Before the curtain falls

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - December 9, 2019 - 12:00am

When I got to be 90, I had to cut down on my social climbing because my knees were failing. That aborted bithday bash last December 3 was, however, an affair I had looked forward to. I wanted to gather all the kind and wonderful people who made this life interesting and have been very kind to me. I wanted to tell them of my profound gratitude.

I am sure that there were several that I missed, primarily because at 95 my memory is also failing. Forgive me.

I invited several diplomats whose governments hosted my visits and fellowships. First, I want to thank the European Union, the Republics of Chile, The Philippines and France, and His Majesty, Emperor Akihito of Japan for the decorations and awards they conferred on me. 

I am a college dropout, just the same I handled an undergraduate and graduate course on culture. Now I have five honorary Ph.Ds. from Foundation University in Dumaguete, the University of Pangasinan in Dagupan, the Far Eastern University, De La Salle and the University of the Philippines. I’m very glad to announce that finally our family has a real Ph.D. in my grandson, Nick Jose, who just got his doctorate in biochemistry from Cambridge. I also invited my doctors who had looked after me through the years. I think they are the best in the country and of course they also ministered to the best writer of Rosales, Pangasinan.

When I was 30 years old, I was invited to visit America for six months, go anywhere I wished and meet anyone I wanted. I had enjoyed a princely per diem of 12 US dollars a day, half of which I saved so I can go home via Europe and Southeast Asia. 

I’m also grateful to the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Foundation and to the great American Foundations, the Rockefeller, Ford, Asia, which helped me, and the universities—Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and the East-West Center for their fellowships. 

I’m grateful to the Japan and Toyota Foundations, and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto for their assistance and fellowships.  Soba, senbei—a couple of food items had become my favorites. To the Dominican Fr. Gaston Petit in whose Tokyo atelier, I wrote for months on end.

The Russians were the first to translate me and I have a feeling I’ve more readers in the former Soviet Union than in my country. I was there for the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1967 and travelled not only in Russia but also in the Eastern European capitals. I recall my breakfast at the famous National Hotel in Red Square, aromatic tea, freshly baked black bread, with fresh butter and all the caviar that I can slap on it.

I’m grateful to the British Council for hosting my England visit. I felt like royalty when my wife and I were met at Heathrow in a Vanden Plas Princess limousine as big as a truck. Kippers for breakfast, fish and chips on the sidewalk were memorable.

Ah Australia! Sydney rock oysters are the world’s best. 

In Taiwan I got to appreciate Chinese cuisine, art, Peking opera and the friendship of Taiwan’s famous poet and patron, Nancy Ing.

I saw Korea when it had not yet recovered from the Korean war, found the Koreans a warm and hardworking people. They also translated me. I was introduced to ginseng, its mythical origins and lifegiving qualities.  According to ginseng’s true believers, the most potent grows wild in the mountains but can be found only by the pure in heart.

I traced Rizal’s journey in Germany where, in the company of that country’s intellectuals, he matured intellectually. Rizal complained about the German potato diet; there was no Nordsee chain in his time where I had smoked mackerel and the best bouillabaisse.

As writer-in-residence at the University of Singapore, I enjoyed the companionship of Singapore’s cultural mandarin, Edwin Thumboo.

And finally and most importantlly, I’m grateful to my staff, to Lida who watched my children grow, to Cesar, who is my man Friday, Saturday and Sunday and to my children and grandchildren who gave me infinite joy.

I always knew that writers are almost always poor. I thought I’d be different.

In the 1950’s the President of the largest company in the Philippines asked me to join him. And in the 1960’s a Filipino billionaire offered me all the capital I needed to set up branches in Cubao, Makati. I declined the offers; I wanted to write.

So now, in this, my twilight, I realize I did not make that pile, nor contributed a single stone  to the edifice that is the nation. I made a mistake—I knew that early enough to accept it—but from this distance in time, I also know deep within me what a joyous and glorious mistake it was. Sometime back my wife and I were at the Iseya restaurant close to my bookshop, the owner brought his companion to us; he shoke my hand then said, “thank you for your writing. You changed my life.” Mine wasn’t a rich life, but was much, much better than the drudgery I came from. I worked very hard to do that and hoped as well that I gave voice to what so many of my countrymen had aspired for.  With what I have written, I hope that some may now understand themselves better, so that they can also live with themselves. I hope that I have also brought some light to the blackest corners of their minds, their hearts, their very homes, that I have given them memory, too, so that they will remember.

Before curtain falls, I have always suspected that Somebody up there likes me, allowed me to live this long, gave me a companion who stood by me in the darkest night, forgave my sins, nurtured and nagged me so I’d be able to write and give all of you a bit of myself. My wife—she gave all of herself to me.

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