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BOOK REVIEW : Journey Into Heart of the Philippines : THREE FILIPINO WOMEN By F. Sionil Jose ; Random House; $22, 176 pages

August 13, 1992|LYNNE BUNDESEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Bundesen is a New York-based journalist and writer who lived in the Philippines

Open this book and you will be taken deep into the mentality and geography of the Philippines.

The characters created in these novellas speak a language they are trying to make their own, and it is through the often idiosyncratic use of that language that these stories are told.

An educated man struggling to come to terms with post-colonial corruption, sexuality and women, the narrator of these stories paints pictures of three women. Living in the late 1960s, '70s and early '80s, they attend university, are passionate about politics and die or vanish in the end as victims of both politics and their passions.

Skillfully, the narrator describes their upbringing, their political views, their virginity and loss of it, their relationships in the country and the city. In the process, he lets us experience life in Manila, Baguio and the jungles and slums of his country.

"I would take her out for breakfast at Taza de Oro and on the way, we would meet them--the girls with oversized handbags coming out of the Aurello, the Bay View and the other hotels in the area where they spent the night. They would wait for taxis at the hotel fronts, their Japanese companions waving goodby to them. Pedro at the Taza soon knew what she always ordered, waffles with bacon and a slice of papaya," says the narrator of "Obsession," the second novella.

Describing another restaurant, one owned for a time by Ermi, the woman in the story, the narrator says that her "houseplants were all over the place--tailing \o7 lantanas, \f7 parlor ivy, orchids--hanging from the ceiling, in corners, lush and jungly in the doorway. They gave the \o7 puesto \f7 its ambiance."

And farther on in the paragraph: "Even the comfort room was spotless. She had a passion for cleanliness as she, herself, took good care of her personal hygiene."

Once you have heard a Filipino speak, you will recognize the use of the reflexive, the phrasing, the edge of formality that indicates an adopted tongue. Heavy on the reflexive, it is a style that former President Ferdinand Marcos used. And although neither the late Marcos nor his wife, Imelda, are mentioned by name in this book, there are repeated references to their government, martial law, corruption, their army and Malacanang, the presidential palace.

"Those who possess a high degree of virtue, of morality as indicated in the holy writ, have no business trying to be leaders or nation builders. They should work in cemeteries, among the dead who cannot complain," says one semi-fictitious politician in this book.

Narita, the heroine of "Cadena de Amor," the first novella, spends time in Washington, where she has an affair with, among others, John F. Kennedy. It is worth noting that "Three Filipino Women" was first copyrighted in that country a decade ago, when the Marcos regime was still an immediate experience. Jose's novellas were brave and courageous for that era.

The reader of this slim volume of well-crafted stories will learn more about the Philippines, its people and its concerns than from any journalistic account or from a holiday trip there. Jose's book takes us to the heart of the Filipino mind and soul, to the strengths and weaknesses of its men, women and culture. And we find in reading "Three Women" that we know these people, understand them, appreciate them and want more.

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