F. Sionil Jose, 97, Novelist Who Saw Heroism in Ordinary Filipinos, Dies

F. Sionil Jose, the author of a dozen socially engaged novels and countless short stories and essays who was sometimes called the grand old man of Philippine letters, and even the conscience of his nation, died on Thursday in Manila. He was 97.

Mr. Jose’s family said he died at Makati Medical Center, where he had been awaiting an angioplasty operation.

Passionately committed to social justice, Mr. Jose often wrote of his anguish over what he saw as his country’s failure to overcome centuries of Spanish colonization, followed by further domination by the United States.

His novels, rich in themes and scenes drawn from his own peasant beginnings, amounted to a continuing morality play about the poverty and class divisions of the Philippines, a nation seemingly in thrall to fiefs, oligarchies and political dynasties.

He said his heroes were “the common people, the foot soldiers who die in the hundreds so that their generals may live.”

Mr. Jose wrote more than 35 books, all in English, spinning off political commentary and blog posts along the way. He was a public figure in the world of letters, traveling often to lecture and to attend writers’ conferences, and was bursting with energy even into his 90s.

He founded the Philippine chapter of P.E.N., the international writers’ association. He opened and ran a well-stocked bookshop in Manila, Solidaridad, which published his work and offered books and magazines that were hard to find elsewhere in the Philippines. He also published Solidarity, a monthly journal of “current affairs, ideas and the arts.”

Mr. Jose collected a score of awards, grants and fellowships from abroad as well as in the Philippines, where the government named him a National Artist for Literature. His works have been translated into at least 28 languages.

He was not shy about voicing strong opinions, as in 2018 when he criticized some of the work at the National Museum of Fine Arts. “I have lived for 93 years — some say that is already too long,” he wrote, “but for this tired old man the time has not yet come for me to be silent.”

At the core of Mr. Jose’s prolific output was a set of five interconnected novels that he called the Rosales Saga, published over a span of 20 years. Beginning with “The Pretenders,” published in 1962, they chronicled the lives of poor migrant farmers, not unlike his own family, as they struggled against the oppression, land-grabbing and corruption of the country’s entrenched elite. Mr. Jose also wove in themes and characters from the works of the great Philippine nationalist writer Jose Rizal, whose novels influenced him from an early age.

The five novels that made up what Mr. Jose called the Rosales Saga.Credit…Solidaridad Publishing House

“Growing up, I witnessed injustice, and the ordinary Filipino can do nothing about it,” he said in a 2012 interview. “So that’s been my theme: man’s search for justice and a moral order.”

For Mr. Jose, the recent history of the Philippines had been deeply discouraging. He sometimes seemed unable to contain his exasperation at his country’s failure to change its longstanding power structure.

When President Corazon C. Aquino, after ousting the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s, declined to redistribute land held by powerful families, Mr. Jose exclaimed, “Sayang!” — then, repeating the point in English, added, “What a waste!”

“In a situation like this, of what use is the artist?” he told The New York Timesthen. “I look back over our history and I see that the pen is not that powerful. Everything I have done has been useless. It is the sword that is powerful.”

Mr. Jose’s greatest frustration as a writer, he wrote in one of his columns, was “my seeming incapacity to influence people, to see at least some visible and creative result of my pleading, my editorializing.”

Francisco Sionil Jose was born on Dec. 3, 1924, in the small town of Rosales in Pangasinan, a province northeast of Manila. Rosales, which served as the setting for much of his fiction, was home to many poor farmers, like his parents, who had migrated south from the province of Ilocos Norte. He always considered himself an Ilocano and spoke that language fluently.

After high school, he studied liberal arts at Santo Tomas University in Manila, where he edited the school newspaper, The Varsitarian, before dropping out to embark on a literary life.

It was at Santo Tomas that he met his future wife, Maria Teresa Jovellanos, known as Tessie, when she was a 17-year-old student. She was by his side for the rest of his life, his muse, counselor and protector. Together they had seven children.

She survives him, as do their children, Antonio, Eddie, Eugene, Nikko Jose and Evelina Jose Cichy; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

“We were really poor,” Mr. Jose said once, recalling his childhood. “When there was no kerosene I’d go read under the lamppost until 10 p.m., when my mother would tell me to go home.”

But she also encouraged him to read, going out of her way to find him books. “She made me everything I am,” he said.

His reading complemented his upbringing among poor farmers, experiences which produced the dominant themes of his work.

“I grew up in this village, listened to the stories of the elders about their flight from the north, the revolution against Spain,” he wrote in the introduction to “Dusk,” one of his Rosales novels.

“My forebears were very nationalistic and deeply religious as well,” he continued. “Most of all I grew up with the knowledge of their suffering in the new land, their exploitation by the landlords, the eventual dispossession of their lands. I also knew of the hardiness of their spirit, the dreams they shared, and the angers that made them endure.”

Mr. Jose at his Manila bookstore. He once said that art “must have relevance to the times, to human beings, to serving justice.” Credit…Luis Liwanag for The International Herald Tribune

In a 2014 column titled “Hindsight,” published in The Philippine Star, Mr. Jose said that he wished he could write books with happy endings, “with the characters journeying to the sunset, their faces aglow with joy.”

He had tried, he said, but the “bleakness and deadening gloom” of the world around him always asserted themselves.

“There are so many happy events in my own life worth recalling and writing,” he said, “events that lifted my spirit and assured me God is in His heaven looking kindly on us. But the words won’t come.”

Yet Mr. Jose, known to his friends as Frankie, radiated sunny good will, laughter and jokes. He loved to take visitors on the long drive up to Ilocos Norte, passing through Rosales on the way, urging companions to sample intimidating Ilocano delicacies like pinapaitan, a mix of ox tripe, small intestines, heart, bile and green chilies. (The secret: Squeeze in a little calamansi lime to cut the bitterness.) He took pleasure in sharing some of the more colorful vulgarities of the Ilocano language.

Notably portly in his later years, Mr. Jose was almost totally bald and was rarely seen without his beret. Asked at a 90th birthday celebration to share the secret of his longevity, he said, “Simple! The good die young.”

Mr. Jose enjoyed the company of young, aspiring writers, whom he sometimes gathered in his living room for informal seminars. “For art to be meaningful,” he told one such group, “it must not be just for enjoyment. It must have relevance to the times, to human beings, to serving justice.”

He added: “Pure art, pure science, are good, but they must have some meaning for humanity.”

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