'The Laughter of My Father': A Survival Kit
Grow, L. M., MELUS
Even though, compared to other literary figures of Philippine origin, much as been written about Carlos Bulosan, in general, and The Laughter of My Father (hereafter referred to as LF), in particular, there is no consensus about its genre. Although Arturo Roseburg flatly states that "Regardless of objections, the stories are humorous and should be read as such" (16), I conclude that LF is a handbook for peasant survival, since at best Roseburg does not do justice to the book's tonal and thematic complexities. For instance, the opening two paragraphs of the second LF story, "The Soldiers Came Marching," are:
I was a month old when the first World War was declared, but the sound of distant guns shook my childhood. I grew up quickly and found that my brother Polon was one of the 25,000 volunteers in the Philippine National Guard that fought in Europe. Suddenly the war came and suddenly it ended. Then my childhood was gone forever.
The soldiers were demobilized. Out of the eleven young men that volunteered in our town only three came back to live among us. One was dead in battle; two died of serious infection on the boat; three were injured and stayed in the city. The three who came back were always sitting on the lawn in front of the presidencia. They sat all day and part of the night without talking to anybody. (11)
This is certainly not humorous, and the story sustains a tone that is anything but comic: "They fought among themselves, cutting their faces and breaking their noses" (15), and "Don Rico became insane and hanged himself with a rope" (18). Perhaps we might think that Bulosan's humor is dark rather than hilarious. As E. Aguilar Cruz has put it, "Humorous stories about plausible people and situations, as far removed from O'Henry and Octavus Roy Cohen as the real laughter of our fathers is from Carlos Bulosan, are still being written by such before-the-war fictionists as Consorcio Borje, D. Paulo Dizon and C.V. Pedroche" (12). Similarly, Avelina Gil concludes, "Intended to be serious protest against the economic system of his time, The Laughter of My Father by Carlos Bulosan reveals a wry humor that verges on bitterness. But the hilarious, even grotesque, situations which Bulosan treats almost like vignettes mask the satire on Filipino poverty and ignorance" (61).
"Wry" does describe the sort of antics we get in "My Mother's Boarders": "I just sat in front row watching the bare legs of my teacher. When she saw me she raised her skirt a little higher. I threw my pencil under her table, but when I crept on the floor to reach for it, she got up suddenly and started writing on the blackboard" (LF 22). However, incidents like this are not mere horseplay. The story establishes, through context, the phallic symbolism of the pencil: "When I was five the town council decided to enlarge our school because the soldiers that came home from the war produced children left and right. We used to wonder how they performed the splendid job" (19). He will soon enough find out, since his education has already begun. One of the teachers "grabbed me and started swinging me around in her arms. My feet were several feet off the floor. I put my legs around her waist the way I put them around our carabao. It was not dancing, but I felt good" (23). The sexual implications here serve a serious purpose, as we will see shortly.
It is unsurprising that the stories are serious, even bitter, since Bulosan intended them to be both, as he made clear in his outraged response to critics who construed him as a humorist:
I am mad because when my book "The Laughter of my Father" was published by Harcourt, Brace & Company, the critics called me "the manifestation of the pure Comic Spirit."
I am not a laughing man. I am an angry man. ("I am Not a Laughing Man" 143)
No precise source of the anger is specified; after indicating that "it [LF] started with the war" (143), Bulosan spends the rest of the article recounting his restless drifting from job to job. …