Option 24: Reportage on Crime by Quijano de Manila
(See the Giveaways page for more information)
. . . It was an ice-cold night, the dark of the moon, but the two brothers shivered not from the wind blowing down the lonely, murky street but from pure horror of the house that had so fatally thrust itself into their lives.
But the wind remembered when the sighs it heard here were only the sighing of the ripe grain, when the cries it heard here were only the crying of birds nesting in the reeds, for all these new suburbs in Makati used to be grassland, riceland, marshland, or pastoral solitudes where few cared to go, until the big city spilled hither, replacing the uprooted reeds with split-levels, pushing noisy little streets into the heart of the solitude, and collecting here from all over the country the uprooted souls that now moan or giggle where once the carabao wallowed and the frogs croaked day and night. In the very new suburbs, one feels human sorrow to be a gross intrusion on the labours of nature. Even barely two years ago, the talahib still rose man-high on the plot of ground on Zapote Street where now stands the relic of an ambiguous love.
--from "The House on Zapote Street"
So now you know why The House on Zapote Street got to be Locus Focus: Take Ninety-Eight! Before it was a movie setting, it was a real-life crime scene--and one of the first which journalist "Quijano de Manila" found fit for a historical saga. He begins this True Crime article with "just the facts, ma'am," but ends it with a menacing meditation on the nature of the suburbs.
The thirteen articles in Reportage on Crime are not straight news. While they do report the facts, they also frame the narratives. But this is less because their author wants to manipulate the reader into condemning or acquitting certain parties than because he thinks there are greater lessons to be learned from their lives. Where most of us just see current events and sordid gossip, he sees the complex threads of post-colonial history, migrant anthropology and urban geography--and he cannot help writing epics when he is tasked to write the news. Basically, when Nick Joaquin gets the crime beat, murders, robberies, arsons, and even illegal gambling become mirrors of an entire society.
Oh, what's that? You didn't know that "Quijano de Manila" was Nick Joaquin's nom de plume? Well, now you do! And did you really think I'd let an Annual Giveaway slip by without reading a new Joaquin book? ;-)
The Boy Who Wanted to Become "Society"
Joe Ramos had all the things Boy Nap could only dream about and yearn for. When Boy Nap was complaining about his forty-centavo allowance, Joe was getting an allowance of two pesos a day, five pesos on Saturdays, and he would borrow the family car when he stepped out.
The story of Napoleon "Boy Nap" Nocedal is a tragedy in the classical sense--but the parallel Joaquin draws is with F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby. When a poor boy tries to fit in with the rich kids by willingly being their Guy Friday, you know it's not going to end well. The poignant narrative is made confusing by a huge cast of characters--but that's True Crime for you. Real life is never as economical or neat as a novel.
Gun Duel at LVN
Much has been said about the effect of movies on the young; but it seems that another problem is their effect on the movie actors themselves. How many can tell shadow from substance?
Is it just the movie audiences which cannot tell the difference between real life and "reel" life? When a young actor who has recently played a cowboy in an LVN Pictures movie dies in a shootout at the LVN studios, we must wonder whether he honestly believed himself to be as invincible as the characters he played. Then we should consider whether this tragic story is only the tip of the iceberg--an iceberg even we are still frozen into. These days, we are all more realistic about young people with movie careers, but we are as clueless as the parents of 1950 when it comes to the psychological effects of being "stars" on social media. Anyway, I don't know if Joaquin wrote this article at the same time he was reading Marshall McLuhan, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did.
A Prevalence of Witches; or The Exorcists--Filipino Style
The trails that converged in that fatal apartment go back deep into time and abroad into diverse cultures, bringing together here the dark lore of mystic India, medieval Europe, the Moorish South and the haunted islands of the Visayas, where . . . Fermin Sequibal had grown up believing in the prevalence of witches.
This story of a man and woman who believed their daughters were possessed by asuang, and who claimed to have seen the evidence for it with their own eyes, was right up Joaquin's alley. He would be the first to say that a people's aboriginal spirituality never dies, although it is often buried under new convictions. There is a dark part of everyone's psyche that is easily persuaded that ordinary misfortunes are attacks by malicious, malignant forces. And while a poor soul's desperate defenses against these may not send him not to hell, they occasionally send him to prison.
Flesh and the Devil
. . . the devil is popularly supposed to be lust but it is not that simple, for the problem goes beyond mere lechery. This is a problem not of morals but of economics. The devil here is not sex but society. And the hundreds of Proserpinas who, year after year, month after month, week after week, are carried into a lewd hell are victims not . . . of Pluto, the god of wealth, but of Fames, the god of want.
In 1962, Joaquin was assigned to interview four teenage girls who had been rescued from a sex slavery ring. The youngest of them was named Proserpina, inspiring the allusions he makes to the Roman underworld and the young goddess whose rape forever casts a pall on her and upon the earth. But he is not merely fanciful; he doesn't flinch as he presents the facts of their ordeal and their origins, and as he tells us we cannot understand the former without a long hard look at the latter . . . and at our own part in it.
The One-Grand Fix
Boxing arenas . . . have become like cock-pits, with kristos going around offering odds and accepting bets. The rampant gambling has inevitably led to fight-fixing.
This isn't one of my favourite articles, but I can imagine it being made into a movie. It has a great triumvirate of fight manager, drill master, and boxer valiantly going glove to glove against a network of fixers. My main issue with it is that the crime had not yet been resolved by the time this article went to press in March 1962, and there was no update on the story when Reportage on Crime was published in 1977, nor again when it was reprinted in the 2009 edition I have now. And when I tried to do my own research . . . I got nothing. We're getting a small slice of life here, and not a crumb more from the pie.
