February 21, 2017

Bernhard's cause



"An Indication of the Cause" (Die Ursache, 1975) by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, translated by David McLintock, collected in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes (Vintage, 2011)


I found the city increasingly intolerable as a result of hundreds of sad, squalid, appalling, and mortifying experiences, and essentially it has remained intolerable to this day. To pretend otherwise would be untrue, hypocritical, and dishonest, and it is imperative that I should set down this record now and not later—I must set it down now, while I am still capable of fully recreating my experience as a child and an adolescent in Salzburg, of recreating it with all the factualness and scrupulous regard for truth which are necessary if I am to give a true indication of what it was like to be a schoolboy there. I have to seize this moment when it is still possible for me to say what has to be said, to indicate what has to be indicated, and so vindicate, if only partially, the truth as it was then, the true facts and the true reality. For all too soon the time may come when everything that was unpleasant will be unwarrantably mitigated and appear in a pleasanter light; and whatever Salzburg was to me as a schoolboy, it was never a pleasant or tolerable place, and I should not wish to spare it now by falsifying the true picture.

Thomas Bernhard's motive for his autobiography was clear. When his mental faculties was still clear, and his health still permitted it, he wanted to produce an account of his childhood and schooldays in the blighted city of Salzburg. And so, between the years 1975 and 1982, Bernhard produced the five parts of his memoir. His novels, too, are practically the same hate mail to his city of childhood, with its "mindless blend of National Socialism and Catholicism." W. G. Sebald attributed Bernhard's "factualness and scrupulous regard for truth" to the impending knock on the door, as he mentioned in an interview in December 2001, eight days before he himself received the knock.

Thomas Bernhard was in quite a different league because he occupied a position which was absolute. Which had to do with the fact that he was mortally ill since late adolescence and knew that any day the knock could come at the door. And so he took the liberty which other writers shied away from taking. And what he achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others.

Much more so in Gathering Evidence, the novelist was openly testifying using his own voice, or voices—the voice of his childhood and the retrospective voice of the writer—the horrific experiences he endured firsthand before, during, and after the war. While remembering-slash-writing, his current self was trying to recapture the wounded feelings of his former, thirteen-year old self. Yet he would like to differentiate his description of "how I felt at the time" with "the way I think now". The bursting energy of his tale was derived in part from layers of memory soaked in varying densities of perception. He would shift pronouns from "I" to "he" on page 79, then go back to "I" on page 83. David McLintock also noted his use of shifting perspective in the translator's preface: sometimes he views his youth from the standpoint of the present, at others from another intermediate point.

His appeal to "the true facts and the true reality", however, remained guarded. He knew his story was not distorted because they were based on factual evidence, but he could only give an indication of what he remembers.

The facts are always frightening, and in all of us fear of the facts is constantly at work, constantly being fuelled; but this morbid fear must not lead us to conceal the facts and so to falsify the whole of human history—which is of course part of natural history—and pass it on in falsified form just because it is customary to do so, when we know that all history is falsified and always transmitted in falsified form.

From which we can gather that the writer had divested himself of all illusions of an accurate account of history. And from which we sense that his only protection from falsification was to perceive and create a version of history to the best of his memory and to the best of his ability. He simply had to make the attempt. Here we read about his recollection of multiple suicides of school boys his age and the air attacks skirted by Sebald in his lecture in On the Natural History of Destruction. Bernhard's descriptions of the air raids and their aftermath were some of the most brilliant writing he wrote. They could surpass the supreme irony in Heinrich Böll's accounts of air bombing destruction in The Silent Angel.

Bernhard's aesthetics of falsification was similar to Sebald's own, but only to an extent. Sebald was concerned with the truth (moral rightness) embedded in aesthetic form and feeling. The rightness and truthfulness of a narrative could be gleaned from its aesthetic and literary design. Bernhard, for his part, was concerned with the content and the desire (i.e., personal indications) to communicate the truth of that content. Both confessed to subjectivity. Bernhard acknowledged the impossibility of depicting the absolute reality of the past and, hence, its truth. But in refusing to give up and stand aside, in continuing to write what he knew and remember in order to set the record straight according to his own personal convictions, he was after the truth or an indicative version of it.

