I don't know why I waited this long to read this book. I've bought this a week before I met F. Sionil Jose himself in the Cavite Young Writers event back in 2010. He recognized my surname and knew how to spell it, which doesn't happen often since my twelve-lettered surname is an uncommon Spanish last name. For a man who is almost ninety, his memory was astounding. Though I haven't read his works at that time, I knew of his legacy, and the excitement and anxiety at that moment upon meeting a national icon were palpable and overpowering. I thought I was going to have a panic attack right there.
Here I am three years later after that fateful day, and I finally started reading the first book of his critically-acclaimed Rosales Saga, Po-On. The series itself follows different protagonists for each novel, but the stories of the five books are interrelated across chronological boundaries. Set in the Philippines during its most notable and tumultuous times, F. Sionil Jose takes us into the heart of the common Filipino man, who has yet to establish a clear national and identity. The best thing about his books is that they are written in English, which is the language of my soul. That's a good thing too, I guess, since it's arguable that most readers of my generation in the country are more used to reading English novels after all, so Po-On will be more than accessible to them, not to mention it's affordable (under 300 bucks).
Po-On is an important book not just because it has international recognition and because it's a historical fiction about our country. As a work of literature itself, this was an impressive achievement. F. Sionil Jose's stylistic language is distinct, and the quality of his prose is straightforward without the need for extravagant verbosity. In Po-On, the central figure his Eustaqio "Istak" Salvador, a promising acolyte who idolized a Spanish priest as his mentor. His prominent characteristic is that he's an educated man, a rare accomplishment for an "indio", let alone an Ilokano, who are considered to be mere docile farmers. His parents and two brothers were also significant players in the plot, as well as the elusive and admirable Dalin who became his wife later on.
Driven from their lands, the Salvador family, together with their relatives (because extended families are still considered to be of close ties for your typical Filipino) traveled across mountains and forests in search for a new place to call home. My favorite thing about Po-On is that it's rife with religious allusions, particularly on the Old Testament accounts of the Book of Exodus. There is a sublime connection between the plight and cavalry of the Salvador family with that of Moses and the Israelites. There were many instances of parallelism between them, and they are the most heartbreaking moments of the book. Their new home "Cabugawan" might as well have been the "promised land" for these Ilokanos.
Another beautiful aspect of Po-On is Istak's constant struggle to define his faith within and outside the context of the Catholic Church's influence. He's always torn between his loyalty to his family and his people, and the values he had learned from his late Spanish mentor. The book is divided into two parts; the first part was the exodus while the second one was about the upcoming final war between the Spaniards and the new colonists, the Americans. Istak meets historical figures, Emilio Jacinto, Apolinario Mabini and Gregorio Del Pilar. His interactions with these men are striking and heartfelt.
Through Istak's character, we became acquainted with ourselves. The Filipino then and the Filipino now are still similar; we are creatures who aspire for greatness but remain a race divided. Istak's general apathy about the war-torn situations of the country then can still speak to our own inner conflicts. But once his life was touched by these remarkable, patriotic men willing to fight and die for independence, Istak himself has found the courage to do his part, as small as it may be. Mabini, fondly called as the Cripple in the book, rationalized why it's difficult to unite his countrymen. We identify more as Ilokanos, or Tagalogs, or Batangeños instead of one Filipino nation. Once Istak embraced that he doesn't simply belong to his family but to a higher, nobler purpose, he took up arms with the rest of the outnumbered soldiers led by General Del Pilar against the Americans, in the memorable battle of Mount Tirad.
There are many instances in this book that made me tear up in spite of myself. I realized that this is an important work, and it saddens me that it only has 8 ratings (including my own) here in Goodreads. We should all pick up the Rosales Saga because F. Sionil Jose is a prolific artist who dedicated his lifetime in writing us these books so our generation and the next can read and see their lives in the pages. This is a book of great importance and will definitely give you a sense of national pride like you have never felt before.
"Evil is often a creation of our minds. It starts as a spark and then it is fanned into a fire, self-willed and self-sustaining. That is not to say there are no evil men, but our best protection against them is our innocence and our truth"
"No stranger can come battering down my door and say he brings me light. This I have within me."
"There was no measure for love of country except in sacrifice, and why ask the poor for more sacrifices? It was the comfortable, the rich, who should express it with their wealth. The poor had only their lives to give."
"He was valuable to them--teacher, healer, patriarch, but now he realized with seeing sharpness that they were valuable to him not just as cousins and neighbors--they were the earth, the water, the air which sustained him."
"Duty comes in many forms; at times duty to country can be conflict with duty to family. But in the end, duty becomes but one, and that is duty to value justice above everything--to do what is right not because someone ordains it, but because the heart which is the seat of truth decrees it."
"I have been blinded, as many of us have been blinded by our needs. I had thought only of my family--this was the limit to my responsibility and therefore my vision."
"The whole history of mankind has shown how faith endures while steel rusts."