The Intramuros is the old fortified part of Manila constructed by the Spaniards during their reign. Back in the day, it was Manila proper, though there were “extramuros” (outside the walls) neighborhoods, such as the Chinatown set up across the Pasig for Chinese Catholics so that they could both have a place to live at a safe distance while being watched for the inscrutableness that was assumed to lurk in the hearts of foreigners.
This short novel revolves around a real world event, the devastating earthquake that struck Luzon, wreaking havoc on Manila, in July of 1990. The novel is written in an unusual format. The chapters could be described as character sketches offering insight into various people who were in (or next to) the Camarin building when it collapses in the earthquake. Rather than the usual narrative approach, F. Sionil José offers captivating slices of the lives of these individuals that include insight into what brought each of them into the doomed building.
In the book, the Camarin Building houses a popular Spanish food restaurant called “the Ermita” that attracts wealthy movers and shakers both for its cuisine and for the ladies-of-the-evening who ply their trade there. The book presents an interesting contrast between the powerful military officers, businessmen, politicians, and expats who came there to dine and the common folk who work or live in the shadow of the building. The latter includes the character for which the book is named. Gagamba means spider in Tagalog, and it’s the nickname of a beloved man who sells lottery tickets outside the Ermita (because his deformity gives him an appearance reminiscent of a spider.) We see how all become equal in the cross-hairs of Death.
What makes these stories about the victims all the more intriguing is that we know from the book blurb that two of the characters (in addition to Gagamba) will survive the building collapse. The author does a good job of creating characters who are intriguing and who we want to know more about. There is the military officer who is aide to a high-ranking General but who is made a lucrative proposal from a superior officer to mule drugs (this being pre-911 days in which VIPs and their assistants might plausibly be exposed to little to no screening.) There’s a Filipino-American who is taking a priest and family friend out for a fancy dinner. The priest’s ominous discomfort with the setting of the meal – a feeling that we can’t tell is (as he says) because he’s uncomfortable with the cost or because he has an unspoken discomfort with the vice know to occur there – makes one wonder. There’s a homeless couple who lived in the alley beside the Camarin with their infant child.
I enjoyed this book. I think it offers some insight into Filipino culture and the chaotic nature of disaster. I’d highly recommend the book for readers of literary fiction, particularly if one also has an interest in foreign literature.
This book’s lead character, George Orr, runs afoul of the law for borrowing the prescription cards of friends and acquaintances. But Orr isn’t a run-of-the-mill junky out to get prescription painkillers. Instead, he’s taking medications to keep from dreaming, because Orr’s dreams change reality—sometimes in subtle, and sometimes in drastic, ways. Of course, the world would be chaotic if the dreams only changed the present, but they also retroactively change the past to be consistent with the new present. Orr is the only one who remembers both the new and old timelines, but he’s not happy with these god-like powers–especially given the chaotic and unpredictable possibilities that arise from the subconscious mind. Not unexpectedly, Orr is reluctant to tell anyone this because they will think he’s mad.
Orr gets assigned to voluntary therapy with a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders. Orr tells Dr. William Haber about his unique condition, but, once the doctor recognizes Orr is telling the truth, Haber draws the opposite conclusion from Orr. Haber thinks that Orr should be using his “power” to make the world a better place, rather than being scared of it and trying to avoid it. Haber presents the classic example of good intentions gone awry. While the doctor does use the hypnotically induced sessions to improve his own career situation, the worst outcomes result from the doctor’s attempts to help Orr (without Orr’s approval or prior knowledge) to improve the world. The law of unintended consequences is ever-present, and the dreams guided by Haber often result in “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situations.
This is an interesting premise in a highly readable book. The contrast between Orr and Haber reflects a broader societal tension between those who think they can engineer a utopian future and those who think that one’s attempts will always blow up in ways that one can’t anticipate. It should be noted that the title comes from “The Book of Chuang Tzu” and the virtue of “wu-wei” or “actionless action” in contrast to the corresponding vice of trying to manhandle the world into a desired state is central to the story.
I enjoyed this book. It’s a short novel with a clear theme that is thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book for fiction readers, and highly recommend it for readers of sci-fi and speculative fiction.
There’s a famous quote that has been attributed to various individuals, including both Mark Twain and Blaise Pascal. The wording varies, but the gist is: “Sorry for writing you a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” While it’s a witty comment, the humorous subversion of expectations doesn’t mean there’s not an underlying truth. It takes work and / or brilliance to convey an idea persuasively with few words. “A Christmas Carol” is an outstanding example of a tight story that powerfully conveys its theme.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a cranky banker who wants nothing to do Christmas. He won’t give his employee, Bob Cratchit, time off so that Cratchit can spend the holiday with his family—including his ailing son Tiny Tim. He chases off charities. He won’t even accept an invitation to attend the Christmas party thrown by his nephew, Fred. Then one night, he’s visited by the ghost of his recently deceased business partner—Jacob Marley. Marley, who was as cheap and crotchety as Scrooge, is burdened with horrifying chains, and the ghost warns Scrooge that if the old man doesn’t change his ways, he—too—will end up wandering through eternity in a similar set of chains. Before disappearing, Marley tells Scrooge to expect visits from three more ghosts.
The three subsequent visits with the famous ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future don’t require much discussion. First of all, the names of the ghosts (e.g. Ghost of Christmas Past) are self-explanatory. Secondly, this story is iconic in pop culture and it’s been remade in every medium in every way imaginable from modern adaptations (e.g. “Scrooged”) to “Simpsons” episodes. At any rate, the first ghost shows Scrooge that there was a time when he wasn’t such a curmudgeon while reminding him that he once had an employer, the beloved Mr. Fezziwig, who was a much better to Scrooge than Scrooge is to Bob Cratchit. The second ghost takes him to see the Cratchits and their meager but blissful Christmas festivities and then to his Nephew’s party as well. The final apparition, The Ghost of Christmas Future, takes Scrooge to the end of his own line. In the wake of the four ghost visits, Scrooge makes some changes to avoid the fate he’s been shown.
The Puffin Classics version that I read has an introduction by Anthony Horowitz and some artwork. That said, I don’t think it matters much what version one reads. It’s about the story.
I’d highly recommend this book for all readers.
Lapu-Lapu was the chieftain who led the warriors that defeated the forces of Ferdinand Magellan, thus delaying Spanish colonization of the Philippines.
This stand of trees covers a couple of kilometers of roadway in thick mahogany forest. It’s noticeable in that it seems out-of-place, and because the trees are of preternaturally uniform size. Apparently, the natural growth was destroyed and they planted the mahogany trees for something new. The forest is in the area of the villages of Bilar and Loboc on Bohol Island along the drive to one of the Tarsier sanctuaries and the Chocolate Hills.