i’ve run through the gates of hell: dan brown vs. francis tolentino

“Sienna imagined they were going to feed poor fishermen or farmers in the countryside, which she had read was a wonderland of geological beauty, with vibrant seabeds and dazzling plains. And so when the group settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila – the most densely populated city on earth – Sienna could only gape in horror. She had never seen poverty on this scale.

How can one person possibly make a difference?

For every one person Sienna fed, there were hundreds more who gazed at her with desolate eyes. Manila had six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade, whose workers consisted primarily of young children, many of whom had been sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed.

Amid this chaos of child prostitution, panhandlers, pickpockets, and worse, Sienna found herself suddenly paralyzed. All around her she could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival. When they face desperation…human beings become animals.

…She cleared the tears and grime from her eyes and saw that she was standing in a kind of shantytown – a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together. All around her the wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement hung in the air.

I’ve run through the gates of hell.”

These passages are from the new novel, Inferno, by Dan Brown – he of The Da Vinci Code fame (or infamy, depending on who’s judging). These are drawn from 3 pages of the 462 pages (including the Epilogue) of the novel. The contents of these three pages drew a 5-paragraph rejoinder from MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino.

Photo courtesy of gmanews.tv

Photo courtesy of gmanews.tv

Sienna is Sienna Brooks, the other main character in the book. The main character is Prof. Robert Langdon, a Harvard-based symbologist whose character was portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.

Sienna Brooks is a doctor who grew up as a child prodigy with a genius-level IQ. Growing up, she struggled to fit in – as is apparently the case with many child prodigies. As she tries to find meaning for her life, a psychiatrist recommends that she stop focusing on herself and instead devote her energies to helping other people. She comes in contact with a humanitarian group which is how she finds herself in the Philippines.

She obviously did not have a memorable time in Manila. Sienna leaves Manila in a huff after an attempted gang-rape by three men in an informal settlement (i.e. squatter) area. The rape is averted when an old, deaf woman stabs one of the men in the back scaring the two other men away.

Atty. Tolentino, in his letter to Mr. Brown, expresses his disappointment at the “inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis”. He goes on to state his displeasure at how Manila was used “as a venue for a character’s…disillusionment in humanity”.  He goes on to defend Metro Manila in this manner:

 “More than your portrayal of it, Metro Manila is the center of the Filipino spirit, faith and hope. Our faith in God binds us as a nation and we believe that Manila citizens are more than capable of exemplifying good character and compassion towards each other, something that your novel has failed to acknowledge. Truly, our place is an entry to heaven.”

Nice. Duh…An entry to heaven? What has he been inhaling? Oh wait – yup, that pristine Metro Manila air.

Yes, yes – it’s a novel but let’s try some fact checking.

Manila – the most densely populated city on earth: check (see this: https://criticaleye2.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/evacuate-metro-manila/)2012.08.10 Pop Density

Poverty on this scale: maybe, maybe not (we certainly have mass poverty but i’m sure there are other places in the world (e.g. somalia, sudan, etc.) where things could be worse, on the other hand, we don’t know where else Sienna Brooks has been to)

Six-hour traffic jamscheck

Suffocating pollutioncheck (we’ve probably just been acclimated to it)

Horrifying (child) sex trademaybe (i just don’t know)

Panhandlers, pickpocketscheck, check (A police officer was interviewed on TV yesterday in a report on crime in Divisoria with the back to school sales going on. He advised women to put money inside their bras to avoid being victimized by pickpockets. He went on further to say that you should divide your money between your two pockets “para kung madukot yung sa kabila, meron ka pang natitira”. With cops like these – &%^$#@)&^).

Atty. Tolentino cites his disappointment and displeasure but his letter doesn’t really contradict any of the specific depictions which he describes as inaccurate. Instead he wails about the fact that the niceties about the metropolis that he mentions are not mentioned in the novel.

Chairman Tolentino is borderline being intellectually dishonest with this letter. It was he, after all, in his book – “A New City – A New Metro Manila, A New Future”  who alludes to all these symptomatic problems of Manila as a basis for building a new national capital (see this: https://criticaleye2.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/when-p352-billion-does-not-even-come-close-to-cutting-it/).

Akala niya siguro makalusot dahil walang nagbasa ng libro niya. I actually admired him for the courage that it took to write that book. Imagine the grief he must have gotten from Metro Manila mayors for daring to propose something as audacious as building a new capital and taking away their bread and butter. Pero ngayon, was that all just lip-service?

When I saw the news about Chairman Tolentino’s letter, I was actually more amused than anything. I was not, however, really thinking about writing about it. But, I witnessed something yesterday afternoon that changed my mind.

I was stopped at a traffic light along Taft Avenue when I saw what must have been part of some sort of gang war. What was disturbing was seeing the combatants who looked to be barely in their teens brandishing sticks, stones and box-cutters while sniffing plastic bags most likely containing rugby. These combatants appeared to have taken over the stretch of Taft from Pedro Gil to Quirino as their battleground with nary a policeman in sight. When I wrote about the loss of civility and our descent into chaos (https://criticaleye2.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/the-loss-of-civility-and-our-descent-into-chaos/), I wasn’t really thinking about this but this is just terrible.

This post is not about defending Dan Brown. I’m sure he can take care of himself (i.e. ignore Atty. Tolentino). Rather it is about acknowledging our dire problems and seriously and systematically work to fight them. Atty. Tolentino’s attempt to portray some sort of utopia is sadly way off base and is not reflective of the true state of Metro Manila. When we choose to ignore criticism of real problems, be it in fiction or in fact, we delude ourselves into thinking that things will take care of themselves. They won’t go away just because you paint an alternative reality for the sake of pakitang tao.

Sana naman we grow up naNiloloko lang natin sarili natin.

We may not have the worst poverty problem in the entire world like what Sienna Brooks perceives. But we have it and we have it really, really bad. No amount of (macro)economic growth can hide the fact that the majority of the Filipino people continue to wallow in a pitiful existence that we should all be ashamed of. Huwag na natin takpan. Atty. Tolentino’s assertion of Manila’s citizens being more than capable of showing compassion to each other will only acquire real meaning pag nagkaroon ng makatotohanang lunas ang mga kapwa nating mga Pilipino sa BASECO, Payatas, Bagong Silang, Lanao del Sur, Eastern Samar at sa marami pang lugar sa Pilipinas.

I already know that poverty in the Philippines will not be meaningfully resolved within my lifetime. But – that shouldn’t stop us from trying so that hopefully, we see meaningful progress in our children’s lifetimes. To do so, however, requires that we stop being onion-skinned with criticism or dire depictions of our problems alam naman natin na nandiyan ‘yan. If we continue to ignore this fact because naka-angat na tayo sa iba, bubulagain ka na lang isang araw to see poverty and its problems that you can no longer ignore because it is right outside your front door.

 

 

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