I read this book hoping to learn about the Philippines, a country of which I have only a smattering of knowledge. I finished it with a slightly larger smattering: about Spanish and US imperial domination and Japan’s invasion during the Second World War; Rodrigo Duterte’s upbringing and his brutal reign as mayor of Davao, and his payment-by-results “war on drugs” as president that is causing thousands of state-sponsored murders.
Billed as “the first major travelogue by a Westerner to explore life in the modern Philippines”, you could say this book deals with historical, social and political issues that most “travelogues” don’t. Tom Sykes’s artful descriptive style evokes characters and locations, but the writing often draws attention to itself, to the author crafting a fine image.
Sykes sets out on his exploration as a journalist and later as a PhD student, pursuing an interest in the Philippines sparked by his grandfather’s talk of shore leave in Manila during the Second World War. In the course of nine years of research trips, his interest in investigative journalism and left-leaning politics grows, or becomes more apparent, so that the book reads as a journey of personal development as much as, one about the Philippines.
This chimes with a current vein in documentaries where the presenter imposes her/himself to the point of detracting from the purported subject matter.
Though he does touch on the wider political context, he leans towards individual psychology in his attempt to understand Duterte’s “lousy temperament”. And, disappointingly, verbatim interviews with writers and activists tell us little about resistance movements in the Philippines. The epilogue to The Realm of the Punisher sums up its political limitations.
He mentions hundreds of demos and vigils in support of the victims of the president’s extra-judicial murders, and a 20,000-strong rally in Manila against employers ending workers’ contracts. But then he reflects on his failure to get an interview with Duterte, saying he doesn’t want to end on a note of despondency.
In this travel book with potted history and social and political commentary, there’s much to be despondent about. Rather than highlight and expand on the examples of collective resistance Sykes briefly touches on, he plumps for Filipino cordiality and cooperativeness as counterbalances to the dire social conditions he’s outlined.
If this book was designed to whet readers’ appetites to know more about the Philippines, it partly succeeds. But I wouldn’t recommend it as the place to learn about the country.
This article was edited on 27 February 2019 to correct two factual errors: Duterte's regime has caused thousands, not hundreds of thousands of deaths, and Tom Sykes never studied for an MA in creative writing.