The problem of young fiction writers, National Artist for Literature Frankie Sionil Jose once said, is that they no longer tell stories for they are caught up with devices that impede the storytelling.
I myself recall the fiction in English produced during the 60s and carried over to the present. The stories take effort to read and in one instance after a few pages, I put the novel down to reflect on what I had just read.
Somewhere the imagery and artifices had gotten tangled up with the narration, and I had to go back to page one.
If a fictionist wants to write poetry in prose perhaps one should shift to verse. But lyricism can be achieved in prose fiction through cadence, repetition with variation, and adjectival insistence as in many passages of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Jose achieves lyrical effects in Sherds by putting to good use what Conrad and Ford Madox Ford called progression d’effet particularly in the last chapters.
Sherds is a short novel, perhaps a novelette, that can be read in one sitting. It is a book hard to put down once you’ve started it. Jose has mastered the art of storytelling, using a simple device of a full circle, starting at the end of the story, in medias res. He tells the story of how am artist and art professor discovers something in his Pygmalion-like nurturing of a talented student whose vision of art is elemental, grounded in the clay of oppressed people in the countryside.
Unbeknownst to the main character who has achieved stature abroad for his art and scholarship, his very rich clan (the Golangcos) has contributed much to the oppression; their hacienda is the direct cause of death and poverty in the student’s village. The Golangcos over the years have managed to expand their business enterprises here and abroad and get elected or appointed in the higher echelons of government.
PG Golangco has spent most of his life in exile as student, artist and academic, occasionally indulging in sybaritic delights. His reentry into what his student would call a semi-feudal or semi-colonial society is the matrix of what would be the education of the aesthete, devoted to his pottery and ceramics and their attendant research. His long standing affair with the beauteous dean (a former student) at the university where he teaches, serves to differentiate his relationship with a young hardworking student assistant.
Guia Espiritu, his assistant, introduces her mentor to another kind of clay and pottery as practiced in her village by her own parents (murdered by hacienda guards), and inevitably this leads him to the aesthetics and pedagogy of the oppressed and dispossessed. He slowly discovers her past and is intrigued by strange happenings in his household and dealings with her. Jose is adept at keeping the reader more than interested at every page.
It would be unfair to give the plot of the novel here and spoil it for the reader. Suffice it to say that the author is in his element in presenting class conflict in non-ideological terms. With his own personal knowledge of the travails of the original tillers of the soil and their dispossession by the oligarchs, Jose has produced a monumental body of work including the Rosales saga that tells us the story of agrarian unrest in the country.
No other Filipino writer has given us a sustained account of the malaise in Philippine society—the role of the landed elites in keeping the vast majority of the people in penury and at bay. Sherds is yet another meditation on the subject.
The novel is singular in that it deals with art and society as rendered in Chapter 9 where the aesthete is faced with questions about his subject position on social protest and artists like Goya and Picasso. When PG pontificates at his exhibit that art thrives on freedom, a guest tells him,
“Freedom is a political condition. And you have freedom, sir, because you have the influence and money to buy your freedom. But what about the artists of the people? Those who are not pampered like you? Who are denied their freedom?”
The surprise for PG is the loud applause for these remarks from the audience in the art gallery. PG retreats of all places to the Café Guernica where he is almost inconsolable but for the reassurance of the two women with him. His education has thus begun.