Upon my completing the last two novels in F. Sionil Jose’s Rosales Saga THE PRETENDERS and MASS, I’m struck by their resemblance to Zola’s Rougon Macqart series. That was 20 books as opposed to Jose’s five book series but ,like Zola, Jose moves up and down the social order from the slums to the highest skyscrapers and biggest mansion. I discussed one of Jose’s earlier books MY BROTHER MY EXECUTIONER here http://rgdinmalaysia.blogspot.com/2011/03/my-brother-my-executioner-by-fsionil.html .
Actually, this was the second time I’d read THE PRETENDERS and I must say reading it back to back with MASS (perhaps the best novel by Jose I’ve read so far) gave me new appreciation of it.
The first time I read THE PRETENDERS I didn’t understand the motivation of Antonio Samson especially why he committed suicide (this is not a spoiler, it’s revealed early on and his story is told in flashback through his own writing) but reading it a second time followed by MASS which is the story of his illegitimate son gave me new insight.
Antonio is a weaker version of his uncle Luis who is murdered by his half-brother (Antonio’s father) at the end of MY BROTHER MY EXECUTIONER. Antonio has some high principles but they are quickly subsumed by his marriage to the selfish, amoral Carmen Villa and his new position working for his wealthy father in law.
Rather than being the cause of his suicide, his discovery of Carmen’s affair with a family friend is just a microcosm of the decadence and corruption and evil of the wealthy. In addition he feels guilty as he unknowingly sired a son with the cousin he had a love affair with. He had left her to study in the US for a PhD where he met Carmen.
His illegitimate son Pepe is the protagonist of MASS and he is the most fully formed of all the characters I’ve encountered so far in Jose’s books. In him is the poverty, the overpopulation, the dog eat dog life of the Philippines. Touched on are class struggles, the fact that during the Cold War and even now America supports the 1% in third world countries- The wealthy that have all the power and keep everybody in poverty. Any attempt to fix this was labelled communism during the Cold War.
I think Jose does an excellent job of creating female characters who struggle even harder than men in a society such as The Philippines. In particular, in MASS, the character of Lily, who had a baby with an American who promptly left and went back to the US, as she tries to support herself and ends up sinking into prostitution is a very powerful realistic creation.
To know where you come from, the history and the present and how one influences the other as well as injustices and challenges your people and your nation deal with is the challenge for the writer. F. Sionil Jose juggles these literary ingredients about as well as any writer I’ve ever read.