No, he is not the dashing Filipino iteration of the well-loved superhero around the world. Nor is he the lean prototype of a man scaling the side of towers and buildings, saving lives, saving everything. But to be fair, there is a building in the story, “Camarin” as it is known, a story in which Gagamba (spider in Filipino) is the hero of.
In a killer earthquake which struck Central Luzon where the country’s capital Manila lay, the Camarin building came crashing down. Gagamba was right outside, at his usual stall selling sweepstakes tickets when he felt the turbulence. Even though the shock caused him to fall on the ground, he got up and walked away unscathed.
Inside the building were people from varying economic backgrounds and professions, all cocooned within the building’s cool air-conditioned air and plush ambiance, fit for the capital’s elite, crushed under the rubble a few minutes after one that afternoon.
The cripple, Tranquilino Penoy — otherwise know as Gagamba (spider) to the denizens of Ermita — was one of those who survived the collapse of the Camarin building on M.H. Del Pilar Street — the only building in Manila which was totally wrecked.
I’m slowly making my way through the stack of books I picked up in the Philippines in March, hoping to orient myself on Filipino literary greats. This is my first F. Sionil José book. His name leapt out of the spine, as I recognized it as one of those I need to be acquainted with. Gagamba (Amazon) after all received the 2004 Pablo Neruda Centennial Award.
So thus lived Gagamba, in awe of it all — not hurt, still breathing while the whole building and its occupants under the rubble. He attributes his luck, this bizarre incident befallen an unlucky man with his deformities, to none other than his God.
F. Sionil José goes through each victim, each buried character’s story. It is a cacophony of characters really, a cocktail of the worst kinds of people in society, mixed in with a few good ones, an amalgamation of life unfolding before the reader’s eyes.
There’s Fred Villa, Camarin’s new owner. He has just upgraded many of the building’s facilities, making it more suitable and appealing to his clientele. Not only was Camarin known for its excellent Spanish cuisine, but high-profile politicians, businessmen both local and foreign frequented the establishment for its main specialty: women, or as Fred called it “call girls.”
Indeed, Camarin’s reputation as all the classiest call girl station in the country improved. The girls were pretty, yes, and also perpetually young for one of the first rules he established was an age limit. He remembered what Sukarno said, that a woman is like a rubber tree; she is good only up to thirty years.
Camarin is the departure point, but also the convergence of every character in the book.
In addition to Gagamba and Fred Villa, there are two old-timer politicians, one a former senator and his friend, the longest customers in the establishment;
another prominent politician, once a crony of that dirty dictator Marcos, who is now aspiring to be the next president, who knew the perfect way to embed himself in Philippine politics — through gratitude, patronage and personal loyalty — as he doled out favors and money to mayors;
former student activists who remained friends, in spite of going on their separate ways, one a corporate lawyer, the other a journalist, while they struggle to convince the other of their new/old principles;
a poor couple and their newborn, migrants from the country to the big city, having fled a civil war in the mountains hoping to find respite in the Manila’s alleyways;
the Mitsui executive Hiroki Sato, once a kamikaze pilot in the Second World War, first unsure of how he would do business in the Philippines because of its brutal history with the imperial power of Japan, who concluded after awhile that the Filipinos’ warmth and hospitality towards him must be a result of their own short-term memory;
a foreigner looking for his long lost stepsister, borne out of his father’s affair with a Filipino woman;
a Spanish missionary and his former student, discussing the future of the Philippines, who went to eat at the building’s restaurant on a whim;
military officials discussing the smuggling of drugs to the U.S. that they confiscated;
as well as two servers in the building’s restaurant, both men who bore remarkable resemblances to two national heroes — Jose Rizal and Apolinario Mabini.
So they are all dead, and he is alive and it was perhaps God’s immutable will that decreed it so. He could recall their faces, their voices — particularly Senator Reyes’s and Eduardo Dantes’s — squeaky, petrified voices, the manner of their dress, the expensive things about their persons — their gold watches, their diamond rings, their Bally shoes, now all under a heap of broken cement.
José tells the story of each character with legitimacy, as he paints a picture of what each character represents in the Filipino fabric. From the poorest to the most corrupt politician wiling away their remaining years at Camarin, the book acts as a social commentary to the many issues plaguing the country.
He was able to shift each perspective realistically, almost as if I viewing the world in each character’s eyes. What may have been effective though, specifically for me, was not a story told through parallel viewpoints but in a linear fashion. I think this book is a good opener to understanding a little bit of the country’s politics, but it falls short of the kind of political grounding needed to envision a different possibility.
What is apparent is its moral message, embodied in Gagamba, the poor cripple whose body was dealing with many deformities, but who made an honest living right outside Camarin. Do bad things and you will get punished. Maybe not by the government or existing institutions, but through an unforeseen tragedy — a natural catastrophe. There is almost a slight implication, a belief in a “higher power” expressed in the text, mirroring Gagamba’s own thoughts and incredulity at his survival.
I’m still searching for other lessons about life, that the back cover hinted at, while I make my way through other books. Maybe I’ll find it another one of José’s many successful titles.
* * *
Gagamba: A Novel (Amazon) by F. Sionil José
Solidaridad Publishing House (121 pages)
My rating: ★★★
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.