Book Review: Gagamba
“There is something so equal and democratic about dying, certainly not living though all men may live in sin – the poor who seek salvation in prayer or in a sheaf of sweepstakes tickets are sometimes left with nothing but the benediction of a new day.” – Gagamba’s Narrator
Martial Law-era Philippines was one of the worst periods in Philippine history. Not only graft and corruption were rampant during those times (issues such as these were present even before Martial Law started), but also the stifling of free speech; the unjust detention of know political enemies of Marcos; the extrajudicial disappearances and killings of political dissidents; and so much more. So imagine (for that is all post-Martial Law babies like me can do) the relief of the Philippines when Marcos was overthrown and subsequently left the Philippines in shame.
However, a few years later, what has actually changed since the years when Marcos led this nation to ruin? Did the political situation of the Philippines change? In one of my past Political Science class, we discussed how the tyrannical rule of Marcos changed into an oligarchical rule by the landed elites which did not alleviate the sufferings of the poor and of the oppressed.
This is the situation of the Philippines post-Martial Law and F. Sionil Jose portrayed this in a very human manner by focusing on the characters instead of Philippine society as a whole in his novel, Gagamba. There are twelve chapters in the book: two of them deals with the title character, Tranquilino Penoy more known as Gagamba because of his deformations, and the other ten deals with the different people of Filipino society.
The narrative focuses on Camarin, an exclusive restaurant that caters to the very rich, and the characters within which is representative of Filipino society. Inside the limited sq. area are politicians, businessman, men of influence, waiters, activists, expats, poor people, foreigners, and more. They represent the melting pot that is Philippine society and, within Camarin, they air their victories, grievances, and lusts. They banter or argue with each other up to no end. However, as their respective narratives within the novel come to a close, they all suffer the same striking hand of Death in the guise of a powerful earthquake.
The novel is a well-written account on the different people that populates the Philippines. Each aspect of our society is explored such as poverty, corruption, inequality, injustice, and other ills that are still prevalent even if we got rid of the dictator that we kept on blaming for everything that is wrong. By focusing on the people that are the causes and that are affected, F. Sionil Jose encapsulated the corruption of the powerful and the plight of the poor.
In the end, Camarin was destroyed and everyone within was killed. Poor and rich, just and unjust were not spared. Only Gagamba, the man born with deformities left relatively unscathed and left him with survivor’s guilt. Why, of all the people, was he spared? He lamented why would God give him horrible deformities if he was to be spared in the end? He laments like a Filipino John Donned as he is befuddled by the sudden generosity of a God who gave him deformities.
This may be the main point of the book, aside from commenting on the sociopolitical and economic ills of our country, that death chooses no one and we all suffer the same fate whatever we do with our lives.
My only problem with the book is its multiple narratives. Normally, I like books with multiple narratives but this one seems overdone. Reading this is tiring as the clock is rewound with every new character that, at the halfway point, you are already curious about the aftermath of the earthquake. It is a good thing then that this book is short so the multiple narratives is not that much a problem and it does not negate the redeeming quality of the book as a microscope on the people that populate Philippine society.