Ermita, the Novel is about the beautiful prostitute Maria Ermita, born to a rich aristocratic maiden, Conchita, of Spanish lineage, raped (the mother) by a Japanese soldier at the twilight of Japanese occupation of Manila, just before the American “liberated the city”. It is not coincidental that she was named Ermita the world “cheapest fuck” according to author F. Sionil Jose, it was because half-delirious, after giving birth, the mother thought that she was being asked where she came from by the nun who provided her shelter in a “house for fallen angels” away from the peering eyes of the public, instead of the true inquiry of the name for the child. The nun who filled her registration did not want Ermita to stand alone, so she added Maria. At the orphanage which has to be her home for 10 years, she was simply called Ermi.
Fearful that she would run away from the orphanage, after knowing that she has a mother who did not come for her, Sister Constancia brought her to her aunt Felicitas, at the Rojo mansion in Ermita because her mother had then married John Collier, a lieutenant in the U.S. army, and they settled in the U.S., to leave behind a past she would not care to share with her husband.
She was to live in a garage of the Rojo mansion in Ermita together with the coterie of household helps without the privilege that came with her name. She was supported though through college by her aunt, who like her mother only despised her as the unwanted child of foul and smelly Japanese soldier that raped her mom. For her own degradation, she could only plan for a sweet revenge.
But the novel is not about the cinematic spice of property share of illegitimate child or the plateau of a final confrontation between the scorner and the scorned and the level for which such distaste between them could take a turn for the worst. It is about the country and her people, her malaise and her putrefaction. It is a fiction embellished by unmistakable reality and enriched by historical perspective that only a perceptive writer like F. Sionil Jose can pull through.
Ermita is that enclave by the Manila Bay all the way to Luneta Monument. Mabini is part of Ermita and along its northern part is Padre Faura where the Supreme Court is, and on the other side near the Pasig river is Malacanang Palace. The old Congress building was also within the periphery of Ermita. The old Ermita was the elegant community established by the Spaniards, but after the Fil-Jap war, the filthy rich found new homes in Forbes Park and New Manila. The area was devastated during the war. The novel built its various characters out of the ravage of this war-torn Manila.
The novel speaks about prostitution and obscenity not only of the flesh but of our culture and character as well. The author talks mainly through his principal characters, Ermi, Profs. Rolando Cruz, Prof. Alvarez and teacher Ms. Honorata and Mac.
The novel opens up with the pompous exhortation of Rolando Cruz, 19, then a student of the University of the Philippines in his article for the Collegian:
“To those who want to lift this nation from the dungheap of history, the past does not matter – only the present, the awareness of the deadening rot which surrounds and suffocates us, and what we must do to vanquish it.”
That was before the Japanese occupation in 1942.
But after his college, he became a prostitute himself, not by selling his body but his principles. The idealist in college and who fought the Japanese as a guerilla became a public relation consultant advising Americans and Japanese on how to go about investing in the country and sometimes acting as pimp for business clients by referring them to Camarin, a classy pub house along M. H. Del Pilar which serves also as a “pick-up” joint for moneyed people wanting sexual gratification. This is also the place where he first met Ermi, who distraught for being ejected from the Rojo garage as well as the family who lived there she considered her own family already, have to sell her body so they can pay for a run-down apartment in San Andres. They would not have been thrown to the street had she not tried to confront her aunt on the last year of her college at Assumption about her mother. She had turned into a very expensive prostitute, bedded with hundreds of men so she can be rich, comfortable and opulent to exact revenge against her own relations, the Rojos.
But as regards, Rolando Cruz, his liaison job with the foreign investors is but another form of collaboration.
“The Filipino elite had chosen to collaborate always with the rulers, be they Spaniards or Americans. They would also collaborate with the Japanese.”
Ermi, though, in one of those intimate moments with Rolando Cruz, confronted the history professor:
“How can you be so dumb as not to know that we are not different, that we are very much alike? Stand before a mirror Rolly, and ask yourself how you have behaved during the last ten years, or even just during the last ten days. We are alike, I repeat, I sell my body, and you – you sell yourself.”
