A WORLD OF PRETENDERS
By Kevin Stoda, Puerta Princesa, Philippines
I was staying in Ermita township this past month when I came across the Solidaridad Bookstore. As I have wanted to familiarize myself with Filipino culture and literature, I went in and browsed the shelves. I noticed a vast number works on the shelves by one F. Sionil Jose, born in 1924 in a small Pangasinan town. (I had traveled to Pangasinan on my honeymoon just this past year.) After perusing several of the Jose novels and non-fiction writings, I asked the attendant which of the many works would be the most exemplary, especially in understanding Filipino culture and history in our present day. I was persuaded to purchase the 4th book in the 5-part Rosales Saga.
This fourth book was entitled, THE PRETENDERS and was originally published the year of my birth, 1962.
An editor’s synapses of the novel proclaimed the work to be the story of one Antonio Samson, who is one of “many Filipinos who find themselves lost and betrayed with nowhere to run. But Antonio . . . is not just an Ilocano [northern region of Pangasinan on the Isle of Luzon] looking for his roots; he is also the modern Filipino who fails to act in a society bereft of decency and justice. This novel, …[now 5 decades old], continues to be read because of its contemproaneity and the insights it focuses on the dilemmas of social change. It is also the author’s most translated novel.”
One of the more remarkable things about reading The Pretenders this summer was how it related to my own journey in life. The Pretenders both (1) mirrored and (2) reverse-mirrored characters and events in my life as well as the life of the main characters in this novel by Jose. More interestingly, because of my family dealings at the US Embassy in Ermita town and in the St. Luke Medical Annex (also in Ermita, a very infamous neighborhood in Manila City), I was forced to travel the streets some of the same streets as the main characters traveled as I read Jose’s novel, The Pretenders. The brothels, bars, casinos, and love hotels are still there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR–FRANCISCO SIONIL JOSE
Before reviewing the novel, The Pretenders (i.e. in light of my own experience in Ermita town and other parts of the Philippines and planet Earth), allow me to share a little about the author, F. Sionil Jose, and his background. First of all, in 2004, F. Sionil Jose won the Pablo Neruda Centennial Award for Literature. He has also won several other Asian and Filipino writing and journalism awards. Jose, who has written primarily in English, rather than his native language of Ilucano–or any of a dozen languages of the Philippines–, has made a tremendous impact on Asian literature, while often having too little recognition in most corners of his own homeland. (I would be surprised if more than one in ten Filipinos—in or outside the country–could tell you who he is. This may because he is so critical of the local plutocrats in Negros, Mindanao and Luzon.)
Le Monde author, Philippe Pons, writes of Jose, “Seldom has a writer reflected so well the qualities and the failings of his people. Francisco Sionil Jose . . . crossed this [past 20th] century embracing the hopes and the disillusions of his land: his essays and his articles as well as his novels are inseparable from the modern history of the Philippines.”
Likewise, Ian Buruma, famed for his work on comparative historical memories of WWII in Europe and Asia, has noted that Jose is the “foremost Filipino novelist in English . . . his novels deserve a much wider readership than the Philippines can offer. His major work, the Rosales Saga, can be read as an allegory for the Filipino in search of an identity.”
Finally, Ron Rennard of Discovery Magazine observed, “Together with the novels of Graham Greene, Andre Malraux, Joseph Conrad, Han Suyin, Yukio Mishima, F. Sionil Jose’s Ermita is one of the top ten novels written on Southeast Asia.”
It should be noted that aside from being a prolific novelist, Jose has worked as a journalist, a political organizer, an editor, and an entrepreneur. Similar to the character, Antonio Samson, in this novel, The Pretenders, Jose also lived many years in the USA and Europe. In summary, picking up a work from Jose to help one understand more about Philippines and Asia, therefore, sounded like a no-brainer to me.
The main character in The Pretenders, as noted above, is Antonio Samson, who had moved to a slum in Manila as a teenager from the town of Rosales in Pangasinan after a failed revolt–led by his own father–had left him and the rest of his family homeless. With the financial help of his older sister and later through financial aid from one university dean in Manila, Antonio proceeds to America and studies at Harvard University whereby he also undertakes research at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington, D.C., where he meets the woman he will marry. Antonio writes his thesis on the history of “the Illustrados”—the heroes of the Philippines independence movement.
Through the years abroad, however, the young Antonio Samuel had gained a cynical streak. In his thesis, he wrote fairly critically of the Filipino national heroes. Specifically, Antonio stated of these Illustrados (or illustrious one), such as Jose Rizal: “They were bright young men who knew what money meant. But though they were rich and were educated in the best schools in Europe, their horizons were limited and they knew they could never belong to the alien aristocracy which determined the future of the Filipinas. They cried for reforms, for wider opportunities, for equality.”
