Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

March 14, 2014

Eight Muses of the Fall

Eight Muses of the Fall by Edgar Calabia Samar, trans. Mikael de Lara Co and Sasha Martinez (Anvil, 2013)

Maybe now, he thought, he'd have the confidence to begin writing his novel. He had written a story, after all. A story that, even though it had nothing to do with Atisan, was a story nonetheless.

Eight Muses of the Fall (translation of the novel Walong Diwata ng Pagkahulog) was a first novel about a writer trying to write his first novel. In the process of thinking about his plot and characters and being diverted into many plot strands, and being fundamentally conscious about his efforts in writing and discovering if his true vocation is as a writer, the writer miraculously finished his work. The novel I was reading and holding in fact was the product of such roundabout telling about some young adult adventures and first love and local myths and legends. Yes, it was that kind of story, told in a dry, humorless tone of a first person narrator whose utter self-absorption was a perfect stand-in not so much for the selfie but for the meme phenomenon.

The "fall" in the title pertains to the literal free fall. The "muses" were the writer's creative inspiration although the original Filipino word (diwata) is closer to "fairies" in meaning, in the sense of mythic female beings with magical powers. The "eight" was a reference to the eighth life of a cat with nine lives, apparently hinting at the final act of an artist producing his life work and living his last life on earth. For a true artist, every creative work was a leap of faith into unknown territory. A kind of metaphorical death awaited him after his latest creation was ended by the final period. To produce a work of fiction is to escape the realism of reality. To freely fall into the abyss, to embrace the exhilaration of freedom.

It was only when he was sure that there would be no escaping the fall that Daniel felt a sense of loss, of regret. Why now, he thought, why did he have to die now, when, finally, he had a story to tell.

The story, to the novelist's credit, was told in a non-linear, spontaneous manner that recalled experimental writing. The materials of the novel were being excavated and found on the spot, or told on the spot, becoming the immediate constituent parts of the novel itself.

"Only water can mirror the skies. I will give you the earth, earth that could reveal the faces of sky that are hidden from water." The thought made Daniel happy, despite the fact that, still, he had no idea how to give the earth to Orange. He wrote it down in his journal, knowing that one day, he'd be able to use the line. If not in some love letter to Orange, some forlorn conversation, then maybe in the novel he was planning to write.


[Daniel] just told his Uncle Tony that he was not yet done with the story [he had just shown his uncle to read; a story that preceded this conversation with his uncle], and he was not just trying to make a version of a legend. That it was actually a part of the novel he's writing.

"Here we go again," smiled his Uncle Tony. "One day, I hope to finally see a chapter of that novel."

Who would have thought that that line and that story, the passages that the budding writer Daniel could not get out of his mind, would find its way into the novel that I am currently reading?

Even though there were nights when lines from this poem would rouse him from sleep—"We forgive the sadness of others/ when they don't mean it, we nudge/ their loneliness as we hurry// to cross streets, or find/ them looking over cliffs/ as we do..."—he never got up to write these lines. He would let sleep carry him off. The next day, as he woke, the lines would be lost, and not even a memory of the poem would be left in his mind.

It was too late. The writer had already written the lines, so the act of forgetting was here a mere artifice. The act of writing had preserved the lost lines of the poem, safeguarding it for posterity. In fact, the lines were now a component part of this species of novel-about-a-writer-writing-his-first-novel. The novel's studied aimlessness was a literary feint. It simulated journal writing when it recalled with a somber voice the young writer's friendships and disappointments. It was a raw, naturalistic style, mired by characteristic redundancy and much belaboring to make its point.

Here they were, along with so many others from even as far away as Manila, about to bury a countryman who went home in a casket, a countryman who was a domestic helper in Singapore, a domestic helper, a housemaid like Erik's mother in Hong Kong.


Daniel felt an ache inside him. It was as if something important had been lost, something important had been lost and could never be found again.


We know that language has a spirit. Language has a spirit. Even a name is a spirit.

The character Daniel was known by many names. His monikers and nicknames were like masks worn to test the various fantastical stories he would invent. Every character he encountered was treated like a character in his novel. Every variation or double of a character was a composite character. Every plot point was plot point he wanted to insert into the fictional fabric. Because we are actually reading the novel he was trying to write, because he was stitching  the story he was at great pains trying to unleash into being. Because character. Because novel. Because story.

Thence, Daniel's self-absorption became the archetypal portrait of a young artist, the clichéd search for one's identity, one's place in the world. Again, to his credit, Edgar Calabia Samar used the (my) favored framework of spontaneity to tell his storyteller's story. He used language as a distancing medium to temper the contents of (or answers to) what practically amounted to long form slam book 

It was difficult, not being able to drag other people into this world of his.

