21 June 2014


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Four

It was nice to start this month's set of Locus Focus posts with a barrio whose origins are so lost to memory that it might as well be the most ancient place in the entire Philippines . . . but today, we're zipping forward in time to someplace a bit more modern. Although it's another purely fictional setting, it is still one that a Filipino will recognise immediately. I have passed by many such places in my city, but can only imagine what it would feel like to have climbed out of one, like the characters in the next June Giveaway novel.

The Praying Man
by Bienvenido N. Santos

He and the mayor were well-known, not only in the city, but in the whole country as Sulucan boys, born and reared in its slums, but who now lived in elegance at Forbes Park, in the sanitised air of hotel suites and penthouses. The Mayor had the street [in Sulucan] paved--an election campaign promise that he had quickly kept . . . a long tape of cement surrounded by the scars of broken-down houses and occasional towering monstrosities that looked like pagodas. Not too long ago, cab drivers refused passengers who wanted to be taken to Sulucan. The street was one unending row of potholes, refuse, and puddles, muddy even in summer. On nights during a procession, many walked barefoot or in wooden clogs; the Queen of May wore high-heeled shoes, of course while men holding flashlights to lead the way stumbled into mud holes, sparing the Queen the indignity of a mud-splattered fall.

"Of all the streets in the city, Sulucan was the most neglected. Mud holes were all over the place," the speaker orated . . . "Abortion road it was called, but now, look at it and tell me who would give it that name again! . . ."

What's in a name? A lot. Last week's Atisan would have been easy to figure out even if the characters themselves hadn't been talking about it all the time. The suffix "-an" means that the word is referring to some kind of group, so an atisan is a place with many atis. But although we see the exact same construction in the name Sulucan, we cannot immediately say that a sulukan is a place with many sulok or corners--though the concept will certainly suggest itself to the mind. Complicating matters is that Filipinos will never say just "sulukan." The correct term is "sulok-sulukan," which is not merely "many corners," but the farthest, most hidden corner among many others. My mother and sister vehemently disagree with the following translation, but given the context of the novel, I think that it's safe to think of a "sulukan" as a dead end that you don't even know is there . . . just like today's featured setting, which is a slum.

At the start of The Praying Man, things appear to be looking up for Sulucan. A politician who grew up there has just been elected mayor of the whole city and he has started to better the infrastructure of his old home. And as you can tell from the excerpt, a paved road is nothing to sneeze at! Well, that is, unless you live in the Philippines, where paved roads are a political punchline. You can always tell when an election year has rolled around because of all the roadwork crews messing up your commute in order to give you some return for your taxes. (Some return, indeed . . .)

It isn't real reconstruction anymore than putting lipstick on a pig is cosmetic surgery, but it's an outfit everyone seems willing to admire on the emperor every six years or so. And apparently, admiration--which, in a democracy, means votes--comes cheap: the "Sulucan boys" of the story were able to rise from their squalid beginnings to positions of power all over the country because they delivered on all their promises . . . with gifts like cheap cement that cracks mere months after it is laid down.

So why do the people of Sulucan--and their real life counterparts--put up with it year after year? If I knew the answer to that, I'd know how to fix the Philippines once and for all! =P Bienvenido N. Santos's novel about a corrupt pharmaceutical industry executive and his inner circle may not suggest any solutions, but its unique insight to what drives a man both to pray and to prey upon makes it worth a read. I'll post a full review of The Praying Man soon--but if it already sounds like something up your alley (an alley which I hope doesn't end in a sulukan!), then scroll down to the Rafflecopter and put in an entry for it. =)

Question of the Week: What's the latest thing your local politicians have done for your home? 

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Image Source: The Praying Man by Bienvenido N. Santos


cyurkanin said...

Hmm, this one sounds surprisingly interesting. Going to have to look up some reviews :)

cyurkanin said...

Well, it appears I'll be waiting for your review. No reviews on any of the major spots and only one copy available from a seller in Hawaii... But I did find this little tidbit that made me laugh:

The first sentence of the book reads, "The President of the Philippines arrives late as usual." Marcos didn't like that and banned the book.


Enbrethiliel said...


I hadn't known that and I still thought that the president was meant to be Marcos. LOL!

For a thirty-year-old book, its politics are "shockingly" contemporary. I was describing the plot to my grandfather (who had, you might recall, worked in Marcos's administration) and he kept laughing--at the parallels in both his own long-forgotten memories and the fresh headlines in the news. =P

Enbrethiliel said...


Make that "a forty-year-old book . . ."! #oops

cyurkanin said...

LOL Also, did you know that Marcos had standing orders to arrest Santos when he returned from the US (I think he was at a teaching position at Wichita State for a long while) so he changed his citizenship to avoid arrest when he returned.

Enbrethiliel said...


About 90% of what I know about Santos, I know because I'm having to play catch-up with you! ;-)

Sometimes I think that Marcos's big fatal flaw was being so onion-skinned. He created drama where there had been none and fanned the flames of opposition himself.

So you'd think The Praying Man would be a huge classic, right? . . . Wrong! . . . It really frustrates me to think that no one knows this novel. Yes, Santos is one of our more obscure writers (which is only fair, given that he has been based in the US for the past few decades); and as I said in my review, the book itself is pretty rough; but as a portrait of Philippine politics, it is so spot on that I could believe there have been efforts "to hide it in plain sight." For now that anyone can read it, no one knows about it.

(See, Marcos? You didn't have to ban it. There were other ways . . .)