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Why all the fuss over the 'gates of hell'?

How a fictional character sparked debate over the physical and metaphysical state of the Philippine capital

Why all the fuss over the 'gates of hell'?

Popular novelist Dan Brown kicked off a small firestorm with a comment from a character in his new novel Inferno describing Manila as the 'gates of hell'

Joe Torres, Manila

May 27, 2013

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"Lord, let me stand at the gates of hell and stop anyone from entering, by telling each of them, 'Where are you going, poor fool? Turn back! Make a good confession and save your soul. Don't come here, to be lost for all eternity!''' - St Anthony Mary Claret

There has been a lot of fuss in recent days about Dan Brown's latest novel Inferno, especially over a few pages that mention Manila.

In the novel, the fictional Dr Sienna Brooks, who used to work for a humanitarian group in the Philippines, could only “gape in horror” as “she had never seen poverty on this scale” in Manila.

"For every one person Sienna fed, there were hundreds more who gazed at her with desolate eyes," Brown wrote in his take on Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.

He described Manila's "six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, horrifying sex trade." He wrote that the sex industry consisted of young children, "many of whom had been sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed."

"All around her [Brooks], she could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival.…When they face desperation…human beings become animals," Brown writes.

Then Brooks said: "I’ve run through the gates of hell."

Comments on social media, mostly on Facebook and Twitter, that made fun of the government's failure to address Manila's poverty situation made such an impact that the head of Metro Manila's development agency wrote a letter to Dan Brown asking the author "to rectify his portrayal of Manila."

Francis Tolentino, chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority, said in his letter that Manila is the "doorway to heaven" because of its religious beliefs. 

This is where the "cradle of Catholicism" is found, he said, adding that the book's "religious insinuations" against Manila may have a "negative implication" on the faith of Filipinos.

And because it's Manila, expect Church leaders to have their say.

Fr Francis Lucas, head of the Episcopal Commission on Social Communication and Mass Media of the Catholic bishops’ conference, accused Brown of earning money by "mixing fiction and reality." 

In a radio interview, the priest addressed the author: "You’re so rich by fooling people around. And that is very real."

Lucas said he is worried that people who are not familiar with Manila may believe what is written in Brown’s novel. 

"To call Manila a place resembling the gates of hell is quite unfair," Lucas said.

Then Archbishop Oscar Cruz, former president of the bishops' conference, called for a boycott of Inferno even as he admitted that Metro Manila has its share of bad people.

"It is true, there are bad people in Metro Manila, there are killings, robberies, scams and abduction, but don't tell me that you will trade [living in the] Philippines for other countries like Middle East counties," the retired prelate said.

"Maybe Brown may want to go [to the Middle East] and see for himself that the life of a person has no value, that fellow human beings are not treated with respect," Cruz said.

Over the weekend, bestselling and "feel good" author Paulo Coelho tried to appease Filipinos in a tweet: "Dear Filipinos, your souls lead to the gates of heaven #fact."

"My tweet to Filipinos: Another author, I am sure unintentionally, described Manila as "the gates of hell" in his new and successful book."

The new mayor of Manila, former president Joseph Estrada, however, said Brown was just telling the truth about the city.

"The situation was so funny I wanted to cry. But then I realized that the mid-term election is over, the conflicts with Malaysia and Taiwan have started to cool down, and there's nothing much to talk about in Manila."

Meanwhile, Brown's Inferno has been described by the New York Times as jam-packed with tricks while USA Today noted that it is "as close as a book can come to a summertime cinematic blockbuster."

The Wall Street Journal said Brown is the master of the intellectual cliffhanger and The Washington Post said: "Brown is at his best when he makes readers believe that dusty books and musty passageways are just covers for ancient global conspiracies."

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