12 December 2018

To read the stars

Driftwood on Dry Land by T. S. Sungkit Jr., translated from Cebuano by T. S. Sungkit Jr. (UST Publishing House, 2013)

I. Oral literature

In the age of the printed word, Nick Joaquín shared a damning assessment of the vernacular literature in "Expression in the Philippines", an essay from Culture and History (1988, reprinted 2004 by Anvil Publishing, Inc.) and a book review of Brown Heritage: Essays on Philippine Cultural Tradition and Literature, edited by Antonio G. Manuud (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1967). Joaquín was devaluing the orality of works written in the vernacular, as opposed to works written in English, in his discourse on the Filipino writer's "language problem". (Bear with me on this longish quote.)

A related mystery is the continuing "naivete" of writing in the vernacular, including Tagalog. The language problem of the Filipino writer is usually posed as a choice between the native tongue and a foreign medium. But Bienvenido Lumbera has made a most perceptive redefinition of the problem: the choice is really between a written literature and an oral one. The modern writer writes to be read; it’s not so much his training in English as the readership he would reach that obliges the 20th-century Filipino to write in English. However well he may know Tagalog, he cannot write in it because, in a sense, Tagalog is not yet a written language. What Tagalog literally has is an audience that does not so much read print as listen to it, the way it listened to bard or storyteller in pre-Hispanic times. It’s still in the age of the ballad, not yet in the age of prose.

Says Lumbera:

One of the fantastic ironies of the literary history of Tagalog writing is that much of the poetry produced seems to have been written as though it were meant to be oral literature. In spite of the fact that it is through the magazines that poetry is disseminated, poets continue to write poems that are often effective declamation pieces but hardly worth anything as reading material. This is an indication that the Tagalog poet has yet to come to terms with the printing press. But he cannot ignore much longer the fact that literature today is more often read than heard. If he is to command more than passing attention, he has to enthrall the reader with what he can do with the written language, such as illuminate the individual's experience of this time and this place. Earlier in our history, the Tagalog poet was a singer. In our time, he can remain a singer only when he accepts that, first of all, he is a writer.

Earlier in our history, the Tagalog poet was a singer. That should provoke a reinspection of certain assumptions about our pre-Hispanic culture – for instance, the claim that we were all highly literate then. But if we were so literate, what did we read? All the evidence, including that of today, points to an oral literature. The supposed writings on tree bark could not have amounted to a book culture, if by book we mean writing for permanence. And the further argument that our books were destroyed by friar and conquistador merely leads to a damaging question: Where, then, are the undestroyed libraries of the Moros? The Moros claim to have had the most advanced culture in the islands circa 1521, but even today theirs is not yet a book culture. The literature they have is, like the Tagalog, still mainly an oral literature.

Still mainly an oral literature. Joaquin's offense – for his judgement is offensive – was the typical denigration and snobbish temperament of the Filipino literary establishment-slash-imperial Manila leveled against Tagalog and other vernacular writing. One of my prized finds in the recent Manila International Book Fair held three months ago was the supposed writings on tree bark, or bamboo, for that matter: Bamboo Whispers: Poetry of the Mangyan (Bookmark, 2017).

I opened this debate on the Filipino writer's language problem – if this could be considered a problem at all in the first place – precisely because one Filipino writer was able to skirt around this problem when faced by a choice between writing in English and Cebuano. T.S. Sungkit Jr., in his novel Mga Gapnod sa Kamad-an, gave two correctives in fact. First, he basically ignored the language problem (choosing between English and Cebuano) and celebrated the oral tradition of epic literature. Second, he wrote in both by translating into English his own novel originally written in Cebuano. And it was ironic that we (I) could only appreciate these correctives after reading Driftwood on Dry Land.

Orality was what propelled this novel's aesthetic registers as myth, as legend, as epic. As it navigates a native peoples' history of a hinterland, the novel succeeded in part because of its singular design and its deep respect for the oral storytelling of the past.

I am that lad. I am that young man. I, who am now nearing the sunset of my days. I, who will narrate to you now the stories I've heard from my grandfather. I, who now believe all the predictions about us who are like driftwood on dry land. I am writing this in the hope that someday, one of my descendants will learn how to read the stars.

The novel was populated by driftwood-like drifters who inhabited the island of Mindanao and who were now adrift in their land of birth like internal exiles: displaced, driven away, marginalized. It began fairy tale-like or Biblical story-like during a time of plenty, when "rice grains were the size of a fist" and "rice plants ... could grow as high as palms", when men and women could live up to 250 years old, and life was guided by maxims so simple as to resemble clichés.

It was a peaceful night. The stars made the sky look like a white sandy beach. Everything was touched by a cool and gentle breeze. The chattering of a brook could be heard in the stillness of the night. The chorus of the insects called kulaleng could also be heard along with the sporadic hooting of an owl from a big balete tree overlooking the Kulaman River. The cogon grasses were swaying in the cool and gentle breeze. Even the few remaining trees seemed at peace in making the birds roost. Like the trees, those birds were already nearing extinction.

It would take a different kind of reading metabolism to get acquainted to the folkloric pace and rhythm of the prose. The telling was at times simple and direct, preserved as they traveled as if by word of mouth from one end of the village to another, from one generation to another. At times it could get incantatory and lyrical in its anger, wonder, and despair. It recapitulated the whole history of Mindanao Island, in southern Philippines, the land now known for its never-ending conflict and struggle for peace and justice.

