Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

September 26, 2015

Ang Metamorposis

Ang Metamorposis by Franz Kafka, tr. Joselito D. Delos Reyes (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2015)

It was well and good that I finished reading The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels right after Franz Kafka's story of an ordinary man's transformation into a monstrous insect. A specter of class antagonism haunted the story of Gregor Samsa's unfortunate situation. That specter was mostly in the background, but it was as palpable as the powerful, omnipotent, and omnipresent reach of an absentee landlord. The tension was there from the first page, when Gregor was without warning rendered into a terrifying living thing, impotent and marginalized and hideous. His struggle against irrelevancy and uselessness in a capitalist society began.

Nang magising isang umaga mula sa isang masamâng panaginip, natuklasan ni Gregor Samsa sa kama ang sariling isa nang kahindik-hindik na insekto. Nakatihaya siya sa matigas at tíla baluting likod, at sa bahagyang pag-angat ng ulo ay natatanaw nya ang malakupula't kayumangging tiyan na nahahati sa matitigas na arkong tumutumbok sa magkabilâng gilid ng katawan; ang katawang iyon ay hindi halos matakluban ng kubrekama na sa anumang sandali, maaaring dumausdos at tuluyang malaglag. Ang kaniyang binti, na kahambal-hambal at lubhang maninipis kung ihahambing sa kabuuan ng kaniyang katawan, ay sumisikad-sikad nang walang kalaban-laban hábang pinagmamasdan niya.

[One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin. He lay on his hard, armorlike back, and when lifting his head slightly, he could view his brown, vaulted belly partitioned by arching ridges, while on top of it, the blanket, about to slide off altogether, could barely hold. His many legs, wretchedly thin compared with his overall girth, danced helplessly before his eyes.]**

I was reading the recent translation of the story into Filipino by Joselito D. Delos Reyes, part of the new Aklat ng Bayan (Book of the Nation)* series of Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. The choice and arrangement of the translated words in this paragraph alone (kahindik-hindik; malakupula; kahambal-hambal) was so chilling it was as if from the outset Gregor had no chance at all to survive this struggle. The choice of the word malakupula (like a cupola) in "malakupula't kayumangging tiyan" for "brown, vaulted belly" was a particularly grisly description.

He never heard the alarm clock. (A missed appointment to attend work, just like K. and Josef K. missed theirs every step of the way.) Let us just say that the Kafkaesque adhered to Murphy's law. Gregor emphasized that is was not a dream (Hindi iyon panaginip.). Proof of which was the presence of a magazine cutout he recently made. It was a nightmarish reality every person never dreamed of.

We never did encounter Gregor's big boss in the story, the absentee landlord, the owner of the company where he worked as a travelling salesman of textiles. But after only an hour of being late for work, he was immediately visited by the officer manager, the chief overseer of the company, to specifically remind him of the temporary nature of his tenure in the company ("tandaan mong hindi ganoong katatag ang posisyon mo sa kompanya"). That he was at the mercy of being fired with just one day of being absent without official leave. The company was bent on exploiting the labor force from the likes of Gregor to earn its profits and more capital.

Because he was sick, he was no longer (viewed as) human. Hindi iyon boses ng tao, observed the chief upon hearing Gregor who barricaded himself in the room. Even his cough was described as inhuman: maging tunog ng ubong ito ay maaaring hindi tulad ng sa tao.

Kafka's exaggerated realism was on point. As in his full-length novels, Ang Metamorposis deals with the struggle of ordinary workers ("paid wage-labourers" in The Communist Manifesto***) against the mental and physical exploitation by their insensitive and inhuman society.

At alam ninyo rin, ser, na ang ahente, na halos buong taóng hindi makikita sa opisina, ay madaling nabibiktima ng mga tsismis, kamalasan, at daing at sumbong na walang kamalay-malay. Malaláman lang niya ito kung nakabalik na siya mula sa isang nakapapagod na paglalakbay at doo'y tuwirang maghihirap mula sa nga parusa na hindi man lang niya natutukoy kung ano ang orihinal na dahilan.

[You also know very well that a traveling salesman, being away from the office most of the year, can so easily fall victim to gossip, coincidences, and unwarranted complaints, and he cannot possibly defend himself since he almost never finds out about them, except perhaps when he returns from a trip, exhausted, and personally suffers their awful consequences at home without fathoming their inscrutable causes.]

This almost revealed the mystery surrounding Gregor's metamorphosis, his disintegration into something hardly human after being over-exploited by the labor machine. The basic framework of Kafka's critique' of modern society was this disintegration of social and societal meaning. In Marx and Engels, "[the bourgeoisie] has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal rites that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked, self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'." Gregor's entreaties fell on deaf ears.