By his own admission, Daniel recognized the limitations of his "experiential" storytelling even as he marched on to tell what he had started, what he had set into motion by dreaming up an unwritten novel and attempting to carve it out from blank page after blank page. He took Murakami Haruki as his literary model, even quoting the writer, "But life is, more or less, a waste of time." Their aesthetic was certainly similar. Daniel even copied elements in Murakami's fiction such as cats, wells, and twins.

Like Murakami, the narrator was holding up the trivial and the non-political. Like his own protagonist, Samar is providing an alternative reading material, or an alternative template of the novel, that resisted the themes and preoccupations of "great torrential works of art".

He just needed to eat, to sleep. To write. Sometimes, to be able to write is enough. But when did politics seep into the way he saw things? And did this really happen? The truth was that he thought of little more than his own life, his own survival. Everything revolved around his own life. No social forces, no class struggle. His life would not have failed the realistic criteria of the great works. Unlike the great novels of the Russians in the past centuries.

Perhaps that was why he found it hard to write. He had turned his back on the material conditions of his life. He lived exclusively in the world of the imagination.

However much he extolled the freshness and rawness of stories children tell as opposed to stories by adults whose stories are already "whole", Daniel would soon discover that it is very hard to escape the politics of existence. And so one can not escape from the tyranny of history and adult experience. And it would indeed be very bleak and boring to only celebrate the trivial and the ordinary. And fragmentary or not, raw or formulaic, stories are a whole unit of feeling. And the writing of a novel is not an act of writing but a discovery of soul.

I read the English version of the novel a year after reading its original, Walong Diwata ng Pagkahulog. The two collaborating translators—Mikael de Lara Co and Sasha Martinez—successfully reproduced the tone and lyricism of the original work in English. But I thought Daniel is a bit more likeable and less self-absorbed in the English translation than in his original counterpart. They were not really the same person even though they were immersed in the same story they set out to know and discover. Because reader.

February 2, 2014

What Now, Ricky?

What Now, Ricky? by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, trans. Soledad S. Reyes (Anvil, 2013)

In a famous scene in José Rizal's nationalist novel Noli Me Tangere (1887), the educated protagonist Juan Crisostomo Ibarra was on the run from Spanish authorities and being aided by the mysterious boatman known as Elias. The two were aboard a boat on a lake, planning Ibarra's course of action to evade the authorities. They recalled their previous debate a month ago. Ibarra was then sympathetic to the colonizers. Now he had reversed his position.

“I wish to disillusion you, sir, and save you from a sad future. Recall that night when I talked to you in this same banka [boat] under the light of this same moon, not a month ago. Then you were happy, the plea of the unfortunates did not touch you; you disdained their complaints because they were the complaints of criminals; you paid more attention to their enemies, and in spite of my arguments and petitions, you placed yourself on the side of their oppressors. On you then depended whether I should turn criminal or allow myself to be killed in order to carry out a sacred pledge, but God has not permitted this because the old chief of the outlaws is dead. A month has hardly passed and you think otherwise.”

“You’re right, Elias, but man is a creature of circumstances! Then I was blind, annoyed—what did I know? Now misfortune has torn the bandage from my eyes; the solitude and misery of my prison have taught me; now I see the horrible cancer which feeds upon this society, which clutches its flesh, and which demands a violent rooting out. They have opened my eyes, they have made me see the sore, and they force me to be a criminal! Since they wish it, I will be a filibuster, a real filibuster, I mean. I will call together all the unfortunates, all who feel a heart beat in their breasts, all those who were sending you to me. No, I will not be a criminal, never is he such who fights for his native land, but quite the reverse! We, during three centuries, have extended them our hands, we have asked love of them, we have yearned to call them brothers, and how do they answer us? With insults and jests, denying us even the chance character of human beings. There is no God, there is no hope, there is no humanity; there is nothing but the right of might!” Ibarra was nervous, his whole body trembled. [The Social Cancer (1912), trans. Charles Derbyshire, emphasis added]

A similar awakening was experienced by Ricardo Mendoza (Ricky), the young idealistic activist in the novel Ano Ngayon, Ricky? (1971) by Rosario de Guzman Lingat (1924-1997). This time, however, the oppressors were not only foreigners but fellow Filipinos as well. And the social cancer was not colonialism from foreign power but corruption in government, the shameless impunity being enjoyed by politicos and oligarchs, and the caciques and neo-caciques in Philippine society. Near the end of novel, Ricky confronted the rich, educated man who represented the powerful preying on the blood of youth to advance their perverted cause:

"You knew that your paid assassin was a killer? What was his mission? To sacrifice the dead bodies of activists who desired to change the nation for your glory and honor? And prepare the path leading to your taking over of power? That has always been your goal. You became greedy for power which you first tasted when you were a senator. ... Your family and friends and you yourself were involved in grave scandals when you were in power; you feared exposure and humiliation. Instead of waiting to be exposed for what you really were, you wisely got out of politics. ... But the hunger for power, once in the blood, remains to eat up the innards of an insatiable man. ..."


