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Literature / The Pretenders

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"… They were bright young men who knew what money meant. But though they were rich and were educated in the best schools of Europe, their horizons were limited and they knew they could never belong to the alien aristocracy which determined the future.… They cried for reforms, for wider opportunities, for equality. Did they plead for freedom, too? And dignity for all Indios — and not only for themselves who owed their fortunes and their status to the whims of the aristocracy? Could it be that they wanted not freedom or dignity but the key to the restricted enclaves of the rulers?"
— Antonio "Tony" Samson, The Ilustradosnote 

The Pretenders (1962) is a historical novel by award-winning Filipino novelist F. (Francisco) Sionil José, the first of what would become one of his most famous bodies of work, the five-volume Rosales Saga, named after the provincial Philippine town he grew up in.

Somewhere in the late 1950s, Antonio "Tony" Samson returns to the Philippines after finishing his doctorate at Harvard University. He comes home to a highly unequal society, restless in the wave of reconstruction after World War II, and gets engaged to and marries Carmen Villa, heiress to a wealthy industrialist Filipino family. This puts him in something of an identity crisis, as Tony himself hails from a poor family in Pangasinan province (specifically Cabugawan, a tiny rural community), and his own blood relations constantly remind him of their continuing struggles and the debt he owes to them for enabling him to study in the United States.


As if things weren't complicated enough, however, Tony also has to deal with the fallout of an affair he had in youth with Emy, his poor cousin, whom it turns out he left pregnant, and now has a son. This, and other issues, continue to weigh on him throughout the novel, eventually forcing him to drastic action.

Not to be confused with the new wave band.

Tropes Appearing in The Pretenders:

