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On the Road with Rabelais: Remembering the Great Frankie Jose
He can't win the Nobel Prize for Literature now. But the world can re-appreciate the novels, life, and example of this gifted and big-hearted man.
I was heartbroken to see in the papers this weekend that F. Sionil Jose, a writer and civic leader known to millions as “Frankie,” had died at a hospital in Manila at age 97.
I say heartbroken rather than shocked, because through the decades in which I had known Frankie, starting in the 1980s when he was younger than I am now, he had frequently joked that his joyful indulgence in every temptation of life would soon do him in.
As I noted in a short piece in 2009 about a visit to him in Manila, shown in the photo above:
Every time I've met Jose over the last 20-plus years, he's said, "Jim, I am getting so much fatter!"—with a big laugh, because he loves food (among other pleasures) so much. But Jose has a deadly-serious claim to being the conscience of his nation—at legal and physical risk during the Marcos years and as a sobering voice in the years since then.
As I also noted at the time, the main reason I have been interested in the Nobel Prize announcements for Literature was to see whether the jurors would finally get around to recognizing F. Sionil Jose for his life’s work.
That can’t happen now—Nobel prizes go to the living—but all the rest of us can still notice the remarkable works of this man, and the power of the life he led.
For more about the books that made Frankie so well known in the Philippines and elsewhere, you can see this overview from Publisher’s Weekly; or this comprehensive list from TheModernNovel.org; or this statement from the Philippine government when he was named National Artist for Literature in 2001. An excellent NYT obit on Frankie, by the veteran Asia correspondent Seth Mydans, is here. Danton Remoto has this tribute in the Philippine Star. A book of essays in his honor is here, and a Goodreads list of how to find nearly all of his novels is here.
The first of his books I read was The Pretenders, from his famed five-volume “Rosales Saga” novels. The book’s plot and tensions are specific to the Philippines. But just as Faulkner was not writing only about Mississippi, nor Dickens only about England, Frankie Jose was not writing only about his home islands. His work is rich, broadly human, and beyond borders.
Traveling with a celebrated author, as he goes back home
More than thirty years ago, while based in Southeast Asia and reporting frequently from the Philippines, I made an improbable multi-day road trip with Frankie through the northern part of the island of Luzon, to his home region of the Ilocos.
I wrote an article about that journey, and about one writer’s role in the aspirations and tragedies of his nation, for The Atlantic in 1991. Obviously that was more than 30 years ago. But rather than paraphrasing its points now, I’ll include it as published, below. It remains my best attempt to explain why this man’s works, and his life example, mattered to so many people, in his own country and around the world.
[Copy-edit note, in case you were wondering: The Atlantic’s style was to write “José,” with an accent, which I have preserved here. Over the years I’ve seen it many times both ways, and for simplicity I usually just write “Jose.”]
The Ilocos: A Philippine Discovery
The incongruously upbeat Frankie José, author of a national saga
FRANCISCO JOSE, WHO is known as F. Sionil José in his books and as "Frankie" in person, is one of the two or three most celebrated writers in his country, the Philippines. When he was driving me from village to village in northern Luzon last summer, pointing out the neighborhood that had been the inspiration for one of his novels and the rectory in which a famous scene from another had been set, I thought guiltily that this was one of the pleasures of visiting a small country: I wasn't likely to get such treatment from José's counterparts in the United States. Then I realized that America really has no counterpart to José—no one who is simultaneously a prolific novelist, a social and political organizer, an editor and journalist, and a smallscale entrepreneur.
As a writer, José is famous for two bodies of work. One is the Rosales sequence, a set of five novels published over a twenty-year span which has become a kind of national saga. Philippine history, as understood by Filipinos, is largely a story of aspirations thwarted by evil oppressors—first the Spanish colonialists, then the American colonialists, then various corrupt elites, capped by the Marcoses. In the Philippines, as in many parts of Latin America, novels expressing this kind of frustration are a more important part of national identity than they are in a self-consciously successful society like, say, modern Japan. José Rizal's Noli Me Tangere, published in Spanish (despite its Latin title) in the late nineteenth century, was an influential Uncle Tom's Cabin-style polemic about Spanish rule. The Rosales books are a more literarily satisfying modern equivalent.
The action in the books stretches from the 1880s to the 1970s and incorporates the main historical events of the time: the end of Spanish rule, in 1898; the coming of the Americans soon thereafter (Jose depicts one famous battle between the Texas Rangers and the Philippine forces, under the overall command of Emilio Aguinaldo, which had been fighting to drive out the Spanish but were ultimately beaten by the United States); the quasi-communist Huk uprising after the Second World War; the descent into corruption under the Marcoses.
