Journeys & ‘Viajero’
HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - September 14, 2014 - 12:00am

I often tell young people who come to me for advice about writing to go back to the classics so they will realize there is hardly anything new they can write about. Most of the great questions about life, death and faith were asked and their answers argued three thousand years ago, not just in the West — to which we are attuned — but in the East where we belong.

And so it is today, we are no different from our ancestors in the sense that life confronts us with the same dilemmas as we venture far in linear distance and inward in the mind, to seek the answers to these primal questions. That search itself is the grand adventure which we live and learn from.

With time finally laying siege and memory fading as well, I must retrieve some memories, not so much for my vanity, but to explicate for my readers what I have tried to tell them which, for all my effort at clarity, may have escaped them. Memory holds us in thrall; we cling to it often with profound nostalgia because it defines us, explains not just our past but why we have become what we are.

These memories are also a search for meaning — for this is what they really are.  I have travelled much in the Philippines, to the far north — to Sabtang in Batanes all the way down south to the Turtle islands; Cagayan de Sulu, and on to Sandakan and Jesselton in North Borneo then, now Sabah. I have been to exotic places as well, I think I am the first Filipino to have visited that Himalayan kingdom Bhutan in 1963. And in that rimless world of the imagination — I recognize those events and places clearest to me, for they opened a window to the heart, a life examined.

In my novel, Viajero, I am reminded of the dalang — that versatile storyteller in the Indonesian shadow play, the wayang kulit. Here is an artist who can imitate a dozen personalities and speak out their roles — an old crone, a harsh plutocrat, a whining woman, a very young boy or girl — they are all in his repertoire as he narrates the story enacted by the puppets. To hear the dalang is to hear a consummate artist whose training took years.

My greatest challenge in writing Viajero was to assume the personae of several wanderers, to delve into their psyche and fathom their motives, why they differed from ordinary beings. Viajero is, of course, about us as travelers long before our hegira to the Middle East in the early seventies, long before our women sought menial jobs in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

As a child in that village where I was born, one of my earliest memories is about a distant uncle who had returned from the United States in the early 1930s; he had brought back not just stories which I later used in my fiction but also a suitcase of goodies, pasalubong. I recall how we were all gathered in the living room of his house as he distributed these to his relatives. He gave me a small cake of soap, Palmolive — and it was also the first time I saw this kind of soap, which we never used. I kept it for a long time as a kind of memento of his return.

In my first visit to the United States in 1955, I purposely sought some of the Filipino old timers. For most Filipinos, the United States looms large, both as a second country and as a cultural entity that has a crippling grip on the Filipino imagination. As a second country, it is the obsession of many Filipinos to settle there because it is hoped that in its gilded width and breadth, the Filipino will find prosperity, a sanctuary from the poverty in the native land. As a cultural influence, however, it inhibits the native imagination, shackles it and eventually reshapes it to become almost homogenous with the American ideal. In our literature, particularly of the postwar period, such influence is very obvious.

Many of the old were not assimilated. They retained many of the gestures, the customs and attitudes from the old country in a kind of time freeze. This was most evident in Hawaii where immigrant Ilokano communities survive. I used this experience, too, in Viajero.

The actual conception of the novel started when Edwin Thumboo, the Singapore cultural icon, invited me as a writer-in-residence at the National University of Singapore in 1987. I was there for three months. One Sunday afternoon, walking along Orchard Road I chanced upon them — hundreds of Filipinas from the Batanes in the North, to Sulu in the South, around the Lucky Plaza shopping mall — talking, gossiping. I was to see them again in Hong Kong, in the vicinity of the Star Ferry terminal. I soon realized that the deracination of the Filipinos was excellent material for fiction.

I remembered the story of Magellan’s slave, Enrique, and an article by one of our leading historians, Carlos Quirino, who concluded that Enrique — who was technically the first man to go around the world — was Filipino, from one of the Visayan islands. According to Pigafetta who recorded Magellan’s voyage, Enrique spoke Butuanon, one of the Visayan languages. Of course, there was no Filipinas then; even Lapu-Lapu couldn’t be labeled Pinoy.

The first journey is a child’s totally dependent on parents. This crossing is slow, often parallel to the child’s growing up physically and is almost always pleasant. It had amazed me to see slum children using only their imagination to escape the deadening reality that confines them, to enter that realm of the imagination which allows them freedom so that even at a young age, they are already making such crossings without being aware of making them.

In Viajero, the six-year old orphan, Salvador dela Raza who is also the narrator and main character, is smuggled to San Francisco from the jungle and the travail of war by his adopted father, a black captain in the US Army quartermaster service. In World War II, the Negroes were segregated from the whites. The crossing, therefore, is in several dimensions — racial when Salvador comes to know about the black world and all its ironies, and the journey from a primeval existence to the urban modernity of a big American city.

Salvador’s immersion in the black world is not traumatic for in a sense, the boy is also colored. His foster parents are fair-skinned and could pass for white if they wanted to.

