Book Review: Embarking on a Sojourn through F. Sionil Jose’s Viajero

Viajero: A Filipino Novel by F. Sionil Jose viajero-f-sionil-jose

Viajero is a novel of history of the Philippine Islands and their people long before the Spaniards came. It is also the story of the Filipino diaspora as seen by an orphan who is brought by an American captain to the United States in 1945. 

Through the eyes of Salvador dela Raza unfolds the epic voyage of the Filipino, from the earliest contact with China through Magellan’s tragedy in Mactan, onto the heroic voyage of the galleons across the Pacific.  Viajero concludes with the movement of Filipino workers to the Middle East, and the travail of Filipino women in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. (Goodreads)

Whensoever we speak of our history as a Filipino people, a familiar name comes to the foreground; a name bursting with a pledge of passage through time; a name mobilizing an entire literary pilgrimage of a people’s cryptic past.

His name reverberates a people’s struggle for social and cultural identity, brings to the fore an ethereal image of a desire whose face is screaming for liberation, and echoes a sentiment that is too close to what it truly means to be a Filipino—of a wandering kind! His works are more than just mere reflections on culture, history and society. More than that, they embody the lifeblood of a people’s historical movement towards its own.

Francisco Sionil José  stands among a broken line of authors and thinkers whose contributions to Filipino philosophy rest primarily in providing a concrete material reference to abstract theorizing.

Though more entrenched in literature, F. Sionil José (as well as other literary writers) extend along, and participate in, the movement of Filipino philosophy by way of demystification. By demystifying the myth through the language of fiction, F. Sionil José cracks the veneer of colonial forgery and replaces ‘official histories’ with a narrative that is closer to home.

Philosophy, translated in the Filipino expression, is no longer a philosophy of abstraction, of isolation. It is one that is demystified, taken a naked form. It is through philosophy’s marriage with literature, such as that incarnated in the works of F. Sionil José, does philosophy and literature function as one: a genealogy, a time-machine.

The pathway to the past is marked by steep cobblestones, clothed by the deafening silence of an elapsed era, dressed in the eerie ensemble of a time gone by. Its avenues are trampled with relics of what was once an event, barred forever in the gates of human history, never to return again.

Yet in the vast and desolate expanse of its abandoned boulevards specters of the distant past gather to bring the howling apparition of one man’s lucid and strikingly familiar account of his search for ancestry. In the midst of all that is burned eternally by the flames of our forgotten yesteryears lies the breathing ember of our memory, glowing in the Cimmerian shade of our consciousness, bursting to the anthem of our own heritage, reminding us of the blood in our veins and the color of our skin, awakening us to the truth of who we really are.

Sionil Jose’s Viajero is a portal to the past. It is a time-sweeping expedition into the distant far-flung regions of our Philippine history. It takes us into a monumental insight of the historical events which make and break the resiliency that is our spirit. Viajero brings to mind the capaciousness of our history as a people, as a race, and stimulate the throbbing hunger for our motherland’s long-lost embrace. But most of all, Viajero allows us to dream, to gaze at the past and at the present with a sense of ethereal wonder and to see ourselves as part of the intertwined thread of life.

Written in the stroke of F. Sionil Jose’s masterly genius, Viajero opens up in a moving narrative of one man’s venture into the deep recesses of his past. The protagonist, who would later be given the name Salvador dela Raza, was witness to the first-hand atrocities of war. Orphaned and impoverished, the young boy Badong was adopted by an old man and his daughter, who would then be killed by Japanese soldiers. Badong’s lucky escape from the fangs of death brought him to the mercy of an African-American captain who would later adopt him and take him to a brighter world that is America.

Surrounded by the comforts and luxuries of home and nurtured by the quality education provided for him by his foster father, Badong lived a rather convenient life and afforded the sheerest gratification most people are deprived of: freedom. But even in the confines of his well-sheltered life, in the kernel of all his acquired knowledge of the world and of himself, Badong remained shackled by the fetters of self-delusion brought by his helplessness of never being fully able to understand his self and his origin.

In the aching alcove of Badong’s yearning mind, the lingering image of his Motherland is etched evermore in memory as farewells are engraved in epitaphs. In his adult heart echoed the incessant weeping of a lost boy in search of mother. And so, despite his secure and affluent life in the greatness of America, like all lost children, Badong crawled helplessly into his motherland’s awaiting arms.

