Gagamba: The Spider Man by F. Sionil Jose

Of Philippine society and the great equalizer. 

Synopsis of Gagamba: The Spider Man by F. Sionil Jose*: Gagamba, the cripple, sells sweepstakes tickets the whole day at the entrance to Camarin, the Ermita restaurant. He sees them all-- the big men, politicians, journalists, generals, landlords, and the handsome call-girls who have made Camarin famous. In mid-July 1990, a killer earthquake struck and entombed all the beautiful people dining at the Camarin. Gagamba could have easily gotten killed -- but he survived the earthquake as do two other lucky people who were buried in the rubble. As told by the Philippines' most widely translated author, this novel raises a fundamental question about life's meaning and suggests at the same time the only rational answer.

My two cents

Called Gagamba, he resembles his namesake (gagamba means "spider" in Filipino) with his disfigured body, large head and long arms. He stations himself in front of the entrance of Camarin, a well-known Spanish restaurant (and cover for selling women's bodies), making a living by selling sweepstakes tickets to those who pity him and those who have deep pockets.

Gagamba and the people working behind the scenes such as the waiters and call girls, are juxtaposed with the wealthy and powerful Camarin customers: politicians, military men, religious folk, expats, among others. In the end, there is no difference between Gagamba or the moneyed. The earthquake at around 1:00 p.m. is to become the great equalizer.


This book is among my buys from my last trip to the Philippines, in an attempt to boost my reading about my homeland. (I admit I am not doing very well in this challenge!)

This is not a linear story. It opens with a chapter about Gagamba, and thereafter, each chapter marches out as a back story of a Camarin customer, all ending with that person entering the restaurant just moments before the killer quake.

I thought this was an excellent way of presenting the social strata of Philippine society. It highlighted the extreme differences in power and economic status and the woefully sad state of corruption and of the abuse of power. It also put a sharp focus on what matters to a Filipino: family, education, a good job, and a better life.

For those unfamiliar with the workings of Philippine society, the depiction here is grim, exaggerated, and seemingly oversentimental. For those who know and have experienced it, the depiction is sadly realistic and sobering. Jose doesn't sugarcoat the immorality of decadence and corruption, he exposes, he taunts, he provokes his readers to face up to these grotesque happenings in his country.

But this isn't all gloom and doom. There is a certain sadness and poignancy in pointing out these truths ... like someone pulling your hand out of a flame. Only by not turning a blind eye can any realization or action come out of these stories. Because in the end, sans all power and money, death is inevitable.

Verdict: A collection of vignettes of any man and any woman in the country that is the Philippines. I highly recommend it to all Filipinos,  F. Sionil Jose fans, and especially those who are simply just those interested or curious about the Philippines and its people.

About F. Sionil Jose

Francisco Sionil José was born in 1924 in Pangasinan province and attended the public school in his hometown. He attended the University of Santo Tomas after World War II and in 1949, started his career in writing. Since then, his fiction has been published internationally and translated into several languages including his native Ilokano. He has been involved with the international cultural organizations, notably International P.E.N., the world association of poets, playwrights, essayists and novelists whose Philippine Center he founded in 1958.

F. Sionil José, the Philippines' most widely translated author, is known best for his epic work, the Rosales saga - five novels encompassing a hundred years of Philippine history - a vivid documentary of Filipino life.

 In 1980, Sionil José received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts. In 2001, Sionil José was named National Artist for Literature. In 2004, Sionil José received the Pablo Neruda Centennial Award. {Via}

Read more about him on Wikipedia.

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  1. Very interesting. The structure sounds like it would make this book unusual and it sounds like the sort of thing that I'd find enjoyable.

    1. I was surprised to see this book available on Amazon. Two years ago, I could find very few Filipino-authored books to buy online hence the buying spree when I went home. I do hope more non-Filipinos read this! :)


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