04 June 2012


Reading Diary: Vibora! by F. Sionil Jose

"Ricarte stayed away too long. Did he ever come back [to the Philippines]?"

"The Japanese brought him back."

"How could he have stayed away so long if he loved this country so much?"

"To be in this country, he first had to sign a pledge of allegiance [to the US government]," I repeated.

"That is only a piece of paper, Papa. Loyalty to one's ideals, to one's country is here." She gestured, her closed fist to her breast. "It is here, Papa, and nowhere else. It is not in speeches, or in documents. They mean nothing. It is in the heart where it will always live."

Something I like to do each June is read something by F. Sionil Jose: preferably a book I've never tried before, although a story I haven't revisited in years is also good. That's why I was at the bookstore late last week looking for either Sin (which would be new to me) or Gagamba (which I last read over a decade ago). Neither was available, so I walked out with Vibora! instead.

Only after I had started reading it did I realise it is the sequel to an earlier novel, Ben Singkol. So although I had bought it with the intention of including it in June Giveaway pool, I had to change my mind: I don't really want to offer the second book in a "series" when I haven't read the first.

Besides, Vibora! isn't a stand-alone story in a second, more significant sense. You'd have to know about Artemio Ricarte--and to have some strong feelings about him--to get anything out of this book.

I gazed at your monument, at your stern but quiet face. Since I was now the same age as you at the time of your death, I wondered what your thoughts were before your last breath ebbed. Did you regret what you did, kept your faith although you knew that it brought you no joy, no reward or fulfillment--nothing really, but the contempt of your countrymen . . .

. . . Suddenly the statue came to life. Old man Ricarte jumped down from his perch, stood before me, his solemn eyes now blazing with contempt, with volcanic anger . . .

Although most of the characters who meet and write to narrator Ben Singkol are, like him, completely fictional, General Artemio Ricarte is not--and anyone can visit the latter's home province and see the same statue that jumps down near the end of Vibora! to confront Singkol and challenge the verdict of history.

That verdict is that Ricarte is not a national hero. Quite the opposite: inasmuch as he collaborated with the Japanese during World War II, even wearing their military uniform, he was branded the worst sort of traitor. There were few who heard about this elderly man's ignominious death in the mountains and felt sorry for him . . . just as there were few who heard about the "atomising" of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and didn't wish the United States had leveled Tokyo and many other Japanese cities as well.

But I've been sympathetic to Ricarte for years--and so very glad to see that Jose, one of my favourite Filipino writers, shares a similar view.

It's just not an easy view to explain. Ricarte might as well have worn a Nazi uniform. Prince Harry can't get away with wearing one to a Halloween party these days, much less an actual collaborator who wore one during the war.

Given the myriad cases against Ricarte, Jose styles his novel accordingly: it is not one fluid narrative, but many disjointed stories and points of view presented in non-chronological order. Yet it is not just his novel, but also his character Ben Singkol's "novel": Vibora! is Singkol's first-person presentation of all the research he has done on Ricarte, including letters from Japanese sources, interviews with American scholars, conversations with fellow Filipinos, an entry from Ricarte's own journal, and even a excerpt from some other author's novel about Ricarte. Of course, all these people Singkol quotes are as much a figment of Jose's imagination as he is. (Yes, I know it's complicated. Am I making any sense at all?)

It's as if Jose was so fascinated by his own research on Ricarte for his novel that he wanted the novel to be about research on Ricarte as well. (And now I remember my favourite professor, who said, "Every good book is about its own writing.") So that's what it is. But because fiction gets to have the sort of dramatic conclusion that is known as a climax, both Jose and Singkol give Ricarte himself a chance to speak at the end. In a twist worthy of Nick Joaquin's fiction, Ricarte's statue comes to life before Singkol's eyes and answers every last accusation ever hurled at him.

I'm not going to tell you what he says, but you can bet that it's damning.

Image Source: Vibora! by F. Sionil Jose, b) Artemio Ricarte monument, Batac, Ilocos Norte

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