What is described here is the truth, and yet at the same time it is not the truth, because it cannot be. In all the years we have spent reading, we have never encountered a single truth, even if again and again what we have read has been factual. Again and again it was lies in the form of truth and truth in the form of lies, etc. What matters is whether we want to lie or to tell and write the truth, even though it never can be the truth and never is the truth. Throughout my life I have always wanted to tell the truth, even though I now know that it was all a lie. In the end all that matters is the truth-content of the lie. For a long time reason has forbidden me to tell and write the truth, because that only means telling and writing a lie; but writing is a vital necessity for me, and this is the reason why I write, even if everything I write is bound to be nothing but lies which are conveyed through me as truth. Of course we may demand truth, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that there is no such thing as truth. What is described here is the truth, and at the same time it is not, for the simple reason that truth is only a pious wish on our part. [from "The Cellar: An Escape", italics in the original, bold emphasis mine]

The immediacy and the urgency of Bernhard's account of the war must be set off against what Sebald diagnosed as a collective repression of wartime narratives and against the self-censorship by leading writers of the time who could not summon their energies to give witness. "Time makes its witnesses forget", Bernhard concluded when nobody remembered what happened on a site of destruction after he questioned them years after the bombing of a building on the same site which killed many employees working in it: "rows of bodies covered by sheets, their bare feet visible on the dusty grass behind the iron railings of the so-called Co-op, and ... trucks arriving ... with enormous consignments of coffins ..." Sebald's thesis on forgetting certainly was indebted to Bernhard's anguish against people who deliberately wanted to forget. Whenever Bernhard talked to people and asked them about what they went through during the war, he was met with "extreme annoyance, ignorance, and forgetfulness." He found this offensive to the spirit, this concerted determination to forget. His desire to remember was his "pious wish" to settle his personal account of history.

The cat in the box was simultaneously dead and alive. But someone, the novelist, had to volunteer to be the first one to open. All that matters is the truth-content of the lie.


February 18, 2017

Bernhard's escape


"The Cellar: An Escape" (Der Keller, 1976) by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, translated by David McLintock, collected in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes (Vintage, 2011)




[The work of a commercial apprentice] does not consist solely of the orderly routine of a grocery store like the cellar-shop in the Scherzhauserfeld Project: first of all unlocking and pushing back the concertina grille, then unlocking the shop door and letting the boss, the employees, and the customers into the shop, in which everything had been made spotless and all the containers topped up the previous evening, often by dint of hours of work put in after closing time—all of it involving the meticulous performance of numerous small tasks requiring conscientious devotion and a methodical, mathematically inclined memory. These jobs and hundreds of others equally important have to be carried out daily. In my day there was in addition the enormous task of dealing with the ration coupons, which required great precision and attention to detail; these had to be cut out whenever a purchase was made and stuck onto a sheet of wrapping paper every evening after the shop closed. Quite apart from continually lugging bags around and filling bottles and grading potatoes and sorting fruit and vegetables and making up bags of coffee and tea and slicing butter and cheese; quite apart from the feats of skill required to pour vinegar and oil and every other possible liquid such as rum and wine and fruit juice into every possible kind of bottle, all with impossibly narrow necks; quite apart from having to be constantly on the look-out for mould and decay, for vermin, for excessive cold and excessive warmth; quite apart from perpetually unloading all kinds of deliveries, sometimes making hundreds of journeys a day from the shop to the storeroom and back, cutting bread and making breadcrumbs, keeping the ham fresh and the eggs cool; quite apart from dusting the shelves daily and rushing to and fro between the refrigerator and the counter, between the potato boxes and the counter and between each of the shelves and the counter; apart from continually washing and drying one's hands and using knives that have to be sharpened every day and forks and spoons that have to be cleaned every day and jars that have to be washed out every day; and apart from cleaning the windows and mopping the floor and waging a continual war against flies and gnats and horseflies and wasps and cobwebs on the walls—quite apart from all this, the most vital requirement was never to slacken in one's attentiveness to the customers, always to be polite and friendly and obliging and to engage them in conversation, constantly keeping oneself in practice, in a word to satisfy them all the time and never, not even for a moment, to let up in one's eagerness to help: on the one hand to meet the wishes of the customers and at the same time never for a moment to neglect the interests of the business. Tidiness and cleanliness were imperative.

