By Tina Cuyugan
Playing with Water: Passion and Solitude On a Philippine Island
Written by James Hamilton-Paterson
Ateneo de Manila University Press
The author of this review also wrote the introduction to the 30th anniversary reprint of Playing With Water: Passion and Solitude On a Philippine Island (ADMU Press, 2018).
IN THE bleak winter of 1989, as a graduate student living in a windswept campus on the edge of the Scottish highlands, I found in a tiny bookstore a copy of James Hamilton-Paterson’s Playing With Water, which at that time had the subtitle Alone On a Philippine Island. Just another one of those vacation travel books, I thought. But at least it’s about home. I started reading it that evening, and finished the book in the gray light of dawn, close to tears — and grateful at having been gifted with such a wonderful and unsettling read.
For one thing, it’s a gorgeous exploration of life on the edge, physically and metaphorically: At first in a tiny coastal village in a province far from Manila; and later on a nearby island where Hamilton-Paterson was the sole inhabitant, and whose teeming reefs he often explored alone at night, through a home-made antipara (spectacles).
“To take a torch down among the reefs at night is to experience still other things which suggest an ancient broodingness, a fragmented hegemony from whose visible signs you cannot construct a whole,” he writes. “Even if that were not so you would be chilled by the sound filling your ears. It is that of a million creatures being fiercely alive.”
In the dark, one easily loses one’s bearings, and unexpected currents can very easily pull one down into the fathomless depths of the sea, and of memory. A walk in the rain forest, surrounded by the cries of tree frogs and tuko (gekos), jolts Hamilton-Paterson into recalling his schooldays in post-WWII England, and his troubled relationship with his father, just as the blast of a dynamite fishing bomb sets off a chain of memories involving a Mozart sonata for four hands and the end of Empire.
It’s not all reverie, though; with his friends Arman and Intoy, he goes spearfishing — as an itinerant journalist on hiatus Hamilton-Paterson lives almost entirely off his catch — and revels in the doing of things, described in exacting detail: making bahay kubo (a bamboo house), drying fish, repairing spearguns, and assembling labintador (firecrackers).
And hunting: “I turn and am confronted with the large silver platter of a mabilog, a round fish of the pompano family which tries too late to shy away from the light. It has already turned when my spear takes it from behind through one open gill and going clean out through its mouth. It is too big to thread alive onto the catch-line, its struggles would be a great hindrance, so I kill it by putting a finger and thumb up under its gill-covers and pinching its heart shut. This is a good quick method but it is unfortunately only practicable for certain species.”
He also writes tenderly and achingly of the people of Kansulay. “We all know who died, who lost a boat, whose children never went to school. We all know the slow attrition caused by endless petty economies: the wounds left unplastered, the jeep fares saved by two hours’ hike to town, the nights made interminable by keeping lamp oil for an emergency.”
Occasionally, Hamilton-Paterson ventures out into the wider world. And it turns out that the book, written three decades ago, is not just an island meditation but a hyper-real snapshot as well of the last days of the Marcos regime, its troubled aftermath, and the seedy-bizarre world of the national capital.
Those of us who lived in Manila through the 1980s would likely agree with him that a plunge into the polluted Pasig river then — a scant distance from Malacañang — “would surely be to die instantly.” These days, the Pasig recovery project has been winning international recognition, but the political and economic fallout from those dark times still casts a shadow; and it would be interesting to hear from Hamilton-Paterson today how things have changed — and how in other respects they’ve remained sadly and disconcertingly the same.
For many years, he divided his time between Italy and the Philippines, producing the fictional Ghosts of Manila (1994) and a biography of the Marcoses, America’s Boy (1998) — as well as a dazzling succession of novels, essays and books on the sea, British aviation and music, among other subjects.
But Playing With Water — by turns lyrical, melancholic, coolly compassionate and sharply observant — is arguably the book by Hamilton-Paterson which deserves most to be read and remembered by Filipinos.
The reprint of Playing With Water, which was launched on Nov. 15, is available at the ADMU Press Bookstore, Popular Bookstore, and Solidaridad, and can be ordered online from Ateneo and Shopee.