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Opinion

A writer at 90

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

What’s it like to be 90?

“I’d give up this medal,” birthday boy F. Sionil Jose replied, showing me a medal newly given by the French government, “for two erections.”

He joined me in howling with laughter.

The mind is still willing but the flesh is now weak, and the National Artist for Literature cannot remain standing too long to entertain guests at his birthday party. But at 90, the writer called Manong Frankie retains his wit, his sense of humor, and formidable mastery of his art.

National Artists from several disciplines joined the SRO crowd that gathered the other night at the lobby of the Cultural Center of the Philippines to celebrate the life well lived of Francisco Sionil Jose.

The French medal, presented by Ambassador Gilles Garachon, is just the latest in a long string of awards and recognitions received by F. Sionil Jose, which include the 2001 National Artist Award for literature and 1980 Ramon Magsaysay Award for journalism, literature and creative communication arts.

Jose has fans from around the world. New Czech Ambassador Jaroslav Olsa Jr. said that in his visits to Manila before being posted here, he always made it a point to drop by Solidaridad, Jose’s bookshop along Padre Faura.

The ambassador, who visited The STAR on the same day that our National Artist turned 90, said he learned much about the Philippines from the writings of Jose and Nick Joaquin. The diplomat is hoping to put together an anthology of modern Philippine literature, translated into Czech.

A slide show at the birthday bash featured Jose in his extensive travels around the country and abroad, and with prominent visitors at Solidaridad, among them German Nobel laureate Günter Grass, US playwright Norman Mailer and Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa.

Seeing a photo of himself in his youth, half-naked on a beach, Jose exclaimed, “What a handsome young man!”

Explaining another shot, with him in a portrait-type pensive pose, he said, as if composing a caption, “Thinking of where to eat next.”

Addressing his well-wishers, Jose said he is often asked about the secret of his longevity. His answer: “The good die young.”

*   *   *

The mirth is in contrast to the dark mood in many of the writer’s celebrated novels. Frustration also shows in his articles for The STAR’s Lifestyle section.

At 90, a man has earned the right to be frustrated and impatient for positive change in his country. Interspersed with the jokes at his party were the frustrations.

Traveling around Asia in his youth, Jose recalls that in those days, “everyone looked up to (the Philippines).”

He visited Korea shortly after the end of the war, and was appalled by the enormity of the death and destruction. But look where the Koreans are now, he says, and how they have recovered and built a modern nation.

Modernization, he told Marcos-era labor minister Blas Ople, was what the country needed, so that jobs could be created and incomes raised, instead of sending Filipinos overseas for gainful employment.

Jose was also an early proponent of military modernization. This was shaped by his visits to Sulu, when he saw that Navy vessels were easily outraced by bandit ships.

Today 10 million Filipinos are working overseas for lack of better alternatives at home. And our Navy vessels are still being outraced by Abu Sayyaf kumpits, and shooed away with water cannons by the Chinese.

As a young journalist during the presidency of Elpidio Quirino, Jose recalls his chats with Indonesian President Sukarno. Apart from remembering that Sukarno was a regular Manila visitor because of several girlfriends here, Jose recalls the Indonesian boasting that his resource-rich country, being Southeast Asia’s largest and most populous, would become the most prosperous.

Jose remembers thinking at the time: brag all you want, but the Philippines will be the cultural and intellectual leader of Asia. To help promote his vision, he launched the journal Solidarity.

*   *   *

The National Artist, whose works have been translated into nearly 30 languages including Korean, Thai, Czech and Latvian, remains a prolific writer and mentor to budding writers.

He belongs to a vanishing breed that uses snail mail for letters written in longhand – a practice that I miss, dinosaur that I am, in the Internet and texting age. Disappearing along with the longhand, it seems, is the habit of reading.

In the case of reading, Jose told me writers are also to blame for this. “We don’t give them something good enough to read,” he said.

Maybe he’s right. I must confess that even I, who didn’t grow up with smartphones and computers, stopped reading serious fiction ages ago, except for the novels of F. Sionil Jose.

My reading has since been limited to non-fiction and cookbooks. But in recent years, the thrillers of Dan Brown and escapist juvenile stuff revived my interest in fiction: I’ve read the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Divergent series. No deathless prose there, but they kept me reading.

A senior member of PEN-Philippines bemoaned to me the self-indulgent materials churned out by budding writers. But he and a number of older writers aren’t giving up hope.

Jose seems more frustrated over the country’s prospects for change than the lack of interest in reading. Citing the progress achieved by the country’s neighbors, he stressed the importance of leadership and vision.

“I think I have vision,” he grinned, “pero wala naman akong power, wala akong pera (but I don’t have power, I don’t have money).

A guest asked  him  if  he  planned  to write an autobiography, expounding on his vision of a better country.

The National Artist shook his head. “Wala namang nakikinig (Nobody listens anyway),” Frankie Sionil Jose said. “They don’t care. They don’t care. They don’t care.”

 

ABU SAYYAF

AMBASSADOR GILLES GARACHON

BLAS OPLE

COUNTRY

CULTURAL CENTER OF THE PHILIPPINES

CZECH AND LATVIAN

JOSE

NATIONAL ARTIST

SIONIL JOSE

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