When he was 16 years old, Thomas Bernhard applied for a shopkeeper apprenticeship in Scherzhauserfeld Project, a notorious neighborhood of the poor and criminals, to cater to the needs of the "dregs of humanity". It was an about-face from his being a grammar school student. Fed up with the abuse of his schoolteachers and the "deadly institution" that was the educational system of Austria during the Nazi period—a system to blame for the suicide of many sensitive young students in boarding houses, fed up with the "educational trauma" he suffered from his schoolteachers, the teenage Bernhard just up and decided to become a grocer's assistant in one of the bleakest neighborhoods imaginable. But for Bernhard, this was all for the best. He felt he had graduated from "the school of philosophy" introduced to him at a very young age by his grandfather and had now entered "the school of absolute reality" wherein Herr Podlaha, the grocer, was his master and mentor on the practical aspects of life and "the art of human relations". In the cellar store, dealing every day with the demands of the common people, he had become adept at his work as an apprentice, and he had discovered that he had the capacity to become a people person. To his own surprise, he never realized he could adjust well to his job and even go through work with such infectious cheerfulness (cheerful Bernhard?!) and friendliness to customers (in a "most refreshingly extrovert fashion"!). Freedom, independence, and the exercise of free will—these were the things he most valued and the things he had acquired from his experiences in the cellar. His escape from the grammar school, his daily escape from his own impoverished and cramped household, his escape from the larger Salzburg society, from the immediate post-war malaise, an age he characterized as "inimical to the mind and the imagination." He made a dash for it, in a completely "opposite direction" from his school, and he felt exhilarated by this sudden decision. His stay in the cellar was such a formative phase in his life he had devoted a volume (the third of five chronological volumes in translation, the second in terms of publication in original German) of his collected memoirs recounting his work and trials in the cellar-shop. For his apprentice work he still had to attend a technical college once a week. This time he appreciated the instruction given by teachers who were actually local businessmen. As opposed to teachers in grammar school, the new teachers had "total concern with the present" and familiar "with what went on around them in the real world." These people of trade, having fought on the economic front, taught only what was practical, stuff of "immediate utility", in a straightforward, if rough, tone. As evident from the excerpt above, his recollection of the details of his apprenticeship showed how he loved and took pride in his work. This was a great period of learning for him. It was an apprenticeship on life. He had found something to do—a purpose—during the post-war years, "the bitterest time [his family] ever knew". Daily he look forward to work in the store (limbo). Daily he left the depravity of his poor home (hell). The gaps in his school and home education was being filled by the practical education in the store dealing with the chaotic mass of poor and difficult customers exchanging their ration coupons for merchandise and goods. From his home to the cellar, his salvation was renewed each day he serve the lowly people of Scherzhauserfeld Project, the blot and the stigma of the Salzburg landscape. He did not find it degrading. He belonged to these people of low standing. In their daily transactions, he kept his dignity intact and his customers kept theirs intact. From limbo to hell and back, it was a privilege to find oneself with a purpose, productive, and gaining in self-confidence. To be able to read people and interact with them daily, I do not think there were more valuable lessons from an on-the-job training. He confessed that he owed a life lesson from his exacting boss, Herr Podlaha: "an insight into human possibilities I had never dreamt of, the alternative human possibilities." These alternative possibilities would play in many combinations in his fictional set pieces, would contextualize and foreground his works. Behind the despair, suicide, moroseness, self-destruction, and moping that characterize his literary work, the other possibilities—the will to live, to endure—exists. This singular motive drove him, Bernhard's "will to survive" against the social, economic, and cultural forces of the time. Against fascism and "the rules of the bourgeois social apparatus ... designed to destroy human beings." Bernhard, like his protagonists, was a survivor of war or some grave catastrophe. They found themselves in a story yet to unfold, ripe for more calamities—a story where the epidemic was not yet over, festering in cities overran by zombies. In their apocalyptic flavor, Bernhard's novels are zombie flicks (I can't help myself. I like zombie movies). His characters were plagued by artistic, philosophical, psychological, and medical difficulties, rooted from or symptoms of a defect in human nature: individual cruelty or a collective disregard for feelings and reason. They had to depend on their survival instinct. To ensure his own survival, Bernhard had become a fine observer of people and a life-long learner of art, commerce, sales, musicology, and singing. Unlike his grandfather, Bernhard was able to expose the whole farce, "smashing all the props and ... annihilating the prop men and all the actors." To ensure his own sanity he created his brand of literature of doom and survival.

