The Rosales saga encompasses a hundred years of our tumultuous history.
It starts sometime in 1872 when the three Filipino priests, Gomez, Burgos and Zamora were executed by the Spaniards on suspicion that they were party to the Cavite mutiny of that period. The first novel in the saga, Poon, is set in this period. The concluding novel, Mass, is set around 1972, the year President Marcos declared Martial Law. The novel describes those times, the massive demonstrations, the corruption and the uncertainties and social upheaval that Marcos used to justify his dictatorship.
The Rosales saga itself is the story of three families. Of the three, the emphasis is on the Samsons, the peasant family which migrated from the Ilokos to the plains of eastern Pangasinan, to this town called Rosales, supposedly named after the flower Rosal which, in my youth, bloomed profusely in the town.
The entire novel, its structure, plot, etc., was conceived on the eight-hour flight from Hong Kong to Paris. By the time the plane landed at Orly, the novel and its characters had already come to life in my head.
Nena Saguil, the Filipino expat painter in Paris, recommended a small hotel near her apartment, close to the St. Germain Cathedral on the boulevard of the same name. It was amazingly cheap, seven dollars a day, including the usual continental breakfast of croissants and good French coffee.
I had to move rooms three times; my typing at night disturbed the hotel guests. The hotel manager knew I was writing a novel and was very sympathetic. He finally found me a corner room on the sixth floor, the hotel's topmost floor, with no neighboring rooms -- and also no elevator. And so for a month, I worked on Mass in a small room furnished with a table and chair, a cot, a cabinet and a washbowl.
I had never written so feverishly before. When my hands were tired from typing, I wrote in long hand. There were times I would write and re-write for three straight days with hardly any sleep, and little food. I ate apricots mostly -- it was June and they were in season and very cheap at the public market below my hotel.
Briefly, the novel is about the illegitimate son of Tony Samson, the Harvard scholar in The Pretenders. The young Pepe Samson is concerned only with his gonads and his stomach. He goes to Manila to live first with his relatives on Antipolo Street, then moves on to Tondo as sacristan of a parish priest. The novel is not just about his journey from "one swampland to another." It is a record of his transformation.
Returning to Manila, I cleaned up the draft then submitted it to a publisher. Her response was immediate; she didn’t want to get into trouble with the dictatorship. I then gave it to another publisher who was quite brave in publishing a magazine that was already critical of the regime. She didn’t want to touch it either.
What to do? The Russian samizdat came to mind. I mimeographed about twenty copies and distributed them to friends. My Dutch publisher, Sjef Theunis, heard about Mass and he asked to see it. I sent it to him immediately and within a few months, the first edition of Mass, in Dutch, was published. It sold very well and underwent two printings. Sjef sent me a hefty royalty and with that money, I immediately published Mass under my Solidaridad imprint.
Friends who read it worried. One warned me that Marcos's hatchet man, Colonel Abadilla, would get me.
I had gambled when I published Mass. I was aware of the danger yet I felt certain the novel would not matter. I knew Marcos was deliberate. And because Filipinos did not read Filipino novelists, there was little chance Mass would have an impact. Marcos did not bother with it.
Mass turned out to be my most popular novel, and it continues to sell to this very day. It is also my most widely translated work. Many readers have said it is the most powerful novel in the Rosales saga.
Could there be an explanation? When I was writing Mass in Paris, I had very little money and I subsisted on apricots, which were in season and very cheap. Came a time during that frenzied month that my stomach became very sour from eating them. Years later, I read somewhere that the apricot is one of the best foods for the brain. My son, Alex, a food scientist, doesn't think apricots had anything to do with it. He said, "Papa, you were inspired and on a roll."
I end this blog with the last passage from Mass, when Pepe leaves the city to join the revolution:
Time to go and the Tondo I will leave will be brightly lit with Christmas star lanterns, colored bulbs strung before windows, boisterous drinking of cuatro cantos and San Miguel in the tiendas, children with harmonicas and plaintive voices caroling. The distance, however, which beckoned was dark. I was afraid.
So I leave behind those who see the sword, but refuse to raise it. "Bless me, Father," I said nonetheless. "I cannot leave without your blessing."
"I am mortal, Pepe," he said. As he raised his right hand, I dropped to my knees.
He helped me to my feet, and we went down. At the door, he wrapped an arm around my shoulder and hugged me briefly. Tia Nena kissed me on the cheek.
"Hoy, you have to cut your hair now," he said as I left them at the kumbento door.
I was afraid, but I felt very light. I knew I could go very far without tiring.