In the early parts of the saga a family of farmers migrates from the harsh Ilocos region of northern Luzon to more fertile land around the town of Rosales, in Pangasinan province, much closer to Manila. But with the coming of American legal reforms, they and many other squatters are kicked off their land by members of the old, educated Filipino elite, who can concoct documents "proving" title to the land. These events parallel what happened to José's own family, whose forebears had migrated to Rosales. His father was a minister in the Aglipayan Church, a nationalistic offshoot of Catholicism that answered to its own Filipino bishops rather than to the Vatican. The family lost its land, and José's father left his children when Jose was a boy, in the 1920s. In the books the family's children manage to get an education and move out of farming—but as they rise, they sink, becoming more and more mired in urban corruption.
The first novel José published, in 1962, was The Pretenders, which chronologically comes fourth in the series. ("Since everyone has read this novel, there is no need to linger over it, except to say that, like any other great novel, every time you read it you find something new," reads a typical reference to The Pretenders in a Philippine magazine.) It is built around the suicide of Antonio Sampson, a descendant of the original migrants, who wins a scholarship to Harvard after the Second World War and comes back to Manila full of idealism and hope, but ends up selling his services to the old plutocrats as a fixer and PR man. Most of the other Rosales novels also deal with questions relating to Philippine character—whether life really was better back in the villages, why so many things have gone so badly for the country in the modern age. In Mass, set in the pre-martial-law years of the early 1970s, Antonio Sampson's illegitimate son, talented and resourceful like his father, sinks into a much seamier kind of criminal corruption, while his university classmates peel off and become anti-Marcos leftists.
In chronological order the books in the series are Po-On, about the original Ilocos village and the long overland trek [update note: this book was published in the U.S. as Dusk]; Tree, set in and around Rosales; My Brother, My Executioner, about brothers taking opposite sides during the Huk uprising; The Pretenders; and Mass. In 1988 José published a semi-related sixth novel, Ermita, about life in Manila during and after the years of the Japanese occupation. Random House plans to begin publishing José's writings in the United States next year. In the meantime, the five-book Rosales set can be obtained by mail from Solidaridad Publishing House, P.O. Box 3959, Manila, for $50, postage included.
José's other main literary work is short stories, of which he has published four collections: The God Stealer, Platinum, Olvidon, and Waywaya. By "has published" I mean something quite literal. Most of José's books are printed by Solidaridad, which he started, and are sold in the bookstore that he and his wife run in the Ermita district of downtown Manila.
José has an O. Henry-like facility with plotting and irony, usually involving disappointment and sellouts: A clerk in a government office in the provinces saves for years to travel to Manila to apply for a promotion. But when she reaches the capital, she discovers that no one will listen to her without being bribed. After paying more, in money and dignity, than she thinks she can afford, she suffers a final misfortune and is left worse off than she was in the first place. An educated Filipino decides to go back to "primitive" life in the mountains, instead of working for the U.S. Information Agency (José's employer at one time).
In "Olvidon," one of the best-known of the short stories, a successful Filipino doctor is brought back from his practice in the United States to treat the Leader (the name José uses for his Marcos-like character), whose skin is turning a loathsome zinc-white, starting from the genitals. The doctor is pampered and paid while he works on the cure. Just as he decides that he must escape the Leader's embrace, the young woman hired as his lover discovers the first dead-white patch on his own skin.
In addition to his writing, José has for almost twenty years edited a magazine called Solidarity, which publishes a mixture of literature, reportage, and policy analysis about the Philippines and the rest of Asia. (The magazine was initially subsidized by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was a front for the CIA. In the 1960s a newspaper article accused José of being a CIA agent. He sued for libel, and won—but the main effect was to stimulate a constant flow of visitors into his bookshop, asking his help in getting visas for the United States.)
José has lived in Japan, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, and is the hub of a network of writers and reformers throughout Asia. His bookshop, Sólidaridad, is a famous salon in Manila; on the ground floor he sells Philippine and foreign books, and on the second floor he eats and drinks with friends. In the briefly optimistic days just after Corazon Aquino came to power, José organized a nationwide symposium that led to a book, A Filipino Agenda for the 21st Century, with recommendations for almost every aspect of economic and military policy.
IF JOSE'S WORK IS boiled down to plot summary and reform plans, it may sound tendentious or grim, neither of which it is. There is often playfulness to his prose, which may have something to do with his decision to write in English —since it's not his first language, he's freer to bend the rules or use improbable words—and probably has much more to do with his personality.
José is a short, plump, nearly bald man of sixty-six, who would not look out of place wearing the baggy shorts and basketball-style undershirt of the typical Chinese shopkeeper in Southeast Asia. When I see him, I am reminded of a little boy—in the way he carries his body, in his quick and unconcealed switches from desolation to glee. On our five-day trip last summer, when he was driving me and a young Soviet academic to see the sights of his youth, we passed a railroad siding where the teenage José had been held by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. "I was so scared," he said, his face clouding like a ten-year-old's. "I was so little and skinny then—ho ho ho!" he roared, slapping his round belly.
