There is a scene in The Praying Man in which the main character, Big Pharma executive Cristino "C.M." Magat, has a private meeting with the Pres...more+JMJ+
There is a scene in The Praying Man in which the main character, Big Pharma executive Cristino "C.M." Magat, has a private meeting with the President of the Philippines. The former's company has been given a monopoly on all the medicines that government hospitals will buy--and you can bet that he doesn't want to lose it. But that (illegal) deal now seems to be hanging on a new condition: the President wants the medicines to be much, much cheaper.
He presents Magat with the example of the flour industry, which has kept the price of pan de sal steady, but has also been gradually shrinking the size of the buns. Magat protests that the same thing cannot be done with medicines . . . but it's all just the pretense before he offers to give the next big order to the government for free. HOW can he do this, you ask?
Well, who says that medicines can't "get smaller" in some way when someone needs them to? The Praying Man may have first been published in the 1970s, but the politics depicted here are hardly retro. My first memory of the flour industry's pan de sal trick is from four administrations after the one which banned this book. And the drama of road reconstruction, in which we all pretend that the cement being used is the best quality that the government can afford, is the traditional source of entertainment every election year. At first I thought the Philippine government's handling of these problems was something out of a George Orwell novel (Chocolate rations, anyone?); but now I see that we didn't have to look beyond our own literary canon: those "solutions" were straight out of this Bienvenido N. Santos story.
Furthermore, the symbolism of drugs is perfect. When a country is sick, how can it expect to get better by taking substandard pharmaceuticals? And if you say that at least the medicines are plentiful and free, you've misdiagnosed the problem. Of course, in Magat's case, he's part of the problem. If this novel were being written today, he'd be a banker.
Santos's political commentary is surprisingly timely--and not just for the Philippines. Food and medicines may not be causing the current crises here--nor, I daresay, in your countries as well, dear readers--but the parallels to finance are close enough. Currency can "get smaller" much easier than medicine can.
It's clear how Magat is preying on others to accumulate vast personal wealth, but the praying is a secret that he is too ashamed to let anyone know about. He keeps a medallion of the Virgin of Antipolo (Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage) tucked away in his billfold . . . right next to an "emergency" condom that he finds equally embarrassing. And we could say that he uses both in the same way: that is, medicinally--as if prayers and prophylactics were both pills you could just pop and trust to do the hard work of healing you or keeping you from harm. As you can see, there are some vital connections that he has failed to make.
While The Praying Man is already one of the best novels of my year, it badly needs a copyedit. There are also some plot points which really strained my credulity. While it's plausible that power-drunk and unethical millionaires would engage in Magat's leisure activities--and indeed, I can think of a couple of real-life politicians whose private peccadilloes are in the same league as his--their scenes feel like the obligatory nudity in an 80s B-movie. Finally, there's a choppy quality to the whole novel that makes sense only when you learn that it was first published as a serial.
In a nutshell, The Praying Man is far from perfect--but oh, does it get a lot of things right, thanks to a character who does a lot of things wrong.
(A different version of this review originally appeared on my blog.)(less)