30 June 2012

+JMJ+

Locus Focus: Take Seventy-Eight


This hasn't been the best month for my beloved meme. I usually feel as if I have my pick of settings, even when I'm scrambling about for just the right one--but this June has been characterised by setting scarcity. I started with a "food tour" of Batanes, a place I loved reading about although it wasn't a backdrop to a proper story . . . then showed off the beautiful volcano Mount Mayon, a great pick that unfortunately happened to be in a novel that I had decided not to throw into the giveaway pool . . . and most recently, gave everyone a peek into the bedroom of one of Nick Joaquin's more clever stories, although the setting was probably the weakest element in the whole text. (I should have gone for the story's time setting, "October in Manila!", but as usual, that didn't occur to me until almost a week after publishing the post.)

So no one is more surprised than I am that Foreign Shores: The Revisit is actually going to end on a high. In this post, I feature a setting that I should have written about weeks ago . . . 


The Orphanage
Ermita: A Filipino Novel
by F. Sionil Jose

In the orphanage, Ermi, as Ermita was called, was like most of the children, happily unaware of her murky beginnings. Everything in the House encouraged blissful isolation from the world outside. Even in those most difficult times of the Occupation, the Japanese did not bother the nuns, tresspass the manicured grounds, or occupy the grade school and the orphanage. The House was a haven for well-to-do guests like Conchita [Ermi's mother], but the nuns did not make it appear as an exclusive retreat, cocooned in piety yet oddly sybaritic. It was important that it sppeared anonymous instead--there was not even a sign on the gate except the small house number, 831, which was known to girls in the exclusive colleges for this was their last resort when neither abortion nor marriage was an option.

Last week, while having dinner with an old classmate, I told her that I had finally been able to appreciate the horrible Filipino classes of our last two years of high school. By law, students have to read two nineteenth-century propaganda novels that helped to spark the Philippine Revolution--very much in the way, my class was told, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin helped spark the U.S. War Between the States. Yes, they have historical value, but frankly, they're bad literature. (And by "bad," I mean that they make Ayn Rand look like George Eliot.) Nor am I crazy about the way these novels are usually taught, which involves finding the symbolic meaning of every last tiny detail--without leaving room for the possibility that the author may not have intended anything by some of them at all. (Grrrrrrr.) So what changed for me?

It was the experience of reading Ermita, which actually is good literature that can also be read as an allegory. Every last tiny detail about this novel really does have a greater significance. And I believe I can say this because every time I've tried to tell someone a bit of the story and left something out because it seemed unimportant, I've had to backtrack and include that small bit. Everything here matters--not just to plot and character, but also to Jose's commentary about the Philippines.


This includes the orphanage in which Ermi Rojo is raised, which is part of a devout, discreet convent.

You might have heard the saying that the Philippines spent 300 years in a convent and fifty years in Hollywood. =P This refers to our history of Spanish colonial rule (which lasted 333 years, to be exact) and American non-colonial rule (which lasted about 45 years). Jose has little use for the Hollywood bit, but he understands the importance of the "convent years"--and unlike other writers who seem convinced that the entire period was one of racist oppression, his stance is that much of it was an overture to a Golden Age that never came. We see this in his earlier novel Po-on (the ever-popular Option 4), in the character of the wise old priest who is Istak Salvador's mentor and patron (See my Character Connection post on Istak!): the latter writes to the bishop to ask that the seminary rules be bent to allow Indio natives like Istak to study for the priesthood. And we get the sense that Istak would have been a wonderful priest--perhaps even the first native bishop--had this trajectory not been cut short by other historical circumstances. It was also the Philippines' trajectory, and despite having had over a century to recover, we have not really bounced back.

We get a more literal convent in Ermita--and despite its doubling up as an orphanage, it is a very happy setting. The nuns are kind and loving; the children are content and optimistic. The latter long for real families, of course, but while they wait to be adopted (which many of them are), they receive and return the nuns' affection with all their hearts. It's as ideal a childhood as one could possibly have under such circumstances--and Jose says it is the modern Philippines' childhood, too. But of course it couldn't last . . . We grew up and demanded that the nuns tell us who our real parents are.

And now to complete the reading. Like Ermi Rojo, Filipinos are the bastard children of the Japanese occupation, conceived in brutality and war. We were still taught religion and the virtues by our Catholic culture . . . and that should have been enough . . . except that it wasn't. We grew up, learned who we were, and made the conscious decision to become cultural whores.

Near the end of the novel, Ermi, who has amassed a fortune as Manila's most expensive prostitute, returns to the convent to visit the nuns she has always remembered with love. There she learns the more heartbreaking lesson that "You can't go home again"--or at least that you can never erase the past. Her tragedy is the Philippines' tragedy as well; her loss, our loss.

* * * * *

Remember that the June Giveaway ends in a matter of days. If you want to earn extra entries by writing a Locus Focus post (or by referring another commenter to the last Round of the Westlife UK #1 Singles Smackdown), then you'd better hurry! ;-)

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Image Sources: a) Ermita by F. Sionil Jose, b) Po-on by Jose

5 comments:

amy said...

I am sick to death of the image of the overly strict nun with the ruler and other unsavory images of Catholicism. I love that a lot of these books in your giveaway seem to portray Catholic culture positively- the image of the nurturing convent offering hospitality to orphans is striking.
I think that this blog post just doubled my knowledge of Philippine history. I feel rather humbled by my ignorance... and intrigued by the book.

amy said...

Oh my! What repetitive sentence structure I just posted! (I am, I love, I think, I feel...) (sigh.)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

That's all right, Amy! I didn't notice . . . until you pointed it out. LOL! But seriously, if something I wrote made you love something, think about something, and feel something, then I'm happy that you let me know! =)

I agree that the negative images of Catholicism get really old after a while. There's no denying that bad stuff happens in real life, but surely literature can find more uplifting meanings in Catholic symbolism and archetypes. (But of course I'd think so; I can be quite the Platonist when it comes to literature. =P)

By the way, there are about six hours left before the giveaway closes. Enough time for you to cop an extra entry by voting in Round 4 of the Westlife smackdown! Hint, hint! ;-) I know some people have been refraining from voting because they know nothing about the group--but I happen to have a regular commenter who thinks that Westlife are the Four Horsemen (LOL!) and voted anyway (Double LOL!), and your vote will be as welcome as his. =)

amy said...

I had several good friends who helped me edit papers in college. Sometimes when I am writing, I can picture them peeping over my shoulder and hear their commentary and critiques.
I too favor Platonism in literature (and at parties with alcohol, but that's another matter.)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I'm in the middle of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea right now, a little after the line, "Diderot has correctly maintained that man's gestures are metaphoric, and this diminutive man was living proof of it." LOL! Not quite Platonist--and Verne won't make a big deal of it that I can tell--but it's something that could be said of Jose's fiction. =)