Antonio then raised several important questions concerning national historical memory: “Did they [these leaders] plead for freedom, too? And dignity for all indios [all non-mixed blood Filipinos]—and not only for themselves who owed their fortunes and their status to the whims of the aristocracy? Could it be that they wanted not freedom or dignity but the key to the restricted enclaves of the rulers?”
This past week, I walked from my hotel in Ermita to Rizal Park, which is the place to hang out for having people-watching experiences in Manila by day—and by night it is a place to get mugged or pick up a prostitute. In the park, there are many statues to heroes of the revolts, revolutions and wars of Philippine’s 500 years of history. (There was no such thing as the Philippines before the Spanish came to the region in the 16th Century.)
In the Jose Rizal Park, there are also palm trees, flowers, relaxing benches, shade, ponds, performers, students practicing dance, music, Chinese and Japanese gardens, and a regular changing-of-the-guards in front of one mammoth monument to Jose Rizal (and indirectly to all Illustrados) near Roxas Boulevard. Interestingly, one local Filipino guide told me that day, this particular design for that particular enormous Rizal monument had been chosen by the U.S. occupation government around 1910 because the US military leadership liked the fact that this second place design had an obelisk in it, which made it resemble a diminutive Washington Monument (in Washington, D.C.).
In short, Rizal Park is a fun place to observe and learn things when the rain isn’t pouring down. (August is rainy season here in the Philippines.) At one end of Rizal Park is the exact the location where the most famous national hero of independence, Jose Rizal, was executed by Spanish forces near the end of the 19th century. It was at another memorial to the execution-grounds of Rizal where I asked a tour guide why the leaders of the revolt against Spain were called “Illustrados”. Without bothering to translate or give a lengthy explanation, the guide stated that many of these leaders at the time of Rizal were from well-to-do or mixed-blood Filipino families. They were proud of their Spanish skill and identity as leaders.
In short, Illustrados is apparently a phrase that stands for the fact that certain people of the independence movement are (or were) memorable or to be remembered. That is, they are worthy of being remembered—even if the reason for this national memory is vague or non-universal.
NOTE: Even now, I am still not clear on why the leaders of the revolt against Spain in the 1890s are known as the Illustrious Ones or Illustrados. It is a feeble name to me—i.e. not only as a native speaker of English but as one who is fluent in Spanish. (Spanish was the language of the occupiers of the Philippines for over 3 ½ centuries prior to the USA taking over and colonizing it, starting in 1898.) Moreover, modern Filipino language takes many more words from English than Spanish, so I am fairly certain that the traditional name, Los Illustrados, which is still used to label and describe the Rizal cohort generation, has little meaning for modern Filipinos. This perplexing imagery of “illustrious beings” simply fails to conjure up the leadership of a nation as one would perceive in a phrase like “our founding fathers” or “the enlightened ones’.
This raises an important issue about the language and culture of the Philippines. One issue confusing the identity of Filipinos historically has been a lack of strong leaders and heroes to create a sense of national unity, which would erase the powers of local caudillismo or tribalism (or village leaders) as central to the Filipino psyche and system of allegiance. Importantly, the drive to both define a traditional Filipino identity and a moderen nationalist image for all Filipinos is an issue raised in The Pretenders, set in early 1960s Manila—i.e. in the years before Ferdinand Marcos, created a dictatorship here. Jose, the author, is certainly critical of how patriotism and nationalistic phrases and jingoes are used at that time to condone all kind of economic, political and social malfeasance in his homeland.
Allied with this issue of nationalism and its role in modern Filipino political-economic and social development is the language issue in modern Philippines. This issue is only to be inferred in this work, as the author often refuses to use local languages, to add color to his character’s thoughts—although they are thoughts originally perceived in some of the country’s dozens of dialects.
Initially, near the end of the USA occupation of the Philippines in the 1930s, the powerful northern island of Luzon chose to force the rest of the country to accept Tagalog as the Filipino national language. Since the 1980s, a new national language, known simply as Filipino, has been promulgated and been supported more nationally. This language creation attempts to take popular words and grammar from other language groups in the Philippines—as well as more English words than Spanish into its vernacular. (Indonesian, also was created primarily in the 20th century on a neighboring archipelago through such similar trial and error.)
Nonetheless, even today, smaller language groups—such as Cebuano, Ilongo, and Ilucano–across the 7107 islands of the Philippines are unsuccessfully fighting for improvements in their position in Filipino’s centralized political economy. Moreover, Filipino still has to compete with English as a national language.
IS HE A SAMSON?
