Although I knew almost as little as everyone else about F. Sionil Jose's Po-on before I started reading it, I was definitely able to put it in a context. That is why I first put it off for so many years and then came to like it so much.
The reason I put off reading it was that I thought I would hate it.
I certainly hated the two novels that were required reading (by law) in high school. They were written during the time the events in Po-on are supposed to be unfolding (I think the central character of this story even gets to read one of them); and they are some of the most bare-faced propaganda in the world. They are read primarily because of their historical significance (which I don't dispute) and the deep, dark desire people in government and public schools have to stick it to the Catholic Church (which they should finally acknowledge). Very recently, while with a friend from Canada, I described the more famous of the two novels as "the Mein Kampf of the Philippines."
And well, I thought Po-on, written in its shadow, would be more of the same.
After all, isn't one of the more famous stories about Jose that he read that famous novel as a boy and wept inconsolably at the fate of its two young altar boys--one of whom is beaten to death by a sacristan, the crime covered up by the clerics? (I do understand. I was staggered the first time I read it . . . and still skip those chapters whenever I have to reread the story again.) I asked myself whether he could possibly write a novel set in an age when clerical abuses were at their height that could also be fair and honest about the historical context. (Am I just showing my own inflexible bias here?)
But really, I think there was more to this chapter of the Philippines' story than the theme The Catholic Church was holding us back. I'm just never optimistic about historical novelists getting that. It's just so easy--almost traditional--to blame the clerics.
And yet . . . despite the fact that in the very first part of Po-on, we see a priest take advantage of one of the girls in his catechism class, and then learn that he was responsible for getting a (possibly innocent) farmer's hand chopped off in the name of "Spanish justice" . . . I think Jose is exploring a new theme. Maybe something along the lines of, After a long, hard, bloody labour, the Catholic Church finally gave birth to the Philippines.
So . . . what were your first impressions?
Life in Lent
1 day ago