Book Review: Living with the Enemy

How do you live in the midst of a war? How do you sustain some semblance of normalcy while your country suffers yet another ruthless invasion? In Living with the Enemy: A Diary of the Japanese Occupation, a young woman tries.

Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto chronicled life from December 1941 to February 1945, from the Pearl Harbor attack to the liberation of Manila. She graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the University of the Philippines and was a member of the UP Writers’ Club. She worked for the Philippines Herald, the Tribune and the Sunday Times Magazine, and later became an account executive for an advertising company.

Her diary however doesn’t have the airs of a self-important writer; just the voice of a wife who fears for her husband’s safety, a mother who wants to protect her kids, and a citizen who cares about her country.

The first entry portrays an idyllic scene: she and her husband Oscar cruising along the streets of Manila with a picnic basket in hand and a German shepherd in the back seat. A newsboy unwittingly ruined their plans by brandishing the day’s headline, “Pearl Harbor bombed. America declares war.”

What followed were ominous accounts of evacuation, bombs dropping from the sky, one brother-in-law injured in an air raid, and another going off to war.

Jacinto writes about Perfecto, her zealous houseboy who became a runner for the guerrillas; Willy, her brother-in-law who barely survived the Bataan death march; Hans Menzi, her husband’s best friend who was jailed and tortured in Fort Santiago; and other real-life characters who had to live through the occupation. She dutifully notes down significant news reports, speeches of politicians, guerrilla activities and numerous atrocities of the Japanese.

The trappings of life, however muted, still went on even in those dark days. Jacinto’s journal tells of Christmas celebrations, weddings, birthday parties, baptisms and even dinner dates with her husband.

She writes of the joys of motherhood as she gave birth to her two children, her worries at the skyrocketing costs of infant formula and basic commodities in general, and her delight at moving into “a little chalet” after her family had to leave their house when the Japanese bombed Manila.

Through these details, the diary presents a portrait of a comfortable middle class lifestyle under siege and one’s fervent efforts to preserve what’s left of it.

War would seem cruelest to those who have the most to lose. Her houseboy sums this up when he tells her, “…a farmer with a little salt and a mouthful of rice will live many months. A farmer will not need strength because he need not fight. It is people like you who are in danger.”

In the climax of the war though, danger stalked everyone. The luckier ones were those who had a safer place to go to. Jacinto and her family stayed in Bulacan with Oscar’s relatives. Her husband however had to go back to Manila to attend to his duties as a doctor, and take care of his parents who still refused to leave the capital.

Her entries by now are laden with fear and apprehension. She narrates harrowing tales of Japanese soldiers ransacking houses, raping women and razing entire villages. She expresses hope in anticipating the arrival of American forces. (Let’s reserve the discussion of American villainy for another day.) She pours out her anxiety as she awaits the safe return of her husband.

News from Manila was grim; the capital was a raging holocaust. War was actually cruelest to those who couldn’t escape from it, to those who weren’t able to dodge the bullets of snipers, bombs of raider planes and bayonets of merciless soldiers.

Spared from the brunt of this cruelty, Jacinto is nonetheless resolute in documenting all of these events, perhaps with the full awareness that this is a defining period of our history that should be recorded. Or maybe writing about it was just her way of keeping her sanity amidst the brutal madness.

Either way, her diary tells a compelling personal story that should be a part of our collective memory. In a nation that easily forgets, this is a piece of history that helps us remember.

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