano a couple of kung-fu tricks to defend himself against bullies.
Not for long, Graciano was sent next to the ground floor pharmacy Farmacia Goa. He was to receive his rite of passage. He had already pulled his pants down to his knees when Leah Solis, the pharmacy’s hot and alluring proprietress, walked in to do the surgery. It turned out, expectedly, to be a painful surgery.
When all was well, a confident Graciano finally set out to get even with his Spanish assailants – and succeeded.
Picturing Graciano throwing kung-fu kicks and punches today, for instance, may be unimaginable – but not impossible. This is exactly what happens when fact meets folklore.
Folklore are stories that have failed to make it to history on time – or simply cannot pass for history so they have been left out to the common people to keep. History is the chronology of facts – names, dates, places, numbers. But folklore have neither facts or chronology – although it never meant that it never happened.
What Illenberger had done was to throw fact and folklore together into one mix. If anything, he was into a conservation job to save folklore from oblivion. But he couldn’t rescue folklore without stringing them together into one probable narrative.
The limits of the probable count importantly for fiction writers. While privileged with a wide imaginative breadth, yet whatever invention they make must stay within the realm of the credible, to tread the line of logic, and keep the readers holding on to the plot.
How he put fact and folklore together into one narrative tells on Illenberger’s storytelling ability – and there are some eyebrow-jerking scenes that test the reader’s credulity.
Unknown even to Graciano, the date April 24, 1869, was to bring him a life-changing event. The body of British vice-consul Loney was delivered by a steamer to Iloilo port. He caught fever that worsened into something else, while hiking up Mt. Kanlaon in Negros Island and died.
The city that Loney had put in the world trade map mourned. But nobody had mourned as deeply as Leah Solis.
Originally named Lehiyah Sharavathi, the Farmacia Goa owner came from Mysore in India. Running away for a forced marriage, she deftly manipulated her future in laws into sending her to a Portuguese woman, who ran an Anglican grammar school for the British colonials, to train in pharmacy. She apprenticed next in a clinic under a Spanish surgeon in Goa. After earning her Portuguese citizenship – and freedom from a repressive Hindu tradition – she sailed for Singapore where she met the young Loney.
She fell for Loney – and had become his bimbo since then. She followed the Englishman even to Iloilo where they continued their hot, illicit, affair.
With Loney gone, Graciano felt duty-bound to comfort his, er, circumciser. He found Leah at the third floor balcony – of the same pharmacy and Club Cantonese building – staring out to the sunset. After a couple of hours and a Vermouth bottle, he finally said what he had to say “Come Leah. Let me lead you to your bedroom . . . “ Suddenly the story picked up speed – and ended just as speedily. “And thus, Graciano Lopez Jaena, just a few months beyond his twelfth birthday, lost his boyhood forever”.
I thumped the edge of the book’s binding hard on the table for any misplaced sentences or paragraphs. Nothing fell out. It was disappointing. But a few seconds later, it finally dawned on me that Illenberger has achieved a first in Philippine literature. He wrote the quickest bed scene in a Philippine novel!
That’s the way with writers. Sometimes, they transport personal habits to fiction.
The Ghost contained more than just Graciano Lopez Jaena’s teenage adventures. There are stories woven around the folklore about Iloilo’s vanished landmarks, abandoned quarries, lost villages and origin of local weapons. These may be the stuff of historical novels – to put color or help lead the plot on.
But Illenberger has another purpose behind conserving folklore. He strove to paint a precise setting of the period to highlight here and there the people and events that had sunk in and shaped Graciano’s will to become – what else but – a hero. He wanted to find out the stuff that made Graciano great.
Following Illenberger’s theory, we see that genes and home are very influential in shaping a person. But the news-of-the-day, as much as the first sex in the malleable teenage years count importantly in building an individual’s view of the world as much as his mettle. Hope we investigate our petitioners for Masonic degrees just as deeply. Passing to fiction theories that cannot be proven historically is not new. Dan Brown did it with his “The Da Vinci Code”. But Illenberger made this device work in many levels to pay tribute to Masonry, Iloilo and Graciano all at once. It is fun. Basically a historical novel yet, The Ghost also works as a detective novel where readers – especially Masonic readers – are invited to make their way through familiar names and discover the gist they stand for in the episode they are in.
Illenberger is given to mind plays. Hence, The Ghost is one novel pondered out of the box.
Mind plays also marked Illenberger’s early Masonic years. He was one of the “Treehouse Masons” – the Bros who used to hang out at the old palm-thatched tree-house next to the former GLP canteen (where the Hostel and Obelisk now stand). Gathered around the late MW Reynold Fajardo – a PGM of strong will as much as sharp mind – they held mind-popping Masonic education-type of discussions amid their regular fellowships.
The tree-house fellowships are one of the GLP’s golden moments that are as lost as Graciano and his turn of the century Iloilo. Now, Illenberger passes the Treehouse tradition to Bros with ready ears to listen. Once the Master of “Kambingan Lodge” – a carinderia a block away from the GLP frequented by Masons – he surrendered his title to its “DDGM”, Kuyang Francis Lovero.
Now, he is the Charter Master of “Kuyangs” – another watering hole just a couple of meters from GLP’s General Luna gate.
P.S. The book is sold at the Masonic Supply Store, Grand Lodge of the Philippines; the National Historical Institute bookstore at Luneta; the Student Service Enterprise, Central Philippine University in Iloilo City and the Iloilo Memorial Park sales office at Casa Real Building in front of the Casa Gobierno de Iloilo. The author’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org, he also in Facebook. The book may also be ordered from Amazon Books.