So, the 2nd book—Tree. A lot of things struck me as I finished the book. First is what I would call texture. Sionil José's description of setting is so detailed that you feel you're right at the center of events. Aside from the nuances of the place, there's a certain lyrical quality to the writing even when he simply describes the places the unnamed narrator goes to. Lots of atmosphere, vivid on the details, a keen eye even for the mundane and the prosaic.
As the rains subsided and the fields turned green, the mud settled and the river acquired a clear, green hue. It would no longer be swift and it flowed with a rhythm, broken by small ripples in the shallows. It was at this time that we bathed in it and dove to its depths to discover what secrets it held. Now, too, the women took their washing to the banks and they would squat before wide tin basins, and whack at clothes with wooden paddles.Another is how episodic the chapters seem to be. The book is really a coming-of-age tale of a boy, whose privileged family play a huge role among the townsfolk of a small town in Ilocos. Mostly, it is about the unravelling of the boy's relationship with his father, a powerful person under the employ of one Don Vicente. As a character, Don Vicente appears briefly in the novel, but his influence can be felt looming on every page. It's as if I were reading a local version of The Godfather, with Don Vicente as the head of the mafiosi and the boy's father, Espiridion, as his consiglieri. Espiridion is a character difficult to like. He has his fingers on all the comings and goings in town. Hardened, ruthless, with very few soft spots.
The chapters can indeed be likened to individual episodes. In one chapter, we read about a travelling circus who visits the town. In another, the unplanned marriage of two relatives who find themselves spending the summer in the house of Espiridion. In one chapter, there's an anecdote about a relative who finds out that the townsfolk have been cheated of their land and is determined to set things right. And in other chapters, we discover the unfortunate lives of the family's household help. A lot of these episodes don't end well. The righteous man commits suicide, the star of the circus show has an accident and never performs again, the help die from poverty. And the boy? He doesn't really come to terms with his father.
The book's spirit is not really an upper. Tree is a sad read. It shows you that the poor want for justice, and that a small impoverished town so far removed from the nation's capital can appear chaotic despite its calm veneer. The town may be picturesque, based on our unnamed narrator's eye, but it's rotten to the core. Peel the eggshell and what you get are centuries-old problems brought about by the corrupt feudal system of our colonists. And what stinks really bad is that these problems are no longer being wrought by white people but by the very same brown-skinned Filipino who doesn't think twice about making life bitter for his fellow citizen.
One closes Tree with a feeling of unease. Our ancestors never had an easy life. It was even more difficult during wartime. But what makes it even more uncomfortable is that a small town, without even knowing it, is waging its own war. The rich prey among the poor. The poor futilely fighting back and eventually accepting their sad circumstance. It's one picture that's very painful to see—people swimming upstream against forces of history, of terrible human nature, of the cruel fates, only to be swept away by the current, helpless, quietly sobbing, and eventually drowning.
Read this book if:
- You have a thing for historical epics set in the 1940s.
- You love unconventional coming-of-age stories.
- You know that sad books can be beautiful reads.