Benjamin Pimentel's Mga Gerilya sa Powell St. (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2007; 223 pp.) won the 2007 National Book Award for Fiction.
It tells the stories of Filipino WWII veterans who migrated to the US, hoping that they would live to see the day the Equity Bill would be enacted into law.
The novel follows the lives of Fidel, Ruben, and Ciriaco as they hang out near the BART station along Powell St. or in several parks around the city of San Francisco or in their tiny apartments when the weather gets so freezing cold for their Filipino hide. They pass the time joshing with each other or other Filipino veterans and homeless Americans or reminiscing about their lives back in the Philippines.
The novel, written in Filipino, is made up of four chapters and an epilogue. The first chapter, "Ang Makauwi nang Buo," sets up the novel's structure that revolves around the veterans' fear of being brought back to the Philippines in an urn -- and last three chapters narrate just that: the deaths and cremation of Ciriaco, Ruben, and Fidel. That seems to be the book's message: that these WWII veterans will have passed away before America makes good on its promise.
The novel, however, is not really just about the veterans' struggles for recognition. Rather, it presents the hardships these veterans face in America. Except for some fellow Filipino-Americans, like Atty. Anne Dizon, the veterans fall prey to the unscrupulous among their fellow Filipino immigrants (Rose for Ciriaco, and Mauricio and his wife for the Major). But most of all, what these veterans fear most in that alien place is loneliness. So they pass their time shooting the breeze or feeding the pigeons at Powell Street rather than be alone with their memories of the war of their home country.
This is true for Ruben who had to abandon his dead brother's body in the jungles so his troop could escape from the Japanese. This is also true for Fidel, whose son was falsely accused by his comrades for being a DPA (deep penetration agent) and was never seen again.
But the alternative, to go back to the homeland without the promised benefits of the Equity Bill, would also be another defeat for these veterans. For back home, the country is continually caught up in social, political, and economic disarray.
January 2009 staging by Tanghalang Pilipino, CCP
Despite the serious and depressing theme, Boying Pimentel is able to infuse a sense of hope for these cast of characters. It is in how Pimentel lets the characters speak for themselves that we see their resilience and unflagging optimisim (okay, every now and then they get depressed). Even Ruben, who seems inconsolable after Ciriaco's death, bounces back and finds himself an immigrant Russian woman for a girlfriend.
I would like to see Rody Vera's stage adaptation of the novel, seen here in Tanghalang Pilipino's restaging of the play in 2009 (thanks to Gibbs Cadiz's blog for the photo). While the novel was engaging, I think a stage adaptation would make Pimentel's characters more appealing. I can imagine how these characters on the page will banter onstage, or how they will grieve as they scatter the ashes of their buddies against a backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge.
That is how I hear the novel onstage the theater in my head.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Philippines License.