Writing the Revolution
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - January 13, 2020 - 12:00am

I cannot explain my fascination with the Basques and with Spain maybe because we were a Spanish colony and there is so much of Spain in all of us; maybe because I read Don Quixote when I was ten years old and that old man had since lingered in my mind. And the Basques they are such an interesting people like us Ilokanos. They are wanderers and also land loving farmers. When I was planning my Rosales Saga during the Liberation, I already had a Basque in it as the first settler in the plains of eastern Pangasinan. Asperri is his name, a purely fictional creation – I knew that Basque names had lots of double r’s and z’s. In mid-1960s, I attended the 10th anniversary of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin. The Congress was an international organization of writers, and academics. I had not taken any vacation in the ten years that I was with the old Manila Times; I asked the publisher, Chino Roces, if I could have a six-month sabbatical to attend the conference and travel in Europe and the Americas as a roving reporter. He agreed.

I reserved a month in the Basque; I planned to finish my novel, The Pretenders – portions of which were already published. In 1955, on my first trip to the United States, I briefly attended Henry Kissinger’s International Seminar in Harvard and met a young Bilbao banker, Rafael Zabala. He had located an inn in the village of Marquina where I could stay for a month to write. Rafael took me to the village, an hour away from Bilbao – then a grimy industrial city. We drove on an asphalt road, through well-tended farms to the heart of Marquina and the Vega hotel. The rent was two dollars a day with food. 

Breakfast consisted of cheese, milk and bread, and dinner was usually merluza from the bay of Biscay. I took long walks. The land green and fertile. The cottages sturdy and white washed. The afternoon quiet often shattered by what sounded like pistol shots were actually the boys playing pelota. That week in Berlin had been very stimulating for me, with those luminaries from all over. I listened and participated in the discussions on the theme, Tradition and Modernity. I met personalities who became friends, the bibliographer, Ivan Kats, the Spanish writer, Salvador de Madariaga, the French poet, Pierre Emmanuel. The discussions were not structured; they were intense and free-wheeling. The issues – communism, and for my own interest – revolution. I had dwelt on its periphery, having studied our own peasant revolts, and the 1896 revolution. Would it have succeeded if the Americans did not abort it? What were the real objectives of that Revolution? All of these came to mind, I had already plotted the fate of Tony Samson in The Pretenders – young, poor, but with a Harvard Ph.D. He had also married very well – which promised him a very comfortable future. But in his heart, he knew he had compromised his own ideals. He had to kill himself to redeem himself, his legacy. His death will only have meaning if it was also a revolutionary act. And that was how I accepted revolution, in a solitary room in Marquina in the Basque. And the moment I did, it seemed as if a heavy burden was lifted off my chest. I felt so light with freedom and joy, as if I had awakened from a long sleep into a bright effulgent morning.

A European ambassador in Manila has observed that I may never get the Nobel Prize because of my explicit espousal of revolution. We never really know what lurks in the minds of those august judges in Stockholm, but I am certain of what is in my mind.

Of course, I aspired for the Nobel Prize after so many foreign translations of my work appeared. My hopes were buoyed by foreign media, first by the Singapore Straits Times which proclaimed I may be the first Filipino to get it. This was followed by French media. And soon after, in the annual list of favored candidates, my name was on it. Then, when I was eighty, Sam Vaughan, my Random House editor, sent me an article on the world’s great writers that didn’t get the Nobel, Tolstoy and Graham Greene among them. I have always admired Norman Mailer, expected him to get the Nobel, and when he died without getting it, all my hopes faded. Now, being 95, I no longer dream of the Nobel, but I continue to dream, to long for the revolution that will finally bestow justice and prosperity to my unhappy country. In this venerable age, I have seen changes:  the old sugar oligarchy is gone, replaced by a new one, basically composed of ethnic Chinese who came here with nothing, but by exploiting the land and people, they became billionaires. I hope their offsprings are endowed with a sense of moral obligation to this country. They are not all that concerned with politics – money is their primary motivation. But while I continue to dream, I am also constantly aware of the possibility that this dream may also fade. At a brilliant lecture recently at the Ateneo, Conchita Carpio Morales, former Ombudsman and chairman of the Akademyang Filipino, decried the rampant corruption that is corroding the very foundation of the nation. She named the Marcoses, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. And so, I asked her – why then are they back in power? She said, “that is the question I should ask the Filipino people.”

Alas. in the end, we are our worst enemy.

In her brilliant autobiography, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil concluded, “It’s all vanity.” Sure, I wrote for I, myself and me, work is the law of life, and God knows I worked hard to please myself – yes, but also to give meaning to this mundane life. Sure, I worked also for others in the hope that our people will be free from poverty. Yet through all these years, that poverty has deepened, so has moral decay and apathy. God, we need that revolution now to end all these, and to ensure that this metastatic republic will survive and prevail.

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