National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose Turns 90
It’s just like before the war, when the districts of Ermita and Malate where I lived and spent my childhood hosted numerous boutique shops, quaint bakeries, modistas (dressmakers) and small mom-and-pop shops. The mansions had Spanish names like Casa Tesoro, El Nido and, our neighbor on M. H. del Pilar, the Zobel-owned Chateau Marie. The neighborhood even developed its own Spanish patois, signs like “Cuidado con el perro” were common.
This bookstore doesn’t accept credit cards. Just like before the war, when there were no credit cards and no need for them. The store is owned by my friend Frankie Sionil Jose. I had thought he’d immigrated to New York when I last checked on him, but no, he’s still here, a true survivor.
To me it seems that Sionil Jose’s novel Ermita, the tale of a female protagonist with the same name who was born in the affluence and privilege of the Ermita before the war, is an allegorical story of Ermitaños who survived the wholesale destruction of their enclave but not the love-hate relationship of Filipinos and Americans that it engendered.
In his memoir, Sionil Jose expresses this ambiguity and calls it a “loss of innocence.” He relates that as a young man who returned to Manila after the battle, he “walked around the ravaged city, compelled to see the length and breadth of the destruction, of what happened to the landmarks, the vaunted edifices that I knew. I had passed some of the gutted towns where battles were fought but not this, not this. I met people looking for their loved ones, their ruined homes; disbelief on their faces. All over the plundered landscape, the stench of carrion hung heavy as the cleaning up, the picking up of pieces had yet to be completed."
Sionil Jose wept as he sat on the rocks of the Luneta in the dying rays of the sunset, remembering the words of General MacArthur. “Returning to the devastated city, he had commented on the courage and stoicism of survivors, that he did not see a single teary face.”
Yet, like the protagonist of his novel, the story bears a hint of hope. Perhaps it’s this hope that led my old friend to set up his bookshop in Ermita, at the corner of Jorge Bocobo (formerly Nebraska) and Padre Faura. Like its namesake, La Solidaridad (the revolutionary newspaper), the bookshop is not just a collection of libertarian ideas in the fields of politics, science, art, literature, commerce, agriculture and industry. Established in 1965, it’s more than a link to the past, a repository of Filipino aspirations. It’s a hope for the Filipino future.
Whether one agrees with him or not, the 88-year-old writer speaks his mind. He views the writer’s role as a prophet for the future because of his links to the past. He brings to our collective awareness the things we have forgotten, in particular the First EDSA. “To help make this country, to shape this country, into a nation—and you can only do that if people have memory.”
He adds, “The past can be meaningful when, with memory, we realize our failings and the possibilities that we missed. Manila in the Thirties had fewer than a million people — with slums, for sure, and people who were hungry, too. But in hindsight, our leaders should have had vision to face the urban blight, the moral malaise that loomed so clearly ahead. They didn’t.”
It’s a fate we’re doomed to repeat if we continue to ignore our past.
This story was previously posted in Lou Gopal’s Manila Nostalgia blog.
Larry Ng was Radio TV Director for Grant Advertising International when he was invited to join ABS CBN Sales, after which he migrated to Australia just prior to the imposition of martial law. Following the downfall of Marcos, Geny Lopez Jr. asked him to return to ABS-CBN as Director for TV News and Current Affairs, a position he held for five years before retiring.