The Literary Kontrabida

Although the rich, the powerful, and the pretentious are stock villains in Philippine literature, one would be hard pressed to count the truly memorable kontrabida on the fingers of one hand.

The reactionary Padre Damaso, in Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere (1887), may have cuckolded his “friend” Capitan Tiago, but his deep enmity against the Ibarras is revealed in the end to be rooted in a father’s understandable fears that his daughter Maria Clara will have a hard life if she were married to a patriotic (and therefore subversive and doomed to be persecuted) Filipino.

Doña Consolacion may have had no compunction about making an ashtray of her husband’s torture victims, but even a woman in whose veins run “vinegar and gall” (as Rizal puts it) cannot completely purge herself of humanity. This self-styled “Orofea” (Europeo) is so moved by madwoman Sisa’s plaintive song that she begs Sisa to stop singing, for “those verses hurt me.”

The only out-and-out villain in the Noli is Padre Salvi (not counting the serial rapist Padre Camorra in El filibusterismo [1891]). Rizal doses him with the cardinal vices of wrath, pride, envy, and lust, with lashings of greed and hypocrisy. Affecting the airs of an emaciated saint, Salvi turns out to be a voyeur: the sight of Maria Clara bathing in the woods, her shapely arms, elegant neck and bust, and small rosy feet, is enough to arouse “strange sensations” in his “burning brain.” Salvi hatches a conspiracy to bring down Ibarra by implicating him in a fake rebellion. Rizal strongly implies that Salvi rapes Maria Clara after she enters the convent. And he’s kuriput (stingy), too, to quote Sister Rufa.

Then there’s the sinister, ironically named Colonel Amor in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War (1988). Head of the secret police, he presides over the interrogation of martial-law detainees. Calling his lair “the romancing room,” Colonel Amor, like Padre Salvi, is a voyeur who watches the physical, mental and psychological torture through a two-way mirror. Unlike Padre Salvi, Colonel Amor leaves the actual manhandling to his men, preferring to “fuck the soul” and viewing the extraction of information from the unwilling as a form of “exquisite rape.”  Colonel Amor’s dissertation, “a distillation of so much human pain,” so horrifies the university committee that they unceremoniously graduate him without requiring him to defend his thesis and lock the manuscript away in the archive.

Charlson Ong’s An Embarrassment of Riches (2000) has Alfonso Ong, a refugee fleeing Suharto’s Indonesia who settles down in the Victoriana islands. Ong makes a fortune from logging and acquires an island that doubles as a New Age “laboratory” for sheltering the “tribal minorities” and endangered animal species as well as a Twenty-First-Century model city and special economic zone. Alfonso Ong is eventually exposed as a drug dealer who not only steals the archipelago’s election and installs a puppet, drug-addled female president, but harvests the kidneys of the minority peoples on his island for his own kidney transplant and uses prison labor supplied by the mainland Chinese to develop his island-city. The reason he reveals himself as the real father of Jeffrey, the protagonist, is that he needs his son’s kidney.

As for the female kontrabida, the most memorable is arguably Leonora “Nora” Cosio, who blazes across Kerima Polotan’s short story “The Giants” and novel The Hand of the Enemy (1962).

Nora Cosio is the wife of bigwig Albert, an obscure army major who rides on the coattails of a Magsaysay-like Man of the People and lands in the all-powerful “anteroom outside the President’s sanctum” in Malacañang Palace.  She is the doyenne of an exclusive club of women married to powerful men. In “The Giants,” magazine writer Carmen Reyes’ boss Agana calls this gaggle of women “[e]xpensive, girdled monsters, waving checkbooks, taking slimnastics, slumming through Chinatown, playing mahjong, dabbling in stocks and real estate! Lovely-faced Frankensteins smelling of eau de musk! They’re ruining the country.”

These women devote themselves to luxury and to advancing their husbands’ careers.  One of Carmen Reyes’ interviewees, for example, is the loquacious wife of a general, Mrs. Borres, who machinates to secure her husband’s promotion: “There was trouble with the commission. They gave us a hard time, did you hear of it? Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer—I called up Senator Tagle’s wife and I said to her, ‘Hoy, Bebang, magprankahan tayo. I don’t like to collect old debts but Lucas must have his star, don’t you think? If not, the papers will know about the time the PC raided that house in Novaliches, you know what I mean?’ It was as simple as that.” And how does her husband reward his wife’s zeal on his behalf? With a mistress tucked away in an apartment above a grocery store.

