27 June 2014


Character Connection 45

Read about Doc Holliday and link up your own post
@ The Introverted Reader

Look! The Character Connection linky is back! =D Just in time for the June Giveaway, too! I've never done my annual reading challenge without writing at least one Character Connection post, and I'm glad to say that the tradition remains unbroken this year.

And by the way, Jen, I have three more Character Connection posts that I wrote up in the past year, in anticipation of the linky's return. So I can join a few more of your future parties, any time you want to host them! ;-)

Froilan Dawel
Ben Singkol
by F. Sionil Jose

[Froilan and I] had gone that morning to the dam to swim . . . The end of March--we had all the time for swimming as school had closed, and it being the height of the dry season, the creek was almost dry except in the position that was dammed. A tiny spill always flowed down from the catchment and we were on top of the dam which was always slippery with its cover of moss. I was not careful with my footing and I had slipped, banged my head against the cement--that was the last I remember for when I could recognise again the shape of things, I was on the bank of the creek, the sunlight on my face, my chest in great pain, and my breathing in slow, difficult spasms. But hovering over me was that face, grinning, Froilan Dawel's--he soon bragged to everyone, to my parents, to our neighbours and classmates, that if he was not there, I could have drowned. I would therefore be indebted to him all my life, a debt I could not repay with money--which I did not have--but with deeds that proclaimed not only my gratitude but my fervent and eternal loyalty. I did not like that.

Would anybody like that? When I read the above paragraph, I wished that Froilan Dawel had either left our hero to die or been unsuccessful in saving him--which is, of course, easy for me to say. Ben Singkol is more grateful; happy to be alive, all he wishes is that his rescuer would leave him in peace. Fat chance, of course.

In the character of Dawel, F. Sionil Jose explores the dark side of what Filipinos call utang na loob, which is translated literally as "inner debt" and is known in English literature as "a pound of flesh." (William Shakespeare might have been wrong about Jews, but he was on the money--Ahem!--about creditors.) Singkol explains the concept perfectly in the excerpt: "inner debt" is the idea that we cannot repay certain favours with money, but that they must still be repaid. Our only hope is that our creditors turn out to be merciful. Singkol's great misfortune was finding himself owing an opportunist and moral usurer anything that the latter might ask for.

What strains a friendship can cripple a country. If you think that Dawel is awful as a friend, then you should see him in the military as a corporal . . . and later, after he decides to hitch his cart to a historical politician's rising star, as a major . . . as a colonel . . . and finally, as a general. Seven years after that politician is elected President of the Philippines, he is able to declare martial law and to be a dictator for over a decade, thanks to officers like Dawel, who have moral IOUs from everyone who is anyone in Philippine society. We get only a small glimpse of the power that Dawel is able to wield with utang na loob--only the interest that he demands from Singkol and the manipulation from pretending he has written the worst of it off--but we see enough. We also see what happens when Singkol falls in love with a beautiful girl who owes her own utang na loob to the middle-aged man who "saved" her entire family from another sort of drowning, in poverty.

And now for the hitch. I'm sure we all see that Dawel and his ilk are not just wrong, but also cruel, in insisting that others owe them for the rest of their lives; but now we have to deal with the question of what the proper way to show gratitude is. I like Jose's answer, which we see as Singkol's own rescue of another character grows naturally into something like brotherhood. But Jose stops at the individual level and does not continue. Is there really no solution to institutionalised utang na loob, by which an entire society can rise and fall?

My full review of Ben Singkol will come out tomorrow, but if you already think you want it, here is the Rafflecopter for your convenience. =)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Image Source: Ben Singkol by F. Sionil Jose


Introverted Jen said...

Sorry I've been such a slacker lately! I always enjoy reading your insightful Character Connections.

I read your excerpt and my skin crawled. It would be bad enough to owe that kind if debt to someone who doesn't see it as a debt but rather as the right thing to do. I can't imagine "owing" someone who reminds you of it constantly and then uses you to wield such terrible power!

Thanks for sticking with me!

Enbrethiliel said...


I braced myself whenever Froilan made another appearance in the story. =(

I wonder if there's a solid philosophical rebuttal to the idea of utang na loob--something that could empower Ben and the other characters to say, "Actually, I don't owe you that."

Paul Stilwell said...

Oh, the Rescuer who turns out to be a sort of omnipresent leech to the Rescuee...where have I have read or seen this kind of story before? It's genius. Perhaps it was a Hitchcock film.

I would look to Aquinas to break the idea of utang na loob.

My notion is that the saving of someone's life from death is something that cannot be paid back in kind (what, are you going to follow your rescuer everywhere he goes to maybe save him from mishap when it might happen to befall?), therefore the rescuer in rescuing the person was not exacting a debt, but the act of rescuing itself was an act of mercy.

By exacting a debt afterwards he is corrupting his act of mercy/virtue by exacting payment for it. *Who* he is exacting payment from is beside the point. He therefore becomes one of those who "has had his reward". He is twisting his act of virtue. Therefore, by acceding to his requests of payment, the rescuee is capitulating to the rescuer's twisting of his own act of virtue. By refusing to accede, the rescuee is refusing to be complicit in the twisting of virtue.

Simply, the rescuer is trying to get the recuee to become complicit in his corruption of virtue.

Enbrethiliel said...


If anyone could break it, St. Thomas Aquinas could! =)

I did figure that both a debt that cannot be paid back in kind and a debt that cannot be paid back at all aren't really "debts" by definition. We may owe some return for them, but not the return that is being demanded. And there really is an element of villainy is targeting someone as your "debtor," which we see Froilan do later in the novel as well.