The beginning was the time of the gods and personages with special abilities, a time of enchantment and magic: far longer than the time immemorial now used as a benchmark to lay claim to ancestral domains by indigenous peoples and indigenous cultural communities. The ancestors of those times were powerful. Magic was commonplace.

Our present-day story has its beginnings then when one day at mid-noon, Buuy Manlugong saw a vision.

So please listen. For this is our origin.

The captive audience was beholden to the teller of the tale who built words and metaphors out of the natural world and the blood and sacrifices of the Lumad (native inhabitants) of Mindanao. What repaid their interest was the mystical and imaginative ways the storyteller combined mythology, ethnography, and fantasy to create a unique blend of postcolonial fiction. For the lengthy duration of the tale, the listeners were rapt in attention because they respect the wisdom and experience of the storyteller.

"Before I answer your questions, I'll first narrate how we arrived into these times according to the stories of our parents."

And so Datu Mambulalakaw told his people about their race since the first great gathering in Tag-olowan which was led by Buuy Manlugong. He traced all the events up to the arrival of the alien Castilians all the way to the noontime when he saw a vision. His narration was even longer than a taltag for it was already a long time since such gathering had been called. It lasted for three weeks. And even in that duration, he was not able to tell everything.

Significant events became the baselines to reckon time, such that new tales hereafter were referred to previous events (e.g., "in the time of Mampur", "up to the arrival of the alien Castilians all the way to the noontime when he saw a vision"). New tales piled up on top of old ones. Each time a new story commenced, the previous ones were consolidated, and summarized up to a certain point.

Sungkit's novel was also a work history in the form of imaginative fiction, taking in the arrival of foreign religious influences which were eventually imbibed by ancient peoples and still prevalent up to now. Wars were frequent: "As the inhabitants of the island multiplied steadily, quarrels over boundaries started to occur." But this was an origin story (the peopling of Mindanao) filtered through the prisms of colonialism and neocolonialism: the provenance of old words, events, and legends giving way to historical fractures and disruptions. The modern interpretation was rather flamboyant and reckless, appropriating knowledge and references from ancient lore and artifacts. (I was amused of a borrowed images of the Manunggul Jar from Palawan and the Great Wall of China.)

Although presented from the perspective of the colonized, the non-domesticated English translation carried over many native words whose meanings (etymologies and even modern usage) were given in context or explicated in footnotes. The copious names of characters and places were constant: the deliberate mapping of unknown or forgotten aspects of Mindanao history, details that were consigned to cultural history and anthropological curiosity. The non-linear, episodic narrative kept being disrupted by external forces (new colonizers, new waves of migration to Mindanao). And yet, after all was said and done, the teller kept circling back to previous poetic images, motifs, and reference codes. Time dilation and time contraction – reliable agents of disruption in fiction of imaginative history – were resorted to at will.

Readers unfamiliar with Philippine, let alone Mindanao, history could resemble the title of the book. Like driftwood journeying from shore to shore, they might get lost in transit and the historical references and waves of events unfolding. But they could readily sense the broad outlines of the history of a people who time and time again faced colonial injustices against outsiders who brought harm and injury to life, property, and lifeways.

Reference was made to Sungkit's first published novel, Batbat hi Udan (Central Book Supply, 2009), a novel in Filipino which I have been trying to locate for some time now but seemed out of print already. Sungkit, who writes in four languages – Higaonon, Cebuano, Filipino, and English – had difficulty publishing his original Cebuano language novel because "there seems to be no mainstream publishing for Cebuano literary outputs". He already finished writing Agalon sa mga Balod (Lord of the Waves) – a sequel to Driftwood, which hopefully would also be translated so that one could luxuriate in the waves of more magical oral storytelling, more disruptive historical narratives, and language problem corrective.

II. Counter-literature

Another critical corrective was at work in the pages of Driftwood, one that was evident in the latter half of the book. It opened up the debate on – or rather challenges – the constitutive power of national literature. In its direct confrontation with colonial and postcolonial agents and its goal of erecting a native, tribal history of the Lumad, Driftwood on Dry Land was a corrective to the centric "national" literature of the Philippines. "The Unending Conflict", the title of the final and longest chapter in the book, gave a glimpse of this corrective in this scene of Japanese invasion of Mindanao in World War II.

The time of trouble arrived one morning. A boat landed with fully armed men called bow-legged by the elders, landed in Dabaw. The Americans were caught by surprise. The people called Filipinos, who were with the Americans, were also surprised. They fought along with the Americans but they lost badly.

I highlighted the phrase above – and the other phrases below – to show how the novelist, through the narrator, exhibited non-identification, almost ambivalence, with the national identity. This was understandable. The Lumad faced one of the most systematic erasures of cultural identity in Philippine history, gross violation of human rights, and involuntary participants in "the unending conflict" that plagued parts of Mindanao then and now.

"One of them said that he will return," said Amay Pidyong when they talked about it at the ilian in Idong. "He [General Douglas MacArthur] was very tall and very white. I'm sure he's an American. But I think the other man with him has the same height with me."

"Then who do you think was that man who came with the American?" asked one of their cousins.

