10 February 2013

F. Sionil José's re-imagined community

This is an expanded version of a previous post.

Po-on (1984, also published as Dusk) is the first chronological part of Filipino novelist F. Sionil José's epic story consisting of five volumes and collectively known as the Rosales saga. It is a historical and political novel set in Luzon Island during the last days of Spanish rule in the Philippines in late 19th century up to the entry of American imperialists. It traces the southward journey of an extended family evicted from their homes by Spanish authorities. The Salvador family's journey is marked by indescribable hardship. It also depicts the enduring character of small peoples and their continuing struggle against colonial powers (Spanish and American) and greedy landowners.

The novel is written in spare, transparent, and direct prose, devoid of any flourishes yet lyrical nonetheless. F. Sionil José is persistently spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. That he hasn't won yet may be explained by the fact that he is not what one would usually consider a prose stylist and that his novels are sometimes weighed down by their political themes. Among Filipino novelists in the English language (those that I've read so far), the late Nick Joaquín and N. V. M. Gonzalez are arguably better writers than him. Even so, his engagement with questions of national identity and social justice makes him a novelist worth reading. His aesthetic can best be summed up by the words of Apolinario Mabini, one of the novel's pivotal historical characters:

"Remember, Eustaquio, these are curtains to a window. And the words are themselves the window. First, the writing must be neat but not ornate for if I wanted beautiful letters, then I would have nothing but a page of the alphabet in ornate lettering. The Chinese consider calligraphy as an art form and it could be beautiful, but attention, as tradition demands, is drawn to the shape of the characters themselves. Great calligraphers are, therefore, great poets, too. But you are not Chinese. Words should not hinder the expression of thought unless one is expressing poetry. I am not writing poetry; I am writing to convince people of the validity of our struggle, its righteousness, and the utter fallacy and hypocrisy of the Americans in saying we are not capable of self-government."

"But you are not Chinese", Mabini emphasized to Eustaquio (Istak), the novel's protagonist. "You are Filipino", he was implying.

Here I'm reminded of the final scene of the 1976 film Ganito Kami Noon ... Paano Kayo Ngayon? (This Is How We Were ... How Are You Now?), directed by Eddie Romero. The main character Nicolas "Kulas" Ocampo (played by Christopher de Leon) encountered a group of children sitting in the midst of ruined shelters of Filipino revolutionaries. He told them, after they related what happened: "Tandaan nyo ito ha: Pilipino rin kayo" ("Remember this: you are also Filipinos").

I'm looking at the Wikipedia page of the film and I think its synopsis could very well describe Sionil José's novel.

Set at the turn of the 20th century during the Filipino revolution against the Spaniards and, later, the American colonizers, it follows a naïve peasant through his leap of faith to become a member of an imagined community.

At present I'm reading an influential book by the scholar and historian Benedict Anderson called Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983, rev. ed. 1991). "Imagined community" is the definition Anderson gave for a nation (excerpt):

[A nation] is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion....

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind....

It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm....

Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

I am quoting Anderson's definition at length because I think that "nationalism" is the underlying theme of the novel (and the whole Rosales saga) and consequently a robust framework in which to approach it. (Any investigation of national literatures will, I think, benefit from Anderson's ideas in his book.) Po-on is published just a year after Anderson's book came out, and yet the elements of a nation (imagined, community, limited, sovereign) are well integrated into the story.

The idea of sovereignty and self-government, for example, is evident from the first quoted passage. In addition, the imagination of national (territorial) boundaries can be seen in another passage in the novel, the words of Mabini again, replying to Istak's question on why he must care for this "nameless mass" Mabini calls Filipinas and for the people not even related to him:

"If there is no country as such or as you know and recognize, then in your mind you must give it its boundaries. Do this because without this country you are nothing. This land where you stand, from which you draw your sustenance, is the Mother you deny. It's to her where your thoughts will go even if you refuse to think so, for it is here where you were born, where your loved ones live, and where in all probability you will all die. We will love her, protect her, all of us—Bisaya, Tagalog, Ilokano, so many islands, so many tribes—because if we act as one, we will be strong and so will she be. Alone, you will fall prey to every marauder that passes by. I am not asking that you love Filipinas. I am asking that you do what is right, what is duty ..." [emphasis added]

The same hopeful leap from regionalism (Bisaya, Tagalog, Ilokano, etc.) to nationalism marks the ending of Ganito Kami Noon ... Paano Kayo Ngayon? It's not surprising then that these re-imagining of a national community earned for the novelist, as well as the filmmaker, the honor of being elected a "National Artist".


  1. I read Dusk many years ago, and while my memory of it is fuzzy I distinctly recall being struck especially by this "nationalist" aspect of the book, and feeling that I'd most certainly be better able to appreciate it if I knew a lot more about what it meant to Filipinos. I also recall that it rather scathingly indicted American involvement in the Philippines - and that it also seemed unusually sensitive to the impoverished and dispossessed.

  2. It truly is a nationalist novel, Scott, and deliberately so. F. Sionil José's novels are very much steeped in anti-colonial mentality, land reform, and social justice.