Manila Through the Eyes of F. Sionil José

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Peter Bialobrzeski / Laif

The haves: Modern skyscrapers emerge from the Manila morass

Antipolo street winds through Manila's Sampaloc district, right along a railway line. In his 1962 novel The Pretenders, foremost contemporary Filipino novelist F. Sionil José describes the street as one of "intractable damnation," and it's not hard to see why. Shanties still line the same steel tracks on which José's tortured antihero Antonio Samson kills himself, after learning that his vapid high-society wife is having an affair. On a recent afternoon, naked boys skipped rope near piles of rotting trash. Meals bubbled over open fires, just feet from railroad ballast.

The Pretenders is the fourth of José's five Rosales novels, which together span a hundred years of Philippine history from the end of Spanish colonial rule to the declaration of martial law by a besieged Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. José's saga, an outraged testament to the inequalities that wrack Manila and the country at large, is rivaled in his nation's literature only by José Rizal's Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891), both acknowledged influences on José's writing. In Dusk, the first in the saga and set at the wane of the 19th century, a subversive hacienda overseer lends copies of Rizal's two classics to Eustaquio Samson, a young farmer, in the hope that he will join the anti-Spanish revolution.

At the western end of the Luneta, Manila's crescent-shaped, scraggly public green, a cluster of life-size bronze sculptures of Rizal and the firing squad that gunned him down marks the spot where the doctor, now a national hero, was executed in 1896. A vulgar, nightly sound-and-light show dramatizes the moment. But far more unnerving, in a city where it's hardly unusual to see children sleeping in cemeteries, is the pomp on display at the 97-year-old Manila Hotel, a 10-minute stroll toward Manila Bay. In the third Rosales novel, My Brother, My Executioner, set just after World War II, the head of "the country's leading sugar family" Eduardo Dantes rents two floors to lodge the European royalty and opera singers he flies in for a party. Luis Asperri, the protagonist, is a privileged would-be poet who lives near the hotel in Ermita — at the time one of Manila's most exclusive districts. From his Spanish-style home, he soaks in those gorgeous Manila sunsets of lore with their "resplendent ochres, browns, and indigos."

Nowadays the picture is not so pretty. The skies over Manila Bay are typically sombrous, hazed with diesel pollution. If the fumes give you a headache, you can take a cab to the "golden ghetto" of Makati — the city's CBD of stockjobbers and starched luxury malls — and be haunted by the thought of Antonio Samson's slum-dwelling illegitimate son Pepe. He features in Mass, the book that ends José's impassioned saga. In the novel's closing pages, Pepe confronts plutocrat Juan Puneta at his Makati mansion. After hearing Puneta say "I love exploiting the poor," Pepe kills him in an act of class rage and flees this town of heartbreaking contrasts, convinced his act was righteous. Though they may not harbor murderous intent, many of Manila's poor would share his grievances today.

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