Gregor was the model employee; for many years never had he been absent in work for a single day. The powers that be would not take that into consideration. Gregor's life force must be squeezed out of him to feed the market economy. The common worker became an insect in the colony of capitalist economy. The queen bee needed to be served. The individual was reduced into the form of something like an animal if only to satisfy the appetite of the system.

Nang mga panahong iyon, ang tanging kagustuhan ni Gregor ay gawin ang lahat ng makakaya para matulungan ang pamilya na makalimutan, sa lalo at madaling panahon, ang kasawiang dinanas ng negosyo at maisalba silá mula sa pagkakasadlak sa kawalang pag-asa. Mula noon ay pinaigting na ni Gregor ang pagtratrabaho; mula sa pagiging isang simpleng klerk, halos gabi-gabi na siyang naging isang ahente kung saan tiyak na mas malaki ang kita. Ang mga pagpupursigi at pagsusumikap na iyon ay kagyat nasuklian ng malaking salaping kaniyang naiuuwi sa manghang-mangha at tuwang-tuwang pamilya.

[Gregor's sole concern at that time had been to do whatever he could to make the family forget as quickly as possible the business catastrophe that had plunged them all into utter despair. And so he had thrown himself into his job with tremendous fervor, working his way up, almost overnight, from minor clerk to traveling salesman, who, naturally, had an altogether different earning potential and whose professional triumphs were instantly translated, by way of commissions, into cash, which could be placed on the table at home for the astonished and delighted family.]

Gregor's family was in debt to the very manager he was slaving for. His parents were now in advance age. As a man in his prime, he took the cudgels to be the breadwinner and fend off for the family.

"In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed," Marx and Engels wrote, "in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market."

"Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State," Marx and Engels added. "They are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is."

For Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie is unfit to rule society because "it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state [e.g., the insect-like existence of the transformed Gregor], that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him." Gregor was allowed to live only as long as the ruling class requires it, as long as he increases the capital. By being destitute, weak, and unproductive, he became an outcast in the eyes of the bourgeois society where (Marx and Engels again) "the living person is dependent and has no individuality". Gregor must die because he was no longer a worker who earns (an article of commerce and instrument of labour) but a burden to society. Gregor was no longer marketable.

The family (mother, father, daughter) was forced to work as their financial status became more dire. They let go of the household help and accepted tenants to the house to augment their much reduced income due to Gregor's condition. "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation", wrote Marx and Engels. This reduction of the family relation to money matters was inevitable.

Sa labis na trabaho at pagod na pamilyang ito, sino pa ang magkakaroon ng panahon na bigyang-pansin si Gregor maliban na lang kung lubusang kailangan? Patuloy na lumiliit ang badyet ng bahay; pinaalis na ang serbidora [...] Ginampanan na nila sa abot ng makakaya ang lahat ng utos ng mundo sa mahihirap na tao; ikinukuha ng ama ng almusal ang mga maliliit na kawani ng bángko, iniuukol ng ina ang lakas sa pananahi ng mga damit panloob ng mga estranghero, at pabalik-balik sa kaha ang kapatid para sa mga utos ng mga mámimíli. Kung higit pa doon ang kailangan ay wala na siláng lakas na gumawa pa.

[Who in this overworked and exhausted family had time to look after Gregor any more than was absolutely necessary? The household was reduced further; the maid was now dismissed after all {...} Whatever the world demands of poor people, they carried out to an extreme: the father fetched breakfast for the minor bank tellers, the mother sacrificed herself to [sewing] underwear for strangers, the sister, ordered around by customers, ran back and forth behind the counter. But those were the limits of the family's strength.]

Slowly and gradually, Gregor's family suffered the same working system that reduced the son to a thing of monstrosity. His sister, Greta, who at first religiously cared for him fed him began to change her attitudes toward him. In the end, Greta passionately and vehemently rejected her brother (Hindi ko tatawaging kapatid ang nilalang na ito, at ang masasabi ko lang: kailangan na nating alisin iyan. ["I will not pronounce my brother's name in front of this monstrosity, and so all I will say is: We must try to get rid of it.").

After Gregor's demise the family heaved a sigh of relief. They no longer had to care for a useless invalid, an inutile member of the family. They were ready to move on, with hope in their hearts because they were at present fortunate to be "employed".