Had I not actually been through everything which makes up my present existence, I should probably have invented it all for myself and ended up with the same result.


*
 
The Cellar won for Bernhard the Literary Prize of the Federal Chamber of Commerce, apparently for "a totally new form of autobiography" but obviously for the prize-giving body's connection to the subject matter. He wrote a short essay on the prize ceremony which was translated in My Prizes: An Accounting. This slim book of essays and speeches was appended to his five-part memoir in the latest Vintage edition. The last two volumes of Gathering Evidence—"Breath: A Decision" and "In the Cold"—were further demonstrations of the novelist's survival skills. They were among his darkest and life-affirming prose works.

February 15, 2017

Linmark's spectral nationalism


Leche by R. Zamora Linmark (Coffee House Press, 2011)



    "No, thank you," Vince says, looking past her at the mourners, who've turned a somber occasion into a fiesta with nonstop eating, drinking, socializing, and praying the novena, which is held for nine days, starting from the day the person expired. Another mass is said on the fortieth day, when the soul of the deceased leaves the earth for the afterlife. Throughout the novena, sweeping is forbidden because it's thought to chase away good luck.
    The yard, lined with potted bougainvilleas, has been converted to a gambling den for mahjong and pusoy—thirteen-card poker. At the end of the night, a percentage of the proceeds goes to the family of the deceased.

The "somber occasion"-slash-fiesta was a wake where Vince, the gay protagonist of Leche, accidentally finds himself while looking for the seedy Leche bar—sex club by night, museum by day. It was an opportunity for Vince to share some beliefs, superstitions, and customs in the Philippines.  Like a culture-shocked tour guide, Vince dished out all manner of things strange or odd about the country. The novel was flooded with facts and factoids, Filipino mannerisms, and all manner of Filipino stereotypes. (And here I insert my own touristic usage guide: Philippines (with an "s") is the country; Filipino is the citizen; Philippine (without an "s") and Filipino and Pinoy are descriptors/adjectives (e.g., Filipino food, Philippine president, Pinoy balut); no such thing as Philippino.)

I chose to highlight here the short scene of the wake because it reminded me of the nine-day custom of pasiám (or pasiyam) that was the narrative structure of Nínay by Pedro Paterno. Nínay was the first Filipino novel, published in 1885. Between Nínay and Leche was one and a quarter century—126 years—of novel writing in/about the Philippines. I called the former a "cultural guidebook or tourist brochure". In Leche, R. Zamora Linmark also offered a "tourist [guidebook] and brochure" [p. 165] prepared by his confused protagonist. Filipino-born, American-raised, Vince was a quintessential Filipino novel character in that his identity crisis while visiting his "home country" was palpable. Whereas Paterno reveled in and celebrated the Spanish cultural influences in Nínay, Linmark could not get past the Spanish and American confluences in Filipino culture. But like Paterno, Linmark could not get past the didactic tradition of the Filipino novel. Didactic as opposed to, say, the revolutionary tradition of José Rizal's landmark novels or the novels by Wilfrido D. Nolledo and Carlos Bulosan.




