12 June 2011


Option 7: The God Stealer by F. Sionil Jose
(Visit the new Giveaways page to learn how you could win this book!)

They were the best of friends and that was possible because they worked in the same office and both were young and imbued with a freshness of outlook. Sam Christie was twenty-eight and his Filipino assistant, Philip Latak, was twenty-six and was--just as Sam was in the Agency for International Development before he assumed his post--intelligent and industrious.

"That is to be expected," the official whom Sam replaced explained, "because Philip is Ifugao and you don't know patience until you have seen the rice terraces his ancestors built."

"You will find," Sam Christie was also told, "that the Ifugao, like the Ilocanos, no matter how urbanised they already are, retain a sense of inferiority. Not Philip. He is proud of being Ifugao . . ."

--from the short story The God Stealer

F. Sionil Jose is a writer I am very ambivalent about. On the one hand, his Po-on is one of my favourite Filipino novels of all time. (That's why it remains Option 4 in this year's June Giveaway.) On the other hand, it's only one of five novels in his Rosales saga--and I couldn't stand three of the other four enough even to finish them. (The last one I didn't even bother with. And frankly, I couldn't tell you which were which.)

That's why I'm a bit nervous about throwing the short story anthology The God Stealer into the giveaway pool this year. It has thirteen different stories (Oooh! Lucky number! LOL!), but only a few I really love. In fact, there are some I hadn't read until I said to myself, "Hey, why don't I include that story about the Filipino named Philip and the American named Sam?" and bought this specific collection so I could reread it. And there are a couple of stories I don't like at all and the rest I have yet to read. I'm probably not the best person to recommend this book, but it's in the pool, anyway. Caveat lector.

Having said that, let me give you a sampler of the other stories I am familiar with . . .

The Heirs

"Don Jacinto Asperri first envisioned the good he could do with the plain that surrounded Rosales in 1855 . . ."

Rosales is to F. Sionil Jose what Wessex is to Thomas Hardy: a fictional setting in which stories have all the weight of realness. It is the ground in which he has rooted the five-novel saga for which he is most famous . . . and this ambitious short story. Here we have four generations of the Asperri family representing the history of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. Seen through their eyes, the Philippine Revolution was an insurrection--a true horror--a bloodbath for which we natives have never been sorry--a hell from which they've never been able to rise again. It's a point of view our period literature doesn't tend to be open to. Jose doesn't hold back in his depictions of either Spanish cruelty or Spanish suffering.

A Man's Reward is in Heaven
"For the last two weeks . . . he had wanted so much to see another thing--that fabulous Manila sunset which he had heard so much about, when the mountains, strung across the bay in that velvet dusk took on the shape of a reclining woman, and the air above the bay ignited like fireworks . . ."

I'm not sure why I'm so fascinated by American characters in Filipino short stories. Maybe it's because Filipino writers first took to the short story (mastering the form, as some literary critics claim) during our "American period." You'd expect some subversive digs in there, aye? Well, Jose's sword cuts both ways in this story about an American who has come to the Philippines to find natives deserving of fellowships to US universities. It is his last evening in the country, his last cocktail party with the creme of the local intelligentsia . . . and they're all highbrow monstrosities. (Sigh.) Well, except for one man . . . but he's practically the waiter. It's a steady-eyed satire of a nation that almost doubles as its elegy.

"It was safe now for me to speak, to open up, because the years had created the courage with which I could, in all frankness, declare: I wanted you, which I really did, so I spoke out . . ."

This story was new to me until a few days ago. When I had read it through, I was reminded of that Reader's Digest anthology Short Stories of the World: a virtual salad of short stories by famous writers, all tossed together with no explanation of why they go together and what we're supposed to look for when we take a bite. Sometimes I'd read a story and wonder why the heck it was included: I didn't think it was bad; I just didn't see what the point was. Well, at the risk of sounding condescending, I can see this story having the same effect on international readers who know next to nothing about Jose. What's the point of reading about a man who visits his college sweetheart eight years after she inexplicably eloped with the campus jerk? No spoiler here, but if you win and choose this book as your prize, I'll tell you the answer if you ask! ;-)

The Exile
". . . he could not really leave, could not be released from the formidable chains that bound them both, this kinship, knowledge, and this hating which united them because hate did not affirm, did not give birth to some nobility of the spirit, because hate did not edify. It destroyed . . ."

And now for a story I hated when I first read it and still don't much like now. I find it depressing, demoralising and slightly dirty. A young man thinks he can escape a homeland he has come to hate by living in "exile" in Europe--only to have it sneak up on him where he least expects it. The main character is nearly suffocated by his self-loathing--and he seems to bat off any sympathy he gets from anyone, including the reader. The other characters aren't much better; I wouldn't like to know any of them. And the worst part is that I know what Jose was trying to say in this story, agree with the conclusion he has reached, and believe he made his case very well. Grrrrr!

You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you have a taste for "post-colonial" literary fiction that doesn't flinch from the sordid side of human nature or the complexes of its own author.

Image Source: The God Stealer by F. Sionil Jose


Salome Ellen said...

I can see that I will have to work for more entries than I might otherwise have bothered with, because I want to know how the title story turns out! Great teaser.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thank you, Ellen. =) Good luck in the giveaway!