“MASS” is a novel written in 1976 by F. Sionil Jose which won the 1980 ‘Ramon Magsasay’s Journalism, Literature and Creative Communicattion Arts’ Award. The title, contrary to what it connotes, is not about a religious Sunday ritual which one can easily disrupt to highlight his displeasure against the church. It is mass as in masses, their liberation, their unlikely champion, Pepe Samson, 24 year old college boy and the illegitimate son born between two first cousins from a dull barrio of Cabugawan, Rosales, Pangasinan, the author’s birthplace.
It is a must read for every Filipino who wants to seek his roots, his history and the constant struggle of the less privileged for the mundane convenience of being able to eat noodles and siopao, see a movie and sleep in a dry mattress free from the putrid smell of garbage that Manila has become.
It is also about that historical place called Tondo, whose another champion, from a previous generation, had dreamed about simple things; of being able to eat and see the people freed from the clutches of the Spaniards that he had to organize the ill-fated secret society, the Katipunan, composed of the ‘unwashed’, which he hoped would wrench from the foreign rulers the freedom that they had taken from them. Here, too was where the organized labor movement began, only to be subverted and exploited by future generations of ‘rapacious labor leaders’.
The author speaking through his main character, Pepe, bewails the betrayals of politicians and asked: ‘What happened to those men, those professed paragons of righteousness who came from Tondo? Some reached the highest niches in government and when they had gotten what they wanted, they fled Tondo to wallow in the perfumed precincts of Makati’. This sounds very familiar, though in recent times, one does not always seek the antiseptic aroma and allure of this financial district of Makati, for his solitary home, if he can build an empire of subdivisions in the enclaves of Paranaque and Cavite. The historic Cavite, whose fledgling Republic was born and aborted, has become recently the symbol of greed from realtors who like the earlier migrants to Mindanao, saw the rich-resource south an endless boundaries for ‘carpetbagging’.
Filipinos have come in complete circle. Bonifacio was betrayed by the ilustrados aided by his own class, Aguinaldo, and Aguinaldo himself was betrayed by the same ilustrados aided by his own class, the Macabebes, the Hukbalahap betrayed by his own class, the Macapilis, the student rebellion in the seventies by the masses themselves by simply remaining inert, disinterested and uncommitted. It was also betrayed by the military scalawags who kidnapped, tortured and kill student activists. These military scalawags also belonged to the same class they had betrayed.
But the novel is chiefly about the aborted student revolt in the seventies played out by different characters. The poor Pepe who dreamed of simple things of being able to fill his stomach; the rich college girl, Betsy who bolted class barrier to join the movement only to be forced by her parents to go abroad and seek the peace of the rich West, the rich clergy, Father Jess, a landed-family in Negros who found his ministry in the feces-strewn Tondo, a college professor-activist, Prof. Hortenso, the adviser of student organizations, and the rich and glib Juan Puneta who tried to subvert the student movement by infiltrating its ranks through its leaders and stirred confrontation between unarmed students and his shadowy network of vicious criminals. Some minor characters like Lily, Lucy and Roger, are in the novel to highlight that the poor have to bite the bullet in order to survive. And of course Toto, the one with the purest heart, who believed in the revolution the same way Bonifacio did, and died on the street from a bullet wound in one of those bloody demonstrations before martial law.
‘Mass’ is not only a novel encrypted with historical perspective and the habiliments of a Marcos’s police state, but also about our decayed metropolis and our educational institutions.
Here is the author’s perspective of Manila seen through his main character, Pepe, the probinsyano who went to the city forced by her mother, and her aunt to study in a known Manila university but ended up studying in one of the diploma mills in Manila because he had spent his matriculation money for noodles and the movie.
“Manila, here I am at last; eager to wallow in your corrupt embrace and drink from your polluted veins –luminous with good life; I am here to feast on your graces, admire your splendor, your longevity. x x x Lead me through your dispirited streets, your dank and festering neighborhoods into the core of your warm, affectionate heart.”
“All of the city was warm and Quiapo was the cauldron, bubbling with people, the spillover from all over the country, spewed in Plaza Miranda like sewage from the innards beneath it. They are all here, the evacuees from the folds and recesses of the villages and the small towns, all drawn to Manila as carrion draws a swarm of flies.
Recto where the diploma mills are; The jeepney drivers shout it, this name that circumscribes, describes youth, the urban malady and pollution, bakya supermarket at one end which is Divisoria, and vision and corruption – whichever you want to append- the other .. Malacanang, it is this other end, the vision-corruption part which would be familiar grounds to me for four years. Recto! Rectum of Manila! Here are the odors of the posterior, particularly when the sun is warm and there would be a busted sewer gushing with yellowish froth, and flies as big as bottle caps on the garbage piles.
Aside from the aesthetic oppression that Manila has become, the author oppresses also Pepe with the ghost of his own father who married into wealth but killed himself reportedly to redeem himself from his betrayal of his own class symbolized by the dressmaker, his cousin whom he had impregnated. Though you can get a sense that it was not because of betrayal of his own class that he killed himself but more of a conflicted conscience, fighting a system that which he became very much a part of.
While Pepe’s relatives and even those who knew his father swore on the integrity of his father as an intellectual, having graduated from Harvard, Pepe was cynical. His father could be very well a typical ilustrado who went abroad for a degree only to write, tongue-in-cheek, the betrayal of the ilustrados.
“Revolution can only succeed when men who believe in it can translate their beliefs into a conspiracy – all embracing in its call for adherents. But to admit into the leadership of the revolution the old elite – no matter how well-intentioned they may be – – would be to condemn the revolution to suspicion and even betrayal. A class war is precisely that – a class war. The revolution failed because it did not adhere to this basic requirement; a class is weakened not by the identified enemy but by the unidentified subverter who dilutes and weakens its leadership”.
But earlier in the narrative, the author throws a caveat that mass movement alone is not enough. To modernize a country you need the capitalists. It was not the peasants who changed Japan. It was the elite – the shoguns, the samurais’
Pepe, before his complete conversion to become Toto, the revolutionist-dreamer, who died, rebuked his friend while he was still alive:
“ You are dreaming! – You are blind to everything around you. Listen, our history is a history of failed revolutions. Always in the end, someone was bought or someone turned traitor. We are a nation of traitors.. we delight in seeing the downfall of others, even friends. We betray for money, for revenge for envy. But most of the time out of cussedness. So here you are in this organization. You will see me and the others claw their way to the top, over the bodies of our friends. We have wrong memories. We remember the slightest injury to our pride, our so-called self-respect. We etch these in our hearts and wait patiently for the day when we can stick the knife in the back. But let someone do us a good deed – and we forget it easily. We are also a nation of ingrates. It was this way before. Diego Silang, Apolinario de la Cruz, Andres Bonifacio, Antonio Luna, Gregorio del Pilalr – they were all betrayed.
It is very difficult to look for our heroes in the national landscape because they are often interlaced with our very own villains; villains who could have been our own shoguns and samurais that could have lead the nation from liberation the way Japan did.
“The Filipino elite is flawed because the individuals who comprise it, even they come from diverse backgrounds, do not really see themselves as leaders of a nation. They see themselves as leaders of factions, of families, of cozy coteries. Their rhetoric will deny – even attack this assumption – but their deeds will bear their parochial, factional and, and therefore, anti-nationalistic spirits.
Who can lead our liberation then? The poor are busy looking for their meals, and not for intellectual pursuit that only the elite can afford. We keep coming back in circles!