Upon his return to Manila, Antonio Samson marries Carmen Villa, a daughter of one of the city’s powerful business families—a family which has seen its wealth rise dramatically in the wake of American-Japanese Occupation (1898-1946, i.e. after WWII) to take over from the ancient regime of colonial powers and old wealth of the Philippines. Soon, Antonio had thrown in the towel on his academic career and had become a PR (public relations) expert for his father-in-law. In this job, due to his brilliant writing skills and his connections in the news media, Antonio is extremely successful at his new endeavor.
However, unlike a character in a Shakespeare play, Antonio has not been true to himself in 1960s Philippines.
By all measures of the era, Antonio should be a happy young man—i.e. rising so fast in the modern Filipino society–, but he is not. He is at heart an academic, a teacher, and an idealist. In some ways, he is still like his father who had finally revolted against the mestizo classes after WWII—only to find himself in prison for the rest of his life. In the meantime, Antonio, however, is no strong character. He is critical of his father’s futile definitions of honor. Antonio’s father in Rosales had confronted the new post-WWII Filipino elite by acts of violence. He burnt down the home of those who had stolen his family’s (and his people’s) land in the name of law-and-order. Moreover, he had burnt down the courthouse that had sided with the political and economic authorities in approving the taking over of the land of a generation of Rosales settlers—making them indentured servants on their own property.
Nor is Antonio like his grandfather, who was more of a Moses to his own generation of Ilocano tribesmen. I say this because Antonio notes again-and-again in his own diary that his own grandfather had long ago led a tribe of impoverished Ilocano peoples from the north of the island to the Rosales region in order to build a new life. Through this repeated tale, it is apparent that Antonio’s academic skills are rooted in his grandfather’s bloodline. His grandfather had been fluent in Latin and had also written a thesis in that same Romantic language for the reading of Catholic priests, whom he had served as an acolyte for many years prior to leading his people off to Rosales.
In the end, the weak young man, Antonio Samson, has inherited and acquired several generations of cynicism soon finds that suicide is the only option for him because all-in-all he has a sense honor and he finds he has acted and lived dishonorably numerous times. In summary, Antonio feels that he must take that conclusive action for denying himself the destiny and honor striven for on his behalf by his forefathers and loved ones—such as the mother, Emy, of his illegitimate child. In short, by capitulating to the forces of modern Philippine history of nationalism, capitalism, Aseanism and Westernism, Antonio has no longer been true to himself, his family, and his own heritage.
Like Socrates (in the real world) or like the Young Woerther of Goethe (in the literary world) before him, Samson steps into the abyss of suicide. Surprisingly, however, the repercussions from his suicide are not an unanswered echo in the life of Manila or in the world. Questions of the young Samson’s death continue to reverberate within the family of the Villas. For example, Carmen, his unfaithful wife, publishes Antonio’s writing posthumously and these writings become the talk of the academic world.
Antonio’s honor is somewhat restored in this final chapter.
FINAL CHAPTER OR CHORUS
Meanwhile, in that final chapter of The Pretenders,–a chapter entitled “Chrous”–an idealistic American and former roommate of Antonio Samson from Harvard arrives in Manila. This old friend doesn’t know until he arrives of the demise of his ex-Filipino roommate.
(By the way, this American has been working for U.S. aid and development efforts in Latin America over the past years and is now on his way to another land in Southeast Asian land—Laos—where he will work during the next decade.) This American idealist, named Lawrence Bitfogel, has a similar political background and the same critically cool view of the world as Antonio Samson. Within less-than-a-day, Bitfogel observes the world of the Villa family and comes quickly to comprehend how the Villa family and Manila’s other power brokers had snared the young Dr. Antonio Samson into their modern world of Philippine (family) oligarchy.
These kingmakers control the Philippines by manipulating nationalism and internationalism—while bribing off enemies and critiques right and left. They can do this by controlling the land, the money and resources. They can do it by creating hordes of con-men (yes-men, too) and idealess politicians and capitalists. They can even do it with assistance of post-WWII carpet-bagger (Yankees) from North America, China, and Japan.
They still control the land today—i.e. in 2010.
As an agricultural economists, the young Lawrence Bitfogel, came to the Philippines not-only-to-see his friend, Antonio Samson, but had planned to take time to find out exactly how connected the Philippines and Latin American are developmentally (Don’t forget, Readers, that from the 1600s through 1820, Spain allowed the Philippines to be governed by the Viceroy of what is now Mexico. That is, from the governmentof what was known as New Spain, Philippines were controlled.) Bitfogel “had seen the influence of Spanish civilization in the continent and the far-reaching impact of Spanish civilization upon the traditional society of the Indian peasant. He wondered if the pattern of feudal exploitation and development such as that operating in South America had been transposed to the Philippines.”
Naturally, the similarities would be there for Larry Bitfogel to discover.
