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Windows on Philippine Women, Politics, and Life

THE tragedy of Philippine history is the main engine that drives Philippine literature. This influence is evident in F. Sionil Joss Three Filipino Women (Random House, 176 pp., $22) and Ninotchka Rosca's Twice Blessed (W. W. Norton, 269 pp., $19.95)

"Three Filipino Women" is a collection of three novellas that were first published in the Philippines. As the title suggests, each novella unveils the stories of different women - as told from the perspective of their men - set against the background of the tempestuous contemporary politics and stifling cultural mores.

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Joss collection is an incisive comment on the Philippines' powerful matriarchal foundation. In sharp contrast to the marginal and passive narrative function of the males, the strength of his female characters is pronounced.

In essence, Joss female characters are different faces of the same Filipina archetype. In "Cadena De Amor," she is tough and politically ambitious, a potential candidate for the presidency: in "Obsession," she is a Manila prostitute taking control of her life; in "Platinum," she is a young idealist killed by the security forces of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

These vividly drawn sketches fill the reader with a sense of the women, their motivations, and their social and political contexts. For Jose, whose reputation was built largely on the marvelous "Rosales Saga" - a series of novels published in the Philippines spanning nearly a century - "Three Filipino Women" represents a slight shift. This collection is a contemporary, introspective, and "quieter" work, where history and politics - the manipulation and oppression of the poor by generations of elites - al though present, are less pronounced.

Unlike Jose, Rosca has had a higher profile in the United States, in part because her first novel, "State of War," was published by W. W. Norton in 1988. More importantly, she has enough talent to fill the deepest well.

"Twice Blessed," Rosca's second novel, traces the rise to political power of incestuous twins, Hector Basbas and Katerina Basbas Gloriosa. The title refers to the sun and the moon, important symbols in Philippine legend.

Hector, the first blessed (the sun), is a candidate for the presidency held by Blackie Dominguez. Although Katerina, the second blessed (the moon), serves her brother's ambitions, she is an equal partner. The presidency is their goal. Both are ruthless, as are the other denizens of this macabre political world.

The campaign goes well - Hector has apparently won - until Blackie charges the twins with voter fraud and refuses to step down. The allegations are true but also irrelevant. Voter fraud and other irregularities have long been unfortunate staples of Philippine politics.

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The burden shifts to the twins to disprove the charges or, at least, to undermine Blackie's network of regional supporters. The twins set about this task with the same ruthless fervor and efficiency that marked Hector's presidential campaign.

All goes well until Hector's airplane mysteriously crashes, and for days there is no word of the president-elect. Katerina even considers the possibility of mounting her own presidential campaign, a plan she abandons when her brother is found, alive, but just barely.

The presidency is his but only if Katerina can keep the public and press at bay. She succeeds, thanks, in part, to the "alternate reality" that technology provides: a staged video of poor Hector doing "recuperative exercises."

Rosca's satirical vision of Philippine politics is cynical and bleak - some may charge unduly so. Still, her vision is clearly defined and her characters fully developed. Moreover, she is a brilliant stylist, possibly the Philippines's best.

In "Twice Blessed," she paints an absurdist landscape inhabited by venal, unsympathetic characters lacking even a single laudatory trait. Nonetheless, readers will be drawn into her world and stay until the end.

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