A review by Allen Gaborro

Sins by F. Sionil Jose

Random House, 1996
$22 (hardcover)
ISBN: 0-679-42018-5

It has taken Westerners decades to come to grips with the genius of writers emanating from the Third World. Once eschewed from the Western literary canon, contemporary Third World littérateurs such as Naguib Mahfouz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Buchi Emecheta, Salman Rushdie, and Nawal El-Saadawi have won critical acclaim for their work and have made profound impressions on cultural establishments and aesthetic sensibilities throughout the civilized world.

F. Sionil Jose embodies the Asian component of this literary insurgency. He has composed a wide range of literature extending from poetry to short stories and novels, all of which have earned him the title of being the Philippines', and perhaps Southeast Asia's, most prominent writer over the last forty years. In 1980, he won the Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize. It was not until his 1992 anthology, Three Filipino Women, that Jose was finally published in the United States.

Of his nine novels, Sins is arguably Jose's most controversial, if not his most bohemian, as it was authored within the highly-conservative, predominantly Roman Catholic context of Philippine society. At the center of Sins stands the age-old theme of the disparate inequality between rich and poor. The book is a searing attack on the Philippine aristocracy's perpetual monopoly of wealth, resources, and social capital along with its haughty, indeed racist, disposition towards the darker-skinned, lower class "Indios" (indigenous Malays), the perennial have-nots of the Philippine bodypolitik. The Indios have constituted the lowest rung of the nation's socio-economic ladder since the advent of Spanish colonial rule in the 16th century.

Carlos Cobello, the book's main character and a blue-blooded Spanish mestizo (a Filipino with Spanish ancestry), demonstrates a proclivity for generalizing and an air of aristocratic scorn when assessing Indios whom, interestingly enough, he has had little direct contact with: "If there is anything Indios cannot accept, it is the searing truth about themselves, their perfidious character...no sooner have they proclaimed their virtue then they turn around and do the opposite...These Indios--they are stupid."

True to its title, Sins undermines entrenched codes of morality by employing both adulterous and incestuous relationships within its storyline, creating an artifice of sexual tension that permeates the novel. As Cobello, a libidinous fornicator at heart, asserts, "What are social taboos? They are the absurd and even grotesque creations of society...Sin is a social definition, not a moral one." Jose identifies this moral relativism with the egotism and self- centeredness of the Philippine aristocracy. It is an explosive combination that threatens to upset the foundations of traditional Filipino mores and the infallibility of fundamental Christianity, both pillars of epistemic and spiritual strength for legions of Filipinos.

Sin s reads like a Milan Kundera novel. Its narrative is intermittently halted by digressive interludes that reveal Cobello's nostalgic yearning for a lost past graced by indescribable memories, "shining like diamonds as I pick them up one by one to polish and to caress." Once a man whose raison d'être was "that exhilarating sense of possession" and the power and influence that arose from it, Cobello, in an absurd twist of irony, becomes a helpless paraplegic after a freak accident in his bathroom.

Stripped of his pride and physicality but not of his soul, Cobello becomes obsessed with the heritage he will leave behind after his passing. Wishing to avoid bequeathing a legacy of hubris and immorality and of unbridled avarice, he soliloquizes on the recounting of his life as a way of repenting for his past iniquities: "How do I begin this litany? Is this the time to do it? In my present mood of isolation and decay, crippled as I am, should I even try to put things down? A form of expiation, perhaps, or atonement, the recitation of a thousand mea culpas?" The reader is never quite certain whether Cobello's penitent language is sincere remorse or circumscribed pandering.

He also sires two offspring who reflect the polarization of Philippine society; the demure Angela, is publicly his culturally refined, adolescent niece and the family heiress. But in reality and unbeknownst to herself, she is the product of Cobello's incestuous exploits with his sister Corito. His son Delfin meanwhile, is a university student and the child of an old teenage sweetheart. Born into impoverished surroundings, Delfin later becomes a lawyer who champions the poor in their quest for decent living standards and greater equality.

Cobello cherishes both children, but he is convinced that Angela was "God's immutable way of reminding us (Corito and himself) of our guilt, for which there was no atonement, no absolution." As for the heir apparent Delfin, he represents his father's antithesis; he refuses to follow in Cobello's footsteps and rejects the offer of a life of privilege and luxury. He chooses instead to assist in fostering the struggle against the excesses and abuses of the oligarchy to which his father belongs.

Cobello also puts forth his philosophy of history in the book. Typically, it is a philosophy constructed entirely from the vantage point of expediency and with little regard for accuracy or inclusiveness. No less than designs of domination lie behind this manipulation of history. Historical interpretation is reserved for the "strong", Cobello declares, whereas for the masses, victimized by the convulsive uncertainties of the quotidian, thereby precluding any sense of social or historical awareness on their part, history simply "has no meaning."

Despite its important theme, its Marquezian cultural and historical backdrop, along with its other bright spots, Sins lacks the stamina of a resourceful novel. Its appeal never fully materializes as the incorporation of too many erotic liaisons, some of them pointless and disjointed from the storyline, coupled with occasional overdoses of melodrama and an inadequately developed plot, taint the novel. The mediocre ending also does little to negate the reader's disappointment.

But even though Sins is not Jose's best work according to his own high standards, it does follow the pattern forged by other conscientious writers. The novel is a galvanizing call to mass consciousness as it exposes the edifice of vanity and greed embedded in the arcane, elite structures of power in countries all over the world.

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