Dan Brown’s novel is a writing on the wall

TEACHABLE MOMENTS - Jose Claro (The Philippine Star) - June 11, 2013 - 12:00am

This won’t be about Dan Brown vs. Francis Tolentino. This is about our understanding of literature as revealed by what seems a public approval of a fake letter, which the anti-Tolentino fans made viral over social media. The letter was an uncreative argument by referring to a disclaimer stating: “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.”

By that disclaimer, people have dismissed Chairman Tolentino’s reaction as nonsensical. By that disclaimer, people have come to believe that there is really no need to react negatively over the portrayal of Manila.

This deserves another reading.

Presumably, everyone should know that a disclaimer is a figment of imaginative work created not by writers but lawyers. These words were skillfully crafted to prevent anyone from suing an author for libel. But in reality, every literary work is based on reality. Nothing is purely imaginative or purely fictional and most are rarely coincidental.

Literature is a mirror of human experiences. It cannot be a mirror if the text doesn’t reflect an image of reality. Even the most absurd sci-fi plots depend on the reality of human emotion and conflict to keep the piece credible and the reader engaged.

More importantly, the element of setting in literature is one particular element that depends a lot on our shared perception of a specific place or time. An author’s choice of setting enables the reader to relate to the details in the fictional story and feel the appropriate emotions necessary for the author to unravel his/her theme. The choice of setting depends less on imagination and more on an accurate perception of what others think is reality.

Which is why we have to thank Chairman Tolentino for his reply letter. It started this exchange, this debate, this conversation that ultimately revealed the most important reason as to why Metro Manila has deteriorated to its hellish condition. From the tweets and Facebook posts of many of those who countered Tolentino, we are given a picture of citizens who don’t give a damn if their home is compared to hell. Would you allow a director to use your house as a scene for other people to visualize what hell is like? Would you not feel reviled if the director described the ugliness that is your house as a perfect image for inferno? But then, maybe that is the problem. Not everyone thinks Metro Manila is their home. Perhaps, many of us are just transients waiting for an opportunity to leave Metro Manila. And that is perhaps why we’re okay with other people calling it hell.

But we should also thank Dan Brown. His novel is a writing on the wall. We have been weighed and are found wanting. If we are honest enough and if we care enough for our home, we should be angry at ourselves for not doing anything as we saw Metro Manila become dirtier and smellier by the day. It was our own apathy that destroyed by neglect a once beautiful city.

Metro Manila is not a damned city. Instead of investing our energies in writing negative posts about Brown or Tolentino, why not channel our energy to restoring Manila’s old glory? That is what Carlos Celdran and Ivan Man Dy are doing by educating Filipinos through their old Manila walks. That is what Gina Lopez is doing by trying to save the Pasig River. They are among the few that have not given up on Metro Manila.

In the end, the worst response is to dismiss what has been written about Manila as merely fictional. My Philo teacher kept reminding us in class that fiction is a lie that leads to the truth. The power to be awakened by the truth contained in fiction will enable us to face reality and transform a condemnation into a wake-up call for social redemption.

A really great author, Graham Greene wrote in The End of the Affair, “A story has no beginning or end: Arbitrarily, one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” It’s time for us to forget what we have done to Metro Manila and start looking ahead to see what we could still make out of it.


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