In Estrella Alfon’s controversial “Fairy Tale for the City,” 1 Amado is a flaneur 2 who wanders Manila. He takes in the sights, sounds, and smell of the city as he meanders along with the stream of people and cars around him. In one of his walks, he finds himself in Quiapo and readers are given a description of the place:
This is Quiapo now, and Quezon Boulevard is the asphalt he treads on, the church square his area of noise and people, and the rigodons of pedestrian exchange the stream he breasts and becomes part of. So many people, so many cries. Hawkers bent on warding off temporary hungers, shouting sitcharon-ale? lumpia-lumpia. Balut! Flowers make a riot of color in the balconies of the patio, and black net veils hanging from poles add a somber background note. So many people, forming sluggish streams, sluggish streams bearing the rushing griefs of so many people rushing to meet their fates or trying to escape them. Smell of the city, the fragrances and the smells of estero and azucena flowers, asphalt and carbon acrid in the sun, and lead dust from many printing presses crinkling the nostrils and tickling the throat, and the gravy-rancid-oil smell from many restaurants. A little pause brings in another punctuation: the spilled vinegar from the bottle of the sitcharon man, bearing with it the pungent smell of crushed red biting peppers, and then the cheap colognes from the bargain counters of the city stores, worn by the sweating women and the pomaded men, serving only to accent the smell of armpits heavy with hair and the pantaloon briefs of women still reeking with love. A baby toddles across the square, a woman runs after it to pick it up, and Amado recognizes also the smell of saliva dried and not completely wiped away. (22)
The narrator reveals that Amado “has tried all the deviations loneliness makes with the devices of the lonely” and these include watching couples in parks and in the bay, riding buses without a destination in mind, and going inside the cinema not to watch the movie but again, to look at couples locked in anonymous embrace. In order to “slay the tiger that stalked him,” he has also tried listening to poetry, drinking liquor, reading books, and writing. His flanerie has led him to watch boxing matches, see people shooting scenes for a movie, and buy a woman’s company in a whorehouse. (22)
AMADO wanders aimlessly in the city. This illustration by Rod F. Dayao accompanies Alfon’s story in the magazine where it was published.
Amado is estranged from his wife and children, but he continues to support them. He has not visited or spoken to them since they left him.
He also took a street urchin from the streets under his care – a girl named Maria who sold cigarettes. He had watched her blossom into a “bold brash angel,” and sent her to school. On the day of her high school graduation, she gave herself to him. For three days they made love, and then he bade her to go home and she was not to see him again.
Amado also had a sick mother. She had an attack, her tongue and half of her body are paralyzed. In her failing health, she calls on the saints. Whenever Amado would visit her, she would tell him about their miracles. He would take her to sites of miraculous apparitions, such as the fall of petals in Lipa.
The narrator, after explaining Amado’s plight, mentions that he is not alone in his loneliness,
And so we have Amado, the lonely man. There are many like him and this city is filled with them. Who walk the streets of life alone, by perverse choice, not able to help the perversity of loneliness within them, who like the thought of suicide but have no impulse to indulge in even that; who have the thought of concupiscence and then trying that, find no stomach for it. It is a modern disease, and is as felling as tuberculosis or cancer or madness. (25)
Amado finds himself in Baclaran and discovers that it is a good place for the lonely. One day, he decides to write letters to the Virgin. He thought that he would play games with the chances reserved for those who sent letters of supplication and thanksgiving. He wrote three letters, feigning delight for the supposed miracle of the Virgin providing a solution to each of his problems and said that whichever would be read, he would go back to the situation, and if one had indeed been solved, he would give thanks.
A CONTRITE Amado in Baclaran church. Another illustration by Rod F. Dayao in This Week magazine.
By a fairy-tale-like turn of events, all three of Amado’s letters are read by the priest. First, he made a resolve to return to his wife and family. Then, Maria surprisingly appeared beside him in the church. Finally, he went home with Maria in his arm, and found his mother to have been cured – able to speak clearly and walk again. Since “[h]e wrote the letters on a dare to the Heavens,” it would seem that “…now, the Heavens are daring him” (25).
