21 June 2013


Reading Diary: Gagamba: The Spider Man by F. Sionil Jose

So they are all dead, and he is alive and it is perhaps God's immutable will that decreed it so . . .

Tell us again, Spider Man, how it was that Sunday afternoon when their well-ordered world ended. At least, their stomachs were full, their minds at ease. Perhaps there were men of virtue who died in grace with them. There is something so equal and democratic about dying, certainly not living though all men may live in sin--the poor who seek salvation in prayer or in a sheaf of sweepstakes tickets are sometimes left with nothing but the benediction of a new day . . .

. . . Tell us just the same, Spider Man, if there is an explanation at all, why Camarin was destroyed when other demon-infested Ermita houses were not, and why, most of all, when you looked back, you were not turned into a pillar of salt!

I can't recall which character in Gagamba observes that Filipinos have shockingly short memories. The two best guesses are the activist-turned-journalist who is incredulous at how quickly the cronies of the recently toppled dictator have managed to slip back into power . . . and the Japanese businessman who can't believe how warmly he is embraced by a people who witnessed the atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Army in which he was once an officer. Either way, the point stands: if Filipinos never turn into pillars of salt, it's likely because Filipinos never turn back again.

Although I had originally planned to add Gagamba to the Annual Giveaway pool, I changed my mind after this week's reread. (Remember that last time that happened?) It's a good novel, but not a great one. If you want a great Jose novel, I'm already offering Po-on (Option 4) . . . and Ermita (Option 14). And if what I have to say about Gagamba really intrigues you--heck, especially if what I am about to write intrigues you--you should still go for Ermita. The latter happens to be the fully grown and glorious molave to the brave sapling that is Gagamba.

But I read Gagamba for the first time before Ermita was written, and I want to record, Reading Diary style, what it has come to mean to me.

Thanks to "Komikero",
Better known as the author of Elmer (Option 16),
for uploading this

The main event in this novel is based on the Luzon earthquake of 1990, magnitude 7.7, which devastated cities as far apart as the mountains, the plains and the western coast, and sent tremors as far my own city, over 200 kilometres away from the epicentre. But never mind my story: it wouldn't be worthy of inclusion in a Jose novel. If my three aunts, one uncle, two cousins, and I had died that day, we would have given the rest of the Philippines nothing to meditate upon.

About ten years later, I met a girl who had been in one of the hardest hit cities. She said that as soon as the floor of her school started shaking, she stood up and ran out of the room. Her classmates would have followed, but their teacher ordered them to get under their desks. The girl was one of the only ones to make it out of the building alive. A few years later, she moved to the capital to pursue a career in the music industry. That was how I got to meet her--coincidentally, the same year I first read Gagamba. And unlike me, she might have made a decent character in one of Jose's books.

I don't know where Jose himself was during the earthquake, but I can see how the sheer senselessness of it must have moved him. The death toll was over 1600 people: young and old, rich and poor, virtuous and corrupt--sharing a communion in death that they never had in life. 

Yet while the Luzon earthquake of 1990 was the catalyst for this novel, the ideas in it would have been brewing for at least four years, since the Revolution of 1986 . . .

This stock photo was really the best I could do.

So what do a huge natural disaster and the "People Power" Revolution have in common? A sense of communion--or at least of shared experience--with people one might never mix with in ordinary life. (Insight stolen from Alexander Yates--who has also written a novel set in Manila!) If an earthquake is powerful enough, it can crumble even the strongest social constructs. And if revolutionary zeal is contagious enough, it can turn hundreds of thousands of strangers into blood brothers, ready to die shoulder to shoulder before tanks.

There were such high hopes for the Philippines in 1986 . . . but as soon as the revolt was no longer headline news, they all toppled like towers in an earthquake. Four scant years later, the deposed dictator's worst supporters were back in the same seats of power, and the masses who had once scared them into fleeing the country didn't seem to care. All the old divisions had grown back. History lay forgotten, maybe even dead, underneath the rubble of old dreams no one was bothering to rebuild. And what should this mean to us? Jose suggests that when your sense of history goes, your whole country goes with it.   

Accordingly, every character who is in the unlucky Camarin restaurant when it collapses represents some segment of Philippine history or society. We have the elderly Spanish priest who has devoted his life to the people of Negros . . . the American tourist who is seeking his half-Filipina half-sister . . . the Japanese investor who is amazed at how much Filipinos will give up for money . . . and those are just the foreigners. Note that their status makes no difference to the shared experience of Philippine society. We're all in this together: we just make believe we're not. 

But then there is Gagamba himself, the misshappen Spider Man: the novel's enigma. Why does he get to live when so many others have died? Why is his share of this experience so different from everyone else's? There are times when he seems to stand in for the author: does he also stand in for the reader? If so, then it's worth pondering the moral possibility that one does not become an outsider because of a deformity, but becomes deformed from being an outsider.

Image Sources: a) Gagamba by F. Sionil Jose, b) EDSA 1986


DMS said...

This sounds like an interesting read and I enjoyed hearing about the events that inspired the story. I especially liked hearing about the girl you met. I am glad she made it out alive- but I am sorry for those who didn't.

Thanks for sharing.

Enbrethiliel said...


You never know what people are going to say when you ask the question, "Where were you when ____ happened?"

I've spent the past few days asking it of friends and family, wondering about both the 1990 earthquake and the 1986 revolution--but so far, no answer has topped the one from the girl I once met!