When my book club, Flips Flipping Pages, held a Rosales Saga readalong last year, I jumped on the chance to acquaint myself with National Artist F. Sionil Jose’s work, because while I’ve read his newspaper articles and even dropped by his book shop once in a blue moon, I had never read any of his novels.
The Rosales Saga is considered F. Sionil Jose’s masterpiece, composed of five books: “Po-on,” “Tree,” “My Brother, My Executioner,” “The Pretenders” and “Mass.” Set in F. Sionil Jose’s hometown of Rosales, Pangasinan, the series revolves around several generations of two families, the peasant Samsons and the wealthy Asperris.
“Po-on” traces the roots of the Samson family at the turn of the century, during the Philippine-American war. This book was easily my favorite and is, in fact, my best book for 2014.
I had brought the book along on a trip to Sagada, and reading it while traveling across the North (book lamp on, bumps, zigzags and all) really amped up the experience for me — it felt like I was moving along the same route as the characters in the book. The characters were quite compelling, the language breathtakingly beautiful and the plot was fast-paced. I was so consumed by the intensity of this novel; there was an epic quality to it that reminded me of “Pillars of the Earth” (which I also read pretty much in one sitting) and I was forever rooting for the valiant but (alas!) hapless Samsons so the end was so very heartbreaking for me.
The next four books were, admittedly, more of a challenge for me. After finishing “Po-on,” I committed myself to finishing all five books for the complete experience, and while it wasn’t easy, I was determined to see it through.
“Tree” features an unnamed narrator, the grandson of the overseer of the land. Caught between the Samsons and the Asperris, the protagonist bears witness to the injustice done to the peasants by the land owners but is unable to do anything about it.
In the ’50s novel “My Brother, My Executioner,” the illegitimate Luis Asperri is named as the heir of Don Vicente Asperri, leaving behind his life as a peasant. His half-brother, Victor is a rebel leader under the Hukbalahaps, which eventually retaliates against the ruling elites.
“The Pretenders” leads us to Antonio Samson, son of Victor from the previous book. Intelligent and hardworking (with a Harvard degree, no less), Antonio Samson catches the eye of a well-to-do society girl and eventually marries her. Roped into working for his father in law, Antonio despairs losing his identity and getting consumed by the system.
Finally, “Mass” follows Antonio’s illegitimate son, Pepe, who arrives in 70’s Manila to go to college (well, among other things). Pepe struggles to adapt to life in the city and coming to terms with his identity, and finally finds his place in a revolutionary group called “The Brotherhood.”
I read the next four books at a much slower pace, because while the author’s prose was no less beautiful, the emotional investment they required became much, much heavier. What is striking to me about the whole of the series is how cyclical the events were, particularly the oppression under the rule of power and the continuous struggle for equality, perhaps as a reflection of the state of society and as a commentary on the shortness of our memory as a people. In addition to the wide spectrum of emotions (indignation to rage; triumph and jubilation; disappointment, frustration and dismay; then sadness, heartbreak, sorrow) elicited in me by the series, it definitely provided some gamey food for thought, especially in relation with Philippine history and current events.
For a series as challenging as this one, I was quite happy that I was reading along with other people — I don’t think I could have persevered with this on my own. It was fun sharing thoughts and reactions (some violent!) with other readers, exploring unanswered questions and attempting to fill in the gaps.
The icing on top of this experience came in May, when, I was struggling in the middle of Mass (mainly because I wanted to knock some sense into Pepe). I had come from a client meeting and was killing time at a bookstore before meeting my sister when I happened to spot a familiar elderly gentleman rooting around the shelves.
I wasn’t completely sure, because he was missing his trademark beret, and what were the chances I would run into him while reading his book? I spent a good few minutes circling his spot to get a better look. Finally, because I thought it was an opportunity I just couldn’t miss, I (shaky hands!) pulled out my copy of Mass from my satchel and came up to him.
“Excuse me, sir, are you Mr. F. Sionil Jose?”
And he peered at me and said, “Yes?”
He smiled widely when I told him about the read-along, and then he gamely agreed to sign my book:
And when I asked to take a photo with him, he quipped, “Sure. Selfie?”
The read-along isn’t officially concluded, though, as we have yet to schedule the culminating activity: a discussion with F. Sionil Jose at the Solidaridad Bookshop, and hopefully, a trip to Rosales, Pangasinan.
Maybe I should pick up “Viajero” (where Pepe Samson resurfaces!) for the occasion. I just got myself a copy of “Viajero” and I’m looking forward to reading it soon!
Po-on, 5/5 stars
Tree, 4/5 stars
My Brother, My Executioner, 4.5/5 stars
The Pretenders, 4.5/5 stars
Mass, 4/5 stars