"Fairy Tale for the City" is one of Alfon's most important stories, but it is often excluded in her collected works for "it became the subject of litigation in court brought against the author and the editor of the magazine, who were found guilty of publishing pornography and fined" (Yabes xi). A conservative group, the Catholic League of the Philippines, charged Alfon in court with obscenity over the story. Although some “[f]ellow writers were quick to rally around her, claiming her as a martyr to the cause of artistic integrity,” others did not, and the incident affected the writer greatly (“Estrella”). “In the eyes of a contemporary Filipino the story is even not that erotic to say nothing about pornography” (Vartii). “The present generation of readers, having dismissed obscenity as a legitimate issue in the critical discussion of literature, prefers to claim her as a writer for the feminist cause” (“Estrella”).
Alfon’s more popular story, “Magnificence,” is widely anthologized, but “Fairy Tale for the City” is still remembered for the landmark case it provoked (Bernas). In a preface to Philippine Short Stories, 1941-1955, Leopoldo Yabes, says that “[i]t cannot be ignored for it presents a courageous attempt at writing of things ordinary writers shy away from. It marked a milestone in the Filipino struggle for freedom of the mind and of the spirit” (xii).
A SCAN of the magazine where “Fairy Tale for the City” was published. The lower left of the page shows a portrait of the author and a description stating her as “one of the most prolific of the country’s women writers.”
The notoriety of Maria’s deflowering aside, Amado’s wanderings in 1950s Quiapo is a contemplative study on people’s inner turmoil amidst a commercially hectic city. Amado’s languid exploration – a markedly Filipino flanerie, is a stark contrast to Quiapo’s enterprising vendors, and his musings on loneliness gives a picture of Filipinos trying to reconcile a Catholic society’s conservative expectations with their desires. Amado’s faith, attitudes, and dreams lead him to form a resolution that involves a gamble with the Virgin of Baclaran; and because this almost-impossible bet came true, it comes off as a fantastic tale which, in its conclusion, the narrator leaves the readers the challenge to formulate Amado’s “happy” ending – and thus involves them in the process of reconciling personal, spiritual, and sociological conflicts in the context of Philippine history and culture.
1. Yabes states that the story was published in April 1955 by The Manila Chronicle’s This Week magazine. Bernas, referring to the case of the People vs Gatbonton in The Ateneo Law Journal, provides another date of publication: August 21, 1955.
2. The word is French in origin. The noun flâneur refers to a stroller, lounger or loafer. It carried a set of rich associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. It word has also come to refer to a literary a literary type. Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, made this figure of an emblematic archetype of urban, modern experience the object of scholarly interest in the 20th century. See Shaya.
Alfon, Estrella D. “Fairy Tale for the City.” This Week, The Manila Chronicle, Apr. 1955, pp. 22–25.
Bernas, Joaquin G. “Problems and Principles toward A Legal Definition of The Obscene.” Ateneo Law Journal, Vol. 12, No.1, Sep 1962, pp. 1–23.
“Estrella D. Alfon.” Ateneo Library of Women's Writings, www.rizal.lib.admu.edu.ph/aliww/pmb_estrella_alfon.htm. Accessed 12 Oct. 2017.
Shaya, Gregory. “The Flâneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860–1910.” American Historical Review, Feb. 2004, www.academia.edu/1346674/The_Fl%C3%A2neur_the_Badaud_and_the_Making_of_a_Mass_Public_in_France_circa_1860_1910. pp. 41–77. Accessed 12 Oct. 2017.
Vartti, Riitta. “The History of Filipino Women's Writings.” Filippiinit-seura, Finnish-Philippine Society, Firefly, 1 Feb 2007, www.filippiinit-seura.fi/firefly.html. Accessed 12 Oct. 2017.
Yabes, Leopoldo Y. Philippine Short Stories, 1941-1955. University of the Philippines Press, 1981.
A Dissolute Flaneur’s Exploration of Quiapo in
Estrella Alfon’s “Fairy Tale for the City”
Eric Gerard H. Nebran | October 29, 2017