For the next few days I am back in Shanghai, my original home town in China, but earlier this week, while away from the internet, was in the Philippines. There the happiest discovery was that F. Sionil Jose, the writer and political theorist universally known as "Frankie," is still in fine, feisty shape. This picture makes him look more torpid, and less jovial, than he really is. Click for larger, including detail of the poster on the window of his bookstore.
Frankie Jose is the main reason I watch the Nobel Prize lists each fall: I'm waiting to see if the Literature panel has gotten around to giving him his award. For decades he has been his country's leading novelist, renowned especially for his "Rosales" series of novels, which depict much of the Phillipines' troubled 20th century history. To compare him to Solzhenitsyn would be misleading, in that Jose rarely goes more than thirty seconds in conversation without breaking out into a guffaw. (This picture is in one of the atypically sober-looking moments.) In his life and in his writing, he has a large dose of Rabelais. If Bill Clinton were a major novelist, he might be a model.
Every time I've met Jose over the last 20-plus years, he's said, "Jim, I am getting so much fatter!" -- with a big laugh, because he loves food (among other pleasures) so much. But Jose has a deadly-serious claim to being the conscience of his nation - at legal and physical risk during the Marcos years and as a sobering voice in the years since then. An article in Time last week emphasized his impact and role.
Back in 1991 I wrote* about a trip with Jose through his native Ilocos region of the Philippines. It is not yet on line in our archives. (
If our web team can put it up, tThe link will go is here. For now, you can find an expanded version only in Looking at the Sun.) What was remarkable, I thought and still think, was his management of contradictions: his dark view of the Philippines' predicament and his sunnyness as a person; his role as intellectual and artiste with connections around the world, but also as locally-rooted political activist -- and practical-minded businessman and entrepreneur, with his renowned publishing house and bookstore called Solidaridad.
Solidaridad is in the same site I remember, on Padre Faura avenue in the old Ermita section of Manila. Its stock of books from around the world is better than I remembered, and more extensive than anything I have seen in China.
If you haven't read any of Jose's books, you have a treat ahead. And Nobel committee: get cracking! Frankie is full of vigor and witticism now, at 84, just as he was in his early 60s when I first met him. At this rate, he could go for decades. But why wait to give him his due?
* "The Ilocos: A Philippine Discovery'' The Atlantic MonthlyMay 1991