  • Affably Evil: Most of the Filipino aristocracy can be said to be this. Don Manuel and Senator Reyes might be corrupt, profit-driven and manipulative, but they do enjoy good jokes and are generally civil, even towards even poor class usurpers like Tony. Chalk it up to noblesse oblige, if you will.
  • Amoral Attorney: Senator Reyes is the legal counsel for the Villa family’s steel concerns, and both as lawyer and as politician, naturally he gets kickbacks from the construction.
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  • Animal Motifs: Tony frequently compares the Filipino elite to dinosaurs—that is, vast, ancient, indifferent monsters preying upon the weak and defenceless masses.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: In the grand sense, but even in petty cases, with Carmen cheating on Tony, and Don Manuel and Senator Reyes manipulating their way through the country’s policy circles.
    • This is also what prompted Tony’s dad to kill the “Rich Man”, who seized the Samson family’s lands in the backstory.
  • The Atoner: Carmen after Tony kills himself. She sells her Cool Car to help publish Tony’s papers.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: “Expansive” to describe positive moods, “antiseptic” to describe clean-looking places. FSJ also talks a lot about rich people “salting away” their dollars, and often lampshades clichés by calling them out.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Subverted, for the most part, as FSJ pointedly shows how the women of Pobres Park devolve into fat blobs once the children start coming.
  • Bookends: The novel begins and ends in Antipolo Street, at the Samsons’ house, by the tracks.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The railway tracks along Antipolo. First a fact of life, then a fact of death.
  • Chubby Mama, Skinny Papa: This is a running theme with many married couples here—lean Don Manuel and fat Mrs Villa, for example, or tall Ben de Jesus and his pudgy wife Nena. Usually results from having multiple children.
    • Explicitly inverted with Tony’s sister Betty, who remains lean but muscular despite three kids, and whose husband Bert is rounder (or at least more heavily built).
    • Also tragically averted with Tony and Carmen, the latter who wastes away after he dies.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: A lot of this comes from Tony.
  • Cool Car: Carmen drives a red Ford Thunderbird—after all, the setting is an ex-US colony, in The '50s.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Don Manuel Villa, Johnny Lee, Alfred Dangmount.
  • Corrupt Politician: Senator Reyes, who routinely skims off national development projects (including the steel mill being bankrolled by the Villa Development Corporation), though he tries to justify his actions using the monolithic concept of “nationalism”.
  • Dean Bitterman: Dean Lopez turns down Tony’s supposed aspirations to the Socrates Club (an exclusive academic society), fuming at the thought that Tony might be after his job—even if, ironically enough, the dean himself had originally recommended Tony for it, at least that's how Tony remembers it.
  • Death Equals Redemption / Driven to Suicide: Tony.
  • Dirty Old Man: A mild version in Bert, Tony’s brother-in-law, who starts asking him about American women right off the bat when he comes back.
  • Disabled Love Interest: Carmen, sort of, but the disabling—her losing her hearing—only happens after Tony leaves her and dies by suicide.
  • Eagleland: Type 2 in Alfred Dangmount, an industrialist carpetbagger (though ironically he’s described as an American Southerner, whereas historical carpetbaggers were from the Civil War-era North). Also colours the opinions of Godo, a railing anti-American journalist.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Pepe Samson, Tony's bastard son, as a six-year-old. He eventually grows up to become The Narrator of Mass, the sequel.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Tony goes looking for the historical writings of his grandfather, Eustaquio Samson, in Ilocos. No one can point him to any such name—until he sees the name "Eustaquio Salvador" in a church record, and suddenly realises that Salvador was his grandfather's original surname.
  • Every Man Has His Price: A defining theme of the novel, and indeed in much of FSJ's work. Don Manuel prides himself on taking this as a fact—and on buying anyone and everyone, including the supposedly incorruptible Godo.
  • Evil Colonialist: Economic or neo-colonialist incarnations feature here in the form of American Alfred Dangmount and the Japanese Saito-san, both foreigners profiteering off of Philippine infrastructure development programs. (The Chinese Johnny Lee could also count, in a sense, except for his naturalised citizenship.)
  • Explosive Breeder: Discussed by Nena de Jesus, who mentions having already had six children at the tender age of 25, which gets her thinking about getting a tubal ligation. Presumably one of them is the future Betsy de Jesus, with whom Tony's son Pepe gets involved in Mass.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Tony on the railroad tracks.
  • Family Business: This being the Philippines, nearly every business of any consequence is a family concern. Aside from steel production, the Villas own several other whole enterprises, even some unconnected ones.
  • Fictional Document: What later becomes Tony’s dissertation, The Ilustrados, as well as his grandfather’s Philosophia Vitæ. He also left behind several personal diaries, and letters to his friend Larry Bitfogel, among others. Par for the course in a novel centred around an academician.
