"If they were affected by war at all, they bore no scars"

"I love our country. But what is our country? It is a land exploited by its own leaders, where the citizens are slaves of their own elite."

This is the third installment for F. Sionil Jose's Rosales saga after Po-On and Tree, and being able to finish it last night left me rather cold and unsatisfied. Unlike the first two books, this one has a protagonist I could not form any attachment to, and I truly tried to make some sort of genuine connection with him and it doesn't make sense to me why I couldn't. All things considered, Luis Asperri--the lead POV character for this novel--is probably the closest archetype I should have some affinity for. He's a writer who lives with his ideals through pen and paper. He worked for print media. He was privileged, well-educated and eloquent. In other words, I should have related to him because we have those listed commonalities to contend with. But I simply did not like him at all; and perhaps that reveals something about how I view myself in an objective sense. Perhaps these same qualities are things about me that I'm rather ashamed of even if I feel entitled to have them.

Set in the fifties, My Brother, My Executioner is rife with historical allegories that I immediately recognized upon reading. Personally, I find that strong parallels have been made between Luis Asperri, the illegitimate son of the rich feudal lord Don Vicente, and Victor, his half-brother and the leader of the Hukbalahap guerrilla movement, to that of two of the most iconic national heroes: Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio. Much like Rizal, Luis is a writer who desires to help his fellowmen through his writings. Victor, like Bonifacio, admires his brother for his ideals on paper but is more inclined to follow through with actions even if they only lead to violence and chaos. History had told us that Rizal had inspired Bonifacio to lead a revolution for Philippine independence through his writings, and this is probably the fundamental basis of the relationship between the characters of Luis and Vic, However, the comparisons end there and much of the characterizations for Luis and Vic have a life of their own, and neither is always portrayed in a flattering light.

In fact, I could argue that from all of F. Sionil Jose's protagonists so far (Istak from Po-On and unnamed first-POV narrator in Tree), Luis Asperri is the least relatable--or the most, depending on how much you can actually sympathize and appreciate such a flawed, sad idealist. There are times I can understand his motivations and sufferings; the way he would rationalize and justify his decisions through dark contemplation; the way he yearns for control and freedom to govern his own life; the way he would desire to contribute more to society and to help the poor but is nevertheless reluctant about sacrificing his own material comforts and heirlooms. Luis Asperri is the most realistic of all the protagonists in the books so far, and for that I think he is compelling and interesting enough--but I have no affection for him whatsoever. I suppose I can't help but feel harsh and critical of him because in spite of his failings and weakness, Luis Asperri is also a reflection of what I generally feel about myself as a Filipino which is to say he mirrors the same kind of helplessness, cynicism and hopeful dreams for the future of this country that I know a lot of us Filipinos still possess and have learned to suppress because we have gotten so used to the functional dysfunction of our economic structure and government system.

"We cannot conquer life, no one can conquer what one cannot define, but at least it is there and it is ours to shape and to possess fully, with all the senses working, with all the powers of the heart surging, as we search for the answers to the greatest riddles."

My Brother, My Executioner is, as I would have expected, well-versed in the underlying political and ideological discussions (that manifest literally in the texts with the conversations with characters or is latent through the reader's own personal perspective) concerning societal inequity and the cycle of poverty and uneven distribution of wealth in the Philippines--which is very much the oldest story of the world, isn't it? Luis Asperri and his father Don Vicente are inherently different in their views about the elite (their kind) and the poor but at least one of them is a lot more genuine and action-oriented than the other. Sadly enough, it's Don Vicente, and he is more pragmatic albeit oppressive in his actions as a rich man. He believes in self-preservation; that in order to rise from the ranks you need to seize opportunities, and this is only possible when there is are masses of people who are lower than you and often you need to rule them over. 

Meanwhile, Luis is a dreamer so consistently blinded by his own heartfelt illusions of harmony and peace that they have made him bitter and angry because they remain unfulfilled throughout the story. He claims to embrace change and yet is trapped within his failed progressive ideals, going back and forth between trying to become the man he aspires to be and the man he is meant to be because of predestined options because of his family background and way of life.

And that in itself is a worthy discussion. Are we truly in control of our destiny when choices are scarce? Can we truly forge new paths or be content walking across paths which were already there to begin and we simply have to follow their direction? What god are ethics and ideals if we are not strong enough to live by them through actions and not just words? My Brother, My Executioner had introduced such fascinating concepts and dialogue regarding national freedom and that of individual autonomy, the tension between the privileged and the masses, and the often inescapable obligations for family and country. However, most of these ideas remained only half-baked, most probably because the protagonist Luis Asperri as a character is ultimately both too proud and ashamed of his life to actually take its reigns and be the change in the world he is always preaching he wants to see fulfilled. He's too caught up in his crippling inaction.

This was why the ending was so unsatisfactory and underwhelming for me. I would have liked to have known his brother Victor some more, and his relationship with him but instead we get so many wasteful pages highlighting Luis' doomed relationship with Ester Dantes who is, by the way, a rather poor representation of women here in this book (which is odd, considering F. Sionil Jose also wrote one of the most empowering women in fiction, Dalin from Po-On, in my opinion). The other female character in this book (the 'all-woman, sensual' Trining), is just as stereotypical and one-dimensional as the evasive Esther. I think that is my major criticism of this novel and it's made even more obvious because Luis is frustratingly chauvinistic without the self-awareness he usually applies when it comes to his moral dilemmas. That said, I think I may have to late this installment the lowest of the bunch so far and I dearly hope the next one would have more focus and purpose like Po-On had been.



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