"Don't you dare deny what I said, and once again make a fool out of me. The music is over ... You will never again make me dance to your tune. My eyes have been opened. You and [your assassin], two individuals at the opposite ends of life's pole, who ordinarily could not find any common ground, became one because you shared one goal. Self-interest! Personal gain secured in different ways. ..." [What Now, Ricky?, trans. Soledad S. Reyes, emphasis added]

The translator's comprehensive introduction – so comprehensive it should have been an afterword – rightly situated the novel within the tradition of the protest novel that originated from Rizal's Noli Me Tangere. A similar cancer that afflicted the country in Rizal's time also afflicted it in Lingat's time in the 60s and 70s. And it also afflicts it till now. It even afflicted those who hunger for power, a malignant disease eating up "the innards of an insatiable man".

Lingat's novel proposed electoral reforms, not bloody revolution, as a viable solution to the ills of society. The novel's epigraph said as much about how a nation's leaders were only a reflection of the greater society that elected them in the first place.

In a nation that creates
its own Government
by choosing the best
in the populace and clothing them
with power, its Government
is its own mirror.

The novel's backdrop was the First Quarter Storm in 1970, a period of unrest where students and laborers were violently dispersed by the police during demonstrations. Ricky was one of the popular student leaders. His “nagging doubts” and “bitterness” were all locked up inside him.

He exuded bravado, like most young men. He espoused beliefs and convictions all his own. He knew how to laugh, and he liked it when he was called Pogi, and he stood out as a colorful campus figure in the university, and very few suspected of the smoldering anger underneath a happy-go-lucky façade.

“What are the demonstrators fighting for?” Ricky was asked. The burning issues of the day: “Social Justice, Land Reform … [and] the rights of the Filipinos killed in American [military] bases.” Ricky was a respected student leader. His alliance was not part of the leftist segment of the demonstrating groups.

"We don't work with them [Philippine Youths]. They have communist leanings. Our group does not share their beliefs. We want change to bring about real freedom, not to hand over our country to another nation."

The communist ideology of the left as a separate nation incompatible to the current one was an idea present in the writings of other Filipino novelists, particularly in those of National Artists like Lazaro Francisco and F. Sionil José. The latter was quite vocal about it.

Two ongoing rebellions, one communist and the other secessionist [in southern Philippines], have cost us billions and thousands of lives. If the communists win – and I know they won't – they will rule just as badly because they are Filipinos hostage to barnacled habits of mind, to ethnicity.

The real revolution has to start first in the mind and its wellsprings are not in Mao or Marx. It is in our history, in Mabini, in Rizal whose writing inspired the revolution of 1896. [This I Believe—Gleanings From a Life in Literature, p. 16]

For Sionil José, oligarchy is the social disease that is tearing the flesh of the nation. He was not one to shy away from violence to rid the country of the greedy and corrupt elite. In his novel Mass, also set during the First Quarter Storm, his main character Pepe Samson killed a homosexual cacique figure in the end, a man responsible for the disappearance of activists and whose name, Puneta, was emblematic of the curse of the land. This was after Pepe was detained and tortured by the authorities. There was in the the killing of one villain, who stood for the rest of his kind – as a synecdochic or representational figure – an imposition of justice, a righting of wrong. Pepe made good the promise given in the epigraph to Mass.

They lied to us in their newspapers, in the books they wrote for us to memorize in school, in their honeyed speeches when they courted our votes, They lied to us because they did not want us to rise from the dungheap to confront them. We know the truth now; we have finally emptied our minds of their lies, discovered their corruption and our weaknesses as well. But this truth as perceived by us is not enough. Truth is, above all, justice. With determination then, and cunning and violence, we must destroy them for only after doing so will we really be free.

This was supposedly an excerpt from "Memo to Youth", an essay Pepe himself wrote for a writing contest, without at first believing in its message, but later fully subscribing to it when he experienced a "final liberation" after killing "with determination ... and cunning and violence" the villain. This was hard to fault. But taken literally, Sionil José's solution may be hard to implement. There's just too many of the greedy elite that wiping them out would constitute a genocide!

