Sunday, November 14, 2010

First Impressions?

+JMJ+

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?

11 comments:

Emily J. said...

Well, I am still waiting for my copy to arrive, so I don't have any impressions to share yet, but after reading your post, I realize that it might be helpful to have a little more background info on the history of the Philippines. I didn't realize that there was such acrimony between the church and the state, although I guess that shouldn't be surprising, other than the fact that most Filipinos we know are faithful Catholics - but that's a self-selecting group, since most people we get to know are faithful Catholics, or in the military. I need to do more research on the Micronesia area, since we may end up being neighbors - my husband keeps getting emails asking what we think about moving to Guam. Don't tell my mom.

Melanie B said...

I'm not very far in at all. Just getting to the point where I can see the abuse you refer to coming but haven't got there yet in the narrative. So my very first first impressions....

1. I really want my copy of the book to have a map in it. All the place names and I feel lost. Strange because I'm usually ok if you drop me into a book without a good knowledge of geography; but I think it's that combined with a general lack of having my bearings in terms of history, culture, really anything. I feel lost and the author is giving me no help. He assumes an audience who knows generally where he is. Presumably he's writing mainly for a Filipino audience? Not that I think he should approach it differently, mind. I'm just trying to explicate why I feel more lost here than I have in novels set in other foreign countries. I do think that where Japan and China are concerned, I have at least a rough context for the narrative. I am really ignorant about the Philippines.

2. The opening reminded me of Silence. The priest/missionary writing back to the heads of the order back in Europe. Of course once we jump into the narrative the point of view is radically different. Whereas in Silence we are always limited to the observations made by the foreigner priest, here we're in the mind of a native.

3. Enbrethiliel, what you say about your own expectations and the context in which Jose writes is fascinating. I look forward to seeing if the narrative develops as you predict. Given the plots that you've sketched, I'm curious why you feel as optimistic as you do.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Emily: It's not an acrimony that goes very deeply. Many of the people in government are practicing Catholics, too--however loosely that term applies. There's just a sense that the Church tends to be old-fashioned and against progress; and whenever someone disagrees with a high-ranking cleric, one of those propaganda novels gets brought up as "evidence" that the Church has always tried to hold us back.

Melanie: I am quite put out to hear that your book doesn't come with a map. =( I live in the same country and I found my copy's map indispensable!

I can't find a good one online, so I'll see whether I can scan something for everyone.

And now I hope this isn't too much of a spoiler. Just ignore the paragraph sandwiched between the asterisks if you don't want to know more . . .

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Whenever I have a new book, I always look at the beginning and the end first. I found it interesting that the novel opens with a letter from an old Spanish priest and closes with a letter from a young American something. (I can't remember at the moment whether he was with the government or a reporter.)
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I wasn't too optimistic when I started, but as soon as I noticed that Jose was telling the country's history through one man's personal story, I realised he was doing something else.

mrsdarwin said...

I received my copy the other day and had two airplane trips in close succession, so I've read up to Chapter 14. It is gripping, and I love it. I also wish I had a map, so I could trace the journey of Istak and his people, but almost, that didn't matter. There are dispossessed people in every country, in every age, and though the terrain was unfamiliar, the agony of the journey was universal.

I really know almost nothing about the history of the Phillippines -- believe it or not, I didn't even know that America had invaded.

I love the character of Padre Jose. He is the antidote to the ugliness of the Spaniards and the vile priest who barely sees the Ilokanos as human. The love of God shines through Padre Jose's human flaws and is so transformatory that Istak can't reject it even through his doubts.

I haven't quite reached the Americans yet, so I don't know how we represent. :) I have to say that I love the international flavor of our reading lately, with the New Zealand poets and the Filipino history. Maybe next month (I don't know who picks) we should read something by Mario Vargas Llosa, who just won the Nobel prize for literature. I don't really know much about Peru either!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Mrs. Darwin, I'm so glad to hear that you're loving the book!

As far as geographical specifics go, it matters greatly that Istak is moving away from Vigan, which is still one of the largest, most graceful (the best word that comes to mind) cities in the Ilocos region. The seminary Padre Jose had hoped would admit Istak is in Vigan, so Istak is literally and figuratively taking the opposite direction from where his life was once headed--and moving away from "the city" to a land he has to claim and clear on his own.

Melanie B said...

I'm halfway through chapter five now and finding I'm minding the lack of a map less as the characters and plot build momentum. Now that I feel I've got a foothold in the story I don't feel so lost.

SO true about Padre Jose being an antidote to the abusive Spaniards. I suppose beginning with his letter, his plea on behalf of Istak and all the native peoples, means that you see the young priest as an aberration and not as the norm, even though there seems to be an overwhelming weight of evidence about the cruelty of the Spanish and the corruption of the Church.

Emily J. said...

Now I'm getting worried about my order!! I hope this one doesn't get lost like Kristin L. After all these raves, I'm really hoping the book arrives before our Thanksgiving drive. I'd vote for MVL, too, Mrs. D.

BettyDuffy said...

Mine came yesterday. Tonight...I read...

mrsdarwin said...

SO true about Padre Jose being an antidote to the abusive Spaniards. I suppose beginning with his letter, his plea on behalf of Istak and all the native peoples, means that you see the young priest as an aberration and not as the norm, even though there seems to be an overwhelming weight of evidence about the cruelty of the Spanish and the corruption of the Church.

I hadn't thought of that, but you're right, and that's the author's craft at work.

Melanie B said...

Ok I finally finished the novel-- I am incapable of looking at the end until I get there-- and I definitely want to come back to the question of the bookend letters that you bring up here, E.

We've already discussed the letter from Padre Jose a little. Very interesting to look at it again in juxtaposition with the letter from Tom. You weren't sure if he was a reporter or with the government. I got the impression he was a soldier. I suppose he could have been a journalist but it seems to me unlikely since he was at the battle at Mount Tirad and moreover was going through the pockets of the dead Filipino soldiers.

So obviously they represent the two foreign regimes that have control over the destiny of the Philippines, the Spanish regime that gives way to the American. But in keeping with this being a retelling of the country's history through one man's personal story, both foreigners intersect Istak's story in significant ways.

Like Padre Jose's letter, Tom's fills in much of the bigger picture context as seen from the point of view of the foreign power. And yet both men are able to see Istak's humanity, thus complicating the narrative so that it is not good natives vs bad foreigners. Moreover, they show us an aspect of his story that the limited third person narrator cannot do.

Looking at the passage from Istak's journal that Tom quotes, I agree with you that theme is something like: After a long, hard, bloody labour, the Catholic Church finally gave birth to the Philippines.

"Conquest by force is not sanctioned by God. The Americans have no right to be here. We will defeat them in the end because we believe this land they usurp is ours. God created it for us. The whole history of mankind has shown how faith endures while steel rusts."

Istak's decision to join in the battle for the defense of his homeland instead of retreating to the safety of Cabugawan with his family does seem to be predicated on his understanding of the divine order and an understanding of history that he gained through the Catholic education he received.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Yes, you're right that the evidence points to him being a soldier, Melanie. I guess when I think of an American character in this period, my mind immediately thinks he is a government official or reporter. Which is weird, because there were a lot of soldiers.

I think these bracketing letters by foreigners are necessary because none of the Filipino characters is able to see the big picture yet. Istak knows, at Tirad Pass, that the Revolution is pretty much dead--and indeed, of all the characters, he has the widest perspective--but for him to have seen these events with the same clarity with which Jose looks back at them would have been, I believe, highly anachronistic.

At the same time, they strike me as very ironic. It's our own story, but we can't tell it by ourselves.