Culture Books

Five novels you can't have not read

Considering a dive into the Filipino novel? It's about time. Here, the essential five. 
Metro Him Archives | Sep 11 2018

Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo by Jose Rizal

Do we even need to explain why? Oh we do. Here's the thing. Beyond the assigned school reading (you may have jumped directly to the illustrated komiks version) and the entire aura of grave patriotism that envelops these books, they are actually compelling entertainment. The Noli is hilarious, although the Fili is quite dark. Still... what's your excuse?

 

Woman who had two navels by Nick Joaquin (1961)

This is the story of Filipino expatriates living in Hong Kong in the postwar period: Connie Escobar, the increasingly confused daughter of a rich politician and Pepe Monson. Explores the tension between reality and illusion, between the spiritual and mundane, between good and evil.

 

Great Philippine jungle energy cafe by Alfred Yuson (1988)

National Artist Francisco Arcellana was said to have once remarked: "It's great! It's brilliant! But what is it?" Yuson's novel is a nebula of postmodernist irreverence. At first we are led to believe this is about the life of Gen. Leon Kilat, but the story turns out to be a meta-narrative of a novel about Robert Aguinaldo's attempt to write a film script on Kilat. That's as far as synopses go. Yuson performs a thrillingly vertiginous high-wire act: the narrative trampolines from one time period to another. Pastiches of historical texts, academic documents, maps, recipes, patintero diagrams collide with cameos of figures from Pinoy mythological plus actual people. Surreally climaxing in a great fiesta in the sky.

 

Killing time in a warm place by Jose Dalisay, JR.

The author was only in his late teens when he went underground, and this novel is an autobiographical chronicle of the Martial Law years. "I come from a country without snow," Noel Bulaong opens his story, which takes us through the FQS-era UP, the Diliman Commune, Manila's shanties, Marcos' political prisons where (on a furlough for his birthday, the protagonist is escorted by a soldier to watch The Godfather and enjoy Ma Mon Luk mami and siopao). Many years later, the character finds himself—along with other "comrades"—holding white-collar jobs, working for the same government they had once fought as fiery young activists, haunted by the dilemma of trading the "struggle" for a life of safe comfort. All told in heartbreakingly beautiful prose.

 

PO-ON by F. Sionil Jose

The first in the Rosales saga (Tree, My Brother My Executioner, The Pretenders, and Mass), this is the epic of Eustaquio Salvador and his peasant family in Ilocos in the 1880s, struggling against Spanish tyranny and the Americans as dramatically depicted in the Battle of Tirad Pass. National Artist Jose, whose works have been translated in 26 languages, does more than just present a sweeping historical chronicle but also poses questions about the search for cultural identity and a larger meaning of existence.

 

This story first appeared in the Style Guide 2008 issue of Metro Him.