    • The Ilustrados provides the epigraph.
  • The '50s / The '60s: The novel is set in that almost mythical "second-only-to-Japan" era, when despite the destruction of World War II, the Philippines was relatively well-developed and fast-growing within Southeast Asia, Manila was classier, and American influence was even more in evidence.
  • First World Problems: Mrs Villa frequently complains about petty issues: her body fat, malfunctioning air-conditioning, parties that go slightly wrong. Also kind of makes sense since the Philippines literally was a First World country—in the 1960s this would’ve meant aligned with the US, and the Philippines has never been anything but.
  • Follow That Car: Tony tells his cab driver to follow Carmen’s car, with her and Ben de Jesus in it, when he suspects her of cheating on him. The taxi ends up following them all the way to a seedy motel, which confirms Tony's worst suspicions.
  • Foreshadowing: Tony gets involved in public relations for a steel mill project. Steel makes up the railway tracks and the train that kills him.
  • Four Is Death: FSJ twice refers to the four lines of steel that make up the Antipolo railway—which is where Tony eventually commits suicide. The time of death also occurs around 4–5 am, though this is more likely a coincidence.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: Expected within Manila’s upper class, as most of them are descended from Spanish-era elites. Senator Reyes talks with a restaurant owner in Spanish, for one, snatches of which Tony understands, as well as the Spanish song which is the last thing Carmen ever hears.
  • Gratuitous Latin: Tony's long-dead grandfather's writings are in Latin, and upon discovering them in the church of Cabugaw town in Ilocos Norte (where Eustaquio Samson, formerly Salvador, once apprenticed), Tony and the local parish priest take turns trying to read some lines.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The Gay Blades band at the end. Although given their outfits they might not be that far off the mark …
  • Heat Wave: Manila in May—and this was in The '50s! Causes Mrs Villa to go on a rant about getting her airconditioning fixed.
  • The Hero Dies: by suicide.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Tony Samson and Larry Bitfogel.
  • History Marches On: Filipino national hero Andrés Bonifacio is characterised as an “almost illiterate labourer”. In reality he was not. He studied with a private tutor because his parents died and he couldn’t finish proper schooling, as he needed to support his siblings. Later he worked several middle-class jobs (including warehouse manager and poster-maker for several firms). To be fair, though, he (and indeed most everyone) would be considered relatively illiterate, especially against the cosmopolitan and erudite ilustrados, who could afford to study abroad.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Don Manuel after Tony’s suicide. At a party for Ben de Jesus' successful election as chief of Pobres Park, Don Manuel downs several glasses in succession.
  • Insistent Terminology: The Gay Blades call Larry “Joe” just because he’s American. Truth in Television in that many Filipinos still use "Joe" as a catch-all term for Americans (and even other Caucasians) in general.
  • Ironic Name: The oligarchic subdivision that is Pobres Park. “Pobres” = Spanish for “poor people”.
    • Punny Name as well since it’s based on the real Forbes Park.
  • It's Always Sunny at Funerals: Tony’s, though the focus is more on the heat than the brightness. The atmosphere is just as oppressive as a rainy one because of the very hot sun.
  • Kissing Cousins: Tony had sex with Emy in the past, before he left for the States. Their bastard son/nephew, José (aka Pepe), is the hero of the sequel, Mass.
  • La Résistance: Tony’s father, before he was imprisoned.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: Rosales was named for the rosal flower bushes spotted growing in the area.
  • Lit Fic
  • Majored in Western Hypocrisy: Much is made of Tony's Harvard degree. It was common for aspirational Filipino intellectuals and power elite to finish their higher education in the homelands of their colonisers; by Tony's generation, in roughly The '50s, this would mean studying in the Ivy Leagues and other elite universities in the (neocolonial) American metropole. He and Carmen also later discuss possibly sending their own would-be children to European schools.
    • In-Universe this is in fact the focus of Tony's dissertation: as mentioned above, ilustrados refers to the privileged Filipino elite who studied extensively abroad, picked up Western ideas (that often turn out to be abused or hypocritically applied), and later matured to become the colony's/country's deeply oligarchic leadership.
  • Meaningful Name: Senator Reyes = Kings, as befitting his status as part of the country's ruling class. Also, Larry Bitfogel may be named after German Sinologist Karl Wittfogel (even more plausible when considering that the German "W" is pronounced as a "V").
  • Mega-Corp: The Villa Development Corporation, though only on a nationwide scale.
  • Missing Mom: Tony and Betty’s mother, the late Mrs Samson.
