"All of the characters are me,” he said, with a boisterous laugh. “Neither a British nor an American young man living in the twenty-first century can understand Dickens as well as I can! I am living in a Dickensian atmosphere. Our country is at least one or two centuries behind the Western world. My neighborhood—bleak, poor, with small domestic industries, children playing in the street, parents fighting with each other, some with great debt, everyone dirty—that is Dickens. Rangoon resident quoted in Letter from Rangoon, New Yorker, 25 August 2008Sound familiar? I re-read Bleak House recently and was struck by how it resonated with contemporary Manila. Here is Dickens at his most passionate on the death of the lovable urchin character, Jo.
“Jo, my poor fellow!”
“I hear you, sir, in the dark but I’m a-gropin—a-gropin—let me catch hold of your hand.”
“Jo, can hear you say what I say?”
“I’ll say anything as you say, sir, fur I know it’s good.”
“Our father!—yes, that’s very good sir.”
“Which art in heaven.”
“Art in heaven—is the light a-comin, sir?"
“it is close at hand. Hallowed be thy name!”
"The light is come upon the dark benighted way: Dead! Dead, your Majesty. Dead my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.
And here we are in Manila, 160 years later with children like Jo still dying all around us every day.
Bleak House revolves around a court case about a will that drags on interminably until, once years of lawyers’ fees have been deducted, there is nothing left (better watch out Jamby!). Any reader of the “what happened to?” occasional column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer will surely see parallels between Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House and the glacier-like pace of the Philippine justice system.
Perhaps it is not so much “Dickensian Manila” as “Victorian Manila”, because I also felt a strong nudge of recognition when I read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair recently. This fabulous novel of social ambition reminded me of nothing so much as the vapid smiles of the smart and empty “it” people that gaze out from the social pages of the hundreds of magazines devoted to class assertion in Manila.
Manila and Rangoon will develop in their own ways of course and will not follow London’s path. Still, the Victorian feel to Manila doesn’t bother me too much; in fact I would hate to live in a city like Beijing that is so remorselessly dedicated to the present. As the Rangoon resident quoted above points out, it is much easier to appreciate 19th century literature from a grimy city in the developing world than from the swish 21st city that London has become.