For some — artists particularly — a “crossing’ sooner or later diminishes the individual personality or strengthens it depending on the individual’s spirit. The familiarity with what were once exotic and strange surroundings, of idioms, soon affect him the way a red hot iron cools off when immersed in cold water. But note how the iron rod has become stronger, tougher, as compared to what it was when it became soft and malleable in intense heat. This develops slowly in Salvador dela Raza. A young man with all the money in the world, he becomes more caring as he ages.

This — not the wealth — has also been my own experience, the hardening of beliefs as I grew older.

I was a voracious reader. I enjoyed all those Victorian novels that transported me to unexplored territories, to exotic vistas, though fated to languish in my village. With this background, it was never difficult for me afterwards to portray rural characters.

Colonialism as identity

Viajero is a novel about our history. In it is also a recognition of the racial problem in America and the racist attitudes of elite Filipinos. Three centuries of Spanish rule implanted not just Spanish genes but Spanish vices, for a colonized people usually imbibe their colonizer’s vices more than their virtues.

When we looked at a colonized people, we must not fail to look at the character of their colonizer. To my mind, the Spanish character was shaped by the Spanish Inquisition, a religious and moral aberration that began in the 14th century on to the middle of the 19th. Remember, the Spanish Inquisition was autonomous, independent of the Vatican, and supported by the Spanish rulers themselves. Its basic law, aside from the condemnation and execution by burning of heretics, was “Limpieza de Sangre,” the cleansing of the blood. All those without Spanish blood — particularly the Moros and the Jews — although they had lived in Spain for generations, were not allowed to hold public office. The Inquisition was responsible for the Spanish compulsion to authoritarianism, to racism. It did not reach the Philippines as an institution but all the Spaniards who came to the Filipinas were affected by it.

Unlike in Spanish America, in Mexico for example, Spanish was not taught to the Indios as the friars learned the native languages and preached in these languages. Our colonial past made me presume that I would find affinity with Spain. When I first went there in the 1950s, I found out that Spain was distant, alien, unfamiliar and without the landmarks that I had presumed would sprout all over the place. I tried to look back into my own childhood and realized that within me was a loathing — hatred would be too strong a word — for things Spanish because of my reading of Rizal’s novels. I also remembered how the Spanish mestizo landlords dispossessed us.

I had to temper this bias consciously, knowing as I did, that there was another Spain, the Spain of Cervantes, of Garcia Lorca, the noble and egalitarian Spain that resisted the Inquisition and Franco himself. This is the august Spain that nurtured Rizal, the ilustrados, not the Falangista Spain whose tentacles had reached out to Filipinas, not the mestizos or their offspring who, to this very day, look down on the Indios — that’s us.

To research for Viajero, I returned to Spain 20 years ago with my wife after an absence of more than 40 years. The Spain that I saw has changed considerably — Franco was gone, Spain was burbling with freedom and commerce. The old bias had mellowed. I can even look now at Spain with some nostalgia akin to affection.

What were we before the Spaniards came? We excelled in many skills, in seamanship, for instance, in many aspects of science as practiced by the early Southeast Asians. To this day, for instance, I continue to marvel at our archaeological exhibits, of the fine gold inlay done on the teeth of the early Filipinos, this at a time when there were no electric drills, no sophisticated anesthesia and gold refining as it is known today. Through the years, therefore, the cultural crossings of pre-Hispanic Filipinos was an ongoing process. Islam came, then Catholicism — again two major crossings that really affected us, the problems which these two religions brought are still evident in our lives.

The search continues in a magnitude never equaled in the past, in a manner that will perhaps change our psyche permanently. Today, thousands upon thousands of Filipinos are abroad, in the harsh deserts of the Middle East, in the tundra’s of the Arctic regions, in the most prosperous cities in the West as workers, both professional and menial.

In fact, we are now Asia’s most cosmopolitan nation with so many of our people speaking European, Middle Eastern and Oriental languages. This diaspora has many political implications. We have to be extremely careful in the influences that have come into our house; as Gandhi said, he would welcome the four winds of the earth into his house but that he would see to it that his house is not blown down by any of them. Perhaps it is us who should feel strongest about the loss of our identity and work hardest at protecting our house from the four winds.

As the world is brought closer not just by travel but by the miracles of communication, the homogenization of culture become easier, and it is those with the most advanced technological systems — and not necessarily “better” cultures — that will eventually dictate the shape that international culture will take. Maybe, this is a development that will be welcomed, particularly by the middle and upper classes who have access to these technological adjuncts of cultural diffusion.

When this happens, it is almost imperative that those who want to be endowed with indelible personalities, identities as a people and a nation will battle such a trend, to stand by their old values--whatever they are--so that they will not be ploughed under, so that their uniqueness will be preserved. Such heroic attempts will most probably take precedence in the arts more than in any sphere and it will be difficult for the artist more than ever to be original and contextual.

The most exacting journey, however, has very little to do with physical boundaries. These crossings are clearly marked, delineated for they are also observable. The less discernible crossings, those that are difficult to track and record, are those that are entwined with the mental process of the traveler — the withering of ideas, the birth or rebirth of new ones, all these small rivulets converging into a mighty river of change that ends in the ocean — a different ocean — from what was perceived or even crossed in the beginning.