The Short, Unhappy Life of Boy Vergel
The movies affected his life--but as direct agent, not as a shadowy influence, for it was the movies that deprived him of parents, of a normal human life, of a happy childhood.
Another behind-the-scenes special on a crime involving cinema professionals, who all agreed that it unfolded "just like something in the movies." Joaquin's analysis of the movie industry is the standard which I hadn't known I was trying to reach in all my posts about the music industry. Once more, he argues that life does not imitate art--and that we shouldn't blame the movies for the crime rate--but here he is fascinated by one particular life that was directly affected by art and did contribute to crime.
That fire on Calle Castillejo blazed forth the city's ills: the influx from the provinces, the rise of rentals, the greed of the propertied, the deterioration of living standards, and the flight of the old Manileno. By abandoning his home, he doomed it to slum.
This is, no contest, my favourite article in the entire collection--a fifty-year-old feature which could have been written yesterday. It is a steady-eyed look at a side of Manila few care to think about, a memory of Manila few even remember, and a damning answer to the question of how squatters and lodgers were able to dominate Manila in so short a time. The story's boarding house doubles as both setting and major character, for as Joaquin recounts its fall from genteel home to makeshift tenement, he reveals how it also became, before it burned, the perfect microcosm of its sickly city.
Four and "Fate"
Fate, the line of destiny, the drift of circumstances had seemed to be pointing them to the treasure on Isaac Peral. How could they have known that fate, ever the joker, had been pointing to something entirely different a bit further up the street?
We begin with some vintage Joaquin: a description of Manila's security guard fad as the rise of a new brotherhood, chivalric language, Masonic imagery and all. (Note: today it's a full-blown pandemic.) But the four guards behind the robbery of a former employer and the brutal murders of their own brothers-in-arms saw their downfall very differently--and building on their own words, Joaquin also includes an analysis of Filipino fatalism. But this latter theme couldn't have been very fascinating to him, and so this article gives us some of the straightest news reporting in the whole book.
Neither Grand Nor Opera
When a couple of gunmen shot up the lobby of the Manila Grand Opera House Tuesday afternoon last week, they were beleaguering a final stronghold of vaudeville--a statement that must sound fantastic to foreigners unaware that what Manila calls its grand opera house is not for opera, is not an opera house, is a three-a-day variety stage.
Joaquin paints the landscape of vaudeville with fittingly flashy language, complete with allusions to "guys and dolls"--but although the story involves a vaudeville clown and a suspected showbiz protection racketeer, it does not also reveal them as archetypes of Manila's stage culture. The drama and its backdrop don't really seem to fit. But Joaquin profiles the racketeer well here, and begins to turn his critical eye on that other pillar of the circenses industry, the news media.
The Doctora's Dilemma
If her case is not of Susanna against the Elders, then it's of Susanna against Babylon--the Babel of publicity.
In this article, Joaquin champions a woman who chose to press charges against several men who abducted, molested and tried to rape her. Now, why is it that a woman who is sinned against in such a manner is often labeled a sinner herself? It's one thing for a sexual assailant to project his sin onto his victim; it's another thing for the rest of us, in a charivari of public opinion, to lay the sins of an entire nation onto an individual's head. But these are my questions, not those of our journalist-in-shining-armour, whose only intent is to stand up for a wronged woman who is doing the right thing. This piece ironically doubles as an editorial on biased news coverage.
The Strange Death of Pepe Saclao
The law that made him a criminal is now under suspicion for his killing--and the irony is that it may be, in this particular instance, innocent.
What else is the public to conclude when a local government's hired gun--a bandit of the law--is fatally shot after confessing to murders which implicate several town mayors and police chiefs? Under Joaquin's scrutiny, quirky yet precise, the life and crimes of this small-time mercenary becomes proof that any country, even a tropical archipelago, can have its own "Wild West."
When a Man Burns
The death compound at Munti is at the western corner of the prison, almost on the edge of a cliff that overlooks a rugged valley and the prison graveyards. The cliff became even more sinister during the time of the Japs, who would line up political prisoners along the brink and machine gun them, the bodies falling down the steep slope, where they were left to rot together--the dead, the dying and the merely maimed.
It makes sense that we end this literary "crime spree" in "Munti"--but it is an off-putting coincidence that the area in which we find the Muntinlupa City Jail should have a tradition of execution. In the late 1960s, when Death Row was packed and the electric chair especially active, journalists were often invited to cover executions. Joaquin sat in on a handful, and walked away from them uneasy in mind. When he finally wrote his article describing the prison and profiling the condemned men he had met, he could not help ending with an editorial.
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And with that . . . I'M FINALLY DONE!!! =D (Done with the reviews, that is. The smackdown has yet to be wrapped up. But don't remind me of it yet . . .) The reason this post took so long to publish is that I wanted to say something about all thirteen articles in Reportage on Crime. Maybe I should have just remembered that "less is more"? =P
But that's water under the bridge now. I might as well be wishing that I had stuck to my original decision to offer Joaquin's profiles of romantic couples who made the news: Reportage on Lovers. It even had a couple of unsolved "crimes of passion" in it. LOL! Maybe next year, aye? =)
You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you have a taste for real-life tragedies told well.
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Image Source: Reportage on Crime by Quijano de Manila