Option 33: Viajero: A Filipino Novel by F. Sionil Jose
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What does it mean to be an exile? More and more Buddy was being confronted by the phenomenon. Was he himself one? an exile from his own self? Or now that he was in Europe an exile from the plenitude of America? America had an exile tradition, the writers who went to Europe before World War II, his father himself, seeking in France the freedom denied him in America.
And there is that exile who has never left his native land, who has shut himself up in a mansion, a shell, a prison, uninvolved with the humanity around him, as if it were some distant swamp of smells and unseen dangers surrounding him, but unable to touch him, because in body and in mind, his defences are secure. Or such an exile can, on occasion, with patronising reluctance, leave his sanctuary and go down to feel the outside, to experience vicariously its varied tastes, and having done so hurries back to the comfort of his old habitat. Such an exile does exist, a voyeur in the turmoil of the world, an excursionist--and thinking thus, Buddy was shocked that this very creature whom he detested, was actually himself.
As I explained in my review of F. Sionil Jose's Ben Singkol, which is Option #28 in the June Giveaway, all Jose's protagonists are three-dimensional analogies for the Philippines herself. But until last weekend, I had thought that only Ben Singkol himself was also a stand-in for Jose. Now I suspect that they all are, too--and that Salvador "Buddy/Badong" de la Raza learns to loathe his position of privilege above his fellow Filipinos only because Jose has had the same emotional epiphany in his own life.
At first glance, it may seem odd that the Philippines should be represented by an American citizen: a Filipino who was orphaned in early childhood and eventually adopted by a light-skinned black American couple. And that's because it is odd. =P This is Jose at his most awkward; although we clearly see his point, we just as clearly see him bending over backwards to make it. And suddenly I wonder that the Filipino children we have lost to the Pied Piper of Western adoption don't have a tighter hold on the national imagination. Out of sight, out of mind, aren't they? =/ On the other hand, the "balikbayan" or "returned native" is a favourite archetype that we've seen in other stories in the Giveaway (notably Option #12 and Option #30); and indeed, the closer Buddy gets to his native land, the stronger Viajero becomes.
". . . In the frozen tundras of Alaska, in the pampas of Argentina, in the mines of Africa, in the North and South Poles--Filipinos are there, and if the Russians will open up Siberia to Filipino workers, there will be thousands willing to suffer that arctic cold. All over the world, all over the world! Mail-order brides in Scandinavia, and in Australia, where our poor women marry not for love but for money men who are drop-outs, outcasts in their own society. Illegals in Italy, Switzerland, and yet more maids in London. It is difficult now for Filipinos to travel with their brown passports--everywhere, they are suspect. In Sydney where I went to meet my ship, I was searched like I was a smuggler, all my clothes, pockets, all my things, my airline ticket, my seaman's papers. And why not? TNT's, that is what most Filipino travelers have become, 'takbo nang takbo' [always running], or 'tago nang tago' [always hiding]--always running away from a land that denies them honour, always running, just as I am running now."
-- Vladimir Acosta, Filipino illegal alien in Japan
A family friend was the first to tell me, "In the past, people used to say, 'Go anywhere in the world and you will find Coca-cola and a Chinese.' Today, we can say, 'Go anywhere in the world and you will find Coca-cola and a Filipino.'" I remembered that several times while reading Viajero. And indeed, Buddy/Badong is not the only traveler in the novel. As a scholar, he discovers and collects stories of great journeys by other Filipinos--both those who have shaped the culture as we know it and those whom national memory inexplicably snubs. Every Filipino school child learns, for instance, about our nineteenth-century Ilustrados who went to Spain to lead a propaganda movement for justice; but despite regular reminders over the years, no one remembers Enrico Negro, the slave from Sugbu who was part of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition to circumnavigate the world. (Let's see if anyone notices the implication in that last part.)
Alongside the Great Men of Philippine history are the Filipino masses--individuals whose destinies seem subsumed under the collective compulsion to be uprooted and flung all over the globe. Vladimir Acosta, whom I also wrote a bit about in Locus Focus #120, is one of the fictional characters who unites a million voices in his own.
And I feel that what I have to say about the Filipino exile complex could be divided up among a million voices with twelve baskets to spare, but I'll stick with the latest insight, courtesy of Jose himself . . . A few days ago, I met up with a friend who has worked for many years for land reform in the Philippines, and I asked her if she had ever read Jose. When she asked why she should be interested, I said that one of the great injustices mentioned in Viajero is that a poor family can farm the same plots of land for generations and never own it, but only sink more deeply into debt over the years because of it. And now she wants to borrow my copy--LOL! Now if you're wondering what such a soil-bound issue has to do with the rootlessness of diaspora, well, it's not that big a leap from poor tenants who never inherit the land they till to poor migrants who never inherit the countries they build.
It's the most obvious thing in the world now that Jose has pointed it out, but until he did, we were blind, weren't we?
Viajero was written in the early 90s and is rougher in style than other novels Jose has published since then. He couldn't seem to decide, for instance, whether to tell the novel with Buddy as the narrator or in the third person--so he went with both and didn't care if we all just got confused. LOL! But in general, there's nothing here that should put off a discerning reader. I'm happy that I finally got to Viajero this year and can add it to the Giveaway pool.
You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you have very strong feelings (be they positive or negative) about migrants.
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Image Source: Viajero by F. Sionil Jose