BOOK REVIEW : Tale of a Philippine Tragedy : TWICE BLESSED, by Ninotchka Rosca, W.W. Norton, $19.95; 320 pages


"Twice Blessed" is a comedy, more or less, of Filipino manners; in its characters and examination of how people act, it's Filipino to the core. But it's also a tragic commentary on the nature of government and the people who gravitate to government anywhere.

The population of the archipelago, the author tells us, is made up of clans--extended families that for centuries and centuries have been trading, intermarrying, growing garlic and tobacco and plotting vindictively against each other.

The Spanish came 400 years ago and added another layer to a complex, essentially tribal society. Then, World War II brought the Japanese and, as one person here remembers:

"Life as we knew it was over. . . . Government had disappeared, on the national and provincial level, the parish priest had disappeared; high society had disappeared; even gossip, that guardian of private morals, had disappeared.

"All nodal points of social control unraveled and survival became the primary objective and principal virtue."

In this postwar society, power is up for grabs. Two unfortunate orphans--twins--are raised as servants by a large, complacent clan that begrudges them every bite they're given to eat.

Catarina and Hector Basbas endure countless humiliations growing up. But Hector knows exactly what he wants.

He wants to be president of this grungy, charming, terrible, beautiful nation, and it goes without saying that he will do absolutely anything to get his wish.

Catarina is married off--in haste--to Armand Gloriosa.

Catarina and Hector have been lovers for years, but Hector seduces Armand too: Just one big happy family.

And when Catarina gives birth to children, they too come under their uncle/father Hector's erotic and emotional spell.

Outside this rats' nest of lust, Teresa Tikloptuhod, a dark, ugly little lady, daughter of a provincial governor in the north, languishes around the house, dying of boredom until one day a strange and beautiful young woman comes to the mansion.

It's Catarina, who's run away from home because of the unbearable arrangements.

The two women roam the islands together for almost a year, learning about the strange land in which they dwell.

They see villages destroyed by typhoons, a young man crucified for his religion's sake and villagers dressed up like trees as part of a religious ritual that goes farther back than anyone can dream. And they lay down bets at cockfights.

They learn that fear and conflict are the basis for all emotions on these islands. Then they return to the Basbas-Gloriosa enclave.

Hector is elected president, but the current president won't move out, declaring the election corrupt beyond words. The family splits up to go out to the farthest provincial regions, to guarantee loyalty to Hector.

When does a family stop being family and start being government? Never, in the Philippines, the author suggests, because everybody is somebody's cousin, and everybody is holding fistfuls of grudges that extend into the Paleocene past.

We leave Catarina obsessed with her shoe collection and her plans for general revenge.

Hector, "so brain-damaged he could be outsmarted by a lettuce," works on a videotape that shows him doing vigorous sitting-up exercises.

This beautiful, impoverished, passionate country is in the hands of immoral sociopaths, according to the author. She mourns for her people, but that's about all she can do.

Next: Bettyann Kevles reviews "Ecocide in the U.S.S.R.: Health and Nature Under Siege" by Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly Jr. (Basic).

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