Filipino books

[OPINION] Reading Alex Lacson’s ‘Five hundred years without love’

Leila de Lima
[OPINION] Reading Alex Lacson’s ‘Five hundred years without love’
'In writing the book, Alex, a lawyer, departs from the technical terms and jargon of our profession, which many lawyers tend to overuse to absurd lengths, like Sal Panelo'

I never stopped reading books even here in my detention cell. Reading nourishes my mental and spiritual health and keeps me occupied. And if there is one consolation from my most unjust detention, it is in having more time to read and devote a special portion of it to reflection.

My Senate work continues and I attend to it religiously and daily (except Sundays). Naturally, being detained comes with enforced restrictions, and during this pandemic, near total isolation. But I remain steadfast in fulfilling my mandate and to stay productive, no matter what.

The legal battle I am facing is also taxing and strenuous because of its sheer madness. In all these, reading books has been my breathing time to recharge my senses and replenish myself daily, aside from tending to my cats and keeping my detention cell in order.

One book I have just finished reading is Alex Lacson’s Five Hundred Years Without Love. This novel is beautifully written. In writing the book, Alex, a lawyer, departs from the technical terms and jargon of our profession, which many lawyers tend to overuse to absurd lengths, like Sal Panelo.

His command of the English language is superb. The novel is written in lucid and terse prose, a writing style I am familiar with reading Hemingway’s novels in my younger years. The details are well-researched and weaved into the story seamlessly.

What I like about this novel is it offers a vision of how to build our nation, or to heal, from the battery of abuses it receives, mostly from corrupt politicians, especially Marcos then and Duterte now. And in doing that, it exposes our society’s malady, articulates the suffering of the poor, takes pages from our history, discusses the dark underbelly of our politics, identifies the culprit, and offers a philosophy on humane existence.

If this is a work of fiction, it is only because the characters are the author’s creation, the clutter of daily social life is organized, and the din of competing facts is subdued to present the solemn reality of our existence. Overall, it proved that truth is stranger than fiction, especially under Duterte’s oppressive and murderous regime.

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This is a realist novel about us, set in the present, and has the immediacy of now, because the social cancer, as the author takes from Dr Jose Rizal and the tradition he exemplifies on social commentary, is worsening.

But what are the causes now? Which cells of our society are also now malignant that the tumor must be removed?

The novel takes the reader from Baseco to Forbes Park, from posh Makati to rustic Negros, to find in the journey the origins of this metastasizing social cancer. There are many sources, but the main are the country’s abusive and kleptocratic elected officials, self-serving political dynasties, a weak justice system that breeds crime and corruption and perpetuates social injustice, and the parasitic, rent-seeking business oligarchs (those types who use political connections to steal big time from the public coffers, such as the Marcos and Duterte cronies.

If these societal tumors are removed, many of our institutional problems will be solved. Of course, it is not easy, will take a long time, and requires a gargantuan effort. But the right diagnosis is the first step towards proper medicine.

Political dynasty will not go away any sooner, because the law that should be passed to cripple it is shamelessly guarded and suppressed by dynastic politicians in Congress. But we must not stop pushing against it. This is the political citadel that blocks many inroads of social justice in the country, especially in the provinces. 

Our people should vote wisely. Stop voting for politicians with a history of corruption and abuses and those who belong to dynastic families. These elected officials are not concerned with accountability and real governance that will advance the welfare of the poor and the betterment of our nation. Their real concern is their personal and family interests and how to expand and perpetuate their dynasties. Not voting for them is the first major step, and let’s begin that in 2022. 

Our CSOs, NGOs and concerned citizens can help us in that direction, to educate our people on the connection of the elections to our present issues and our suffering, and not to sell their votes and be fooled by messianic promises of Duterte-type politicians. 

We have many examples from our neighboring countries and successful nations in the world on how to advance our economy and social justice, and even the novel offers us a blueprint on how to do it. What we urgently need now are the right leaders. Let’s find them and vote for them.

As a writer, whose duty is to be the guardian of our country’s memory, Alex Lacson redeems for us this portion of our shared experience (more so from the hands of Marcos revisionists and Duterte propagandists) to redirect our focus on what is essential and true in the life our nation, from our heroic past and the natural goodness of our people.

Our youth should be initiated into this kind of novel. I also hope to find this novel as part of the required reading for our students in Philippine Literature and Humanities. Because reading this alone, the students will have a holistic view of our country’s situation today through the creative and enlightening attributes of this novel.

At the very least, let’s give this novel space on our bookshelf and our school’s libraries. This is a novel of selfless love and determined hope for our country and our people.

As I end, like Anton Hinirang, the main character in the novel, I leave with you this wisdom from his Papang and Mamang: “For as long as we’re alive and healthy, there’s always hope.” Being alive and healthy not only in the physical, but also being alive and healthy in moral and spiritual. –

Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce Duterte critic, continues to be detained in a facility at the Philippine National Police headquarters since 2017 over what she calls trumped-up drug charges.