"Well, I really don't know," said Amay Pidyong. But his family was with him. He seemed to be a high ranking official." Amay Pidyong then had no idea that the man was the president of the nation called the Philippines.

Again, Mindanao was as if apart from the nation called the Philippines, as if the people of Mindanao were not living in a Philippine territory. All pointed to the idea that this meta-history or counter-history was in fact counter-literature, running kontrapelo (against the grain of) the constituted national literature.

When the Japanese were booted out from the island, the so-called Filipinos had the government in their hands. Most of the officials were Dumagats but the people knew that it was actually the Americans who gave the real orders. The situation was clear for everyone to see throughout the island.

This was but the acknowledged consensus that the post-war Philippines was nothing but an American-sponsored government, given the neocolonial policies in the islands that practically yielded sovereignty to previous colonizers (Americans and Japanese), the caciques (landed), and the elite. The Dumagats (people who arrived from the sea; essentially outsiders) were the new ruling class running Mindanao, including the diminishing ancestral lands of the Lumad.

Driftwood thereby emerged from outside of centric literature, from the periphery, so to speak. It was directly imagined as apart from national (Philippine) literature, in so far as that literature also emerged from revolutionary and anti-colonial stirrings against the Spanish regime in the 19th century. This consciously decentered literature culminated in further aggression against the indigenous peoples in the southern island via the deforestation and systematic despoiling of natural resources and, later, the massacres perpetrated by an extremist paramilitary group in the 1970s.

It was during those years when the influx of a myriad of people from Luzon and Visayas reached its peak. The news spread that Mindanaw was a promised land. And through the help of the government and some American missionaries, the aliens took root in the wide and fertile plains. It did not take long for some Japanese businessmen to see that they could cut trees on the island. They could use the trees to rebuild the houses in their country which were destroyed by war. The frenzied cutting of trees started. The island was crammed with logging companies. This phenomenon added to the influx of men from Visayas and Luzon.


Soon, the thudding of felled trees echoed in the forest. Many places suddenly had roads so that the logging trucks could haul the logs. The areas which were uninhabited once were occupied by settlers who were usually workers of the logging companies.

At this point the tone of the novel shifted from epic storytelling to contemporary political realities. It was already obvious that the period of magic and enchantment was replaced by neoliberal market economy orientation. The gods no longer descended the earth to talk to warriors and wise elders who in turn told of tales of blessed past alongside future anxieties and dark presentiments. This shift or disruption was the most pronounced in the novel. To train oneself to read between genres or between tonal shifts in hybrid texts, adjustments in reading metabolism could point toward much-needed correctives to Western hegemonic tradition. The map was in the constellation of stories handed down from generation to generation.

He realized that for him to learn how to read the stars, he must remember all things that were already written in the history of their race.

All things were thus remembered and transmuted into old forms and words of mouth. The counsel of the past was the covert mantra of the story. Later, the wind whispered it again to our narrator, the novelist: Gather all the stories to know what the future brings.

09 December 2018

More terrifying are the nightmares when you’re awake

Ang Kapangyarihang Higit sa Ating Lahat (The Power Greater Than All of Us) by Ronaldo Soledad Vivo Jr. (Ungazpress, 2015)

Note: I wrote the following in 2015 as an intro to the novel. There is no translation.

[Mga] Paunang Salita

1. ang mabisang paraan ng pagsasaayos ng problema

Kung ikaw ay nagdesisyon na magpakain ng stray cats o mga pusang gala, importanteng ipakapon mo sila. Kung hindi sila kapon, magbe-breed sila at dadami.Maling pagmamalasakit ang pagpapakain sa galang pusa ng walang kaakibat na pagpapakapon

Kadalasan sa mga nagpapakain ng ligaw/gala o stray na pusa ay nape-persecute o nakakaaway at pinagtutulong-tulungan ng mga kapitbahay at komunidad, lalo na’t hindi pinapakita ng taga-pakain o “feeder” na sya ay “responsible feeder” o nagpapakapon at nagsisimula ng TNR effort sa kanilang komunidad.

Ang TNR o “Trap-Neuter-Return” ang pinakamabisang paraan ng pag-control ng populasyon ng mga pusa sa isang lugar. Dahil ang kapong pusa ay hindi na manganganak o makakabuntis, hindi na madadagdagan pa ang kasalukuyang bilang ng pusa sa isang lugar. Maging ang mga pusa sa kalapit-lugar ay hindi na rin papasok sa isang lugar na may mga kapon ng pusa.

Ang mga kapong pusa ay pangangalagaan ang kanilang “source of food” at hindi nila papayagang may kaagaw sila dito. Kapag ang pusa ay hindi kapon at nanganak, i-si-ni-share o ibinabahagi nya ang pagkain sa mga anak nya kaya’t dumarami ang pusa sa isang lugar kapag hindi sila kapon.

Kapag kapon lahat ng mga pusa sa isang lugar, hindi na rin mapapalitan ang mga pusang namatay na (maliban na lamang kung namatay na lahat ang pusa at merong mga papasok na bagong pusa na makikinabang sa “holding capacity” resources /tira-tirang pagkain ng isang lugar.)