Prof. Alvarez, made an early impression on Rolando Cruz, who forego his ambition to become a lawyer in favor of teaching because the job can inculcate in the next generation of Filipinos the evocation of nation, the need to retrieve the heritage of the race so that finally his people would free themselves from the comfortable bondage of their own leaders. Big words that were lost on Mr. Cruz after the war was over.
But Ermi, the bright college student who speaks fluent French and Spanish knew early on that her liberation could also her damnation. She looks at prostitution as a common venality the engagement of which is but a career choice. At that time, it was her only choice. She knows only too well in one of those lectures of her teacher, Ms. Honorata at Assumption:
“Prostitution, is a human dilemma. It is used not just as a social commentary but in a deeper sense, a symbol of social malaise, of hypocrisy that has always pervaded the affairs of men. It is making money, perhaps lots of it without conviction or morality. You will find them everywhere under the guise of respectability, as statesmen, as men of the cloth, entrepreneurs, writers, so many journalists, and yes, even academics.”
That even the politico-cultural “prostitute” like Cruz, is not shut off from looking through clearly the real state of affairs in the country, in fact, his being an academic fraud does not totally make him dishonest.
“We are witnessing a slow demise, the gradual self-destruction of this nation. And we don’t need a foreign colonizer to do this. We are blissfully doing it ourselves. After the war, we had every opportunity to plan. With courage and vision we could have rebuilt this country from the rubble, exorcising ourselves from all the vices we inherited from our colonizers. Our entire educational system – and its valueless products, ourselves, it is our creation. We cannot blame it for the fatal flaw in us. Maybe we deserve the darkness that is coming.”
Set also in the martial law era, the Novel presents Ermi comparing her miscreant behavior to that of others:
“However you may convince yourself that you will take me as I am, there will always be in the back of your mind that suspicion that I will not be good, that I have what you call “deviant behavior” But I have not robbed anyone or made false promises. Have I ever stood on a platform and told damn lies? Everything I have, I have worked for or was given to me for what I have done. I have not gotten anything with a gun, a false contract? How then can anyone condemn me? Look now, so many obscene people going around wearing epaulets of generals, the coiffure of beauty queens, x x x ternos of society matrons, listen to the polished accents of technocrats and executives, their faces in the newspapers, x x x blessed of the land and people who kowtow to them, venerate them revere them for the evil they do. They strangle you, yet you approve. They spit on you, yet you applaud. And this is possible because people no longer know the difference between right or wrong.”
Reminiscing his guerilla days, and what has become of him, Prof. Cruz said:
“It is now thirty years after Yamashita had surrendered but the Japanese never really lost that war. They are now back in full force, with their transistors, their lusts. What has happened to the brave men who stood up to them once a upon a time? They have all become obsequious clerks, and I am among them. I almost did not get out of that valley.”
And speaking about the pick-up joint where he used to hang-out, the professor wrote:
“Camarin, is still there, happily flaunting its commerce, attracting big men they way putrefaction attracts flies. Indeed, the many cars parked in its environs are like big fat flies, pregnant with maggots. I walked around Mabini as I often do in early in the early evenings before I retire to that lonely apartment and hurtle back, not the elegant Ermita before the war, but to the Ermita of the recent past – the quiet runs, the shaded streets, the meager traffic, and now – all over this once placid enclave, the discordant sounds of the flesh trade, the dazzle and , yes, the slow conquest of permanent decay, more devastating than what war did. War may have leveled Ermita and it could have been rebuilt, but what is being destroyed now is not just a place but a nation because its people have lost their beliefs and all they have now is a price.”
Yes, we have lost our ethical moorings!
The novel is not only for those who are material pragmatists, but also for those who have sexual fantasies of vaginal constriction or contraction. The author makes sure that he addresses the entire human landscape: the gonads and the stomach of Freud and Marx.