  • Multinational Team: The list of investors into the Villas' steel mill. Besides Don Manuel himself (who, as an oligarchic Filipino, is most probably some undescribed mix of indigenous, Chinese and Spanish blood), there's the Chinese (but naturalised-Filipino) Johnny Lee, the Japanese Saito-san, and the white American Alfred Dangmount. Then there's Senator Reyes, their legal counsel for the whole enterprise, who with his darker skin is implied to be ethnically more indigenous-Filipino relative to Don Manuel himself.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed / Expy = Senator Reyes of the Third Republic nationalist politician Claro M. Recto, Alfred Dangmount of a real-life American businessman named Harry Stonehill, who in the 1960s was implicated in massive bribery and corruption scandals under the Macapagal administration.
  • No Name Given: The Rich Man of Rosales. If Word of God is to be believed, it was Luis Asperri, the protagonist of My Brother, My Executioner.
    • Also, Tony’s father. (In the Prequel Po-on, however, Eustaquio "Istak" Samson is stated to beget two sons, an Antonio and a Pedro, either of whom then sired Tony. Either way, it would mean Tony was not the first of his name in his family.)
    • The university where Tony is teaching at the beginning of the novel, but it's implied to be the University of the Philippines. note 
  • Nouveau Riche: The Villas straddle the line between this and Old Money, since they actually made their wealth via industrial ventures rather than land acquisition. (Don Manuel’s father was a furniture maker.)
  • The Old Convict: Samson Sr., Tony’s father.
  • Old Money: The Rich Man who seizes all the lands in Rosales, including the Samsons’ land.
  • Philosophical Novel
  • One Steve Limit: Averted, but with surnames. Mrs Villa mentions a Dr Alfonso Samson, but as he’s from Negros (and implicitly much wealthier), he’s unrelated to Tony, who is Ilocano.
    • Also averted in another odd way: besides a Carmen person, there’s a Carmen town.
    • Not to mention the near-aversions with similar names such as Betty (Tony’s sister) and Bettina (Emy’s sister, hence Tony’s cousin).
  • The Ophelia: Carmen Villa becomes a quieter version of this, being sapped of her energy and general wellbeing, after Tony’s suicide.
  • Product Placement: Carmen’s red Ford Thunderbird.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Tony’s suicide method of choice. Most everyone thinks it was an accident, except for Carmen.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: What Senator Reyes does to help Tony advance in the university. This backfires when Dean Lopez chews him out for daring to cheat his way up the university ladder and into the Socrates Club.
    • Hypocrite: Dean Lopez filled all the university staff positions around him with fellow Ilocanos so he could guarantee their loyalty. His own work is also plagiarised.
    • Also discussed when Tony tells his relations he’ll be marrying Carmen Villa; his sister Betty fusses about getting a provincial governor to sponsor the wedding, just to show that the Samsons already have friends in high places.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: A given among the country’s corrupt upper class. Don Manuel even tries to frame this as a Necessary Evil since he has to compromise with everyone: bureaucrats, politicians, media, etc.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Larry Bitfogel to Ben de Jesus and his wife. Tony also gives this to Dean Lopez.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: A little quieter here than in most action-packed or dramatic uses, but as this is set in an extremely unequal society (which unfortunately is still Truth in Television today), this forms the matter-of-fact background of life and much of its interactions. Then it all comes hitting Tony in the face because a poor boy like him suddenly married into a very wealthy family. It also hit his father when his lands were seized by the Rich Man.
  • Spicy Latina: Carmen if one plays up her Hispanic blood heritage.
  • Stepford Suburbia: Pobres Park and Sta Mesa, for all their expensive cleanliness and massive walls, presents no defence against the personal problems of the Filipino ruling class. (Note that in the Philippines, “suburbia” usually refers to very upper-class walled villages, unlike American middle/upper-middle-class suburbs.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: The first section (the "Choragus") features Carmen Villa after her husband Tony dies. In this sense the entire rest of the novel then becomes a flashback. (See also How We Got Here).
  • Swiss Bank Account: The oligarchs’ favourite stashing-place (or “salting-place” per FSJ) for their money. Even Tony considers salting away his money in one. (Unfortunately, as he's privy to the way the ruling class accumulate it, he's painfully aware it’s not really his money.)
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Tony himself, at least according to Larry Bitfogel.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Pinakbet (an earthy vegetable stew) for Tony, as it’s the quintessentially Ilocano food he grew up with, and made by his sister too. He especially enjoys it with mudfish.
  • Uptown Girl: Carmen Villa. Unfortunately it doesn’t end well for her.
  • Urban Segregation: Insanely glamorous and tree-lined Sta Mesa, Manila, where the Villas live, as well as the newer Pobres Park (an Expy of Forbes Park), versus overcrowded slum Antipolo Street, beside the railroad tracks. Truth in Television.
  • Villainous BSoD: Carmen Villa, particularly her slow slide into deafness.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks: Antipolo Street, which literally runs alongside the Philippine National Railway tracks.