Sionil José, further, ran the trouble of being betrayed by his sexual politics in relation to the nature of evil in his fiction. In Ermita, the eponymous female lead hired someone to practically castrate her gay or bisexual uncle, in retaliation for the latter's lascivious and cruel treatment of her. The uncle also happened to be a landlord who enriched himself at the expense of other lowly peasants. Despite the agreeable elimination of the caciques, the sexual orientation he chose for the villains in his novels was problematic. His lumping of caciquism (as a form of moral turpitude) with that of homosexuality was a sorry choice. It betrayed Sionil José's non-progressive views on homosexuality, while also somehow failing to recognize the patriarchal background of caciquism.

It was notable that in Lingat's novel, the rich villain believed in the necessity of violence ("No change is possible without blood being shed."). Bloody revolution, right of might, use of force. The justification for violence was ever present but their application was always in question. The moral and ethical ways to pursue moral and ethical imperatives continued to haunt nationalist idealists and reformers. In What Now, Ricky?, the same "right of might" that Ibarra proposed to Elias was presented as an option that should be considered only as a last resort. This "pacifist" idea was voiced out by Ricky's friend, Tony, a character who evolved from a poor and vulnerable provinciano at the start of the novel to someone more aware of his surroundings, someone whose eyes have also been opened through education and close observation of society.

History is replete with examples of glorious revolutions tragically ending with the leaders themselves conspiring to destroy each other to seize power. Look at the French Revolution, at our own revolution [1896 Philippine Revolution]. And even now, for each victorious moment, contrasting claims are made by different groups to reap the reward and honor. No, Ricky. War should be the last option, and only after everything else has been exhausted.

If for Sionil José complete freedom consisted of "destroying" the greedy elite, for Lingat freedom consisted of the people wisely exercising their right to vote. The denial of that right was also the denial of human happiness, of one's "rightful legacy". To fully enjoy that freedom, everybody is duty-bound to defend the right of suffrage. Ricky and Tony's understanding that reforms in the election system could be a solution had its own caveat. There was, then and now, a need to produce a lineup of "candidates who are morally upright and credible". But these species of candidates are a rare breed in Philippine politics.

So what, Ricky? – a question that could be a more idiomatic rendering of the title. Outside the novel, the full answer has yet to be worked out. The nation is still reeling from entrenched oligarchy before and since the Marcos regime. From the unbroken succession of trapos and epals – corrupt, inept, mediocre, douche leaders in Philippine government. Wake up, electorate, wake up!

What Now, Ricky? was one of the three novels of Lingat translated by Soledad S. Reyes and released last year. The other two, The Cloak of God and The End of Summer, both from De La Salle University Publishing House, were supposedly less political in subject but no less significant for delineating postwar socieconomic pressures on Philippine society. Reyes was probably the most logical translator of Lingat, having earlier written literary analyses of the writer’s works. She also wrote the biography of the novelist, Rosario de Guzaman Lingat (1924-1997): The Burden of Self and History. She was thus not merely the writer's translator but her champion, in the same manner her translation of The Gold in Makiling by Macario Pineda appeared after her literary studies of the writer.

Philippine literature needs more translators and champions to bring out to a wider audience substantive literary works of fiction in vernacular language like the novels of Lingat. More eye-opening works, more works that can shatter deep-seated apathy.

January 31, 2014


Our Father San Daniel by Gabriel Miró, trans. Marlon James Sales (UST Publishing House, 2011)
The Leprous Bishop by Gabriel Miró, trans. Marlon James Sales (UST Publishing House, 2012)

Think of what this world would be if all of us aspired to be great! What use will it be if Oleza knows you? Know your birthplace yourself and love her accordingly. Look at her: Oleza is like one of those women who seem beautiful even if they are not. I love her so much. Those stars seem to be hers alone, so that they could twinkle over her towers and orchards. If you observe them the same way as I do, you will be moved with contentment even without good fortune. It is a good kind of happiness, though it is sad, where a lot of things are felt even without thinking in something concrete.

Oleza was a memorable character in the double novel with her name. She was traditional and Catholic, her virtues intact and yet constantly tested by circumstances. Oleza was in transition; modernity was knocking on her doorstep. She was being courted by new values and attitudes. Her provincialism was in danger of being supplanted by dangerous ideas.

Spanish writer Gabriel Miró (1879-1930) created a haunting central character in Oleza, except that Oleza was not a person. She was the setting of the novel, patterned after the author's Spanish hometown, Orihuela. The town was celebrated in the novel through detail-rich, postcard descriptions. The writing style was married to the pomp and pageantry of the novel's Catholic rites and ceremonies. It was a costume drama (and comedy) about how tradition and religiosity could occupy a dominant place in the personal and collective lives of a small town community and about hypocrisy and self-righteousness that were always bound to pervade any such community. It was a pulsing novel of humanity, in microcosm, limited by geography and historical time of late nineteenth century, but unlimited in its generous delineation of a gallery of fascinating characters, mainly clerics and their parishioners.