In Leche, the narrative was interleaved with postcard letters and "Tourist Tips". What Vince saw from the frontlines of Manila, he reported back to his siblings, mother, and friend in Hawaii: the quirks of the people and the quirks of "Philippine English" that for him was English language that still needed English subtitles (e.g., "restrooms" are called "comfort rooms" in the Philippines). His confusion and cultural disorientation were boundless. Vince's default register was rant, rage, endless complaints, and extended lectures. Subtlety and restraint were thrown out. Satire and exaggeration were his literary tools. The "Tourist Tips", for instance, reinforced many stereotypes and generalizations about Manila and its people.

Red light means "Gas it!"
    One way equals four-way.
    Motorcycles speeding on sidewalks.
    People living off garbage.
    People living in garbage.
    Komiks vendor gives birth to mudfish.
    Brownout is blackout.
    Diarrhea is an acronym.
    Where are all these metropolitan hyperrealities exploding from? Where else, but in the Metro Malignant mind of Vince; Vicente; Vincere. El Conquistador. Constantino to the nation's First Daughter. First-class passenger to the city of contrasts and blackouts. The capital of collapsing metaphors and memories.

Vince could not reconcile his childhood memories of the country with the current chaos and disorientation he experiences as a visiting adult. Linmark was so steeped in Pinoy pop culture circa 1991, he could easily deploy satire to defamiliarize current events, celebrities, and political personalities. He was an astute observer of Filipino tics. Fancy channeling all of Kris Aquino's complex antics. He made 1991 a flashpoint in Philippine history: the death of film auteur Lino Brocka, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the rise of Pinoy massacre films, the expiration of the Visiting Forces Agreement between US and the Philippines.

In Paterno's Nínay, the ghost of Nínay haunted the Ilustrado-ish narrator as he listens to her story told by the second narrator over the course of the nine-day vigil at her wake. In Leche, Vince was haunted by his memories of living in the country with his grandfather before moving out overseas. In "The Spirit of Nínay", Eugenio Matibag, a professor and scholar of nineteenth century Filipino nationalism, considered Paterno's novel as a kind of "spectral allegory", where flashes of nationalism and nation-formation are implicit in the costumbrismo (local color) storytelling of the "outsider" or returning-from-abroad commentator. Leche's costrumbismo was of a hybrid kind. While oftentimes informative, Vince's commentaries on Philippine life and (pop) culture were often infuriating and patronizing. What gave poignancy to his satire, or what served as its foil, was his unacknowledged longing for family roots and the recollection (haunting) of his dead grandfather.

    Manila. The sprawling metropolis that, after being back in it for only four days, is becoming more and more the capital city of Vince's frustrations, daydreams, nightmares, reflections, and wonderment. It overloads his senses, wakes up tastebuds he thought he never had, or had lost, guides him from one darkness to the next, from one window of sadness to the next, from one reverie to the next. It shocks hims with what was once familiar. It assaults him with memories that pull him, break him. It floods him with dreams, his grandfather appearing in all of them, first as apparition then as cameo, with face, body, voice.

Vince's spectral nationalism was rooted in his identification as a Filipino (as he confessed in a riotous TV talk show scene with Kris Aquino) even if he does not speak the language, has spent most of his life abroad, and noticed a lot of negative things around him. He felt offended when people around him do not consider him Filipino. His otherness, his prejudices, his endless tirades against the way of life in Manila—the traffic, the air pollution, the language barrier—these were not a façade. He had a love-hate relationship for a nation and a people he barely knew and yet strove to discover and report back to his relatives in Hawaii. There were some three dozen postcard letters Vince sent from Manila to Honolulu. Each was a spontaneous response to his immediate surroundings, and perhaps spectral instances of his mourning, intimations of mortality, and desire for life.

