29 June 2016


Option #40: My Brother, My Executioner by F. Sionil Jose
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"You know, of course, that I will always help you, that I will do what you want me to do, because we are brothers."

"I am glad to hear that," Vic said. "I have been thinking a lot about us . . . I can trust you. Let me make one thing clear, however--the old days are now over. Your father--all his property--must go back to the people whom he had robbed."

Luis could not believe what he was hearing and for a minute, Vic droned on about social justice and democracy and the future. What would all this mean now? He would lose the house in Rosales and all the land that would be his inheritance. For a while this blank reality numbed his heart, and for all his protestations, for all that he had written and said, he had grown to like this ease, this surfeit of leisure, all that marked him for perdition. He was, after all, his father's son. Maybe, if he tried to dissuade his brother, there would be other ways, feasible means by which he could remain what he was and yet be totally in agreement with him, support him, and sacrifice for him.

So far, all the books I have read for this year's Marcos Pa Rin challenge have been retrospectives: historical novels or memoirs that depict the Marcos years in the light of how they finally ended. It's not a bad way to learn about history: when the authors are first-hand witnesses, it's like interviewing your grandparents. But a book actually written in the past is on a whole other level--like going back in time and meeting your grandparents' younger selves. They will be able to tell you things their older selves might have forgotten, remembered wrongly, or simply decided to keep from you. And this is exactly the case with F. Sionil Jose's My Brother, My Executioner, published in the 1970s and banned by the Marcos regime.

The central figure of the novel is Luis Asperri, the illegitimate son but only heir of the wealthy (ethnic Spanish) landowner Don Vicente Asperri. His (native) mother worked as a maid in Don Vicente's house because it was the only way her peasant father could pay off his debts. And his (half-)brother Victor is the son his mother has after Don Vicente sends her away and she finds a local man to marry. Luis and Victor are close in childhood, although the former's mestizo looks and the latter's peasant features make the neighbourhood children call them "milk and coffee." But who, in adulthood, is to execute whom? And for what capital crime?

"I am your brother, Vic," Luis said softly, but within him he was crying out: Believe me, I am you and you are me!

"Do you think I will ever forget?" Vic's voice shrilled. "You have done for me what no one has ever done--and I am grateful. Without you and the money you sent mother I would not have been able to finish high school. All the learning that I got afterwards--they came from the books you sent me. The wealth you gave me is here," Vic pointed to his head, "where no one can take it, not even you. But there is something else here, too. Memory. I remember our days together and our quarrels." Vic laughed suddenly and his laughter was eerie . . . "But where are you now--and where am I? This is the whole point. You will go far, very far, but what of those who are still in Sipgnet?"

My Brother, My Executioner is the earliest Jose novel I've read so far. His style is still quite rough . . . and his emotions very raw. The combined effect is explosive.

Not many people today remember the Hukbalahap insurgency that was a huge crisis in the 1960s, and ultimately leverage for the Marcos administration, but it tortured Jose. The Hukbalahap were a guerilla resistance force formed during World War II, to combat the Japanese Imperial Army. They should have disbanded after Liberation and rejoined the civilian population. And maybe most of them did . . . only to see that the war against injustice had found a new front. So they took the struggle to the wealthy landed classes, and this time were targeted as terrorists by their own government. It was Filipino killing Filipino: brother executing brother.

And it is shockingly contemporary. The Filipinos who grew rich by collaborating with the Japanese during the war, then grew even richer by collaborating with the Americans afterward, are still familiar types: they are the cronies who who grew fat under Marcos and even fatter under Cory Aquino. They are also familiar names: for some Filipino families, opportunism is simply their heritage.

It is Luis's own heritage as an Asperri, his father reminds him. But Luis realises, though he does not say it aloud, that his is a double heritage, with a share in the peasant's closeness to the land and inexplicable hunger on such rich earth. When the characters argue and make speeches, it often feels as if Jose is still feeling out themes that have since become staples in his fiction. But the mark of the master is evident in his most powerful writing, which is also Luis's most powerful writing: letters he never sends and no one but the reader ever sees.

Jose's sympathies are with the poor, even as he knows he himself is one of the "rich." But like Luis, he finds, to his shame, that the price of brotherhood is too high. Isn't there a way he can help those who truly need it without giving up too much of his own life? As a talented writer with an established audience, won't it be enough for him to write something . . . say, an expose that will show others how bad things have become? Isn't the pen mightier than the bolo?

On the other hand, it has been forty years since the expose that is My Brother, My Executioner was penned, and as you can see, nothing has changed.

You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you have started to wonder whether any country's history ultimately takes the shape of tragedy.

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Image Source: My Brother, My Executioner by F. Sionil Jose

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