– The Philippine Animal Welfare Society. http://www.paws.org.ph

2. dreamlandangst

Sa mga nakabasa na ng dalawang kalipunan ng kuwento ng ungazpress, hindi na nangangailangan ng babala ang handog nilang unang nobela. Dapat alam mo na rin ang bitag na pinasok mo. Ang [mga] babala ay hindi na uubra kaya 'di na kailangang pamain. Lalo na kung ito naman ay walang kabigin sa [mga] bangungot na umaakbay sa bawat himaymay at kalbaryo ng buhay maralita. Sa dreamland na iniikutan ng nobela, ang buhay ay isang panaginip na umuupos sa (halang na) kaluluwa ng sambayanang hindi na magigising. Hindi dreamland ng operang Miss Saigon o soap operang pampalipas-oras. Ang [mga] digmaang itinatampok dito ay kainan ng laman, puso, at bayag. "Higit na nakagigimbal ang mga bangungot habang gising" – ang sabi dito. Evil na puwersa laban sa mabuti. Mahirap laban sa filthy rich. Hayop laban sa karapatang pantao.Tao laban sa animal na tao.

Habang naghihintay ng order, nagmasid-masid muna s'ya sa paligid. Desperadong humahanap ng dilihensya. Sa kapal ng tao, hindi n'ya mawari kung pa'no didiskarte. Hindi naman kasi s'ya mandurukot. May malaking pinagkaiba ang mandurukot sa holdaper. Para sa kan'ya, ang mga mandurukot ay mga tirador na walang bayag - na kung kumana ay palihim, patalikod, galaw hunyango. Mas panglalake raw ang panghoholdap at di hamak na mas makatao ang proseso, dahil bilang holdaper ay ipinaaalam mo sa mga biktima na kailangan na nilang magpaalam sa mga minamahal nilang gamit at salapi, di tulad ng mga mandurukot na iniiwanang praning ang kanilang mga biktima.

"Isang aleng nagmumurang kamias ang nadale namin kahapon, matrona. Kontak ng tropa ni Buldan. Sabik sa burat, pinatikim ko ng burat saka ko dinigma. Tumataginting na pitong libong piso ang laman ng wallet ng gaga. Pares ng hikaw na ginto, tatlong singsing na ginto rin, at kwintas na silver na may pendant na puso. Inarbor ko yung kwintas sa hatian namin ni Buldan. Di naman na ito nag-arimuhunan at pumayag agad.

3. sellout cops

Nambasag na naman ng trip si Ronaldo S Vivo Jr. Hinantad ang [mga] kaepalang umiiral sa (alta-)sosyedad. Kaipala'y hatid ang [mga] kabalintunaan sa paligid-ligid na puro linga. Sa dreamland ay tuluyan nang nakapinid ang pinto ng palasyo at gobyerno. Kaya naman ang nasasakupang sambayanan ay patuloy sa pagganap sa kanilang dakilang propesyon: pagpupuslit, pandurukot, pagbebenta ng katawan, pangongotong, pangingikil, pang-aagrabyado.

Ang [mga] naturingang alagad ng batas, ang [mga] kampon ng dilim – patuloy sa pagpapatupad ng batas at lagim. Hindi sila maaring lumihis sa layunin: ang Sariling Alamat ng kapulisan.

Ang sabi, para mo masukat kung ga'no kabobo ang isang pulis ay huwag mong bilangin kung ga'no na karaming katarantaduhan ang nagawa nito o kung ga'no na kabigat ang atraso nito sa sinumpaan n'yang tungkulin. Sa halip, tukuyin mo kung ga'no ito kadalas nagtanggol sa masa. Ibig sabihin, bobo kang pulis kung lumilihis ka sa dakilang layunin ng kapulisan na susuhin ang higanteng burat ng gobyernong pahirap at maging instrumento sa pananarantado nito sa bayan.

4. wasakpad

Ano ang [mga] sumunod na nangyari? Ito lang naman ang tanong na nagpapaikot sa mambabasa. Hindi ito yung babasahing prenteng-prente ka na sa pagkakaupo habang kinikilig sa maaring mangyari dahil alam mo na na mangyayari. May kakaibang estilo ng pagkukuwento si Vivo na bumabalik sa kanyang mga unang kuwento sa PseudoAbsurdoKapritso Ulo. Ito ang wasak (non-linear) na pagtatahi ng kuwento at damdamin. Hindi mo namamalayan tastas na ang diwa mo dahil sa pagragasa ng agam-agam at pighati. Nakapaloob sa di-kompromisong pagpapahayag ng pinandidirihang katotohanan, halaw sa hilaw na buhay lansangan, hinding-hindi mahihiwatigan ng mga fan ng pamaypay na kwento (fan fiction) sa wattpad.

5. kinapon ang (kapangy)ari(han)

Sa paglukob ng transgresibo sa tradisyon ng sosyal realismo, ang nobela ay maaring pampurga sa [mga] hindot na luho at ulayaw ng burgismo't burgesya. Dude, ito ay negosasyon hindi lang ng puri at dangal. Kaluluwa at buhay na ang nakataya dito. May eksenang pantapat sa kalunus-lunos na mga tagpo sa Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Insiang, Scorpio Nights, Mga Agos sa Disyerto, at iba pang produkto ng malubhang haraya. Huwag nang ikumpara sa metaporikal na inidoro ni Bob Ong sa MACARTHUR. Ibang shit-level ng hardcore ang nakapaloob sa unang nobela ni Vivo dahil lubos na isinuka ang metapora at ilusyon. Higit anupaman, ang nobelang ito ay pagdalumat sa [mga] emaskulasyon ng kabataan sa lipunang makatae. Ang [mga] di-makatarungang paraan ng pagkapon sa pag-asang umahon sa buhay, mabuhay nang tahimik at di sumala sa pagkain sa buong araw. Dinggin ang bating(ting). Tinigpas na ang kaka(n)yahang lumalang ng sining.

