"You are going to die," I told him.
"But I will die decently," he said, pausing. "Isn't that what we should live for?"
Reading the first book, PO-ON, of the Rosales series last year by prolific Filipino writer and living legend F. Sionil Jose was a gruellingly reflective experience that awoken a dormant passion of the nationalistic sense within me that I never thought I ever had to begin with. I would go as far as to say that this should have been a required reading in schools all across my country, and it baffles me now that it's wasn't. Simply put, this series is an extraordinary piece of work that needs to be celebrated and read every day because of its relevant commentary in the Philippine society as a whole, using no other than the means of fiction to deliver across some of the most crucial and moving points regarding the state of our post-colonial country.His question had a quality of coldness, of challenge.
The Rosales saga is comprised of five books with stories told across history starting with the Spanish era down to the Martial Law years. Each story is interrelated or consequential of the one before it. The stories' shared setting is the Ilocos region, particularly the Rosales area. We follow the lives of a select family for every installment who lives in Rosales.
In Po-On, we have the story of the Salvador family as told by the eldest son Istak, narrating the events starting from the moment they were driven from their lands to seek out a new home after one of their own committed a crime, and then as they venture on in a trip so often beautifully and tragically reminiscent of the Biblical text, Exodus. The struggles of this ordinary family could have easily been our own as well, and it's with the characters of Istak and Dalin that Po-On weaves a tale so engrossing that even the most subtle details in their lives such as their vulnerabilities and sentimentalities become nearly sublime. It was just a remarkable story about a Filipino's ruthless quest for freedom and identity which still rings true even to this day.
"The balete tree--it was there for always, tall, leafy and majestic. In the beginning, it sprang from the earth as vines coiled around a sapling. The vines strangled the young tree they had embraced. They multiplied, fattened and grew, became the sturdy trunk, the branches spread out to catch the sun. And beneath this tree, nothing grows!"
Meanwhile, in Tree, the approach is vastly different from its predecessor. Now written in first-person narrative, this story is almost autobiographical if not for the fact that the narrator himself (who remains unnamed) was actually more focused on telling the stories of specific relatives, including their idiosyncrasies, most striking experiences and eventual end. This makes Tree more of an exploration of a social status than a personal one where the focal family are haciendero elites during the American era. They supervise the lands owned by the feudal mogul Don Vincente (who interestingly enough becomes the main character in the next book), as well as the lives of modest farmers who have no choice but to work these lands with barely enough compensation.
Chronologically designed to follow the tale of this unnamed narrator from childhood to college years, Tree is semi-autobiographical because of this, but readers never learn about the narrator as much as they learn about his family's way of life, and the servants with their children within his household and out there in the farmlands. What follows then are chapters specifically devoted to certain relatives (mostly his uncles) or childhood friends and their families who have worked tirelessly for him and his father all throughout their lives. In the span of seventy pages or so, the narrator would recall circumstances in his childhood that would allow readers to develop their own insights and interpretations as to the harsh realities the people around him are striving to get through while he himself was living rather comfortably if not ignorantly as a rich haciendero's son.
As he grows older, the narrator has learned to understand the subtleties of the socio-political climate during those times, as well as the unending class struggle and corruption happening around him, but he was still ultimately powerless to do anything about them. In this sense, Tree is more intimately close to the way modern Filipinos react to the dire situations of the politics that dominate our lives these days, fully aware of the persistent effects and yet a great number of us would still rather choose to remain individually negligent in finding solutions to the nation's prevalent social diseases. Not because of apathy but more as a product of collective exhaustion because the corruption of the rich and the abuse of the poor has become too much of a convenient commonplace that we are no longer moved to act against this terrible status quo.
Tree only has a hundred and thirty-five pages which meant that it can be consumed within two days or so. With this brevity, the story itself is engaging in such a way that each chapter deliberately and seamlessly explores what it means to live in a world where people are suffering on different levels of oppression; that whether rich or poor, a family and the individual can suffer because of the overall inequality in the society they live in. Tree's metaphor of the balete tree found in the story further emphasizes this truth; a seemingly noble tree that is a centuries old can also be viewed as a parasitic entity that thrives in expense of the plants surrounding its breadth, much like those who live in luxury and comfort indirectly harms those who are less fortunate than they are.
Perhaps through this novel, F. Sionil Jose is making the argument that such a dog-eat-dog mentality will always be the natural state of things which allow only the strongest (if not ruthless) to survive, and now perhaps it's merely up to us as a nation whether or not to embrace this evolutionary state, or rebel against it and redefine our place.