Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag
Edgardo M. Reyes’ ‘Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag’ should never have been made required reading. Books made victim of the slippery ground of distracted young minds is to waste praise for one of the greatest Filipino books in our history—its biting social commentary is shunned by the distance between a classroom education and the heart of an untenable Manila.
These days, people think of Lino Brocka’s film before they would Reyes’ book, which has fallen under the ‘film adaptation’ category, and therefore, under a category of either-or: ‘the book or the movie?’ I choose the book.
In the book, we follow a ‘promdi’ waif named Julio whose prior motivation, his search for his fiancé Ligaya, becomes a mere subplot as defeating his urban-derived misfortunes become a central focus. Tolerating nights of sleeping at the construction site and witnessing the tragic fates of the people he encounters (Benny, whistling innocently as the tip of a soil pipe splits open his face) hardens him irreparably to the point of violence, such that finding Ligaya becomes not only about finding his fiancée, but what the word really means: happiness.
Upward social mobility is an overarching theme that is at the same time largely absent; while at the construction site, Julio and the other construction workers continued to build higher, doing the same for their lives was not possible. Only one of the workers, Imo, was able to find a way out through education—in turn, doing nothing but rub salt into the wounds of an alternate life path too late and too unlikely. “Ang katotohana’y nguminigit sa liwanag, ngumingisi sa karimlan.”
Reyes carries the characters on his back, and though the road is clear to him, it is a road to nowhere but tragedy and whorehouses. “Sa isang panahon ng kanyang buhay ay sasapit sa kanya ang ganitong paglilimi: Ligaya? Ito baga’y ano? At mapagkukuro niya: A! ito’y wala liban sa aking pangalan.” The lack of adventure and celebrity may make the characters run a flat line, but it is precisely this lack that reminds us that the conveniences of the more well-off too easily involve an allowance for happiness.
Reyes’ writing is clear against the rubble of his setting; using only a few words his imagery lands precisely and without the injection of cliché. This perhaps is best seen in the poetic ramblings that precede every chapter. As in the excerpts above, these figurative summaries at first seem too obscure to match the traditional prose of the chapters, but by the chapter’s end, demonstrate how much his clarity thrives even within abstraction.
Preferring the book to the movie is a matter of choice. But required reading, for a great book like this, is an insult.