Option 28: Ben Singkol by F. Sionil Jose
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. . . "I suppose each generation faces some kind of test. Whether that generation is strong or not, not the entire generation itself, but its members, individuals like you. Like me. My grandfather's generation . . . It was the Spaniards who tested them, and the Americans, too, whom they fought courageously . . . And my generation, it was the Japanese who tested us."
She leaned back and looked very thoughtful. "And perhaps, mine--it is being tested now by Marcos."
I nodded. I was sure she would pass the ordeal. And suddenly, again as in the past few weeks, cold apprehension, of fear even, enveloped me. My only daughter, my joy, and she was walking on the perilous edge. She knew what Marcos's soldiers had done . . .
When I decided that Ben Singkol would be my F. Sionil Jose novel of the year, it was mostly because I thought it was a World War II novel. And while the Japanese occupation and the American revenge do play a huge part in the plot, it is not strictly a WWII novel anymore than it is a Martial Law novel. It's more like a wide sweep of twentieth-century Philippine history, as seen through the eyes of one man.
Jose has a wonderful way of making his main characters "stand-ins" for the whole country. You've already read about Istak Salvador of Po-on (Option 4), whose growth parallels the Philippines' development from a colony into a nation . . . Phil of The God Stealer (Option 7), whose desire to impress an American friend mirrors the dysfunctional relationship of both countries . . . Ermi and Mac of Ermita (Option 14), whose frustrated love story embodies what patriots must feel when they see their country playing the whore . . . and even Tranquilino "Spider Man" Penoy of Gagamba (which I decided against adding to the giveaway pool), whose deformities are a metaphor for the corruption in the Filipino character. But Benjamin Singkol stands out for also being a stand-in for Jose.
After all these years, whenever I look back, I do so with wonder--surprise, even--at the distance I have traveled. But then, it took more than seventy years! Seventy years! And each of them is imprinted here in my mind--not the glow of good fortune, but those difficult times, those bitter times when I had nothing to eat and my stomach was sour and churning and was so weak, malnourished and thin. Not that I'm a masochist addicted to suffering, because much as I have always considered myself a moral and physical coward, I have triumphed nonetheless, over myself and my background--and I have been able to do this, I think, because I am deeply aware of who I am, my deformity, my origins. I am humbled by these every time I survey my surroundings now. How was it possible at all?
When I come to passages like the above, I'm not sure who is really speaking: the septuagenarian narrator Singkol or the septuagenarian author Jose. Indeed, Ben Singkol is Jose's most autobiographical work. And although it lacks the thematic clarity of Ermita and the epic sense of Po-on, it surpasses them in verisimilitude.
Both author and main character lived in Manila during World War II and the Martial Law era--and both of them got their start in journalism during the post-war years in between. And when the novel's characters start to interact with real historical figures, including Dr. Juan Flavier (author of Doctor to the Barrios, which is Option 19!) and Nick Joaquin (who is the only other author with more books in the giveaway pool than Jose!), it is hard to tell the difference between the fiction of Singkol's life and the facts of Jose's. In the middle of reading, I actually asked an older friend, the daughter of one of President Marcos's generals, if she had met General Froilan Dawel!!!
But Ben Singkol isn't just a quick tour of the twentieth-century. It is also an analysis of why so much went so wrong, so fast. The usual answer is to blame the colonisers and occupiers--but Jose insists that the real enemy was always within our own ranks. As Singkol's grandfather learned while fighting the Spaniards and the Americans . . . and as Singkol himself learned while fighting the Japanese with the Americans . . . foreigners were never the problem. Not when there were so many Filipinos happy to sell out their fellows for a share of the spoils--as we see in the scene when a resourceful Filipino corporal (Guess who?!) peddles both fresh mangoes and "tight" local girls to a camp of American GIs. This thread runs through all of Jose's fiction: the injustice and indignity of being sold into slavery by your own brothers.
Now that I think about it, I wonder that Jose named his protagonist Benjamin instead of Joseph. Too obvious perhaps? Joseph Singkol = F. Sionil Jose? But I'm sure the connection occurred to him, if only subconsciously, for two characters in the novel are named Josefina.
Ben Singkol is the third giveaway novel that could use a bit of copyediting, but it's the least problematic. Mostly the use of "can" when the correct modal is "could," or the present perfect tense when the verb should be in the past perfect tense. I'd be the first to argue that it shouldn't bother you, but it does throw the narrator's career in journalism into some question. =P
You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you've read another F. Sionil Jose novel in the past and are curious about the man who wrote it.
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Image Source: Ben Singkol by F. Sionil Jose