Gabriel Miró was a Catholic writer and a prose stylist in the mold of modernism. That he is relatively unsung at present was a quirk of literary fate. He was also earlier ignored by the Spanish literary establishment who did not elect him into the Real Academia de la Lengua Española, apparently due to the controversy triggered by the publication of El obispo leproso (1926), the second part of Oleza. Apparently, the novel was taken as an attack against the Church hierarchy, specifically the Jesuits.

Contemporary readers have yet to catch up on Miró whose religious upbringing and close observation of a pious society provided ample material for a novel about fall from grace and redemption through compassion and forgiveness. His faith in literature allowed him to recognize the power of authorship to grant the power of self-determination to his own characters. One character in the novel, a liberal doctor, underlined this principle of self-determination.

The joy of living must possess its own character. Our character, that is. I do not read books on leisure because the people mentioned in them lack character. […] In other words, each of the characters in those books has been formed before anything happens to him. That is not creation. Man must be created bare so that he later could create himself.

Miró did not have the fanatical zeal of Flannery O'Connor (in Wise Blood) or the sly decorum of J. F. Powers (in Morte d'Urban), though he might have anticipated the devilish comic touches of the latter. The characters for Miró were not mere chess pieces. He imbued them with free agency and the capacity to choose and to will decisions. He was not judgmental of them. He did not make a mockery of the vanities, frailties, and weaknesses of his vain, frail, and weak characters. Similarly, his good characters were capable of not succumbing to judgement or censure of others. The young man Pablo, the protagonist of the second part, learned the humble lesson of empathy: "This must be what is required of a man: to see one’s own nakedness and see the nakedness of others."

He pitied himself with disdain, and yet he also felt sorry for her. This must be what is required of a man. To be moved to pity and to deprecate. To harbor feelings for and toward other people. To have a heart that echoes with humanity.

The conflict in this modernist novel (a crisis of faith) was carried out through innovative prose. It was writing laden with details, details, and more details. The sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory information were evoked with mastery. "A lot of things are felt" from the sumptuous layers of description. Plot development was slow and some characters might at first appear to be caricatures, but they were hardly a liability in a novel of gorgeous prose.

Don Daniel sat back into the cushion and distracted himself by looking at the grass at the wayside, those which never caught his attention and his inclination to plants before. They all greeted him like neighbors would. A centaury tall with its bosoms teeming with clusters of violet flowers and ogive leaves, as well as spears of teasels that jutted out with their prickly, strawberry-colored flowers in a wreath of spiny bracts. A big thistle flower drooped pensively as bees swarmed about its membranous shrub. There were white, star-shaped chamomile florets with golden centers; daisies with ornate discs and white petals with reddish undersides; tremulous and fragile lady's mantles; wild sneezewort that boys used to insert in one sleeve and let out through the opening on their shoulders; dandelions; mallows; ears of wheat; mignonettes with yellowish spikes; brier patches that snaked though the field; the soft hues of grass ...


All of a sudden, the crag, the hermitage, the ruins and the hedges turned red as if they were put before a forge.

A scintilla of the setting sun cut through a layer of cloud and a shower of sunlight bathed the land. It came out with an ejaculation of happy soft hues, of opaque brightness. The raging waters of the gullies and the river were ignited, and so was the stagnant water from high and low, the bronze of palm leaves and cacti, the silver of the olive orchards, the torches of the cypresses, the rusty gold of the walls, the white of the barnyards, the spongy foliage, clean and fresh in recently divested blues. Summer's bosom rose. It had been held back all day by the storm. The afternoon – long, damp and fragrant – was resurrected.

Marlon James Sales, the translator, must have arrived at sterling solutions to thorny problems. The novel was said to be a "difficult" one to translate. The lyrical and rhythmic diction of the end product was a marvel. This was evident in passages which offer surprising verbal twists.

A light drizzle splashed on the bark of the trees, the sideways and the greenery of the fenced orchard of the Bishop. The fog, thin and clammy, lingered on the glass panes of the grilled windows as if asking those inside to let it in.


On the dais rested the desk of the archivist, Mossen Orduña, the sole archaeologist of the Diocese, a burly priest with smoked glasses fastened on the fleshy part of his nose. He held his head up high as if his nape had been corroded with rust, in a way that he had to move his entire body whenever he needed to look at something behind his back. His hands trembled; he usually clasped them together like a pair of obedient twins to hide his affliction. At times, however, he could not prevent himself from making his favorite move, the one he did with his palms ad altare versus, a liturgical gesture stipulated in the privilege granted to the clergy of Spain by Pius V in the bull "Ad hoc Nos Deus" on the 16th of December, 1570, a date that became an enduring source of pride for him as a Spanish cleric. He apparently kept on stammering whenever he spoke, so he talked monotonously and without pause. Moreover, his eyes were motionless and distracted, and his mouth, weak. Everything about him was sluggish and cold, with the robustness of innocence: his cassock was sloppy; his cloak, hanging carelessly from his shoulders; and in a shelf inside his cabinets lay ensconced his hat, as hairy as a fat hedgehog that it could be quite tempting to skin it. In sum, he was of an archaic presence, and oftentimes not very priestly, a man with a guise of both naughtiness and refinement, who because of his being so withdrawn from his routine and so indifferent to the world, could be robbed of all his garments and still would not pay attention.


