Title: Gagamba: The Spider Man
Author: F. Sionil José
Publication date: 1991
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
An earthquake strikes Manila, destroying the luxury restaurant Camarin and killing almost all of the people in its vicinity, both rich and poor. One of the few survivors is Gagamba, born into poverty and suffering from deformities, who sells sweepstake tickets outside the restaurant. The novel follows the stories of the victims, and we – along with Gagamba – are left to ponder whether there is any meaning to be found in the tragedy.
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What did I find out?
I’d already become aware, as I was reading The Kite Runner, that many of the books I’ve chosen for this year are set at times of great political upheaval; and I noted that this is a device that can be used to good effect, to illustrate or reflect changes in a character’s development.
One additional observation that came to me as I was reading Gagamba is that, after many of these revolutions and regime changes, very little seems to actually change (politically, economically or socially) – at least, for the regular person on the street. This is something that has been growing in my mind for some time, with each new book I read, and articulating it now feels like I’m stating the blazing obvious. But it’s intriguing to see uprisings play out again and again – and to see how the inhabitants of a region or a country then proceed to live with the fallout. In many cases, old problems are simply replaced with new ones.
In Gagamba, we find out about the overthrow of President Marcos through hearing the stories of various characters, who were involved in the politics of the time and are reflecting on their lives then and now. It really begins to seem as if ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’
What do I now see differently?
Although the back cover blurb for the book states that it ‘raises a fundamental question about life’s meaning and suggests at the same time the only rational answer’, I certainly didn’t feel that it offered any solutions. The novel concludes with Gagamba pondering the reason behind the earthquake and the multiple deaths; he is not convinced that it is a punishment for the sins of the privileged, as so many other sinners are still free to wreak their evil. Also, what of the innocents, the downtrodden and the meek, who also died?
We are left with no answers, and the only conclusion that can perhaps be drawn is that death is the great leveller: it comes to us all, sooner or later. Wealthy or impoverished, wicked or virtuous, we are all equal when our time comes – and maybe the greatest lesson to be drawn from life is to do the best we can with it while we have it. It sounds terribly trite, but at the same time there is a rather glorious sense of liberation in it.
José does offer one hint as to how we could approach this challenge. One page before the end of the story he (Gagamba?) says: ‘Yes, it is beauty that will nourish the lives of even those who despair – it is beauty that will save men.’ That doesn’t seem like a bad thing to aim for.
How will this inspire my writing?
I have to admit that I found this book a little harder going than some of the others I’ve read recently; this took me by surprise, as I did enjoy it. But the novel’s structure consists of telling the stories of many different characters: each chapter introduces a new player, and we have to mentally reset and start the story afresh as we learn about the latest arrival. Occasionally the stories intertwine, and there is the constant presence of Filipino society and culture, which acts as the glue that holds the overall tale together – but I was reminded how hard it can be to ‘get into’ a story, and here I was having to do just that with every new chapter.
As my own novel features a fairly large number of characters (some of whom will have major roles to play in this book, and some of whom will have their own adventures in later novels), this made me aware that I must be very careful about how I introduce them. I need to make sure I get readers on board as soon as possible, so that they’re not having to constantly readjust to new characters before they’ve had a chance to get to know the existing ones. I’m hopeful I can do this: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are home to a myriad of strange individuals, and I had no trouble engaging with those; indeed, to some extent, Discworld is my model for the range of books I’m planning…
I suspect that the final push toward making my novel readable will come when I invite editorial input – but it won’t hurt to keep these issues in mind from the beginning.
A musical interlude
Again I had some difficulty finding a track that really suited this novel, but then I came across this little gem from Tracy Chapman. It connects, for me, because of the theme that – even with money – you can live and die without ever being quite sure what the purpose of it all is…