FRANCISCO JOSE, WHO is known as F. Sionil José in his books and as "Frankie" in person, is one of the two or three most celebrated writers in his country, the Philippines. When he was driving me from village to village in northern Luzon last summer, pointing out the neighborhood that had been the inspiration for one of his novels and the rectory in which a famous scene from another had been set, I thought guiltily that this was one of the pleasures of visiting a small country: I wasn't likely to get such treatment from José's counterparts in the United States. Then I realized that America really has no counterpart to José—no one who is simultaneously a prolific novelist, a social and political organizer, an editor and journalist, and a smallscale entrepreneur.
As a writer, José is famous for two bodies of work. One is the Rosales sequence, a set of five novels published over a twenty-year span which has become a kind of national saga. Philippine history, as understood by Filipinos, is largely a story of aspirations thwarted by evil oppressors—first the Spanish colonialists, then the American colonialists, then various corrupt elites, capped by the Marcoses. In the Philippines, as in many parts of Latin America, novels expressing this kind of frustration are a more important part of national identity than they are in a self-consciously successful society like, say, modern Japan. José Rizal's Noli Me Tangere, published in Spanish (despite its Latin title) in the late nineteenth century, was an influential Uncle Tom's Cabin-style polemic about Spanish rule. The Rosales books are a more literarily satisfying modern equivalent.
The action in the books stretches from the 1880s to the 1970s and incorporates the main historical events of the time: the end of Spanish rule, in 1898; the coming of the Americans soon thereafter (Jose depicts one famous battle between the Texas Rangers and the Philippine forces, under the overall command of Emilio Aguinaldo, which had been fighting to drive out the Spanish but were ultimately beaten by the United States); the quasi-communist Huk uprising after the Second World War; the descent into corruption under the Marcoses. In the early parts of the saga a family of farmers migrates from the harsh Ilocos region of northern Luzon to more fertile land around the town of Rosales, in Pangasinan province, much closer to Manila. But with the coming of American legal reforms, they and many other squatters are kicked off their land by members of the old, educated Filipino elite, who can concoct documents "proving" title to the land. These events parallel what happened to José's own family, whose forebears had migrated to Rosales. His father was a minister in the Aglipayan Church, a nationalistic offshoot of Catholicism that answered to its own Filipino bishops rather than to the Vatican. The family lost its land, and José's father left his children when Jose was a boy, in the 1920s. In the books the family's children manage to get an education and move out of farming—but as they rise, they sink, becoming more and more mired in urban corruption.
The first novel José published, in 1962, was The Pretenders, which chronologically comes fourth in the series. ("Since everyone has read this novel, there is no need to linger over it, except to say that, like any other great novel, every time you read it you find something new," reads a typical reference to The Pretenders in a Philippine magazine.) It is built around the suicide of Antonio Sampson, a descendant of the original migrants, who wins a scholarship to Harvard after the Second World War and comes back to Manila full of idealism and hope, but ends up selling his services to the old plutocrats as a fixer and PR man. Most of the other Rosales novels also deal with questions relating to Philippine character—whether life really was better back in the villages, why so many things have gone so badly for the country in the modern age. In Mass, set in the pre-martial-law years of the early 1970s, Antonio Sampson's illegitimate son, talented and resourceful like his father, sinks into a much seamier kind of criminal corruption, while his university classmates peel off and become anti-Marcos leftists.
In chronological order the books in the series are Po-On, about the original Ilocos village and the long overland trek; Tree, set in and around Rosales; My Brother, My Executioner, about brothers taking opposite sides during the Huk uprising; The Pretenders; and Mass. In 1988 José published a semi-related sixth novel, Ermita, about life in Manila during and after the years of the Japanese occupation. Random House plans to begin publishing José's writings in the United States next year. In the meantime, the five-book Rosales set can be obtained by mail from Solidaridad Publishing House, P.O. Box 3959, Manila, for $50, postage included.
José's other main literary work is short stories, of which he has published four collections: The God Stealer, Platinum, Olvidon, and Waywaya. By "has published" I mean something quite literal. Most of José's books are printed by Solidaridad, which he started, and are sold in the bookstore that he and his wife run in the Ermita district of downtown Manila. José has an O. Henry-like facility with plotting and irony, usually involving disappointment and sellouts: A clerk in a government office in the provinces saves for years to travel to Manila to apply for a promotion. But when she reaches the capital, she discovers that no one will listen to her without being bribed. After paying more, in money and dignity, than she thinks she can afford, she suffers a final misfortune and is left worse off than she was in the first place. An educated Filipino decides to go back to "primitive" life in the mountains, instead of working for the U.S. Information Agency (José's employer at one time). In "Olvidon," one of the best-known of the short stories, a successful Filipino doctor is brought back from his practice in the United States to treat the Leader (the name José uses for his Marcos-like character), whose skin is turning a loathsome zinc-white, starting from the genitals. The doctor is pampered and paid while he works on the cure. Just as he decides that he must escape the Leader's embrace, the young woman hired as his lover discovers the first dead-white patch on his own skin.
In addition to his writing, José has for almost twenty years edited a magazine called Solidarity, which publishes a mixture of literature, reportage, and policy analysis about the Philippines and the rest of Asia. (The magazine was initially subsidized by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was a front for the CIA. In the 1960s a newspaper article accused José of being a CIA agent. He sued for libel, and won—but the main effect was to stimulate a constant flow of visitors into his bookshop, asking his help in getting visas for the United States.) José has lived in Japan, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, and is the hub of a network of writers and reformers throughout Asia. His bookshop, Sólidaridad, is a famous salon in Manila; on the ground floor he sells Philippine and foreign books, and on the second floor he eats and drinks with friends. In the briefly optimistic days just after Corazon Aquino came to power, José organized a nationwide symposium that led to a book, A Filipino Agenda for the 21st Century, with recommendations for almost every aspect of economic and military policy.