Jose is a difficult author to review literarily, particularly looking back over a distance of thirty years since the series was completed. I cannot say that I found these books to be of outstanding literary merit, being more plot than character driven and in a prose style that is engaging more than gripping. Nevertheless, I still hold the books, particularly ‘Po-On’ which starts the saga and ‘Mass’ which completes it, compelling because of their prime historical significance.
Here is the history, set down in a fictionalised, highly readable story, of the struggle of an exploited people. In ‘Po-On’, Jose draws us inexorably into the lives of a family, one of numberless families, yearning simply for the right to live, their traumas at the hands of an unforgiving natural environment, their suffering under the exploitation of a powerful church and powerful landowners. The experiences of later generations of the same family are explored in ‘The Pretenders’ and ‘My Brother, My Executioner,’ culminating in the violent revolution of ‘Mass’.
And it is in ‘Mass’ that Jose finally confronts explicitly the core issue that lies at the centre of the multi-generational struggle he has traced through four volumes: the unremitting dedication of the powerful to the exploitation of the powerless. The cynical disregard for the consequences of the exploitation of the many by the few is admirably summed up by Jose’s antagonist thus: “Let the scum fight for the crumbs. Ours is the cake… And we are not going to give this cake away… We are going to be here… for always. We know how to change, and that is why we will always be on top. But the change comes from us, dictated by us. Their perception… is dictated by their needs, and we will give those to them slowly, slowly. Never the pie, just the crumbs. Yes, we will talk about social justice, land reform. But we will not give these in cash or in kind. We have to keep them nailed to the plough, to the machine. And we will do it deliberately… And we will not give it up. Only the powerful understand… the impulses of power. And the powerful are the rich. Study your history books… Have they really abolished the elites in Moscow? In Peking? They will always be with us, like death and taxes.”
So I look back over the thirty years since Jose was writing, for these have been the years of my own life. And I want to ask Jose a question, but for the fact that I already know what his answer would be. The question is ‘What has changed since you set down this history?’
In Manila the substandard housing is being cleared, the population moved out for the inexorable march of the high rise building, the corporation, the dollar. And London is the same. And Los Angeles and Philadelphia and Toronto and Sidney are no different. So the eye answers the question saying that much has changed, much is better. But the heart, the heart cannot agree, for the heart is uneasy that the powerful are still the rich and, like death and taxes, always with us.
And therefore these books, and Mass in particular are recommended, particular to my many Filipino friends to whom I say, if you want to understand your own history, your origins, the struggle of your people, first read Jose Rizal. Then read F Sionil Jose. And do not let ‘Mass’ be the end of your history.