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F Sionil José: Po-on (US: Dusk)

Though this is the first book chronologically in José’s Rosales five-part saga, it was the last one to be written. It is set in 1880s, at a time when Spanish occupation was about to end and American occupation, following the Spanish-American War, about to start. It follows the often bitter fate of a family called Salvador, though they later change their name to Salmon when hunted by the Spanish authorities. Like José, they are from Ilokos. At the start of the novel, Istak (known to the Spanish as Eustaquio) is working for the sympathetic Spanish priest, Father José. He has learned Spanish and Latin and there is a possibility that he will be trained to be a priest. However, Father José is getting old and his liberal views do not sit well with the authorities and he is moved out and replaced by a young priest. This young priest soon gets rid of Istak, not least because Istak saw him having sex. Istak lives with his father, Ba-ac, his mother, Mayang, and his two younger brothers, An-no and Bit-tik. Ba-ac is very bitter. A few years before, he had been called on to provide compulsory road building work for the Spanish. As he had a fever he declined, offering to make it up later. However, he was arrested and hung up by one arm, causing him to the lose the arm. He now hates the church and the Spanish. An-no is jealous of his older brother, who has received education. This jealousy is increased when a young woman, Dalin, arrives in the village with her sick husband in a cart. The husband soon dies and the family offers to take in the young widow. She is clearly attracted to Istak but An-no is attracted to her.

The young priest is determined to get rid of the family and orders them to leave the land, which, he says, they have not been looking after properly. Ba-ac decides to go and visit the priest to reason with him. However, when he meets him, he realises that he is the priest who ordered him to be hung up by the arm. In a fit of fury he kills him with a crucifix. The family, including all their relatives, has to hurriedly leave, taking the back roads to avoid the police. En route, they go to other relations who have also been expelled and join up with them. José recounts their various adventures including the rape of the daughter of one of the relatives by the police officer hunting them. It is this rape that persuades An-no to marry the girl in question and abandon his pursuit of Dalin.

After a lot of adventures, including the death by drowning of Mayang, and the killing of Ba-ac by a python, they finally arrive at Rosales where the local landowner, Don Jacinto, is very sympathetic and helps them to set up a small village of their own in the forest. They struggle with the initial work. Bit-tik is very lazy but the others work to get the village going. The politics have been hovering in the background, with opposition to the Spanish and the involvement of the Americans. The Americans are now taking over but, by all accounts, are as bad as the Spanish, torturing and raping. Cholera hits the village and Istik nearly dies and, while he is ill, An-no is taken away to be executed for his father’s crime. We gradually learn that Don Jacinto is very much involved in the independence movement and Istik soon starts helping him, particularly when a man known as the Cripple (the real-life Apolinario Mabini) stays. Finally, Istik is sent off on a dangerous mission to take a message to the President but ends up at the Battle of Mount Tirad.

José tells this epic story, which was the start of the movement towards the independence of the Philippines, well. We meet key characters of the struggle for independence as well as learning of the struggles of the individuals in the country, all against the background of first Spanish and then American repression and brutality. He keeps the story moving well and has a wide range of characters, even if his sympathies are clearly marked. For Americans, it might be something of an eye-opener to learn that, as in other countries (Vietnam and Iraq spring to mind), they were not seen as heroes by the local populace but, rather, as oppressors and brutal ones at that.

Publishing history

First published by Solidaridad in 1985