Not so Nora. “[E]very perfumed and powdered inch of her, the quintessence of good, expensive living,” Nora is fortified by the love of a powerful husband who is able to “surround…[her] with all the by-products of that power so that she gave off an air of class.” She is frank about what she expects from her husband: “He was the campus poet and we met at the university. Can you imagine that Bert seriously thought he would make a living by it? But I changed all that for him. Sure, I said when he proposed, I liked the sonnets, but I also liked satin, and silk, I liked meat for my meals and cologne on my person, do you understand what I’m trying to say? So I gave an ultimatum, ‘All these things on one side, Bert,’ I said, ‘and your poetry on the other, and Nora Cosio the grand prize. Which will it be?”

Nora is not above pulling rank on her sorority. At a despedida party in Chinatown for a friend who is off to Hong Kong, the women talk about the scarcity of corned beef, and Nora startles an American guest by declaring that “I must get some corned beef myself—the dogs will eat nothing else.”

Nora can be smug: “I like to think that I’ve lent a distinction all my own to what I have today”. But she can also be charming, wooing Carmen with handwritten, personalized invitations to cocktails and breakfast in the Cosio mansion, with gifts of flowers, and with solicitous attention. Carmen thinks Nora “flippant and frivolous and flighty,” but finds in Albert’s poetry—and one line, in particular, “Gray shadows in the quiet sepulchre of my soul”—an appealing hint of the “thin, dreamy youth with dark, brooding eyes.”

One can always rely on the redoubtable Kerima Polotan to pop the bubble of patronizing pomposity. Carmen comes to realize that when Nora Cosio takes her up and spreads her around, “like a disease,” being “bought” by the Cosios means being owned by them, becoming “one of us” means becoming an alalay and being ordered around. Her disillusion is complete when Agana triumphantly holds up a small book where the line “Gray, gray shadows in my soul’s sepulchre” appears under another poet’s name: “Did I warn you or did I warn you? The goddam bastard couldn’t even be original!”

Emma Gorrez’s encounter with Nora Cosio proves even more disastrous. In Hand of the Enemy, the Gorrezes help the Cosios campaign for the Man of the People in their province, and after the election, are lured to Manila by the Cosios with the offer to go into business together, the Cosios putting up the capital for a printing press. Nora Cosio is predictably capricious, and refuses to infuse more money when business slows down. In their final big quarrel, Nora hurls invectives at Emma, calling her “thief,” “robber,” and “swindler” (in “Giants,” Nora refers to the Gorrezes as “patay-gutom”). An enraged Emma tears off Nora’s dress and pins the woman’s arms under the cutter of the printing press.

Polotan dissects her kontrabidas’ self-images and public personas by flashing vivid , corporeal snapshots of these people—stripped of their carapaces of titles, money, and influence–before her protagonists’ (and readers’) eyes. Carmen Reyes has a vision of the snooty, Spanish-speaking woman waiting outside Cosio’s office: “In another time, she might be in tatters, barefoot, raising a fist and screaming, Rice, Rice” (it turns out the woman wants dollars for her daughter’s abortion–“I send her to a finishing school and she ends up in bed with an Argentinian!”). A wealthy matron who at first snubs Carmen now lifts her arms to “fell…Carmen with a caress…and Carmen saw that she needed to shave.” Polotan reserves her best barb for Albert Cosio: Carmen “banished an unkind image of Cosio in the bathroom, writhing and constipated.”

Kerima Polotan herself was a larger-than-life character. Nick Joaquin wrote of Polotan that she was a “large woman with a sharp tongue and a fearful reputation. Some years ago, after she stuck fictional pins all over the images of a couple she had quarreled with, the joke in literary circles was: ‘Don’t quarrel with Kerima, or she may write about you.’” With ten children (among them the gifted fictionist Katrina P. Tuvera) and eight literary prizes (including five Palancas), Polotan has “lasted as a writer longer than any of even her male contemporaries. She is practically the only survivor of that group of writers who were young and promising during the decade after the war.”

Polotan passed away in 2011. I should say, though, that when I met her (through my friend Kimi) at the booklaunching of her reissued collection of stories and novel in 1998, she was very gracious and soft-spoken, patiently answering my stammering questions about The Hand of the Enemy with such modesty and clear-eyed forthrightness that I came away humbled and thrilled by the experience of meeting her in person after admiring her writings for many years.

It is a testament to Polotan’s formidable talent that she can transmute rage into art with seeming effortlessness. Her fecund imagination has given us the indelible kontrabida we all love to hate, Nora, whose eau de musk lingers in the mind long after she has vanished into the pages of the book.


This article originally appeared in Letter to Narcissus.

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