Back in those days when life was more or less predictable, a series of 50-50 chances, F. Sionil Jose, before and after he became National Artist for Literature in 2001, would gather young people in small groups to the top floor of his Solidaridad in Manila’s Malate district.
Malate was the most “classy” of the city’s four (later, five) districts, where fine restaurants, clean but not swanky hotels, fashion designers’ ateliers and 50-year-old residences shared space with antique shops, a bookstore or two, PGH, and the old Assumption that would later be converted into a mall. Malate was a short drive from Intramuros and Florentino Torres, home to most if not all newspaper offices, so the assumption was that its denizens were not only above-average in earning capacity, they were well-educated. Frankie’s Solidaridad was a nest of intellectuals-in-the-making, young writers who sat at their idol’s feet to engage him in conversation, discuss society, current events, the arts and artists. Frankie did not live in an ivory tower.
It was a badge of honor to be invited to any of those soirees, as it was music to his audience’s ears to hear F. Sionil Jose the Great encourage them to write, write, write, read, read, read. Unlike the typically narcissistic award-winner whose ego has risen with their stature, Frankie was ever the same avuncular host with anecdotes to tell and sharp one-liners to end a bottomless discussion. Poetry, fiction, commentary, politics, media – the agenda was freewheeling.
Frankie passed Jan. 6 last week, 30 days after his daughter died in the US on Dec. 6. “He was heartbroken,” said his wife Tessie. While waiting for a scheduled angioplasty, Frankie posted on Facebook a thank-you to his “brave heart” for “pumping much more efficiently and longer than most machines… Thank you, dear Lord for this most precious gift.” Time to step out of the shell of his occasional agnosticism.
Frankie, novelist, commentator, bookstore owner and publisher, family man, sage and teacher lived his 97 years to the hilt. Before the pandemic, he and Tessie went to the mall regularly “for exercise” and to discover what was new in the world outside home in Quezon City and the Malate office. His curiosity kept him young.