Author F. Sionil Jose's Insight on Philippines
F. Sionil Jose, a veteran novelist from the Philippines, poses for a photo in front of the restaurant "Mt. Chiri" in Insa-dong, Seoul, Wednes-day. /Courtesy of Asia Publishers>>
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Multi-awarded Filipino author F. Sionil Jose may not be a familiar name to Koreans, but his novels about social justice, anti-elitism and colonialism in the Philippines will likely strike a familiar chord here.
The 82-year old author is visiting Seoul to promote his novel "Ermita" which has been translated from its original English version into Korean (translated from English by Boo Hee-ryung; Asia Publishers: 504 pp., 13,000 won). The publication came as Asia Publishers of quarterly bilingual magazine "Asia" aims at introduciing more Asian writers to South Korean readers.
The novel revolves around a prostitute named Ermita Rojos, whose mother was a Filipino woman from a rich family raped by a retreating Japanese soldier during the war. But its undercurrent theme is a more universal one; moral dilemmas faced by individuals and society.
"Those looking for hot and steamy scenes may be disappointed," the stout, bald-headed veteran columnist and writer joked during a meeting with Korean reporters at a Korean restaurant in Insa-dong Wednesday. "This novel is more of a metaphor about the prostitution of Filipinos and the decay of our society. The story has a universal theme because all over the world many people are prostitutes without knowing it," he said. They include many politicians, writers, journalists, and professors, he added.
In the novel, Ermita seeks revenge on her biological mother, who abandoned her after birth because of the shame brought upon her by the rape and goes to the United States where she marries a U.S. officer. Her story unfolds in the form of a page-turning epic drama, against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation in the 1940's up to the turbulent years under the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos. Ermita goes to the United States to reveal her mother's secret and destroy her family.
Jose said he sees some similarities in the history of the Philippines and Korea since both countries experienced colonization. The Philippines was colonized by Spain, the United States and Japan, while Korea was colonized by Japan.
"You (Korea) were colonized some 50 years by the Japanese, while we were colonized by the Japanese for only 3 years. Sometimes I wish that it were the Japanese who colonized us not the Americans. Because you have no hangover with Japanese colonization, you vowed to defeat Japan. We have a very strong hangover with American colonialism. We never vowed to defeat the United States. Much of contemporary development, particularly in the colonized country depends so much on the response of the colonized to the colonizers. All this is in this novel 'Ermita,'" he said.
The cover of "Ermita" in Korean >>
Interestingly enough, while his novel offers a view of the Philippines under the corrupt Marcos regime, Jose expressed admiration for another dictator Korean President Park Chung-hee.
Even if he had Korean activist friends such as Chang Jun-ha, Jose said he admired the late dictator for modernizing Korea. He expressed amazement at the progress of the Korean economy, noting how poor the country was in the 1950s when he first visited.
"One thing about Korean corruption is that the corruption in Korea was responsible to a large extent to the modernization of your society. You may disagree with me but I have been following Korea very closely from the Korean War and I can tell you a lot of stories about what this country looked like in the 1950s when I was here," he said.
Jose showed his firm belief in the role of literature.
"I am 82 years old and many times I questioned the futility of words. I questioned myself all the time. I tried to answer this in one of my essays 'Why Literature'?... Basically, why literature? Because literature helps in the formation of culture that will become the foundation of a nation. It is one of the least understood functions of art. In a morally corrupt country, only literature teaches us ethics. No religion or philosophy can do that. That's why Jesus or Buddha told stories, too."
Jose says he is better known outside the Philippines as the literary scene in the country is going through troubled waters. "I'm bragging but I have more readers outside my country, than in my own country. I have at least more than 1 million in the Soviet Union because they translated my book in the hundreds of thousands," he said.
But recognition in his home country is growing, too. He was awarded the prestigious title of National Artist for Literature in the Philippines in 2001. He was cited as one of the foremost Filipino writers in English "but ultimately, it is the consistent espousal of the aspirations of the Filipino for national sovereignty and social justice that guarantees the value of his oeuvre."
He writes in English with a distinct Filipino flavor and his novels include "The Pretenders," "My Brother, My Executioner," "Mass," "Po-on" and "Viajero (Traveler)." His books have been translated into Russian, Latvian, Ukrainian, Dutch and Indonesian.
Well-versed in English classics, he shared an interesting view about popular Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "I cannot read Gabriel Garcia Marquez to (the) end because when I was young, I read a lot of James Joyce and William Faulkner, and Garcia Marquez is only repeating what these writers have already done," he said.
Jose advocates social change in the Philippines, which is a recurring theme in his novels. "Ideologically, I believe in the necessity of a revolution for my country and given that belief, I believe also it is necessary to destroy the rotten foundations of a society and replace it with something new," he said.