I’m proud to report that I finished two Pinoy books this month. It’s quite ironic that not until I moved here to BKK did I feel the hunger for more Pinoy literature.
I’ve even asked the Czarina of Penang ITSELF (yeah, he is going to live again in Penang for a few months) to get me Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tanghere, which I believe every Filipino should own.
Anyway, I shall proceed to these two recent reads...
I bought Viajero: A Filipino Novel (1993) in Cebu when I went home a few months back. Its author, F. Sionil Jose is perhaps one of the biggest names in Filipino literature these days and because he writes in English he is relatively well-known in literary circles all over the world (see Wikipedia entry here).
When I was in the university I read Mass (1974) and Tree (1978). I could not remember much of the plots of both books but I remember being impressed by them that I wanted to read more of his works.
As the back-cover describes, Viajero “is a novel of history, of these islands, and their people...” covering pre-Hispanic all the way to contemporary times.
It also mentions: “The Filipino’s continuous search for social justice and moral order – a major theme in Sionil Jose’s fiction – pervades this novel”.
Indeed, Jose had an enormous task in his hand when he embarked on this book considering the extent of the time frame and the magnitude of the issues he wants to tackle. Written in only 300 plus pages, the book miserably falters under that oppressive weight.
The main character, Salvador dela Raza, is orphaned in World War II and, as a young boy, is brought to America by a GI. The novel thus covers his quest for his long-forgotten, perhaps even lost, identity and conveniently so, he does this while writing his PhD dissertation.
Thus his research brings him to Spain, Mexico, and Japan where he stumbles into age old manuscripts and diaries of some historical figures.
Interspersed in the novel, therefore, are what appear as first-hand accounts of different epochs in Philippine history, e.g. a datu in pre-Hispanic Philippines, a sailor in the height of the Galleon Trade, the freedom fighting ilustrados in Europe, an Ilocano in California during the Great Depression, etc.
Eventually, Salvador decides to go back to the Philippines after Ninoy Aquino (gasp!) tells him to do so in a dream (more gasp!). He finds himself in the midst of the People Power revolution and witnesses the squalor that was (and probably still is) the Philippines.
As a critique of the Filipino’s lack of cohesiveness, Jose’s book says a mouthful, such as: “When does a disparate people, the different tribes in different islands, finally regard themselves as one people, a nation? When does the idea of nation assume revolutionary character, i.e., the opposition to colonialism, foreign or domestic? Who, what eventually give the people that sense of oneness, of identity, which must now be expressed in political action?”
Also notable is his description of the Filipino psyche: “...they are vindictive, they do not know how to save, to produce, to innovate. They are petty, and they pride themselves in baubles which they love to show off. We are a nation of show-offs, and Imelda has captured all that is in the Filipino character – she is the epitome of the Filipino.”
I dare someone to prove the above quotes (especially the latter) are not true.
While I almost totally agree with the many observations of Jose about the Filipino’s history and character, he seemed to forget that he was writing a novel primarily. As such, the story of the main character only appears as a backdrop to Jose’s political criticism.
Salvador comes out as a rather thin character, although Jose tried to inject some pathos into him. But with so many things going on, Salvador is instead buried underneath the statements. I could hardly relate to Salvador, instead I was looking forward to what Jose would say next.
I have the feeling, therefore, that Viajero became a mere mouthpiece of Jose’s political observations under the guise of a novel. When he finished spewing all his criticisms, which are nonetheless all valid and much appreciated, he rushed to finish the story.
The second book will be covered in the next entry...