Manila at the tail end of the Second World War.
So it came to pass when as a young man, Frankie journeyed on foot to his hometown in Rosales, Pangasinan from Manila to flee a city in the throes of hunger.
The Americans had returned under the command of Gen. Douglas McArthur and the bombardment commenced, sending the Japanese invaders in a scuffle for their lives.
Manila, caught in the crossfire of one of the fiercest battles for dominion and survival, bled for many days. Food was scarce. Scarcer still were the places of refuge. Manila, once known as the Pearl of the Orient, was in shambles, its once exquisite landmarks reduced to rubble.
The death toll on both sides had been staggering, to say nothing of the stench of death all around.
With nothing but the clothes on their back and meagre provisions, Frankie and the other boys walked the close to 200 kilometers of paved and rough roads for a full seven days, stopping over rows of abandoned houses where they spent the night.
The aging rail system had long been abandoned, forcing people to take the old trail as an alternative route.
Today, a trip to Rosales stretches for only about two and a half hours via the North Expressway R8. On a good day, a traveler would be treated to acres of fertile green rice paddies, a host of river systems, lush foliage, rows of mango trees and houses built of stone.
Frankie reminisced how nipa huts once studded the Pangasinan countryside, where the occasional wooden houses of the rich and famous towered above the other homes.
We were to learn later on that the once majestic houses still stood, rousing Frankie to recall how he had depicted them during the writing of his novels: The Rosales Saga.
Some of these houses, Frankie affirmed, offered protection to Apolinario Mabini, who, after fleeing from a horde of American troops in a chase for Filipino insurgents, sought sanctuary in Rosales.
Frankie was born Francisco Sionil José weeks before Christmas of 1924 to Antonio José, an Aglipayan minister and Sofia Sionil.
Our trip brought us to where he was born. It was a humble patch of land where his former home had now disappeared. He told the story of how this house, which had long been the quiet harbor of the José family, burned down decades ago. Today, only loose grass remains and a couple of trees.
Frankie mentioned how Rosales had brought him face to face with the realities of life, how poverty and wealth, family and friendships, war and peace had shaped his own views and prompted him to write his novels. A lot of what he had seen and heard formed the crux of the stories he told.
As a child, Frankie combed the Rosales countryside for places to see and visit. Gripped by a profound curiosity rarely seen in boys his age, he walked for miles if only to climb a mountain and spend the cold night there.
When occasions allowed, he’d take a dip at the Agno River or watch the comings and goings of buses that ply the highway. Often in these excursions, he went barefoot or used only tattered slippers, hardly minding where his feet would take him.
Life was all but brusque and impatient in Rosales during Frankie’s childhood. The municipality was said to have been named in honor of Don Antonio Rosales Liberal, the former Consejero de Filipinas en el Ministro de Ultramar or the country’s foreign minister. It was created via a royal decree in 1852.
It began as a humble town of a few thousand families, mostly émigrés from the Ilocos region, Frankie told the Graphic. Rosales grew before the two world wars from these settlements. A thriving railroad system—the Manila-Dagupan Railway Co. Ltd.—brought along with these families much of the Ilocano mores and ethos in Pangasinan.
History tells us that the same railway system, on Dec. 27, 1897, brought Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo and Spanish governor Gen. Primo de Rivera to Sual. There they boarded the ship S.S. Uranus to Hongkong where Aguinaldo lived a life of exile as a result of the Pact of Biak-na-Bato.
“In my novel, Poon,” the National Artist said, “I mentioned the fall of the Malolos Republic and how Gen. Antonio Luna and Bishop Aglipay proceeded to the north and planned their escape. The idea was to wage a guerilla war and, at the same time, establish a revolutionary government in Northern Luzon. They will be based in the Cordilleras where it would be difficult to get to them. They will be sustained by the Cagayan Valley and the Ilocos Region.
“What happened was, the Americans knew of the plan. So they landed a party in San Fabian, Pangasinan, somewhere along the coast, and marched across the central plains. They shut off the gateway into the Cagayan Valley.
“There are several ways across the Caraballo to the Cagayan Valley. But they were very narrow and very steep. The Santa Fe trail is the best way to the Cagayan Valley. There was also the Villaverde trail in Tayug, Besang Pass in Ilocos Sur and Tirad Pass further north. So Filipinos had to go north, with the Americans only hours behind them. They chose Tirad Pass.”
The first hour or so on the road with Frankie opened a discussion on a number of topics, power being the most enthralling. At 92, it is safe to say that he had seen it all, felt it all. And while he can be quite outspoken on subjects that are way too controversial, mostly those pertaining to politics, what is noticeable was Frankie’s continuing empathy with the human condition.
As with the idea of power, Frankie insists that here, the human condition also applies, especially in relation to political power.