  

February 12, 2017

Hemingway's prayer


Ang Matanda at ang Dagat (The Old Man and the Sea) by Ernest Hemingway, translated by Jesus Manuel Santiago (Sentro ng Wikang Filipino, 1999)

Niyebe ng Kilimanjaro at Iba Pang Kuwento (The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories) by Ernest Hemingway, translated by Alvin C. Ursua (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2015)



The seafaring old man in The Old Man and the Sea was Santiago. He was down on his luck and he was called salao, "which is the worst form of unlucky". The Filipino translator, Jesus Manuel Santiago, rendered the phrase as pinakamalas sa lahat ng malas (the unluckiest of all the unlucky). The repetition captured the sense of Santiago's defeat. His furled flag was like "the flag of permanent defeat" (bandera ng ganap na pagkagapi). It was a good translation. It was clear from the way there was a ready counterpart name given for the many kinds of sea creatures (fish, bird, shark, seaweed) in the novel.

The simple, fable-like story was supposed to highlight the humility of man in the face of nature, his dignity intact after a long struggle. It was significant that the character was presented as a subaltern: someone who was old and poor and who belongs to the working mass of small fishers. Santiago was doing his honest work. We could not begrudge the artisanal fisher his livelihood and thrill of adventure.

His most recent sally into the the Gulf Stream was almost like a suicide mission. He was alone, and he would go into the farther reaches of the sea, far from anyone's reach. He was mostly unprepared; he even forgot the salt that would help him spice up fish that would serve as his food. That the old man will leave empty-handed and be defeated by the forces of nature and circumstances was almost assured. The reader was meant to admire the character's tenacity and big heart. And the sometimes stilted prose that was nevertheless described by the 1954 Nobel Prize Committee as a prime example of the novelist's "mastery of the art of narrative."

The reader would be subjected to the thick of the adventure, man versus fish, then man versus sharks. Sometimes we were privy to the existential questions and ruminations besetting the old man during moments of great hardship. We were told of his dreams of his youth in Africa and the lions on a beach, almost indicating that he was trying to recapture his lost youth. In one very telling moment, Santiago was even likened to the Christ being nailed on the cross.

The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway's ode to martyrdom and a form of machismo. It was the distillation of his ennobling of figures of men without women, those who were never cowed in facing great tests of human strength and endurance. They went through the motions of defeat, vilified, and cast aside. And they remained steadfast on their mission, however suicidal.

They might not be religious, yet they lived on simple prayers:

"Aba Ginoong Maria, napupuno ka ng grasya, ang Panginoong Diyos ay sumasaiyo. Bukod kang pinagpala sa babaeng lahat at pinagpala ka naman ng iyong anak na si Hesus. Santa Maria, Ina ng Diyos, ipanalangin mo kaming makasalanan ngayon at sa oras ng aming kamatayan. Amen." Pagkaraa'y idinugtong nya, "Pinagpalang Birhen, [ipanalangin] mo ang kamatayan ng isdang ito. Kahanga-hanga man siya."

This was a more sincere, less satirized prayer than that infamous nada-prayer of the defeated figure in "Sa Dákong Maliwanag, Dalisay" (A Clean, Well-Lighted Place), from the collection Niyebe ng Kilimanjaro at Iba Pang Kuwento (pdf), translated by Alvin C. Ursua.

Kawalan namin, nawawala ka, kawalan ang ngalan mo. Kawalan ang kaharian mo. Nawala ang loob mo dito sa kawalan para nang kawalan. Bigyan mo kami ng kawalan ng aming kawalan sa araw-araw; at pakawalan mo kami sa aming mga kawalan, para nang pagpapakawala namin sa wala sa amin; at kawalan mo kaming ipahintulot sa kawalan, at pakawalan mo kami sa kawalan ng wala. Aba, kawalan, napupuno ka ng kawalan, ang kawalan ay sumasaiyo.

The adventure was also an opportunity for extolling manhood and masculinity. The conquistador reveled in sport fishing. 