6. Kastrationsangst

Gahd, ang bigat lang ng tema nito. Manhid lang ang walang pandama. Paano ba haharapin ang kapangyarihang higit kaninuman kung bumira at gumupo? Isugal ang oras sa bitag ng salita. Magbasa at panawan ng ulirat. Kung paanong namayagpag sa nobela ang pagkabalisa sa kastrasyon-kolektib. Kung paanong namayani ang terorismo-sibil sa walang patumanggang pandarambong at pagnakaw ng kaayusan sa lipunan. Ang pagkadurog ng pagkalalake at pagkababae ng mga aso at pusang galang nagtangkang magpumiglas at manlaban. Ang pagkainutil ng diwa't pagkalumpo ng kaluluwang hindi maiibsan ang sakit. Kahit anong usal at dasal. Sumpain ang pagpapakatao sa panahon ng kanibalismo at pagkahibang habang nilalaro ang nakaliliyong kalaydoskopyo ng krimen at parusa.

7. sirit na

Isugal ang oras sa bitag ng salita. Magbasa at panawan ng ulirat.

Kafka's labyrinths

Amerika: The Missing Person by Franz Kafka, translated by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 2008)

Kafka's comic novels could hardly be called social realist ones, but I could detect a sympathetic attitude for subaltern-like characters. (And here I used the term "subaltern" loosely; Kafka's posthumous novels were hardly postcolonial). The novels operated within a psychological space of helplessness and entropy, hence they seemed to unravel in a nightmare landscape. Gregor Samsa awoke from a listless dream to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect. Here, Karl Rossmann arrived in America greeted by a transformed landmark, a signal that we were about to enter a weird reality.

As he entered New York Harbor on the now slow-moving ship, Karl Rossman, a seventeen-year-old youth who had been sent to America by his poor parents because a servant girl had seduced him and borne a child by him, saw the Statue of Liberty, which he had been observing for some time, as if in a sudden burst of sunlight. The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.


 The scenes that followed were classic comedy from the master of indirection and misdirection. Karl was fetched by his uncle in the ship after running into misadventures with "the stoker" and another passenger to whom he foolishly entrusted his trunk. He was practically adopted by his uncle, a very wealthy business and politician. However, for flimsy reasons, his uncle disowned him and left him to his own devices. With this great misfortune and the succeeding hysterical scenes that followed, it was not farfetched to say that he was prejudged and found guilty of an unspecified crime, just like Josef K in The Trial, even before he set foot in America.

Now it was simply a matter of finding one's way back to the dining room, where in the initial confusion he had probably misplaced his hat. Of course, he intended to take along the candle, but even with a little light it was not easy to find one's way about. For instance, he could not tell whether this room was on the same floor as the dining room. On the way over Klara had dragged him, so that he hadn't been able to look around; Mr Green and the servants carrying the candelabras had also kept him busy, and indeed he wasn't even able to say how many staircases they had passed, one, two, or perhaps even none. If the view from here was any indication, the room was fairly high up, and so he tried to imagine them taking the stairs, but even at the entrance they had had to go up several stairs, so why couldn't this side of the house be elevated also? If only there had been a glimmer of light from a door somewhere along the corridor or one could have heard a voice from afar, however faintly!

Confusion and disorientation reigned. Deadlines were missed. Unfortunate delays ensued. A chain of improbable digressions brought one to the brink of laughter. We were in Kafka territory alright. The claustrophobic and pathetic situation Karl found himself in was simultaneously funny and tragic. One had to consider it very funny. Otherwise the anxious reader, in all seriousness, would be frightfully affected by darkness and horror.

Karl, like K. in The Castle, was surrounded by characters who constantly demand for his attention or who sought him for some use. He was thrown in one absurd situation after another, one set piece of back luck after another, the kind of absurdity and lucklessness that induced one to a side-splitting laughter, the only redemptive and bearable reaction, because, certainly, not to laugh and to take the writer seriously was more than tragic. Kazuo Ishiguro, in The Unconsoled, borrowed this almost unbearable absurdity and comedy to great effect.

While Kafka's three unfinished comic novels and fantastical stories like "The Metamorphosis" could be read literally, they most certainly opened up fertile grounds of inquiry for the reader. Translator Mark Harman, in addition to rewriting the German in an agile prose ("agile" being my token adjective for the quality of a translation from a language I do not speak), supplied a preface which provided an overview of Amerika's critical reception, some new background researches on Kafka, and some pathways with which to approach the ideas raised by the novelist. Harman noted how Max Brod's "once widely accepted portrayal of Kafka's works as religious allegories has not aged well". In fact, Jorge Luis Borges, who translated Kafka, considered Kafka's fiction as "a parable or a series of parables whose theme is the moral relation of the individual with God and with his incomprehensible universe". This might be true, but I think that a secular reading of the novelist was the one that offered a more robust reading.

