Ermita by F. Sionil Jose



1940s Philippine history in a prostitute's story.

Synopsis of Ermita by F. Sionil Jose*: Ermita as the major character in this novel, was first introduced in F. Sionil Jose's novella, "Obsession." Fabulous prostitute, a woman wronged, she is now exposed in her exquisite nudity, surrounded by people like her, Eduardo Dantes, publisher, Senator Andres Bravo, General Bombilla, socialite Conchita Rojo, and Rolando Cruz, Ph.D. in history turned public relations specialist.

Ermita is the story of an enclave of privilege and affluence, and the putrefaction of a society. Here is Manila-before 1941, during the tumultuous years of the Japanese Occupation, and the corrupt Marcos regime.

My two cents

This is the life story of Ermita Rojo, conceived of the brutality of the First World war when a Japanese soldier rapes her well-to-do socialite mother Conchita. Seen as a blight on the illustrious Rojo family's name, she is shipped off to a convent and brought up among other unwanted, orphaned children. Conchita escapes to America to forget the pains of the war.

Ermita or Ermi grows up among the nuns and she is happy and hopeful that she will soon be adopted ... until she discovers the reason why she is passed over until her teenage years: she is the daughter of the Rojo family. She threatens the nuns that she will run away, to seek out her mother and this forces her aunt, Felicitas, to take her in.

Ermi is taken into the family to be educated at an exclusive girls' school yet all the while serving as a maid to the Rojos and living in the garage with the other servants. She finds her a "real" family with the aging driver and his wife, and their son MacArthur. Mistreated, impoverished, and denied her heritage, Ermi's hatred of the Rojo family grows. This is the life story of her revenge.

***
I had the best intentions of reading more Filipino literature. So I bought a few novels the last time I visited the Philippines (sooo long ago) and Ermita was among them. But I've been failing miserably: count them, one, and this is two. Pathetic progress considering I felt that this should be a personal mini-project of mine.

In the year that has passed though, I've discovered that more Filipino authors are now on amazon.com, which really bodes well for those looking specifically for them, or those who want to expand their reading territory. I'm all for reading more diversely and getting access to these "obscure" books in in the international maket this makes it much easier. (I put obscure in quotation marks because F. Sionil Jose is far from being obscure in the Philippines).

What I liked 

Just because it's penned by a Filipino author. I am biased. Just the fact that this is written by the venerable Filipino author F. Sionil Jose, well-known for his stories about class struggle and colonialism in the Philippines, makes this on my list of to-reads.

History and culture isn't rammed down your throat. Who likes a straight history lesson? If you're Filipino, you'll probably get it. Otherwise, to get the full benefit of this novel, including the places mentioned, the allegories and the occasional off-colour humour and pokes at Filipino politics, you'd need a minimal background of Philippine history, politics and social strata. I think a quick gander to Wikipedia will fix that.

Ermita Church, 1900s
From Manila Nostalgia
Sinner/saint? It's intriguing, too, in my mind that the title of this books refers to both a person and a place in Manila. The term Ermita is pretty loaded too; it has religious roots:

La Hermita, the Spanish word for "hermitage", after the fact that on this site was built a hermitage housing an image of the Virgin Mary known as the Nuestra Señora de Guia (Our Lady of Guidance). The hermitage has since evolved into Ermita Church ..." (from Wikipedia)

Juxtapose this with how the character Ermita prostitutes herself in order to rise out of poverty. In the present-day, Ermita became infamous as a red light district. I am suspecting that this study in contrasts is open to some deep analysis, symbolism or allegory -- I simply find it an interesting and thought-provoking juxtaposition, definitely worthy of some good discussion.

Uh-ohs

I have a slight distaste for this novel. I felt like I was in a bit of a time warp reading this. I suspect that if I had read this in the 1990s, I probably would've loved it. This has shades of activist messaging, and it is slightly romantic in its espousing activism and having a heart for the poor. It's a snapshot of a bygone era, though I admit it still has heavy relevance today.

If you love your melodrama, this has got it. Think telenovela. It's also quite formulaic: poor mistreated girl becomes rich and famous, plots revenge on those who mistreated her (very heavy-handed in the revenge side).

Lastly, I was slightly turned off by the weird quasi-sexual-philosophical musings and the erotica. Given that this is about a prostitute, I guess I should've been more accepting, even expectant, but there were sections that bordered on weird and slightly distasteful for me.

Verdict

A biting commentary on Philippine society pre- and post- World War II, as brought to life by the story of a woman who rose up out of poverty. A worthwhile read if you`d like to learn more about Philippine history and society.

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