Hábang maginhawang nakasandal sa kanilang upuan, pinag-usapan nila ang kanilang plano para sa hinaharap, at lumabas, sa málapitáng pagsisiyasat, na hindi na rin iyon masamâ, dahil sa trabahong mayroon silá na bagama't ngayon ay hindi pa nila napag-uusapan, tiyak namang magdadala ng magandang búkas para sa pamilya.

[Leaning back comfortably in their seats, they discussed their future prospects and concluded that, upon closer perusal, these were anything but bad; for while they had never actually asked one another for any details, their jobs were all exceedingly advantageous and also promising.]

This reinforced the mentality of a colonized family within the bourgeois society, by viewing future happiness in terms of the fruits of labor employment. This ironic resolution was heightened in the end when the parents looked at Greta, now in her physical prime, as an article of commerce and instrument of labor, i.e., in terms of her potential contribution to the family coffers through marriage to a good prospective husband and by being paid as wage laborer, in complete opposition to her brother's damaged body.

At, bilang animo'y isang pagpapatibay sa kanila bagong pangarap at matalinong balakin, nang marating ang destinasyon, tumayo ang anak at ipinakita ang magandang hubog ng batang katawan.

[And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions that at the end of their ride the daughter was the first to get up, stretching her young body.]

Gregor was bound to fail in this class struggle. As Marx and Engels pointed out: "The first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own end, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, these attempts necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation."

At Kafka's bidding, in his juncture of history when the proletariat has not yet organized itself and acquired political supremacy and constituted itself as the nation, Gregor was a casualty because of the as yet undeveloped state of the struggle, if he even made any attempt to fight back. If he even could be considered heroic in any sense of that word. The Gregor Samsas of the world had yet to reach their saturation points and fight back. But the economic conditions for the emancipation of slaves are now turning. The frameworks for radical and progressive movements have now been tested. The time is now ripe. GREGOR SAMSAS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

Read in anticipation of German Literature Month V.

*The Aklat ng Bayan series aims to publish works in Filipino or translations into Filipino of noteworthy texts, including translations of great foreign works of literature.

** The English passages quoted are by Joachim Neugroschel, from The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories (Scribner), first published in 1993.

*** The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, translated by Samuel Moore (Penguin Classics, 2015). Translation first published in 1888.

September 25, 2015

But for the Lovers

But for the Lovers (1970) by Wilfrido D. Nolledo (Dalkey Archive Press, 1994)

The postcolonial is perverse*, according to the Filipino critic J. Neil C. Garcia. But why stop there? The postcolonial is grotesque, is disgusting, is radical, is transgressive. The postcolonial is a product of colonial wars, of wars inglorious. It is blasphemous; it is bestial.

Just like But for the Lovers, the only full length novel published by Wilfrido D. Nolledo (1933-2004) in his lifetime. This novel blatantly wears the sleeve of postcoloniality and postmodernity. It is a (diffi)cult book. In Philippine novel writing, it is a milestone, deserving of the top spot in a list of the best Philippine novels in English published in the last hundred years.

He was beginning to eat flowers and the crescent moon was in his eyes when he awoke again. One night long ago when they had intercepted a code from the enemy on the shortwave and had not needed him anymore, they pulled out their tents, mantled him with leaves, and left him. They left him a rifle, a buri basket and a book of psalms, for the Major had decreed in defense of this murder: Let the little legionnaire lie here and die; it is written, it shall be read. But the boy went on sleeping and did not die and when he awakened it was to see (it was to find himself alone) a bird, a whitewinged maya dart in from the west, perhaps headed for the monsoon. Steadying the Springfield , he cocked the hammer with a quivering thumb, and waited. It flew away, whatever it was, and now he squinted up and remembered that it was the first time in a long spell he had seen the sky,and he thought: It is longer, lonelier and lovelier than any of my prayers. He sighted the nimbus—an eagle in captivity—and fired.

It is great because of its language, its unabashed poetic touches, network of allusions and alliterations, puns with punitive effects, and foreign words galore. In various linguistic registers and movements—mo (modernism) or po-mo or po-po (postmodern poetry, in prose)—it is in a league with the illustrious set of Ulyssi. Within a quota of one for every culture, hands down the Philippine Ulysses goes to But for the Lovers.

The basic story revolves around three spectral figures, all inhabitants of room 13 of Ojo Verdes boardinghouse. There is Hidalgo de Anuncio, the Spanish vaudeville/clown artist whose time is almost up, whose very name evoked the master of chivalry. There is Molave Amoran, the feral, resourceful youngster, a sturdy streetkid whose survival instincts come in handy in time of chaos. And there is the unnamed girl whose very silence bespeaks her being a symbol in a war that was fought on symbols.