The lady was sewing in her shop. She had placed a wicker basket full of chicks by her side. They got agitated at times and escaped toward the stave, or climbed onto her and bit on her fine mahogany-colored stockings. Doña Corazon felt then that she was the most helpless creature in this world, because she had to keep them from escaping, while trying not to crack the three eggs she was hatching inside the warmth of her bodice. Widowhood sometimes evoked an uncontrollable desire in her to be a mother, something she would fulfill with the tenderness of a mother hen.

Oleza's humor, particularly in the first novel Nuestro Padre San Daniel (1921), was of a very dry and quiet sort. It was the altar-like quiet humor of an all-knowing authorial voice, slightly intrusive but nonetheless able to conjure the ironies of existence (or a parody of that existence). It was a humor that grows on you. And oh, by the way (as the slippery narrator suddenly interjected, as if in conversation with the reader), the dry humor did not stagnate. It evolved and became wetter (less dry) and darker by the second part, El obispo leproso.

The second part of Oleza commenced with the construction of a modern train that will link Oleza to the rest of Spain, and hence the world. The train construction elicited a lot of criticism from the religious as it was seen to herald the entry of liberal ideas. It at least became the platform for a sequence of events, functioning not only as physical (technological) contribution to the progress of Oleza but catalyzing the spiritual and moral climate of the place. The train could be seen as a harbinger of another (modern) revolution, opening up the town to the possibilities of human understanding, tolerance, and happiness.

The rare intrusions, and parenthetical insertions, of the narrator were significant for breaking the third person epistemological certainty. He appeared as either singular (I) or plural (we).

It is difficult to avoid success on some occasions. If it does not come through the usual paths, it takes the byroads. If we walk slowly, we will find it there sitting on a rock, waiting for our arrival. However, it is likewise possible to outpace it if we are running too fast, and since we cannot bring ourselves to a halt, success will never reach us.

This passage was later emphasized in an aside ("It is difficult to elude success. But success also slips away from everybody’s hands. It is a bucket that goes up full and goes down empty."), as if to own the fabrication of the narrative.

The dry humor of the first novel gave way to the dark comedy of the second.

“There is an old saying …,” the priest quipped, “… that says if the triangles were to interpret God, they would imagine Him as having three sides. Luckily for the blessed ones, even if there are men who go to great pains in invoking a god that best suits them – and among them, Don Álvaro –, God is always far better than all of us.”

“Far better?” Jimena cringed while making the Sign of the Cross. “Don Álvaro’s god is purer and harsher than Don Álvaro himself!? Ay, Don Magín, what a terrible god it must be! May God deliver us from that god!”


"If you get bored, I will lend you a book."

He chose a volume from the Actas de Mártieres, and quipped, "Here you have cyphonism. Take a look."

He took a chair, knelt on it and bent to look. His eyes were wide-open. Padre Bellod pointed to the book with his middle finger, and began explaining some entries to the boy as if reciting the recipe of a preserve:

"The martyr is taken and placed in a pillory or skiff. You know what skiffs are? And pillories ... ? Well, two wooden boards nailed together tightly, but bored with holes for the legs and the arms. Like a reversed tortoise. There is a trapdoor that opens on top of the mouth, into which milk and honey are forcibly poured. The martyr is then left to bake in the sun. Afterwards, he is given more milk and honey, and then placed under the sun. More milk and honey, and then to the sun. Flies and wasps sting the person. More milk and honey, and then to the sun. The martyr is eaten away but is made to suffer for a long time. He feels the seething in his flesh, which by then would be reduced to a pulp. It is said that cyphonism is derived from the scaphism of the Persians, a very ingenuous [sic] lot."

Like a reversed tortoise! What a sobering image. And note the possibly deliberate selection of the word ingenuous, the obsolete of ingenious.

English translation of Miró previously appeared during his time. Figures of the Passion of Our Lord (1924) was translated by C. J. Hogarth. An earlier translation of Our Father San Daniel: Scenes of Clerical Life (1930) was made by Charlotte Remfry-Kidd. (This translation had an introduction by Arthur Machen, one of the writers admired by John Gawsworth, the early King of Redonda.) The second part of Oleza was also translated recently as The Leper Bishop (2008) by Walter Borenstein.