Harman also underscored how, among Kafka's novels, Amerika constituted the most overt social criticism. That was obvious given how the major characters in the novel were all immigrants to America, with their countries of origin emphasized for good measure. It was also obvious how social hierarchies and inequalities (between the rich businessmen and the poor working class) were incorporated into the novel and how it eventually focused on Karl's adventures in soliciting menial work. It could even be argued that the novel's central topic was "work" in the same manner K. (a surveyor), Josef K (a banker), and Gregor Samsa (salesman) were partly prosecuted or haunted because of or on account of their work.

In her introduction to Walter Benjamin's Illuminations, Hannah Arendt—the German intellectual philosopher and previous editor of Schocken Books which championed the publication of Kafka's body of work—considered the Czech writer in light of the Jewish question.

No doubt, the Jewish question was of great importance for this generation of Jewish writers and explains much of the personal despair so prominent in nearly everything they wrote. But the most clear-sighted among them were led by their personal conflicts to a much more general and more radical problem, namely, to questioning the relevance of the Western tradition as a whole.

Certainly the Jewish question gave a rich context or background to any reading of Kafka. If one was to believe Arendt, the constricting atmosphere that pervaded European societies at the time, including Kafka's, was hard to ignore. When she wrote about the "most clear-sighted" Jewish writers, Arendt was referring Kafka and Benjamin, among others. (It would be interesting to look into how Benjamin himself viewed Kafka in the two essays included in Illuminations.) (Extending to later non-Jewish European writers, I suppose this critique of the Western tradition was extended by Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, and László Krasznahorkai, each in his own revolutionary way)

When she wrote about "questioning the relevance of the Western tradition as a whole", one could recognize how this applies to Kafka's fiction which was a maze of digressions and collapse of meanings. The Western philosophical tradition I would say applied to the liberal capitalist machinery of society: the power plays and power structures, labor inequities, economic inequalities, problematic family relations, societal arrangements, slavery and overwork, the deterioration of one's health and well-being. Like Gregor Samsa confined and wasting away in his small room, the sick Robinson (Karl's acquaintance) was visited by a grim self-realization.

Now I've ruined my health for the rest of my life, and what did I have other than my health? If I exert myself ever so slightly, I get a pain there and here. If I were healthy, do you think those boys in the hotel, those grass toads—what else would one call them?—could possibly have defeated me. But no matter what's wrong with me, I won't breathe a word to Delamarche and Brunelda; I'll work as long as possible, and until it's not possible anymore, then I'll like down and die, and only then, when it's too late, will they see that, though I was sick, I was still working, always working, and that I actually worked myself to death in their service.

Of course the way with which this critique was explored in Kafka was almost invisible mainly because they covered by the comedy and a deceptively artless prose. One could only admit the critique if one interpreted the broad outline of the novels as tracing the plight of the disadvantaged, persecution of the vulnerable and marginalized, racism, the last gasps of a decent person in an inhospitable environment.

He knew that whatever he could say would end up seeming very different from the way it had been intended and that the way they assessed the matter was critical, since it alone would determine the final judgement of good or evil.

The impossibility of comprehension, the inability to fully understand one's state of nature, this was embedded in the work itself. There would always be a gulf between the word ("whatever he could say") and its supposed meaning ("the way it had been intended") which would make the novels seem impervious to criticism and evaluation.

Borges called Kafka a "nihilist" whose subject is "the unbearable, tragic solitude of the individual who lacks even the lowliest place in the order of the universe" and whose greatest strength as a writer is "the invention of intolerable situations".

"Well," said Karl, "it won't be that bad"; however, after everything he had heard, he no longer believed in a favorable outcome.

Unfavorable, yes. And we were still laughing.

Quotes from Borges were taken from pieces in Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger.


19 August 2018

The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader

“The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader” (1931) by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, in Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger (Penguin Books, 1999)

I am not sure which is the most erudite writer: Borges the storyteller, Borges the poet, or Borges the critic. Perhaps the question is moot when it comes to the literary tradition which Borges helped build: the intellectual tradition, a poetic and metaphysical-philosophical bent, the striving for excellence at every imaginative turn of the pen. With Selected Non-Fictions, with its doors and windows opened wide to inquiring minds, Borges is a critical tradition unto himself. The fount of his critical production derives from all the resources available to a librarian. Borges the reader is the most erudite writer.

The superstition in the essay “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader” referred to the “superstition about style”. This was a general tendency of readers to look for or characterize a writer’s style (mannerisms) in order to appreciate a literary text. Borges rejected this form of readerly “affectation.” This led him to state that "strictly speaking, there are no more readers left". There are only potential literary critics. He meant this in a most ironical sense.

For our librarian, greatness in a work could exist beyond stylistic flourishes. There could even be an “absence of style” if it comes to that. Don Quixote was sloppy in parts, but it was still great, owing perhaps to its idiosyncratic absence of style. Borges did not consider Cervantes to be a stylist (“in the current acoustical or decorative sense of the word”). Don Q was great not because of its style but because of its other novelistic attributes. A perfect page, our librarian critic suggested, was an “everlasting fallacy” (For this phrase, our critic gave a nudge to Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, but I did not get the reference.). A perfect page to Borges was not immutable:

On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version. Heine, who never heard it read in Spanish, acclaimed it for eternity. The German, Scandinavian, or Hindu ghost of the Quixote is more alive than the stylist’s anxious verbal artifices.

