Friday, February 26, 2016

"A durable thread that ties you to a past that created you"


I've noticed a pattern in the Rosales Saga since reading the previous third installment of the series, My Brother, My Executioner. Simply put, the issues concerning national freedom and independence as well as the struggles, prejudices and prevalent corruption that have defined the relationship of Filipinos with themselves and their own countrymen ARE STILL THE SAME THINGS that are being discussed and argued to this day in my country. Now it was under a different social context but the fight is still being fought, and perhaps is currently suffering a stagnation. FSJ's Rosales Saga was written in 1973 (starting with the third book I mentioned above), and his insights and chronicles about the effects of Spanish and American colonialism in Filipino heritage and culture are impressive and beautifully rendered on page. My personal favorite installment of this saga will always be Po-On which is the first book (ironically written as the last one, chronologically speaking).

FSJ's four books so far do have common themes. They were all set in Rosales, Pangasinan in Luzon, Philippines, and the five generations of families whose relationships and crises he had tackled are all connected by the Balete tree located in the plaza of Rosales town. FSJ explored the conflicts and strife that occurred between the families of poor farmers and the oppressive mestizos who are the rich, abusing their power and control on the lands these farmers are working on. Other obvious themes deal with first cousins who fall in love with each other (third and fourth books focus on this), the subjugation and suffering of a father that impacted a son's upbringing as a progeny and his own man; both failed and successful attempts at social reform; and the breaking points both personal and national that the characters have to face and make decisions for. The Pretenders is no exception.

In fact, many would consider this to be the climactic part of the series. 


"Revolutions for a better life are never made by the rich and the intellectuals. They have everything to lose and they are not brave. Revolutions are made by small men--poor men--for they are the ones who suffer most. They care the least about status quo."

I remember when I first started reading this series two years ago. Each installment took a hold of me and ripped me in new ways I never thought I could be ripped. The precious details and tremendous moments of insights that F. Sionil Jose has imparted in each book will forever be engraved in my soul. That being said, the third book My Brother, My Executioner was somewhat alienating but mainly because of the romantic subplot concerning the lead male character and a peculiar woman which I found rather tedious because I wasn't emotionally invested enough on their characters. For The Pretenders, we get yet another romantic relationship, this time between Antonio Samson and Carmen Villa. Their marriage is a contested one, given his humble roots and her well-to background, but because there is love between, they both make it work; more so on Tony's end because he was the one who feels he has to prove something to the Villa family. This, for me, is the highlight of the novel.

Tony Samson is a free thinker at heart; educated in America and very much both cynical and hopeful that he could still contribute some changes in his homeland's politics and way of life. He used to participate in ideology and social reform discussions and writings with fellow intellectual compatriots whom he had grown estranged with the more he became a part of his wife's family. In doing so, he becomes even more entrenched in the corrupt system between the rich mestizos and the poor peasants and farmers who work for them but have also been rebelling against them for years. His marriage to the lovely Carmen has driven him right at the heart of the monster that he and other like-minded scholars had expressed the wish to bring to its knees, when he became friendly with Carmen's father Don Manuel Villa. By having a more personal connection to the man, Tony began to examine things about his own principles and his past.


"The fight for freedom must be constant. Don't forget that men can be enslaved by their own people, by their own prejudices, by their own rulers. What I am saying is that the ilustrados were not the real patriots. They wanted nothing more than equality. They didn't want freedom. It was enough that they could dine with their rulers, argue with them. But is another thing to be free. A revolution should not have to eat its own children. In fact, it is those who are in power who could very well initiate revolutions. Let us not be old-fashioned and think only of armed uprising of minorities as revolutions."


There are many discussions to be had about national icons and expressions of nationalism, some of them concerning the contrast between Jose Rizal's call for reformation and equality with the Spanish conquerors, and Andres Bonifacio's more radical revolution for the country's total independence and freedom from colonizers. The Pretenders is for me the most mediative installment of the Rosales Saga told in the perspective of a man who is torn between two worlds; the one he longed for in his heart as a freedom fighter, and the one he had to settle din since he married into its family. I like the internal struggle that Tony Samson has undergone during this novel because his transformation was poignant and challenging. Carmen Villa, his wife, was a vain, pampered and materialistic woman who unexpectedly understands Tony better than I would have given her credit for. It doesn't make her any likable for me because something about who she is and the role that she played in the story that just never sat right with me, but I certainly do believe she was well-written. I believed her characterization even if it was something I feel repelled by.

A key conflict that is highlighted for The Pretenders is Tony's dilemma between his humble roots and heritage and his new life as a privileged man in relation to him marrying rich. Suddenly he was being judged and often condemned for his choice, but it was nothing compared to his own brand of guilt because he felt as if he has more obligations to his country and ideology rather than to his own wife, and this was how his relationship with her slowly deteriorated. There is more tension and strife among the classes of the country which take place both in the local lands and in the universities of foreign lands where Tony along other scholars get caught up in. Tony acknowledged that he is indeed among the privileged ones but it doesn't make his desire to fight for his country any less noble than his poorer and uneducated counterparts in small towns, nor does it diminish his capacity to be a tool for change and prosperity for his homeland. Tony Samson can be likened to the modern Filipino still finding his place in the world. His story connects him to a past that chose him, and it's also our story.



"...because any movement that seeks to overhaul established attitudes is, I think, a revolution."


The Pretenders is a novel that tries to unmask the players who truly want to contribute something meaningful for love of country, while also revealing the hidden ones who only wish to gain an advantage that feeds their own self-interest and egos. Much like FSJ's earlier books in the series, it was superbly written with crisp prose and riveting exposition and character portraits.



RECOMMENDED: 8/10

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