But Badong, from all that he has learned in his years of research, knew this country he refer to as motherland, has been bastardized and molested in history by nations more superior and powerful than her. Helpless she stood in defense of her beloved sons and daughters, protected them as mothers would protect her children. But in the end comes injustice, exploitation, political execution, committed by her son against his own. The warring sides of blood against blood, clan against clan, people against people. To reclaim her motherland’s dignity is only a part and parcel of the more weighty dream of restoring her pristine nature.

Salvador dela Raza is a symbol of that dream. Nay, he is the dream itself. He embodies the heart and soul of what it means to be a Filipino. Encased in the amber of the sweet American life, still he refused to identify himself as part of that foreign culture and instead ventured the uncharted regions of his unknown past to find his way back to his most cherished patria. Salvador identified with the causes of revolution and joined his fellow brown-skinned brothers in the march against social justice and political reform.

In his death, the gentle memory of experience, the full force that brought his wandering feet to that mountain he called home, impinged the flickering flame of his consciousness and pave the way for his faded thoughts to surface.

What do we live for but to be a happy witness to a will more powerful than ours? […] What is the enduring vision of ourselves? What do we leave behind — a pillar of marble, a snatch of song, a book of poems?”

In the end, what Salvador dela Raza leaves to us is the momentary silence to ponder at the past in such a way that brings us to an appreciation of our ancestry, to identify our will with that of others and to recognize this will as ours; to connect with the core elements of that which make us Filipinos and to enshrine our history as an emblem of truth, courage, and freedom.

The rest of the chapters take its readers into a time-traveling experience as events in Philippine history are narrated one by one in their own respective contexts. But more than that, it open the readers’ mind to the overwhelming truth of the Filipino diaspora.

Everywhere in the world Filipinos are scattered in different countries in search for greener pastures: fathers and sons, women of ages, skilled workers, professionals. All of them leave behind the barrenness of their own condition and seek in some foreign land whatever fate has in store for them.

They take whatever risk lies open in front of them and stand bold in the face of the threatening danger that looms in every corner of every alien place. These TNTs run like wild rats to evade deportation, or even worse, death. In exchange for their services, our fellow brothers sustain both pain and humiliation from the callous masters they serve.

Domestic helpers are violated in the most evil and perverse form of violation against women. Minors are sold as sex slaves. In prostitution, young girls find what they knew was lacking: a sense of dignity, of pride, that for every time they open their legs to a complete stranger is snatched away from them before they could even say no.

And all of these for the sake of subsistence, for decent meals to fill the hungry stomachs back home, for the support their own country could not provide for them. For the most part, the Filipino diaspora is not just a trend we have adapted as a desperate alternative to earn a living and to sustain a family, far from it the diaspora is an ugly reality guised under the blinding promise of the American dream.

Perhaps what is most heart-wrenching in the novel is the author’s honesty in the portrayal of the lives of characters like Vladimir, Anita, among others. Cogs of the grand and greedy machine that has for the most part made the rich richer and the poor poorer, our brothers seek salvation in the remote regions of the world whilst the rich drink from the cup of our brothers’ hard-earned labour. These are our poor fellowmen, our own blood and kind, who play as pawns for the selfish interests of those who call themselves kings, these motherfucking elites. Viajero captures this mood and translated it into well-versed words, honest to the throbbing truth of the matter.

All history is a lie —how could I have missed this? There is so much that is not in the books, documents, frayed or well preserved they may be.

Their lives are not described in this at all —Vladimir, Anita, the helmsman of yore, and now, those thousands in the desert, those maids strewn wantonly all over the world; it is they who have supported all these years the profligacy of the rich, the creaky functions of government.

I can see them so clearly, the dead soldiers in the trenches felled by American guns; they are barefoot because they are farmers. Who will tell their story, recognize their ultimate devotion to Filipinas?”

The great history books know not of our brother’s woes. In the pages of history are inscribed the battles of generations won and lost, stories of noble men who did nothing but to flash their noble names for history to remember, events fabricated in order to appeal more sensational than it is horrifying. Not one page can be found in honor of our nameless people, not one page in memoriam for these lost souls.

In the last analysis, what Viajero leaves to us is a memento, penned in the finest reverie of the countless and colossal sacrifices of our fellow Filipinos; written with the blood of those who bleed for our Motherland. In the last of pages of history dawns a saintlike silence, and under the hallowed cloak of our silent retrospection, we remember.

We will always remember.


One thought on “Book Review: Embarking on a Sojourn through F. Sionil Jose’s Viajero

  1. I was browsing for Filipino literature and found your site. Excellent writing. However, I do have questions regarding some historical events in the Philippines. Would you mind if I ask a few questions?


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