The setting is Manila during the last interminable months of Japanese invasion right up to the immediate aftermath of the country's liberation. People are desperate, impatiently waiting for the return of the Americans to liberate the country and alleviate their suffering from hunger and destitution. P-38s are hovering above, bombing the city. Throughout the air raids and the looting, the beautiful girl sleeps. And during her waking hours, she is like a somnambulist. The war-torn reality has become a huge launch pad for her dreams, for Hidalgo's pining for the Spanish days of yore, and for Amoran's nocturnal adventures to fend food for the three of them. The three exist to wait for Rapture or whatever. In an apocalypsed landscape of ruins, some like Hidalgo cling to the former colonial past and Hispanic culture, knowing full well that their time is ticking out.

[Hidalgo] was the last flamboyant castilla de entresuelo. Today his sole anchorage was that sprawling colonial-style building across the street from Carmelo and Bauman's. Older than anything else in la ciudad, it'd preserved its ancient appurtenances: an azotea, shell windows, carved rejas, even its original embankment. Here resided the Del Rosario sisters, who had suffered the encroaching commercialization of their beloved street yet had steadfastly refused to bend to the cooings of merchants. Huge profit forecasts and storm warnings could not induce the Del Rosario sisters to consider leases and alterations. The hermetic pair invited no one inside their domains save a few "blood friends." For decades outsiders were curious about what the interior of the house was like. The original draftsman's plans of this relic had either been lost, burned, or, some believed, locked in the Del Rosario vaults for future perusal. Those who revered the lavish historicity of the house only from nostalgia did not know (or had forgotten with the passing of time) that inside were some twenty-four bedrooms, eroding furniture and life-size images of saints. Nor would strangers recollect that the Del Rosario sisters were the last of their line; they had no heirs but, according to popular legend again, had adopted some children. (And wasn't one of them a negrito?) The years had gravely altered the street, the city, the neighbors around them ... que va, the Del Rosario sisters remained unchanged with their house. Their withered palm branches at the eternally shut windows turned green again in honor of the seasons.

Hidalgo is nostalgic. He seeks refuge in old colonial mansion with two spinster sisters reminiscent of the Marasigan sisters in Nick Joaquín's famous play. The Hispanist is eulogizing the passage of an era, when the definitive break from Spanish as former colonials is almost assured, whatever the outcome of the war.

In addition to the triumvirate, the rich cast of characters include Vanoye, one-armed Portuguese POW and demagogue who was tortured by the Japanese in Fort Santiago and was one of the internees in the University of Santo Tomas; Tira Colombo, the thrice widowed matriarch and landlady of the apartment in Ojos Verdes, whose inhabitants provide the manifold strands to the story; three Japanese soldiers—the samurai Sergeant Yato, the poet Corporal Ito, and the weird old Major Shigura who stalked the girl at all times; Captain Jonas Winters, an American pilot who survived the crash of his air bomber plane; Tomasa Pompeyo (aka Tomodachi Toni) who owns a nightclub and whose husband was missing; and a bunch of other minor character studies whose colorful anecdotes provide a good dose of laughter amid the harsh perversity of the times.

As postcolonial novels go, this one is replete with questions and ideas about identity and cultural hybridity. The novel's hybridity in fact already oversells the idea. Hidalgo himself, the old peninsular at home in Manila, whose pan-identity ["an unleavened pan like him"] haunts him, is feeling his almost-anachronistic presence in a country colonized by American Hollywood.

But what finally opens up to the reader is the mosaic of guffaw-inducing set-pieces and a glimpse at the Manila second world war subculture. It is a period of waiting, waiting, and more waiting for Liberation (capital L). A time of torture and marriages (since life goes on), of mendicancy and endemic thievery. But most of all, a time of waiting, waiting, more waiting. The waiting took several forevers. Although there are some, like Tira Colombo, who never gives a damn about the whole debacle. Pragmatism saves her from the boredom of waiting.