The present translations of the Oleza novels appeared as part of the University of Santo Tomas's 400 Years, 400 Books project, a monumental publication undertaking in celebration of the university's quadricentennial foundation as the oldest university in Asia. The publication of the two novels was supported by Instituto Cervantes and other institutions in Spain. It is to be hoped that the novels will be distributed to a wider audience outside the Philippines. They offer a glimpse of the verbal riches of a unique writer and the consistency and continuity of his holistic vision of a compassionate world.

Read for the yearlong Spanish reading festival, the 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong.

January 19, 2014

The Master of Go, 2

Art, war, and Go

The clouds of the Second World War cast its shadows on Kawabata Yasunari's writing of The Master of Go. The novelist himself acknowledged that the game was "a contest and a show of strength". His news reports appeared in the papers prior to the war, but the narrative was collected and revised during and in the aftermath of the war.

The two sides had an equal opportunity of winning and strategies had to be devised along the way. Much had been made about the differing methods of the two players, and the "violence" with which they made their moves. Like in any combat or board game, rules of engagement ("its conscience and its ethics") had to be followed. But as with an actual battle, "the unforeseeable occurs and fates are sealed in an instant". "This is what war must be like", commented one observer when one of the players made a decisive move that assured his win and his opponent's defeat.
The way he described the tension-filled game, the unnerving moves and counter-moves of both sides, the singular purpose and obsession possessing both players, the destructive nature of the game itself, the way it could harm a player physically and psychologically. All these were indications that the sport was a dangerous arena, with sufficient space reserved for madness, cruelty, and perversion.
A notable incident in the book was when the writer played a match of Go with an amateur foreigner – an American and Go enthusiast. While playing, he contrasted his own temperament with that of the stranger's.

He had the forms down well enough, but he had a way of playing thoughtlessly, without really putting himself into the game. Losing did not seem to bother him in the least. He went happily through game after game, as if to say that it was really silly to take a mere game seriously. He lined his forces up after patterns he had been taught, and his opening plays were excellent; but he had no will to fight. If I pushed him back a little or made a surprise move, he quietly collapsed. It was as if I were throwing a large but badly balanced opponent in a wrestling match. Indeed this quickness to lose left me wondering uncomfortably if I might not have something innately evil concealed within me. Quite aside from matters of skill, I sensed no response, no resistance. There was no muscular tone in his play. One always found a competitive urge in a Japanese, however inept he might be at the game. One never encountered a stance as uncertain as this. The spirit of Go was missing. I thought it all very strange, and I was conscious of being confronted with utter foreignness. 

The key words in this passage are evil, competitiveness, and foreignness. Concepts that could be associated with the rise of militarism in Japan during the first half of twentieth century.

The writer went on to conclude that as opposed to Oriental Go which had "gone beyond game and test of strength and become a way of art" and which "has about it a certain Oriental mystery and nobility", "Western Go is wanting in spirit". And then he went on to discuss how Japanese Go had been derived from China, how it had been "elevated and deepened by the Japanese".

The 1938 Go match itself was contemporaneous with the Second Sino-Japanese War. The metaphor was not lost on Kawabata.

There was gunfire. Troops of student reserves were in training. More than a score of acquaintances in the literary world had gone off with the army and navy to observe the attack on Hankow [Hankou, China]. I was not selected for the party. Left behind, I wrote in my Nichinichi reports of how popular Go had always been in time of war, of how frequently one heard stories of games in battle encampments, of how closely the Way of the Warrior resembled a way of art, there being an element of the religious in both.

Perhaps there lay in the perversion of the beautiful game of Go the seeds of fascism, the excessive romanticization of nationalism and cultural supremacy, the way distorted ideology and religiosity could harmfully invade the Japanese psyche and give rise to fascism and militarism.

Kawabata's elegy may not only be directed to the vanishing code of an imperial culture, represented by the board game. He may also be grieving for the defeat of Japan in the war. Interestingly, his chronicle of a famous game of Go provided a window into Japanese perception of their own national culture; how, depending on one's perspective (and actions), it can be perceived (and played) as beautiful art or ugly war.

Again for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and January in Japan. An earlier post here.

January 18, 2014

The Master of Go

The Master of Go by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (Perigee Books, 1981)

"A sad, elegant piece of reportage" was how the translator Edward G. Seidensticker described The Master of Go in the introduction. It was about an actual 1938 match that Kawabata Yasunari reported in the newspapers. The novelist reworked his narrative during the war and it was finally published as a book ten years after, in 1954. It was obvious from his treatment of the particular game of Go that the story was not merely a straightforward narrative of a battle between two diametrically opposite positions. It was also a meditation on the art of fiction and on cultural tradition, and, less obvious, a glimpse into the psyche of a nation at war.

