17 June 2010


Character Connection 8

Read about Agatha Raisin and other great creations
in this week's crop of Character Connections!

Today, I feature another character from one of the featured novels in my contest/giveaway. (It's not too late to join!)

It is a novel that I put off reading for many years because I thought it would be depressing and awful, like two Filipino novels in the canon that I'm not even going to name because they suck so much. But now that I have read it, I find myself wishing I had read it earlier--indeed, that I had read all five of the novels in this saga earlier--and that I could write about them with familiarity and not just awe. Well, I suppose a reader must always have something to strive for, and in ten years I'll be able to do just that.

In the meantime, here is some more awe . . .

Eustaquio "Istak" Salvador
by F. Sionil Jose

The Revolution had never really mattered to [Istak]. He had gone over the copies of La Solidaridad and returned them; and when [Don Jacinto] had asked him what he had found in them that impressed him, he had said quickly that there was great truth in what the ilustrados wrote about being rooted in the land. But this truth was self-evident to those who worked the land themselves.

Don Jacinto did not reply; perhaps he understood that there was no measure for love of country except in sacrifice, and why ask the poor for more sacrifices? It was the comfortable, the rich like himself--although Istak did not put it this way--who should express it with their wealth. The poor had only their lives to give.

Writing about the character of Istak is like writing about the whole novel all over again. In some ways, Istak is the novel.

This focus on one individual seems strange when we note that the story's scope, character-wise, is constantly widening like ripples in a huge lake. We start with one nuclear family, then all their relatives in the same village, then some barely remembered cousins from another village, then all fellow Ilokanos, then some sympathetic ilustrados from the capital, then a battalion of Tagalogs who learn to accept an Ilokano as a brother, and finally, a handful of Americans who have come (and Jose makes this point so tragically) to take control of a land that is not theirs. Po-on is an epic.

And yet we can also say that Po-on is the story of one good man, for the first ripple in the centre of that huge lake is that of a single character. Istak is the "Juan de la Cruz" figure in this book; it is he who embodies all Filipinos of this historical setting, even though he is only, as his wife humbly hopes, one of the "little people" of the day.

But let us look at Istak more closely . . . We know he received the best and the worst of Spanish colonial rule: a classical education, true devotion to God, sound theology, a sense of duty to others . . . and a bullet in his shoulder for being brown. Simultaneously a peasant and an ilustrado, he is close enough to the land to be an industrious settler and yet will literally climb mountains for the sake of a nation bigger than the single region he loves. Yet he is meant to go only so far.

A man like Istak might have prospered in an age of self-government--a pillar of the community transitioning easily into a pillar of the country. But the age of American rule is not for him.

Right now some sensitive reader might be wondering, "Does this mean Po-on is a tragedy?"

I respond that Po-on is a life and that even the best lives inevitably end with death.

And, incidentally, "po-on" is the Ilokano word for "grave."

Image Source: Po-on by F. Sionil Jose


Sullivan McPig said...

This book and character sound very interesting. I think this one is on the lead at the moment for me, but I'll reread the other posts too just to be sure.

Enbrethiliel said...


Don't decide yet! There are still more posts to come! =D

I must say I'm surprised by your choice so far, Sully. I've tended to associate you with the Paranormal and Fantasy books you feature on your blog, and Po-on is more gritty and realistic. But don't let me box you in with my impressions! ;-)

Sullivan McPig said...

You can box me in, just don't be surprised when I break out of the box from time to time :-p

IntrovertedJen said...

You've outdone yourself with this post. I admit that I know practically nothing about the Philippines and your history, but it sounds like this author has almost managed to make the country's history into one man's history. Am I mistaken in that? That's quite an accomplishment and it sounds like it worked well and created a fascinating character. This line: "A man like Istak might have prospered in an age of self-government--a pillar of the community transitioning easily into a pillar of the country. But the age of American rule is not for him." How sad when such external factors prevent people from achieving their potential, and yet that's the reality sometimes, isn't it?

Enbrethiliel said...


Jen: Yes, you've got it! =D The country's history is his own personal history. I haven't run across any character like him in local literature and am wondering why this book is not better loved.