Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Happiness is a Review from a Perfect Stranger

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This is a wonderful book.

Seen mostly through the eyes of 10 year old Pepot, it follows the story of the Reynaldo family from the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in the winter of 1942, just after Pearl Harbour, to the apocalyptic return of General Douglas McArthur in early 1945. The storyline never falters as it weaves together the individual adventures of a host of characters, all totally convincing: Pepot himself, his beloved auntie Pinkey the singer, his rock-solid Mother, Imelda the good-time girl, Eric the fat General Manager of the Manila Hotel, and many more. The tone ranges from the comic (Pepot wets his pants during the family's first air-raid and his big sister refuses to share a room with him, but four-year-old Chi Chi puts her arms around her big brother and tells him she loves him: "Family," notes Pepot, "is people who love you even when you stink of piss") to the terrifying and even the tragic - there is one death in the book which brought tears to my eyes, and I think it would to anyone's.

Over a hundred thousand people died during the liberation of Manila, and a hundred thousand of them were Filipino civilians. This is comparable to the numbers killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or Dresden or Stalingrad, but nobody seems to know these days. Blame can be shared equally between the Japanese, who deliberately decided to slaughter all civilians under their control, and General McArthur, who botched - there's no other word - the capture of the city. At one level this novel is a memorial to the slaughtered dead of Manila, and a warning against the senselessness of war. It's not easy to write about such horror and carry it off without being either shrill or maudlin, but the way the book is written, with realism of detail and incident and restraint of prose, pulls it off. So that's what kept me enthralled: a true story of humanity in the midst of one of history's great inhumanities.

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