In Viajero, this is the eventual acceptance of revolution and its concomitant violence by Salvador dela Raza which liberates him from his old self. He describes this crossing as a decision which liberated him. His search makes him flee the comfort of a San Francisco life for the harsh uncertainties of living, teaching and perhaps dying on a mountain. The mountain is, of course, another metaphor although it actually exists as hallowed ground sought by pilgrims, by upper-class Filipinos looking for the elixir of youth, by the lower classes looking for a God they can commune with and believe in.

But why is there a crossing at all? Salvador dela Raza is not a creature with sybaritic needs although, as gleaned from his story, he is not beneath being a sensualist. The sensuality affirms his human frailty but, at the same time, he transcends it easily by being a scholar, a historian capable of objective introspection and self-examination. It could stop there but Salvador dela Raza also starts identifying himself with the country he had left and thereby is set off not just on his travels but also on a much deeper search for the self.

Death as metaphor

The ultimate search, ends, of course, in our own passing, our acceptance of death as the irrevocable limit of living and the imagination, and also as the most important progenitor of art itself. It is the most difficult of crossings because the limits of our mortality have always inspired fear in most of us, or achievement that will outlive our mortality. I have dealt with this theme in Viajero, in the acceptance by Salvador dela Raza of the inevitable wherein he deals with is passing not with passivity but with wisdom. He leaves the mountain with hope, knowing that Namnama whom he loves, would be there. Incidentally, in my native Ilokano, namnama means hope.

I wrote Viajero for many reasons, aside, of course, from pursuing further my major theme, our search for social justice and a moral order. I wanted to relate our history from a personal perspective, that of the Filipino as a voyager, a wanderer. I also dealt in Viajero with the parallel theme of exile — for wanderers are exiles, until they resolve their quest and go home. Rizal was most emphatic about this as was Ninoy Aquino who also appears in Viajero. Rizal told the exiles in Spain the fight for justice was not in Madrid or Barcelona but in Filipinas, in his own native Calamba where the Dominican friars had expelled farmers, including Rizal’s family from the friar hacienda.

In Viajero, I used multiple sclerosis as a metaphor for the thinking Filipino who, aware of the social reality, refuses to act. This condition is not mentioned at all as such, but any reader familiar with this physical impairment will recognize what it is. It is what cripples Salvador dela Raza in the end, when his house — remember the Gandhi inference? — burns down and becomes his funeral pyre.

I have not intended to make it appear that his life is meaningless and wasted — what is important is that he goes home, and more than going home, he recognized his roots although memory was not all that strong to drag him to them when he was a child. Remember that when he goes home, he is already in middle age. It is a cliché, but realization of his identity is expressed in the complete change of the narrator from the third person to the first person.         

What then are the goals in life? The ultimate purpose? As human beings, we are endowed with intellect; we are not animals who feed on the trough, to be butchered. But even animals have a premonition of death. For all of us, death is the great and final leveler. Is there a life after it?

Big questions, complex, demanding utmost thinking, and yet, the answer, in the end, is simplicity itself. We must give life meaning--search for it, if at the moment we can’t dredge it from the depths. And having found this meaning, then life itself is worth living.

Not long ago, a journalist asked what my personal measure of success would be. For so many of us, success is measured by our material acquisitions, money in the bank, a palatial residence, the adulation of admirers, too. How often have I reminded myself never to be self righteous; I am, after all, just another sinner, and as such, should never argue or make judgments from a comfortable position, but instead, work hard, strive to reach a lofty moral ground. And even then and there, I question myself unceasingly about the views I hold dearly, tenaciously, knowing, regretting I have often never actualized then

Where does the compulsion, the iron motivation come from? I’ve looked at the rubble which surrounds us, the littered remains of fervid intentions and here I am ancient and decrepit--and still trying.

I had intended to use as prologue to Viajero this stanza from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration

and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time.

It had struck me with its pithy resonance, its profundity, but I settled for Rizal’s “Song of the Wanderer.” Not only is it more relevant, it was also written by a man whose writings have been my most important influence.

In Viajero, I have identified with all these wanderers who sought refuge and justice in foreign lands. Within me, however, in spite of the narcotic lure of distant lands and balmy climes, it is in my own village where I was born and where I grew up, that I have always been anchored, with roots deep into the native soil.

All these ruminations, these high and ghostly matters are concerns of this tired, old writer. Do they really matter? Perhaps to a few, for the harsh reality is contemplation is the luxury of the comfortable. And in God’s name, what do millions of Filipinos really dream about? Certainly not about journeys to the interior, not about precocious identity, not the lofty goals of nationalist utopians. Their fondest aspirations are so basic, so simple--three meals a day, a roof over their heads, education for their children and that sweet and enduring peace which enables them to continue living miserably.

This is the truth, the iron reality we must think about, and act if we can, knowing as we do that “no man is an island…”

 

FILIPINAS FILIPINOS LIFE MANY RAZA RIZAL SPAIN SPANISH VIAJERO
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