“I look at power first,” he said, “Who wields it, how it’s wielded. By this you can explain many things. Only then can you understand it, where it succeeds and where it fails. Also, relationships, as one person from Ateneo described as our penchant for “pakikisama.” I always look at relationships wherever it can be found. In this relationships, loyalties included, reside power. Which is why President Duterte should look for loyalties in the military and the other agencies of government, because without it, he is powerless. He should establish these coalitions.”
Frankie is no stranger to controversy, for sure. His recent blog, “The Duterte Revolution” has had its share of critics from a number of netizens. Some have called his attention on what seemed like Frankie’s “approval” of the killings, to which he answered:
“If they will judge my stand on the basis of one piece I wrote, disregarding the rest that I have written all these years, then they are mistaken.”
And so I asked him point blank on his thoughts on the new President, ever mindful that the National Artist had written a body of work that would be sufficient for a Nobel.
“Yes, I am for Duterte now, because makatao siya,” he said. “He is for the people. He’s not only introducing an efficient government but a caring government. When he said people should not anymore fall in line and waste another hour to get government services, that’s what I mean by caring. Things like this matter to people. The important thing is that Duterte is the first president who is non-oligarchic in background. Of course, there are rich people who supported him. But the oligarchy, as such, supported the other candidates.
“However, the President is moving too fast. The important thing is that the machinery for revolution has been set up. The changes must and should continue. If he is smart, then he should see this through. The idea is to institutionalize all these reforms. We have to wait and see.”
For Frankie, Duterte embodies the sort of change that, if institutionalized, might give this country the chance at long-term reforms. The challenge, of course, is close to being insurmountable had the President taken a softer route. Duterte’s dealings with the Left had proven that it was possible to take a leap of faith even in the day and age of technology.
“Immediately the President took the high moral ground by offering the Left peace. He puts them on the defensive immediately. We are here given a glimpse of how Duterte thinks. All we have to do is look back at Davao itself. Remember, 20 years ago, Davao was called Nicaragdao (a pun on the violence and disorder that once struck Nicaragua). What did he do? Cleaned it up. There are things he does that shock people. It’s psychological warfare. Except that I don’t like what he’s doing to Leila de Lima.”
On the issue of Federalism, the National Artist aired his doubts:
“Federalism, to me, is a big question mark,” he said. “I am not convinced for the simple reason that we are not politically ready. They will only be giving the local warlords more power. It really depends on the style and systems that will be adopted. However, I am for emasculating Congress. I am for strengthening the judicial system. For example, if we are 48 provinces, then let’s have only 48 lawmakers. Streamline the whole system. Sessions should only be four months out of the year. They’re not doing anything anyway. The President or the Prime Minister can call for a session anytime or if there is an emergency. We abolish the party-lists. I hope we adopt the system in Britain where a candidate, who may not be as rich, can still run for office.”
As for the previous administration, here’s what Frankie told the Graphic: “In the first two years I liked him, then afterwards… You know I once sat with Lacierda. I introduced myself. He never once talked with me (laughs). If he was the spokesman for the President, he should’ve at least talked with me. And here comes Zubiri, whom I didn’t know from Adam, and he held and kissed my hands. Nagmano sa akin. I mean, as a writer, he knows I can be of good use to him. And so I thought, Lacierda is lost somewhere.”
National unity and diversity, subjects that intrigued this novelist for some time, had kept him occupied. As a student of language and its varying demands on a society nearly crushed by overwhelming differences, Frankie saw to it to build bridges than obstructions:
“The real question we must ask is: do we trust ourselves? That’s why it’s important to build a sense of nation. Without it, we’re done for. See, we don’t have emblems to inspire unity and identity, like the kings of old. To make diversity, especially in our languages, not as obstructions but bridges. Hindi is the national language of India, but it is not forced upon the people. They cannot force it because the other languages are just as strong. And most of these languages carry a classical tradition. This is also the reason why in the translation of my novels into Filipino, I asked Lualhati Bautista to translate ‘Mass’ in the Tagalog of the marketplace, so I will be understood everywhere in the country. I grew up in Manila, here in 1938 when I was 13.
“History should unite us,” he stressed. “But the best reason to bond for all of us is love for country. Nationalism. Problem with that is that everyone can call himself a nationalist. As it was once said, the last refuge of the scoundrel is nationalism. Maybe the better word is patriotism.
“I also believe that the real national language will develop in Mindanao. I believe that. Because right now, Filipino is actually Tagalog. I would like to see the day when Balay is used simultaneously with the other languages. Some are stuck in a time freeze as regards indigenous culture. You cannot do that. They should bring them up to the 21st century, teach them to use computers. Or else they will be stuck. We are all tribes, if you think about it. But we should transcend this and be Filipinos. To have a sense of nation.”