Jose's 'Don Vincente' -- 20 years of solitude?

July 18, 1999|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to the Sun

"Don Vincente," by F. Sionil Jose. Modern Library. 415 pages. $13.95.

Sionil Jose does not include an epigraph for his novel, "Don Vincente." But he could have chosen John Donne's line: "No man is an island." Jose's characters are torn between acting against the injustice of the system and accepting the way of life offered to them. When they take the easy way out, they learn that all people are connected -- painfully connected.

A Filipino writer and political activist, and likely candidate for the Nobel Prize, Jose writes absorbing novels in English, often about the struggle between the peasantry and landowners. His style suggests a combination of Charles Dickens and Donne. He writes for serious readers.

Like Dickens, Jose is a master storyteller, breeding characters from setting and social condition. Like Donne, Jose is a poet, seeking the spiritual ramifications of his subjects. His characters continually examine their consciences to know the right thing, but then too often ignore it.

Part of the five-volume Rosales saga, "Don Vincente" is a reissue of two earlier novels, which are mirror images. Both novels are set at approximately the same time in Rosales, a village near Jose's birthplace. Both have male protagonists whose passion for language and whose concern for moral order suggest Jose's own passion and concern. Both have the feel of memoir.

The narrator of "Tree," the young son of the overseer, has seen his father abuse the peasants, but feels powerless to change the wrongs. Luis, the main character in "My Brother, My Executioner" rationalizes the evils of the system. As the illegitimate son of Don Vincente Asperri, a wealthy landowner, and a peasant woman, Luis tries to play both ends against the middle, until his younger half-brother, Vic, jolts his conscience.

Watching their families grow rich at the expense of others, both protagonists die spiritually: "But like my father, I have not done anything," the son of the overseer says. "I could not, because I am me, because I died long ago." Luis, too, believes that he has "long since died."

Spanning 20 years -- from the 1950s to the 1970s -- this thought-provoking story begins as the relationship between peasants and landowners has deteriorated. Don Vincente Asperri has cheated the peasants. At first they seek justice. Later, they join the guerrilla army.

The story ends as the peasants, attempting to take back what is theirs, destroy everything but the balete tree. For Jose, the balete tree symbolizes the conflict. Vines -- suggesting the wealthy -- coil around the trunk. Trying to strangle the tree, they multiply and fatten. The tree's branches, however, rise higher and spread.

"Beneath this tree," Jose warns, "nothing grows!" A Roman Catholic, Jose is a spiritual writer, grounding his characters both in Catholicism and in Filipino pagan beliefs. Trying to understand the condition of their souls, his protagonists write lengthy letters and engage in long interior monologues. Some of these are hard reading for Americans used to the succinct style of newspapers and e-mail. Yet so powerful is Jose's sense of soul that he infuses not only his characters with it, but his readers as well.

Diane Scharper teaches the writing of memoir at Towson University. The latest of her four books is "Songs of Myself," a collection of memoirs by college students.

Pub Date: 07/18/99

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