This passage I quote in full because I just realized Roberto Bolaño plagiarized (borrowed/paraphrased) the idea in an interview where he said: A work like Don Quixote can resist even the worst translator. As a matter of fact, it can resist mutilation, the loss of numerous pages and even a shit storm. Thus, with everything against it – bad translation, incomplete and ruined – any version of Quixote would still have very much to stay to a Chinese or an African reader. And that is literature.

Are they (our librarian and his fanboy) saying that one test of a masterpiece is its resistance to translation? Are Helen Lowe-Porter’s supposedly unfaithful translations of Thomas Mann tomes not a hindrance to the perception of the latter as a great novelist?

* * *

The taste of Borges is not always beyond reproach. He does have his personal preferences, but his magisterial coverage of traditions and his wide reading (the reading of a reader’s reader) makes one pay attention.

He is allergic to all-knowing readers. Readers who get ecstatic about style. The superstitious etiquette of readers is to be drawn to the absolute and superlative. This is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever encountered. This is such a weird novel, such a very strange novel. Such a unique reading experience. The best book of the summer.

Ah, to needlessly elevate a book:

Overstating something is as inept as not saying it at all … [R]eaders sense the impoverishment caused by careless generalizations and amplifications.

I admit I am sometimes guilty of this superstition, this affectation for style, this appeal to a definitive assessment and judgement, this Blurbing Syndrome. One has to recognize the beauty of straightforward and imperfect narratives.

The exhortation of our librarian is simple. Book bloggers have to be, first and foremost, readers. Otherwise they become literary critics.

Posted for Stu and Richard's Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018.

17 August 2018

Jaime Gil de Biedma's ambiguous poetry

"The Persons of the Verb", complete poems translated by Alice M. Sun-Cua and José Mª Fons Guardiola, in Jaime Gil de Biedma in the Philippines: Prose and Poetry / Jaime Gil de Biedma en Filipinas: prosa y poesía (in Spanish and English text) (Vibal Foundation, Inc., 2016)

Presumably an important but neglected Spanish poet of the second half of the past century, Jaime Gil de Biedma (1929-1990) remained largely inaccessible to English. That was until the publication of this collection in the Philippines. The only other book of his that appeared in translation was a selection of his well-known poems in Longing: Selected Poems (City Lights Books, 2001), translated by James Nolan.

I must say at the outset that this volume, a hefty bilingual edition, was a tome at 644 pages, plus 25 prefatory pages, plus 16 pages of photographs in the midsection. It was obvious that the publisher was a big fan. The end product was groaning with supplementary and scholarly materials, including two forewords, a page dedicated to the memory of Carmen Balcells, beautifully printed endpapers/separators for every major section of the book, a 47-page introduction by publisher Gaspar Vibal, an Autobiographical Note to the poems (1982), author’s note to the first (1975) and second (1981) editions of the poems, notes to the poems by Gaspar Vibal again. And these were only up to the end of the poesía part, which consists of three complete poetry collections: Las Personas del Verbo, Moralidades, and Poemas Póstumos.

The prosa part is Retrato del Artista en 1956, translated and annotated by Wystan de la Peña, which was also divided into three sections: Las islas de Circe, Informe sobre la administración general en Filipinas, and De regreso en Ítaca, each section terminating with translator's notes, for a total of 581 endnotes. I just managed to read up to the first section of the artist's "Portrait". The first and third parts were diary entries sandwiching a management report on Tabacalera, a well-known tobacco industry in the Philippines, for which JGB travelled all the way from Spain to oversee in the mid-1950s.

Rounding up the texts was a particularly informative annotated bibliography grouped by genre and theme, a chronology, an index, an about the translators page, and a final page with two longish blurbs. In the paperback edition that I bought from last year’s Manila International Book Fair, there was a front flyleaf containing JGB’s capsule biography, and end flyleaf with more blurbs. For a beautifully bound book, it was disappointing that the texts and the accompanying scholarly materials were not perfectly proofread. Nonetheless, the materials were well researched and certainly offered a welcome surfeit of information on the life and times of a unique, marginalized (non-mainstream) writer.

A reader interested only with a superficial introduction to JGB would surely complain about the extra pages. But one was afforded the option to immerse oneself into the depths and heights of a poet. JGB was apparently a slow writer and this was obvious from the slow cadence of his lines. Sometimes the poems were impervious. They occupied literal space yet seemingly told nothing particularly earth-shaking at first. But in the simplicity of openly declared feelings they sometimes revealed something close to an epiphany. Perhaps the inwardness of the poems was a subterfuge to JGB’s sexual identity and repressed expressions. Yet the political and sexual were interleaved in subtle wording, emanating from “el gran boquete abriéndose hacia dentro del alma”, as signaled in the poem “Ars Poetica”.

The nostalgia for the sun on the roof terraces,
against the dove-colored concrete wall
—nevertheless so vivid—and the sudden cold
that almost startles.