The ensuing 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s would reveal in the Philippines numerous regional and national revolts—just as was occurring in Latin America in the same era—with rising rebel movements trying to overpower the oligarchies and their new nationalist or internationalist alliances. Even today, a few dozen families appear to govern a great percentage of the country of the Philippines for most of the time—with some families, such as the Macapagal-Arroyos and Aquinas trading off presidencies over the past half century or so.
In the final paragraphs of his own diary, Larry Bitfogel wonders why the affluent and connected Filipinos and their families can’t work together with the poorer folks rather than creating phantom enemies everywhere–and thus eventually promoting the rise of various isms, including communism, regionalism and the rise of Muslim freedom fighters. In short, the wealthy Filipino oligarchies of the 1950s and 1960s through today have been creating parallel societies and treating all those who-are-not-for-them as against-them.
An outsider, like Bitfogel can see this all right away. The ones who are imprisoned in such a society, like the late-Antonio Samson, had tried to ignore the poison of the elite world, but in the end they would become victims of their own pretension.
LOADED WITH QUOTES AND QUESTIONS
What is certainly most enjoyable about reading this work by F. Sionel Jose is that the characters have a lot more breadth than in most 188 page books. Through usage of the diary-technique, we readers get fairly deepaccess to the thoughts of these characters as they dig into the written or spoken (quoted) words of others. In the language used by Jose and his characters, there is a friendly, engaging banter which often reveals important didacticism, especially in the manner that the teacher, Dr. Samson, approaches his world of love and of work. Antonio is probing and brazen in his thought and words. (So, is Jose.) This candor brings out the same sort of shining clarity and directness in dialogues with lovers, father-in-law, journalists, business elites, and even mentally-soft politicians.
Since I personally approach my life with a similarly sense of curiosity , i.e. my day is loaded up on questions of interest to all. Therefore, one can tell immediately that I am a lifelong academic and educator—just as author Jose and his protagonist, Antonio Samson, are. This makes the work believable to me.
Here is an example of one of Dr. Samson’s diary entries:
“Whatever I do, in my heart, I want it to be right, I want to say I did it because it had to be done. I may be proved wrong, but it does not matter, at least to my own self, I must be true. No Hamlet here, just the simple fact of a human being wanting for himself the integrity that everyone desires in his deepest thoughts, in his fondest dreams.” Samson wanted to be respected, but once he felt that he was receiving no more respect from either wife, friends nor self, he chose to end his own life and to try and see that as an honorable act. (Does Antonio’s suicide demonstrate a more Asian or more Western bent in terms of seeing suicide as the honorable thing to do?)
As a lifelong academic and idealist for progress, I would not concur with Antonio’s choice to commit suicide. If on my life’s journey I have demonstrated too often my inability to live out a life that is consistently true to myself, my journey would not lead to suicide as has occurred in “The Death of a Salesman” or in The Pretenders. I am long past that 20-something naivety of young Dr. Samson, and I have religious faith that is other-worldly in contrast to the cold-fixed sterile modernist world of F.S. Jose’s writing in 1962 (the year of my birth).
I plough ahead, even as life throws tomatoes or typhoons. I continue to try to help young minds and old minds change their thoughts. I try to learn and grow with the punches over time. This, of course, taking time to lick wounds and to accept losses before picking up again. In my world, dreams and other worldliness are appreciated more than in the world of the late-Dr. Samson.
On the other, hand, perhaps, I, too, like Antonio Samson, may one day teach and educate youth in universities or local schools in the Philippines . Who knows? On the other hand, perhaps America or Saudi Arabia need me more.
I do know that, like the character Antonio Samson, I have a child in the Philippines and I will stay and raise her. This tendency to flee has been the mistake of too many males in the Philippines and in society’s around the world. They plant their seeds, make their mistakes, move on, or commit social or real suicide. Hopefully, if Jose were to write the book again in 2010, the death of The Pretender Samson would come only after he had tried right some wrongs—even if he, himself, committed the wrongs originally. That seems to be a more appropriate way to approach the mess of the Philippines in 2010
Clean up time! Please, no more suicides on the railroad tracks of Manila are needed here, Mr. Jose.! Ermita is still a social & economic mess and 10% of all Filipinos are forced to move abroad to earn income to send back and sustain the Philippines underdevelopment currently.
Revolutions may come and go–and they may be only pretensions of what should be– but hope and faith are an ever-present phenomena in this–one of the most westernized lands in Asia, i.e. the multicultural islands of the Philippines.
Consider creating a literary hero for the Philippines to replace the Illustrados and failed revolutions of the past.
Jose, F. Sionil, The Pretenders, Manila: Solidaridad Publishing, 2010.