BOOK REVIEW: The Rosales Novels

by Rose Churma

The Rosales Novels consist of five novels that use Philippine history as its backdrop – from the last days of the Spanish colonial period in the 1880s to the imposition of Martial Law in the 1970s.

The novels were authored by F. Sionil Jose who passed away last Jan. 5. Born in Rosales town in Pangasinan in 1924, he was educated at the University of Santo Tomas and held various positions involving writing or editing.

He is the recipient of various awards and grants such as the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation Award (1980) and the Carlos Palanca Award (1981). He also was awarded an East-West Center Fellowship in 1980 and has been a featured speaker in local venues such as the Honolulu Museum of Arts in the 1980s.

A prolific writer, he may be the only Filipino writer in English who has produced a series of novels that depicted a century of Philippine life as shown in the five-volume The Rosales Novels.

He is considered the most widely known contemporary writer in foreign countries, where his writings have been translated into several languages: Japanese, Chinese, Russian, German, Dutch, Ukranian, Slovak, Czeck, Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Hindi, Latvian – including Tagalog and Ilocano.

The first in the chronology of the Rosales novels is Po-on, set in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. The novel documents the flight of a tenant family from the Ilocos to the plains of Eastern Pangasinan.

The novel serves as context to two historical events: Apolinario Mabini’s visit to Rosales, Pangasinan and the battle of Tirad Pass where General Gregorio del Pilar met his end after skirmishes with the American forces.

The second in the collection is Tree, where relationships between the native landowners/employers and tenants/hirelings are explored, showing how the American policies instituted through legislation (such as free trade) impoverished the tenants of the land and the laborers of small-scale industries.

But despite the injustices suffered during the American colonial regime, the Filipinos opted to fight the Japanese invaders hoping for better conditions after the war.

My Brother, My Executioner, the third in the series is considered “the most dramatic.” Against the backdrop of the Hukbalahap uprising in the 1950s, the conflict between two half-brothers and their different worlds are explored.

It is noted in the book’s back cover that this publication was banned in 1973 by the Martial Law regime because it depicted events that were reminiscent of the times.

Antonio Samson is the main protagonist in The Pretenders, the fourth novel in the series. This novel is the author’s most translated work – the story of Antonio Samson who overcame the disadvantages of rural birth, who manages to go on advanced schooling in the US and has to move in social circles different from what he had prepared himself to do.

His is the story of many Filipinos who find themselves lost – a fate that is often their own doing. He symbolizes the modern Filipino “who fails to act in a society bereft of decency and justice” as described in the book’s back cover.

The major character in Mass, the fifth in the series, is Pepe Samson, the illegitimate son of Antonio Samson. Set during the years before and a little after the proclamation of martial rule in the Philippines, Pepe Samson escapes from his village in Pangasinan to live in Manila’s sprawling slum called Tondo.

His journey may be likened to thousands of young Filipinos of that era who found meaning in their lives. Pepe’s story could also be an “affirmation of faith in the future” as envisioned by today’s Filipino youth. The author wrote this last book in the series in Paris in 1976 and first translated in Holland in 1982 where it became a best seller.

“Sionil Jose writes evocatively,” Arthur Lundkvist of Stockholm notes in Svenska Akademien in his review of the author’s works.

“Linguistically and artistically, he is  no longer an author depending on a language and psychology whose origins are in colonialism but is truly an emancipated stylist, an interpreter of character and analyst of society.” 

Leopoldo Y. Yabes who was professor emeritus at University of the Philippines– Diliman observes that the Philippines has been under colonial rule for some four centuries with the fourth century depicted in The Rosales Novels, but despite this fact, the Philippines has survived as a national form and “…in the face of all the tragic events that happened in their lives, the people in Sionil Jose’s epic are felt to say, ‘we shall overcome’.”

In reading through his novels, especially the first one – Po-on, I can’t help wonder how it would resonate if initially written in Ilocano, the protagonists’ native language, rather than in English, the Filipinos’ borrowed language.

The prose is complex and the dialogue sometimes stilted. However, the sentence structure of the characters’ conversations and monologues become more “contemporary” – short, casual sounding and more relatable in the last novel in the series, Mass.

The five novels are available in a boxed format or can be acquired singly as stand-alone novels.  For inquiries, please send an email to

ROSE CHURMA established a career in architecture 40 years ago, specializing in judicial facilities planning.  As a retired architect, she now has the time to do the things she always wanted to do: read books and write about them, as well as encourage others to write.

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