It was a trip down Maynila I never thought I’d take, for want of leisure time nowadays. But the lure was anything but dreary. The old Manila streets, the rampaging stretch of asphalt that is Roxas Boulevard, the grand view of Manila Bay, the rush of people in and out of eskinitas, old houses, takatak boys, fishball verndors, that lingering scent of cheap red-light perfumes—they’re always a thing to marvel at. And of course, the call to have lunch with novelist and National Artist F. Sionil José or better known among young writers as Manong Frankie.
As the taxi slowly managed a sharp right to Padre Faura, I saw the small bookshop, Solidaridad, and noticed that it hasn’t really changed through the years. It didn’t take long for me to recall how partly in my high school and mostly college years I spent hours ogling books displayed at its window, wishing for that time when I can afford to buy books of my own.
It was in Solidaridad where I first read the names of authors Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Proust, Federico Garcia Lorca, Anais Nin, Rainer Maria Rilke, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Quijano de Manila, and of course, F. Sionil José. At the time, the best of literature that graced my wooden shelf was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s, and some creepy paperback with the stamped name of Stephen King.
Having worked for a public relations company with links to New York after college, it was then that I bought a collection of non-fiction works by Jorge Luis Borges and a novel by Marcel Proust. From then on, Solidaridad was my bookshop of choice for those rare titles during those lazy Friday afternoons.
I have met F. Sionil José on numerous occasions but never on a personal note. I have always thought of him as someone distant, even grouchy, I mean, complete with the virtual wall surrounding a National Artist. It didn’t bother me at first, but when I began reading his works—the Rosales Saga—and one I particularly like, “Sins,” I told myself I need to have a chat with this man. Little did I know that, a few years later, he would commend me for something I wrote, to the degree that he would invite me for lunch.
Manong Frankie welcomed me to his cramped yet spick-and-span study with a hearty laugh, and a gesture I found quite arresting: A note of thanks for an article I wrote last year. Made my heart fat with glee, I have to admit. It’s not everyday that a National Artist and a well-known novelist commends me for my work as a writer. For one who can only dream of being famous, that was heaven on earth.
He then quickly asked my choice of food, “Chinese or that place where they serve this fantastic lumpiang ubod?” Truth to tell, I hardly remember the days when I used to take long walks in Ermita during my teenage years. Nearly everything has changed along that cut of the road, save the humble bookshop. My sole reason then was so I could stare wide-eyed at the flimsily clad girls by the bars. I had long since given up on the bad habit, only to find myself wondering, today, where they all went.
“Lumpia would be nice,” was all I could mutter. His wife Tessie then entered the room, and while Manong Frankie and I chatted for what already seemed like hours (when in fact it was only a couple of minutes), we hardly realized it was time for lunch. We headed to this rather homey café down Padre Faura and took the liberty of sitting by a table frequented by lawyers and public officials.
“If this table could only talk, the stories that we would hear…” was Manong Frankie’s first words. There was little for me to say at that point, but then it got really interesting when he kicked off his tales on Russian caviar and Nick Joaquin. Obviously a man with quite a hearty appetite (which was confirmed by his wife, Tessie during that short jaunt back to the bookshop), Manong Frankie loves exotic tastes.
F. Sionil José told of a time when he offered a can of caviar, which he later on regretted, to novelist Charlson Ong and another whom he simply called Ramil (not sure if it was writer Ramil Digal Gulle). In one of his trips abroad, he found out that the same can was worth $100. “I should’ve just eaten it myself,” he said with a light-hearted laugh.
Our talk later on focused on a subject that was evidently close to his heart: the sense of nation. “Filipinos must have a sense of nation, Joel,” he said with a firmness that hit me like a jab. “Divided as we are, we must work to achieve this goal. We cannont develop without it.”
“How do you expect Filipinos, divided to the core, to do that?”
“This is where Rizal should come in. Nick Joaquin and I don’t agree on a lot of things. We debate with such vigor that those who know little of our friendship would think we were enemies. But in this aspect, Nick Joaquin and I agree.”
What short dissertation on Rizal I heard from Manong Frankie this afternoon was enough to rouse my own interest in our national hero. F. Sionil José didn’t fully say how it can be done, for a divided lot to have a sense of nation, hence reading Rizal—again—is my only recourse. The lunch ended with small talk on our health and eating habits, which I thought most interesting given the fact that his son was a nutritionist and a former chef in California.
A sense of nation. Apparently I have my work cut out for me.