For all their criticism of others, Filipino culturati can be an onion-skinned bunch when it comes to foreigners being nasty about the Philippines, and even about Manila, the butt of disparagement by nearly everyone who has been there, Pinoys and non-Pinoys alike.
Recall the minor furor about Ghosts of Manila (1994) by James Hamilton-Paterson that opens with a grotesque but realistic scene of undertakers preparing unidentified dead bodies for export to medical schools overseas.
Now comes the new novel by American blockbuster writer Dan Brown, Inferno. One character, Sienna Brooks, is a sexy 32-year-old English doctor who happens to be bald (because of a neurological condition). Brown describes her experience of joining a humanitarian mission to Manila, only to be shocked by its apocalyptic poverty and then raped by local ruffians.
An excerpt from the book goes: “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.”
Brown then enumerated what Sienna saw: hungry kids gazing at her “with desolate eyes,” “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.”
The book also mentioned panhandlers and pickpockets, and how Sienna “could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival. When they face desperation … human beings become animals.”
Sienna, like many visitors to Manila, also saw her surroundings as “a kind of shantytown—a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together” with “wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement” in the air. She saw herself as having “run through the gates of hell.”
Then comes the graphic story of Sienna's rape in a Manila slum and how she was saved by... (no spoiler here).
Those who watch the nightly news in Manila can conclude that art just imitates life, if one wants to call Brown's fiction thrillers a form of art. But there will always be sensitive Pinoys who will surely not take too kindly to the painful truths of pervasive Manila crime and poverty in the novel.