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The Praying Man: A Novel

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"Even while I was going through the final drafts of my novels Villa Magdalena and The Volcano, written more than five years before their publication in 1965, I was already thinking of the dramatic possibilities of the idea of dwelling in the same man both the need to pray and the tendency to prey on others. I finished the first draft in Iowa City in the summer of 1967. In its present form, The Praying Man is a much shorter revised version.” —Bienvenido N. Santos, November 26, 1981

172 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1982

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About the author

Bienvenido N. Santos

19 books47 followers
Bienvenido N. Santos was born in Tondo, Manila, on March 22, 1911. When Santos started school, the Philippines was already a colony of the United States and instruction was in English. In his early attempts at creative writing, Santos developed an ear for three kinds of communication: Pampango in the songs his mother sang at home; English in the poems and stories his teacher read at school; and Tagalog in the street life of the Tondo slums.

Santos left for America in September 1941 as a pensionado (scholar) of the Philippine Commonwealth government. Thirty years old and an established short story writer in English at home, he enrolled at the University of Illinois in the master's program in English. When war broke out in December, he found himself an exile in America, cut off from his homeland and his wife and three daughters he left behind. The heartbreak of this separation during his first sojourn in America is crucial to Santos's development as a writer.

Exile defined the central theme of his fiction from then on. In the summer of 1942, he studied at Columbia University with Whit Burnett, the founder of Story magazine, who published his first fiction in America. After studying Basic English with I.A. Richards at Harvard in 1946, Santos returned home to a country rebuilding from the ruins of war. He came back to America in 1958 as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. His first two novels, Villa Magdalena and The Volcano, written under a Rockefeller grant and a Guggenheim fellowship, were published in Manila in 1965, the year Santos won the Philippine Republic Cultural Heritage Award for Literature.

In 1972, Santos and his wife Beatriz were on their way to the Philippines to "stay home for good," when news of the declaration of martial law reached them in San Francisco. The new regime banned The Praying Man, his novel about government corruption, and he was once again exiled from his home. From 1973 to 1982, Santos was Distinguished Writer-In-Residence at Wichita State University. In 1976 he became a U.S. citizen. His short story, "Immigration Blues," won the best fiction award given by New Letters magazine in 1977. In 1980, the University of Washington Press published Scent of Apples, his first and only book of short stories to appear in the United States. The next year it won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Santos died at his home in Albay on January 7, 1996.

Santos's stories can be grouped into three literary periods. The first period, the prewar years in the Philippines (1930-1940) are set in the fictive Sulucan slums of his Tondo childhood and the rural towns and villages in the foothills of Mayon volcano in Albay, where Santos married Beatriz Nidea, started his family, and built his house. These stories are in the collections Brother, My Brother and Dwell in the Wilderness. Santos's exile in America during the war years produced stories set in Chicago, Washington, New York, and other cities, where he lectured extensively for the Philippine Commonwealth government in exile. You, Lovely People, The Day the Dancers Came, and Scent of Apples belong to this period. In the postwar years Santos set his stories in different places as he commuted between the Philippines and America. These years mark a period of maturation and experimentation, and a shifting away from the short story to the novel form.

His use of memory--or, rather, a fictionalized memory--evokes empathy for his characters. A variation of this technique is Santos's use of other "I" narrators, like the Pinoy old-timer Ambo, he of the trembling hands ("The Door" and "The Faraway Summer"), or Tingting, the tennis player, in the San Francisco novel. But even with the voices of Ambo and Tingting, the stories are told from within, as if Santos had been inside them and felt their pain. Santos believed it was important for a writer to feel compassion for his characters: "When you have cr

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Displaying 1 - 6 of 6 reviews
Profile Image for Enbrethiliel.
1 review5 followers
June 28, 2014

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.)
Profile Image for KhepiAri.
130 reviews8 followers
July 21, 2018
C.M. - Cris Magat, a self made millionaire in Philippines, this is his rags to riches story through poverty, hunger, corruption and finally power.

A man of voracious sexual appetite, Cris has it all, an empire of pharmaceutical companies. He is the close one of the elected President. A philanthropist to the world and a ruthless businessman at the heart. Despite executing power, the ripples of betrayal are not far from him.

With an eccentric mistress, a devoted but equally ruthless wife, and a wayward son, C.M. has everything tumbling down on him. Even power exploits the powerful.

And the memories of poor days of Sulucan and his close friend Kosca keep him rooted. Simply put with sometimes graphic description of circumcision or human ailments. The constant image of the mantis an insect haunt the writing. It's a gripping story of man who won't be defeated, even in escape he wields a power. Very interesting read.

And the book is thirty years older than me, with moth bites and yellow pages.
1 review
October 1, 2016
It's a nice book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Miguel.
141 reviews5 followers
July 18, 2022
A pretty straightforward piece of post-Martial Law fiction although it ended quite abruptly; I would have loved to read more of Crispin Magat's exploits, the power struggle between him and the government, and Kosca! I'm curious as to what the longer first draft version Santos had (and if it's available in some archive, literal or virtual).
Displaying 1 - 6 of 6 reviews

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