Manila, From The Eyes Of Two Novelists..

manila shantyThe floods in  Manila accentuate the misery  and suffering of city dwellers–  leptospiroses,  sudden spike in the prices of  basic commodities, stranded commuters,  city at standstill yet burning  fuels by the barrels, contaminated water, enterprising  street urchins propping  up wooden gangplanks on submerged city streets to fleece few pesos from  pedestrians  crossing by, shanties both overfilled and washed out –and children wailing.

Densely populated Manila, with thriving flesh trade,  crimes, fumes, aside from occasional floods earns its sobriquet, “Gates From Hell.”

But Manila, its environs and its people will surely bounce back after these floods–  its beautiful sunset will be seen again at its bayside;  its warm  and gorgeous people  will not permit this disaster and the unjust appendage of their city, dampen their jovial spirit once the crisis is over.

But will it this time?

Which brings us back to Dan Brown..

The  movie Da Vinci Code, starring Tom Hanks, as  Robert Langdon, a  symbology Professor from Harvard,  was never shown in theaters of Metro Manila because it suggested that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and certain Kings of France were descendants of Jesus Christ.  The movie was based on the novel of Dan Brown, with the same title.

The oversensitive Catholic Pinoys must have considered the movie a “heresy” or “blasphemy,” hence it was banned from the country.    Author Brown came up with another novel which was made into a movie again, “Angels and Demons.”    The novel is immersed in religious history, catholic practices, including its medieval crimes.  I have not heard if this movie  was banned from  Philippine theaters  too, but  I found both movies highly provocative and enriching.

Mr. Brown,  was in the crosshairs of Pinoy officials again because his latest novel,  “Inferno,” made a figurative reference to Manila as the “gates of hell”  for its prostitution, overpopulation, traffic snarl and fumes, and crimes.  The reference was never meant to disparage Manila and its people.  It was intended as a wake up call to address the issue of  overpopulation and the myriad problems it brings.   It was addressed to the whole world besets with the ethics of culling the population to  preserve humankind.  The author must have seen the congestion  in Manila and its pitiful shanties more pronounced, hence he uses the city as a model.

Mr. Brown whom the Pinoys can casually  consider ‘persona-non-grata’  and  probably a  ‘heretic’ too had this passage in his latest novel, “Inferno” describing  the historical dome of Hagia Sophia in Stanbul, Turkey:

“As with all great shrines, Hagia Sophia’s size served two purposes.  First, it was proof to God  of the great lengths to which Man would go to pay tribute to Him. And second, it served as a kind of shock  treatment  for worshippers – a physical space so imposing that those who entered felt dwarfed, their egos erased, their physical being and cosmic importance shrinking to the size of a mere speck in the face of God .. an atom in the hands of the Creator.”

The language doesn’t sound like coming out from the mouth of a heretic.

His reference to Manila as “gates of hell” was lost in translation because we  are lazy to read the novel entirely.  We judged the author by reading the subtext.  We fear the  dark, because  we purposely shun the

But the resilience of Manila and its people has its own champion, Nick Joaquin.  He wrote:

“The post-EDSA era has been as debatable in Manila as in the rest of the country with the “prophets of boom” saying we’re on the go while the political morticians claim we’re in extremis.  A  “dying city” is how Manila is viewed  by those appaled  by the mounting  garbage problem and the transport crisis.  But the high-rises multiplying not just in the glossy bayside area but in slum dumps like Tondo and San Nicolas indicate it’s not yet time for the oration by the graveside.

Manila was written off by Quezon in 1930s; the Japs thought to kill it off in 1945; and Mother Nature is still trying to sink it with temblor,  tide and typhoon.   No go:  it’s still on the go.  The Noble & Loyal insists on being a survivor – by the skin of of its teeth.  Even from Marcos limbo it managed to win a boon:  the Light Rail Transit.  And the transport crisis may impel the reactivation of the Pasig as a super highway.  The point  is: how talk of dying while action stirs reaction?

The history of Manila can be put in three words: challenge and response.

It almost seems as if every problem, every crisis, arises just to prove the aliveness of this city; continually destroyed and continually rebuilt, ever decaying and ever re-greening.

Like Troy, which was  sevenfold, Manila has been many cities and will be many more.  Like every great city, Manila sprang  from a wildernesss of question marks.  Legazpi was not the beginning nor yet Soliman.

Soliman’s  palisaded kingdom was certainly not the first on the site; the indications are that it was a recent foundation, by newcomers.  What settlement stood there previously, and how  many such had come and gone before Soliman’s fence, we may never know, but what we now know as Intramuros continues to be the ‘original’ Manila, meaning the basic ground of a city  that has been pagan, Muslim, Christian;  that has been Malay, Spanish,  Filipino.

The city was, is, and will be larger than these terms, even if reduced back to the original space of ground from which it began, from which it will always begin.  Should atomic war annihilate Manila, survivors, if any will one can bet, automatically start rebuilding on that same tongue of land where the River flows into the bay.  Both Soliman and Legazpi built there  and they could only have been following in the footprints of those who, through the ages, like the makers of Seven Troys, had been building and rebuilding on that original site.

There apparently, is where the genius of the city is resident – and Intramuros is once and future womb.”  (Manila,  My Manila, p. 353-55)

Absence from Mr. Joaquin’s unparalled optimism is the shanty towns that girded the esteros of the metropolis – always overfilled with people  and easily washable. Or is it their being washable unto the Pasig river  that he indirectly did not address the issue of overpopulation?

After all, Brown’s Inferno refers to natural disaster as one of those that has the capacity to limit the size of the population of any given culture, aside from famine, wars and plague….

8 thoughts on “Manila, From The Eyes Of Two Novelists..

  1. “But Manila, its environs and its people will surely bounce back after these floods– its beautiful sunset will be seen again at its bayside; its warm and gorgeous people will not permit this disaster and the unjust appendage of their city, dampen their jovial spirit once the crisis is over.”

    But will it this time?

    The over population is causing the land masses to sink, the earthquake, the floods according to World Bank; the severe hardships from global warming could be felt within generation. A study detailing devastating impacts in Africa and Asia, Southeast Asia of food shortage drought including agriculture water resources, coastal erosion. The impact of two-degree warming by 2040s would have grave and sweeping consequence, it said, hard to bounce back each coming year. I’ll be gone by then I hope.

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  4. Ladies and Gentlemen,

    Scientists warn of a rapid collapse of the Earth’s ecosystem.
    The ecological balance is under threat: climate change, population growth and environmental degradation could lead even in this century an irreversible collapse of the global ecosystem.


    The cardinal reason is the sudden development of human population that threatens to devour all our resources.

    Since 21 August there is therefore a petition at for the introduction of global birth-controls, also in HINDI!

    If you want to support this or publish it on your website, here is the link:

    Please continue to spread the link or the petition as possible to all interested people, organisations etc.

    Thank you and best regards
    Achim Wolf, Germany

  5. I know that the Da Vinci Code had been shown in Manila albeit it’s with an R-18 rating. I enjoyed your post, btw.

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