As with the tea ceremony in Thousand Cranes and the weaving of obi in The Old Capital, the game of Go was here portrayed as "a way of life and art". And like the other two novels, this "chronicle-novel" was suffused with respect for cultural products and artifacts. The Go board and stones were evoked with particular care. The dedication of the players to the craft was but a reflection of the perfectionist builders of Go board.

I don't remember when it was, but I once saw a Go board of lacquer. It wasn't just lacquer-coated, it was dry lacquer to the core. A lacquer man in Aomori made it for his own amusement. He took twenty-five years to do it, he said. I imagine it would take that long, waiting for the lacquer to dry and then putting on a new coat. The bowls and boxes were solid lacquer too.

It would not be a spoiler to mention that this was a portrait of the magnanimous defeat of the Master at the hands of his challenger Otaké. The elegiac tone of the narrative seemed to extol the passage of an era and old traditions – represented by the Master – and to herald the entry of new, fresh blood who would take over the reins of the new era – represented by Otaké. The rivalry between tradition and modernity was a constant in Japanese literary novelists. The old inevitably paving the way for the new was there in the works of Sōseki, Akutagawa, Tanizaki, and Mishima. Kawabata's version of this conflict was through his characteristic elegant elegy for the "dying" art of the game and the traditional culture and values associated with it.

It may be said that the Master was plagued in his last match by modern rationalism, to which fussy rules were everything, from which all the grace and elegance of Go as art had disappeared, which quite dispensed with respect for elders and attached no importance to mutual respect as human beings. From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system. One conducted the battle only to win, and there was no margin for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of Go as an art. The modern way was to insist upon doing battle under conditions of abstract justice, even when challenging the Master himself. ... Perhaps what had happened was natural, Go being a contest and a show of strength.

The novel described the extreme discipline and dedication of the two players to their craft. Several times, Kawabata referred to the game as "art" or to the Master as an "artist". The game, which was fought in several sessions at specified intervals and which lasted for half a year, was almost elevated to a life and death situation. The players, especially the Master, were constantly plagued by health problems and psychological stress.

Although based on facts, the novelist's presentation of the story often courted the apocryphal. The account of the events felt more like an annotation of a written piece, with some details added in to embellish the story. There were details that were deliberately falsified either because Kawabata wanted to distance himself from his story or because he was trying to achieve a dramatic effect. (The translator's introduction and detailed notes at the end of the novel were particularly useful in determining which parts of the narrative are factually incorrect. Here the translator also played the role of fact-checker.) In any case, it was refreshing to see the novelistic side of Kawabata prevailing over journalism, how he treated reality as bendable, how he practiced creative nonfiction wherein objective reality was falsified, misused, and betrayed imaginatively. – "Since I was reporting on a match sponsored by a newspaper, I had to arouse interest. A certain amount of embroidering was necessary."

Being largely a "mental" game where a single move of a stone was inscrutable, where the meaning of that move was never fully revealed but only hinted at, Go was a perfect representation of Kawabata's literary medium. In the mysterious exchange of moves in Go lay his art of the novel – the art of uncertainty and vagueness.

It would seem that the mistake [in the game] resulted from more than an outburst of the anger the Master had felt all morning. Yet one cannot be sure. The Master himself could not have measured the tides of destiny within him, or the mischief from those passing wraiths.

Kawabata often interjected a lot of things from the gestures and comportment of the two players. But in every case, he was almost reduced to conjectures and assumptions, to make an uncertain ("one cannot be sure") interpretation of the proceedings of the game. He often acknowledged this uncertainty; he always put "perhaps" in his commentary on the game. "Vagueness" was Kawabata's fictional aesthetic.

"It seems strange that I've come as far as I have. I'm not much of a thinker, and I don't have what you might call beliefs. People talk about my responsibility to the game, but that hasn't been enough to bring me this far. And they can call it physical strength if they like—but that really isn't it either." He spoke slowly, his head slightly bowed. "Maybe I have no nerves. A vague, absent sort—maybe the vagueness has been good for me. The word means two different things in Tokyo and Osaka, you know. In Tokyo it means stupidity, but in Osaka they talk about vagueness in a painting and in a game of Go. That sort of thing." The Master seemed to savor the word as he spoke, and I savored it as I listened.

In this piece of nonfiction, Kawabata was surprisingly not a mystical observer of inexpressible actions but a mediator of an exciting game. However vague and humble he could be, he was truly invested in the game, watching it with a sense of immediacy and profound interest.

Read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and January in Japan.