Book Review by Jophen Baui
Mga Prodigal may be an allusion to "The Prodigal Son", a story from the Bible that Jesus Christ told his disciples to illustrate a Father's love to his returning lost son. In the story, the son wanted a share of his fortune so he could go his way forth and be free to live as he wanted. For a while, he lived the "good life", but as a consequence of his poor stewardship of his inheritance, he ended up bankrupt. In the end, he decided to go back to his father, who welcomed him back with open arms.
In Ms. Sicat's novel however, the title Mga Prodigal symbolizes the Filipino's desire for freedom from poverty and from oppression. To be a prodigal is to fight the general situation of poverty, by leaving the homeland to search for greener pastures abroad. Overseas Filipino Workers now populate the globe, and as this novel affirms, their stories are as many as the grains of sands in the dessert. In Mga Prodigal the stories told cinematically are generally dim. While reading, one may ask of the characters, "but do they have a choice?" Many of their stories will remain undocumented, so it will be difficult to generalize on whether Filipinos have gained more or lost more from their ventures overseas. In fact the general impression is that there are more positive OFW stories - many are financially able to invest in decent homes, their children attend better schools, their lifestyles are improved. Ms. Sicat however is not interested in positive stories. She probes the truth behind OFWs so called "sacrifices".
Like the stories of millions of Filipinos abroad, the novel is an unfinished account with many beginnings and almost no endings. Every character in this novel has an unfinished sad story to tell. Every chapter is a snippet that contributes to a general depression that will make Filipino readers think more deeply about their choices. Ms. Sicat succeeds in presenting graphic scenes showing the losses and lack and limits that Filipinos have to go through in their collective experience.
"Gustong-gusto niya kapag nanggagaling sa Nasuli ang kanyang Auntie at Uncle. Marami silang dalang prutas at gulay. Kung tag-kaimito, tag-kamunsil, tag-bayabas, tag-sinigwelas, tag-makopa. Doon din nanggagaling ang mga bulaklak na birds of paradise na tumutubo sa likuran ng kanilang bahay at angcome down my love na umaabot sabanggerahan mula sa pagkakakapit nito sa santol sa gilid ng bintana. Naalala rin niya ang mga dahon nglagundi na pinapakuluan ng kanyang Auntie. Ito ang pinapainom sa kanilasa umaga bago sila pumasok saklase." from the novel Lumbay ng Dila by Genevieve Asenjo
Regardless of their educational background the dominant-all-men characters in this novel are all lumped under one category - the working labor class. Ms. Sicat tuned in to their grievances, their loneliness, their unfulfilled dreams for better lives and homes. Antonio, a former member of the NPA, and now an electrician in Sharjah, Dubai, experiences extreme loneliness from separation from family, and witnesses some sad consequences of living and working far away from home. He works with fellow Filipinos, who each try to make lives back in their hometowns better, but at the cost of their sanity and emotional well-being. By going back and forth in Antonio's past and present, the novel shows how labor as an end in itself gives personal fulfillment, dignity, and freedom. Then in other chapters, the story explores the often constricted and demeaning labor situation experienced by Filipinos in their quest for better life. The men - Antonio, Vito, Ernie, Alvin, Marvin, Treb, and Mitoy sweat in their workshops and assignments while haunted by the ghosts of their unhappy lives. They repair broken air-conditions and fix problematic electrical lines while their families break and disintegrate before their very eyes. Amidst their personal grudges and dissatisfactions they trade Pinoy escapist and sarcastic humor, and bond in all-macho-men drinking sprees. Very rarely do they show their feelings to each other, but the novel is full of their heartaches.
Mga Prodigal also hits off tangentially at the political system. Antonio is a former NPA rebel. The NPA way embraces poverty and not runs away from it, but from Antonio's point of view, this cause is given a better insight and a more hopeful slant. Ms. Sicat however will probably write another novel that will essay the stories of those who went to this extreme. Who knows what unfinished stories they have to tell? Meanwhile, the Filipino prodigal who is the hero in this story, he who labors and sweats overseas, would rather not confront the system. Some may have actually become richer, yet in many intangible ways, they have become poorer than the ordinary Filipino laborer who chooses to stay.
This novel in Tagalog is recommended reading for every Overseas Filipino Worker and aspiring OFW. Short and insightful at 165 pages, with guide questions for classroom discussions and book clubs.