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Philippine literature reflects a diverse group of works which are mostly grounded on traditional folktales, socio-political histories, and real-life experiences. Such books have since promoted Filipino cultural values, told daily struggles of locals, and have instilled a remarkable lesson or two. Here are the books worth your time.
Among the great novels in Philippine literature, Noli Me Tángere (Touch Me Not) is the most controversial and widely-known – it’s included in the current education curriculum of Filipino high school students. Written by the country’s national hero, Dr. José Rizal, this novel sparked the social awakening of Filipinos during the Spanish colonial era. As Rizal cannot fathom the unfairness of the Spanish priests and the ruling government at the time, his purpose of writing the book was to expose the ills of Philippine society at the time. In this revolutionary book, you’ll learn about the story of Crisostomo Ibarra, how he dealt with Spanish authorities, and how he prepared for his revenge, as told in Rizal’s 2nd book, El Filibusterismo.
Another famous masterpiece in Philippine literature, Francisco Balagtas’ Florante at Laura is written in the form of ‘awit’ where there are four lines per stanza and 12 syllables per line. Set in the fictional kingdom of Albania, it tackles the story between Duke Florante and Princess Laura, who’s also being pursued by Florante’s enemy Count Adolfo. As a literary classic, this book has become a favorite play not only among Filipino high school students, but has been showcased in grand theaters such as Gantimpala Theater and the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Mga Ibong Mandaragit (Birds of Prey) was written by Filipino writer and social activist, Amado V. Hernandez. Being a novel that tackles social-political issues, particularly Philippine revolution and neocolonialism, it has a connection to Rizal’s earlier novels – Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo. There was a passage in the novel where protagonist Mando Plaridel was tested by Tata Matyas on what he knows about Rizal’s controversial books. As he narrated the living conditions of Filipinos then, readers will note how Hernandez had high hopes for significant changes that would uplift the Philippine society.
Being one of the most admired writers in Philippine literature, Nick Joaquin was recognized as National Artist of the Philippines for Literature in 1976. In his historical novel entitled The Woman Who Had Two Navels, Joaquin examines the effects and influence of the past towards the post-war events in the Philippines. Lead female character Connie Escobar thinks she has two navels, and thus requests her doctor to remove one – which symbolically means that she wants to shun away from a traumatic past. She later finds out that her husband, Macho Escobar, was the lover of her mother. Hoping to escape after being betrayed, she flees, only to discover more truths.
Like Hernandez and Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose’s works have been deeply influenced by Rizal. This was reflected in his books and short stories, particularly the five-part novel series Rosales Saga, which narrated class struggles and colonialism experienced by Filipinos. Po-on A Novel is the first book in the Rosales Saga, which tells stories about Rosales, Pangasinan in the Philippines. While this book is the last written and published in the series, it’s actually the book that sets the five-part story. Discover the story of Eustaqio “Istak” Samson who abandoned his family to join the rebel forces and escape the cruelty of Spanish authorities. The other four books in the saga are: Tree, My Brother, My Executioner, The Pretenders, and Mass.
Banaag at Sikat (From Early Dawn to Full Light) has been dubbed the ‘bible of the Filipino working class.’ Being among the earliest novels written by Lope K. Santos, it’s considered by Filipino critic Teodoro Agoncillo as one of the most important books in Philippine literature in 1949. That’s because according to Agoncillo, it paved the way for the development of a system on how Tagalog novels were written. The novel narrates the story between Delfin and Felipe who have contrasting views. Delfin is a socialist whereas Felipe, despite being the son of a rich landowner, leans towards anarchism. Throughout the narrative, themes of love, livelihood, and societal status are embedded.
This novel written by Miguel Syjuco landed him a spot on the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, being awarded the Grand Prize. Layered with fiction and non-fiction themes, the story begins with main character Crispin Salvador, a noted writer whose lifeless body was discovered by authorities floating off the Hudson River in New York. Since there was no evidence of foul play, it led them to think that the author must have taken his own life. His student and friend, who has the same name as the book’s author Miguel Syjuco, hopes to unravel the story behind this mystery.
The Marcos era in the ’70s is a dark chapter in Philippine history. No one dares to speak against the government for fear of execution – in some cases, bodies are not even retrieved. Hence, it has been a tumultuous period, especially for the Filipino parents to protect their kids from the oppressive regime and at the same time, stand together as one family. Lualhati Bautista has captured true-to-life scenarios in the ’70s, mentioning changes that arose after the Plaza Miranda bombing and the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Philippines. The novels tells the story of lead protagonist Amanda Bartolome and her family, where she had to deal with facing the law and her responsibilities towards her five sons.
F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles is the first Filipino crime detective story set in the Philippines. The mystery novel revolves around two Jesuit priests named Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero who happen to perform forensic work. There have been murders of young boys in the slum area of Payatas. As the novel explores themes that deal with the corruption and inefficiency in the government, they hope to uncover the mysterious murderer behind the serial killings in Manila‘s slum area. In 1999, Batacan’s mystery novel won the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for English Novel.
Spelt in the texting language, the title of this book phonetically reads “Aba nakakabasa na pala ako?!” which can be translated as “Wow I can read now?!” Written by an anonymous Filipino contemporary author whose pen name is Bob Ong, the book rose to fame for depicting the supposed unforgettable moments of his life as a student, starting from the first time of entering school up to his college days.
Unlike classic traditional novels, Bob Ong’s books make use of conversational Filipino language as he narrates stories in a humorous way while depicting the real-life situations in Philippine context.