"Pero papatayin ko pa rin siya," sabi niya. "Kahit gaano siya kadakila at karilag."

Bagamat hindi iyon makatarungan, naisip niya. Pero ipakikita ko sa kaniya kung ano ang kayang gawin ng isang tao at hanggang kailan siya makapagtitiis.

"Sinabi ko sa bata na ibang klase akong matanda," sabi niya. "Ngayon ko iyon dapat patunayan."

Ilang libong beses na niyang napatunayan iyon pero wala ring silbi. Ngayo'y pinatunayan niya iyong muli. Bawat pagkakataon ay isang bagong pagkakataon at hindi niya kailanman inisip ang nakalipas habang ginagawa niya iyon.

That perhaps encapsulated the pathetic worldview of the conquistador. To be discontented with what he had and what he had proven so far. Every day was a test. In every situation, he had to master himself and conquer the quarry: the big fish, the mad bull, the boxing opponent. The peacock strutted his stuff, displaying the full extremity of his beautiful desire to kill for sport even if the prize was not meant to be won. The sharks were not an accident. It must be quintessentially the White Man's burden, this unfettered desire for colonization and domination even if it was recognized to be unjust. And this lack of regard for the counsel of the past.




January 21, 2017

Children of the Ash-Covered Loam


Pitóng Gulod pa ang Layo at Iba pang Kuwento (Seven Hills Away) by N.V.M. Gonzalez, translated by Ed Maranan (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2016)

Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories by N.V.M. Gonzalez (Bookmark, 1992)



At the age of 25, Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez (1915-1999) produced his first novel. The Winds of April was given honorable mention, next to Juan C. Laya's winning novel His Native Soil, in the 1940 Commonwealth Literary Contest. Ostensibly an autobiographical novel, it was a portrait of an artist as a child in a rural island province and his induction into literary life in the city. I had been looking for a copy of this for some time but never managed to do so.

Recently I read the stories of N.V.M. Gonzalez—the name he would sign his books with—from his first two collections. The 12 stories in Seven Hills Away (1947) and the seven in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories (1954) could certainly be considered "period pieces" now. The setting of these stories was exclusively the countryside. The novelist's subjects were the common people—the "children of the ash-covered loam"—leading their simple lives in the farming and coastal communities of rural Philippines. They either lived in abject poverty or they barely subsisted in hand-to-mouth existence. They were stories of their time, in the immediate post-war or the years prior to the war—in the early decades of the last century during the American occupation.

With their simple rituals and lifestyle and avid display of folk belief and superstitions, the people in Gonzalez's stories existed in a milieu far from the pace and worldly concerns of contemporary life. However, contrary to the author's assessment that "these stories could easily strike the reader as belonging to a place removed from the space and time he is familiar with", his stories still speak to the present readers about the same qualities of challenges and dangers inherent in life, the same eruptions of human passions and feeling from grave circumstances, the same whimsicality of life and nature. The details in his stories are the timeless, universal, and scintillating details of human fragility and vulnerability against the forces of nature and human conflict.

The two collections showed an evolution in complexity but not in style or temperament. From the sketch-like quality of the brief, miniature stories in Seven Hills Away, it was as if Gonzalez deliberately broadened his canvas to produce larger portraits in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam. Between the two collections, he navigated from simple situations to proper stories. But the register in both was exemplified by an understated elegance in the craft of writing. The stories were discrete artworks, like finely woven mats whose exquisite design gives rise to subtle and tactile textures. It was the same design felt by the sleeper on his back in "Ang Malayòng Abot-tanaw" (Far Horizons) from the first collection, translated by Ed Maranan.

Nang gabing iyon, ipinaglatag siya ng banig na marikit ang pagkakahabi. Ramdam niya sa kaniyang likod ang mga pinong disenyo ng makukulay na buling ginamit sa paggawa nitó. Gaano kayâ katagal hinabi ang banig na ito, tanong niya sa sarili, hanggang sa tuluyan na siyang maidlip.