The sweetness, the warmth of the lips by oneself
amid the familiar street
as in a grand salon, where distant multitudes
would have arrived like beloved family.

Above all, the vertigo of time,
the enormous nothingness that opens towards the depths of the soul
while promises that fall in a faint
as if they were froth, float above.

Its is surely the moment to ponder
that simply being alive demands something,
perhaps heroic deeds—or just
some humble common thing

whose earthly skin
is to be handled between the fingers, with a little faith?
Words, for example.
Familiar words, halfheartedly worn-out.

JGB could sound tender and forthright and conversational. But his frustrations were concealed between the lines. He wanted to rebel at being part of the bourgeoisie, and his poems were his attempts (futile, perhaps, but heroic attempts) to inclusivity. With the background of civil war and poverty in Spain and his reckoning with his homosexuality, JGB’s poetry was shaped by a conflation of private and public concerns. The idyllic Pagsanjan Falls—a tourist spot in Luzon Island which unfortunately became infamous for being a sex tourism haven for foreign child molesters and pedophiles in the 80s—as a backdrop of "Days in Pagsanjan" could sometimes evoke a Cavafy-like sensuality.

Like dreams, beyond
the idea of time,
dreams made of dreams I carry you,
days in Pagsanjan.

In the heat, after the denseness,
the river throbs again,
speckled like a reptile.
And in the dark atmosphere

under the flowering trees
—gleaming, humid,
when at night, we bathed—
each other’s bodies.

JGB, who died of AIDS complications in 1990, was an intermittent celebrant of love and romance. His impermeable poems sometimes gave way to open declarations, as in these lines from “Pandemic and Celeste”, which contained an epigraph from Catullus:

To know about love, to learn it,
it is necessary to have been alone,
And it is necessary to have made love
on four hundred nights
with four hundred different bodies. For its mysteries,
as the poet said, are of the soul,
but a body is the book in which these are read.

JGB's “Posthumous Poems”, published when the poet was still very much alive, was a distillation of his idea of moralities closely haunting mortalities. In this final anti-poetic sequence, somewhat in the tradition of Nicanor Parra, self-questioning, anti-self rants embodied the unself-conscious, fullest expression of one’s own devil’s advocate. One poem was called “Against Jaime Gil de Biedma”, another, “After the Death of Jaime Gil de Biedma”. The persona called "Jaime Gil de Biedma" in the poems could safely indulge in self-pity. It was a perfect way to put distance between the self and the Self.

Against Jaime Gil de Biedma

What's the point, I'd like to know, in moving house,
leaving behind a basement darker
than my reputation—and that says a lot—
hanging small white lacy curtains
and taking a maidservant,
renouncing my bohemian days,
if you come later, you bore,
embarrassing boarder, an idiot wearing my suits,
loafer, good for nothing, shithead,
with your clean hands,
eating from my plate and dirtying the house?

The late night bars, the pimps,
the florists, the dead streets at dawn,
and the dimly lit elevators follow you
when you arrive drunk,
as you pause to look
at your ruined face in the mirror,
with eyes still raging
which you don't want to close.
And if I scold you,
you laugh at me, and remind me of the past
and say that I am getting old.

I could remind you that you are no longer charming.
Your casual style and your disdain
become ridiculous
when you are more than thirty years old,
and your enchanting smile
of a day-dreaming boy
—who feels sure to please—is a sad remnant,
a pathetic attempt,
While you look at me with pleading eyes
and cry and promise me
not to do it anymore.

If only you weren't such a whore!
And if I didn't know, so long ago,
that you're strong when I'm weak,
and that you're weak when I rage ...
Of your homecomings I keep a confused impression
of panic, of sadness, of unease,
and of hopelessness
and impatience and resentment
of suffering again once more,
the unforgivable humiliation
of excessive intimacy.

With a heavy heart I'll put you to bed,
like one who goes to hell
to sleep with you.
With each step dying of impotence,
stumbling over furniture
in the dark, we'll stagger our way through the flat,
clumsily embracing, wobbling
from alcohol and repressed sobs.
Oh, vile servitude of loving human beings,
and the vilest
is to be in love with oneself.

"A Body Is a Man's Best Friend" was almost reminiscent of Auden's "Lullaby". While Auden's rhythmic poem was essentially a tribute to a night of tryst, sleeping heads, faithless arms, and human love, one would reinterpret Gil de Biedma's (posthumous) intent considering its inclusion in a cycle of posthumous poems.

A Body is a Man's Best Friend

Time is not yet over,
and tomorrow is as far as a reef
that I can scarcely make out.

                                   You don't feel
how time drips slowly in this room
with the light on, how the cold outside
laves the window panes... How fast
you fell asleep in my bed tonight, little animal,
with the simple nobility of necessity,
little creature, while I watched you.

Well, then, good night.
                                        That quiet country
whose borders are those of your body
makes me feel like dying
while remembering life, or staying up
—tired and excited—waiting for dawn.

Alone with age, while you sleep
like someone who has never read a book,
little tiny creature: to be a human being
—more honest than in my arms—
therefore, a stranger.

If JGB was tucking his own "little" self to sleep, wasn't it a shocker that the self is none other than "The Other"? After all, he wrote in another antipoem, that "I saved myself writing / after the death of Jaime Gil de Biedma".

For Stu and Richard's Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018.