We stopped every few miles so that José could see whether the cane-sugar sweets, or the little roasted birds, or the other regional delicacies were as tasty as he recalled. When he was not planning the next meal, he sat watching women with a blissful look. "Ah, I tell you, Jim, the eye never dulls!" he said in a restaurant after four stunning young women walked by our table "Only the flesh becomes weak—ho ho ho!" Eventually I asked him how his wife, Tessie, whom he married forty-two years ago, after both had been students at the University of Santo Tomas, in Manila, feels about the adoring descriptions of young women that fill his work. "She knows I am devoted to her," he said, serious for a moment "And she forgives me my pecadeeeeyos!" A rich roar of laughter. This, I thought, is what it must have been like to be on the road with Rabelais.
Being Filipino, and Ilocano
It was only after several such days on the road that I grasped a point that must be immediately obvious to José's readers in the Philippines. Many of the traits that make him distinctive, in his writing and in his public life, depend less on his identity as a Filipino than on his being Ilocano.
The island of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines, is shaped more or less like the head of a tomahawk. Along the northwest edge of the island is terrain reminiscent of Big Sur, in California, but with the trees stripped off. To the east are steep mountains, to the west the sea. In between is a narrow belt of habitable land known in English as "the Ilocos."
During the Spanish centuries, when most of the Philippines was being converted into vast haciendas worked by serfs, the land in the Ilocos seemed too forbidding to be exploited on such a large scale. The Augustinian friars built imposing missions and introduced the Ilocanos to Catholicism, but today the Ilocos region remains the only part of the Philippines where small farmers working their own land are the norm. As in many other countries, there are strong regional and tribal stereotypes in the Philippines. Imelda Marcos is from a part of the Visayan Islands where people are thought to be extravagant and showy; her life, like Lyndon Johnson's, is seen as one long reversion to regional type. Ferdinand Marcos, like Frankie José and many other prominent Filipinos, was Ilocano. The Ilocano stereotype is of iron will, clannish loyalty, frugality, and hard work. (Frugality? In the Ilocano view, Ferdinand Marcos was led astray by his wife.)
This stereotype is probably as true and as false as any other ethnic generalization, but it has an important consequence. Within Philippine culture an Ilocano heritage connotes a sense of success. The country as a whole is dominated by images of failure and victimization, to which the Ilocanos and the Chinese-Filipinos are the main exceptions. Throughout Asia this sense of being competent or incompetent as a group seems to have a powerful effect on behavior. In Malaysia, for instance, the ethnic Malays have evolved a theory explaining why they cannot hold their own against Chinese-Malaysians in economic or academic competition. Many Malaysian and Filipino Chinese, like Koreans and Japanese in general, are taught to assume they will succeed if they try. Too much can be made of these hazy cultural factors, but it seems to me that the combination of elements in José's identity has equipped him to be fully sensitive to his nation's miseries without succumbing, like many of his characters, to corruption or despair.
There is not a bit of smugness or superiority in José's view of his country. On the way south from the Ilocos, toward Manila, we drove along the broad beach of Lingayen Gulf, where Douglas MacArthur came ashore. After the Japanese surrender, the mighty U.S. fleet dumped its surplus bombs into the sea; for the Americans, José said, it was not worth the bother to take the weapons home. But as soon as the Navy left, Filipino fishermen began diving for the bombs, hoping to salvage the explosives from them for use in "dynamite fishing"—a common local practice of setting off underwater explosions and then collecting dead fish. Countless fishermen and their families were killed when they failed to dismantle the bombs safely—and when they succeeded, they went on to pulverize the underwater coral reefs. José told the story, sighed, and drew his only conclusion: "They are so poor." Earlier in the trip we had been in a restaurant that José thought could be run a little better than its owners realized. "Why not put a few flowers down by the entrance, and really sweep the floor?" he asked, as he was paying the bill. "Ah, what could be done with a place like this!"
‘Now … look at us!’
When we got back to Manila, the news was predictably bad. The economy had further worsened; the state airline was running out of gasoline; the continual rumors of an anti-Aquino coup were growing more intense. "You know, I have concluded there is no hope for this country," he told me, not for the first time, outside his house at the end of the trip.
"After the war, we were the envy of Asia. Korea—it would never catch up! Tokyo was where you went to find a cheap lay. Now. . . look at us!"
He sat brooding for a moment, saw his wife and beamed, and went inside to resume his work.
A great writer, a great citizen, an even greater human being. The world is fortunate to have had Frankie Jose at work and among us for so many years.