I dared not translate back into English the above passage. I was sure the original was just as exquisitely stated as the translation and my effort would destroy the simple yet fine weaving of the prose. His metaphors were not wasted. The words were used efficiently. An example of a poetical touch: "The afternoon sun made the bark of the trees glisten like the bolo blade itself." Or, during a storm: "The walls of the hut shook—like a man in the throes of malarial chills."

The very first story in the second collection was the title story which, together with the masterful second story "Lupo and the River", was a fixture in classes in Philippine literature in English. What seemed like ordinary scenes of country life gave rise to a larger unifying theme of the celebration of honest work. Despite their material poverty, the characters went through life with quiet dignity to earn what they can keep, so to speak. "Should I not first of all earn my supper, no?" one character asked another for a service she volunteered to offer.

The stories were hardly open-ended; they were purposive in the sense that they imparted a concrete idea or theme that was only seemingly glossed over but actually purposefully arrived at. The stories in the second collection particularly demonstrated the power of retrospective telling in which the surprise twist at the end of the story could only be logically explained after a careful analysis of the dialogues and details that came before. The delay in relaying the crucial, telling detail near the end of the story added to the effectiveness of the entire design. The structure was almost invisible and hardly penetrable; the story was almost constructed like a puzzle. One must tread carefully through the non-random sequence of events, the mounting details, and the speech and action of the characters.

If I could name a common thread running in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam, specifically in the last five of its seven stories, I would say that they all dealt with the loneliness of women. In "A Warm Hand", an illiterate servant woman was contrasted with her carefree mistress. In "The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms", a young female substitute teacher in an out of the way barrio decided to remain in her teaching post—contrary to what was indicated in the surface of the story—despite the many difficulties she was encountering in the barrio as she readily confessed to her supervisor and despite the opportunity offered to her by her supervisor to transfer to the capital. Her sudden decision could only be explained by reviewing her conversation with her superior. In "The Morning Star", a strong and independent servant impregnated by an American soldier now confronted her pregnancy head on even as she prepared to give birth with the help of an old man.

In "Where's My Baby Now" a housewife was undergoing a sort of mid-life crisis as she began to question her role as a wife to an accountant husband who was obsessed with observing children's games. Her actions strongly indicated her unhappiness at a wife's traditional role and subservient attitude toward her husband.

It can't now be said that although a mere housewife she isn't progressive—this fact she feels has become the essence of her life—to be forever interested in the significant and new to be always in search of facts to investigate and evaluate that other beautiful world and not to sit there watching children all day long at some old game [like what her husband does] but rather to cut the heart open and probe into its secrets— [emphases supplied]

Lately, she was getting a glimpse of "that other beautiful world" outside her home, in her frequent various civic organization meetings. The story ended in mid-sentence—with a long dash. The secrets of lonely women could only be revealed if the heart was cut open and probed.

The first, titular story "Children of the Ash-Covered Loam" may have hinted at the overall concern for the marginalized and poor rural folks—children who kept on tilling their soil against all odds in order to survive one day at a time. The final story, however, encapsulates the concern for women as a more distinct set of disenfranchised individuals. In "The Sea Beyond", a dying cargardor was attended by his young wife who "already ... wore the sadness of her widowhood" aboard a ship that will supposedly deliver the dying man to the doctor. As Gonzalez zoomed in on women in the last of these stories, he summarized the plight of his female characters with a sardonic and wry touch.

The wife assured her calmly that the telegram had been sent. "So what harm could it have done to have spoken to the captain, to have reminded him, since he would be riding into town anyway?" the mother said; and to this the daughter's reply was the kind of serenity ... that can come only from knowledge: "All men know is to take advantage of us [women], Mother," she said.

In a kind of serenity akin to wisdom and knowledge, the novelist's main concern for women in his stories could not be imputed to feminism per se—it's such a loaded, value-laden word nowadays. His concern for women was only a symptom of his larger compassion for people and their struggle for the basic right to live well.