All that brouhaha around her did not bother Mrs. Colombo. To her, the Liberation [1945] meant not much more than an extra chupa of rice, perhaps some fresh eggs. Politics, government, religion—they were big, fat gobs of one rotten yolk to her. She would benefit not a single kusing from a change of venue; she would not profit from a shift in ideology. Acculturation was for those who did not have or did not cherish what they most privately had, which was identity. The landlady, even with half an ear cocked, with but bat eyes in the daylight, had long reached the conclusion that after Bienvenido Elan, her first husband, there could never be any new idea. History would pass (as indeed it had) over Mrs. Colombo like a tractor, and she would not notice, would not care. What she truly, incessantly lamented was the depletion of man, in whatever form or substance. To her way of thinking, war had been cruel only insofar as it had cauterized the vaginal life source, in its unabating diminution of the male. That cities were razed to the ground, the mothers were ravished in dark rooms, that babies perished for lack of milk only signified (to her) that men were killing each other senselessly, selfishly. No sect could be so sublime, no philosophy so enlightening, no administration so just that could ever again remedy the loss of essence. After the demise of Architect Elan (oh, Bienvenido!), her one last link to any branch of formal constructiveness, Mrs. Colombo just retired from ideas.

The novel gains its suspense from being in medias res. The language play and inventiveness save even the disgusting scenes of torture. The diversity of wartime voices provide a counterpoint to the wartime stupor. But for the lovers (but which lovers?), this would have been a mawkish drama of excess about a set of people forever chewing on the rumors of Liberation that as time goes by remains more and more like that, a remote possibility.

Nolledo's prose is a melting pot of variegated styles. The comedy and grotesquerie are of a piece. In prose "pulsing and polychromatic", in scenes that lapse into the territory of nightmares and dreams and trauma.

They resumed the journey with a melange of guavas and baked lizards. A python had coiled at their feet in an arbor and Quasimoto killed it with a single swipe of the bolo. Twice Alma boggled at a minaret swinging like a pendulum. They diverted her from wheezing showers, whooshing reeds, mildewed clotheslines with withering scarecrows, preening skulls and Halloween papayas. From a grotto, they espied a balloon in the clouds and below it was another boat, and they all knew that her suitors were not far behind. Invoking the prophets at that critical juncture and calling to the patron saint of navigation, Quasimoto steered away and the boat accosted a rainbow and they went loafing-loving-longing on the crest. They outwitted a flood to ransack an empty farmhouse where posters embossed in magenta proclaimed: "THE JAPANESE ARE COMING!" They also unearthed New Year hats, buntings, billfolds and tinfoil from a hope chest. Aron flung the Springfield away, drowned the toy forever in a well. Alma idled behind charred sugar cane and spidery stalks as the boy began to tell her she was beautiful. By sunup, they were blue and bold and blighted: they all had insomnia. They made a palatable salad but dared not eat it lest the sound of loud lettuce unleash the hounds of war. They bound their boat to the bougainvillea vines. When the boy sneezed, they lost it.

Quasimoto, Aron, and Alma are three figures within the dreamlike scene at novel's confused (confusing) prologue. They correspond to other (actual) characters inside (in) the novel. The shifting identities of the characters, of the "lovers" of the title, make for a dynamic deconstruction of purpose and meaning.

"The Spanish Novel in the Philippines will be commemorated in English. Everything else is posthumous", Hidalgo de Anuncio announces like a literary psychic. Nolledo's own may be that Spanish Novel in English. The fate of his three other (maybe more) complete novels was posthumous. Sangria Tomorrow; Vaya con Virgo (aka 21 de agosto); and Cassandra Pickett in the Wings. These apparently experimental novels from a neglected master of the perverse are waiting, waiting, and waiting.

* In the preface to his two-volume The Postcolonial Perverse: Critiques of Contemporary Philippine Culture, Garcia wrote: 'What is postcolonial is necessarily perverse, since perversion is the frustration of teleology and its requisite purity, the undermining of the normative and the narrative, the transitivity that troubles the supposedly pristine, eternal, and abiding. These are precisely what postcolonialism must imply, being that it is, among other things, the historically situated labor of arriving at a critical awareness of colonialism's fractured and translated (and therefore eminently appropriable) "nature."'

August 16, 2015

The Hand of the Enemy

The Hand of the Enemy (1962) by Kerima Polotan (University of the Philippines Press, 2010)

If Nick Joaquín was to be believed, it was Kerima Polotan's protracted relationship with her father that impelled her to write The Hand of the Enemy, her first and last novel.

Her anguish over a relationship left dangling in the air, unresolved by a deathbed embrace, troubles her fiction, so cold on the surface, so angry at the roots. The Polotan heroine is a lonely, embittered, unsatisfied woman who craves to be loved but sees in the hand of the one loved, the hand of the enemy.

Private grief had become literature.

And that's how books get to be written. But grief that had become a book has also become a public commodity, which must be sold, peddled, advertised. How important are such commodities to public life? Do the forms one woman has given her anguish really matter as much as rice and groceries?

Joaquín was spot on in identifying the hermeneutics of grief as the positive, conscious force driving Polotan's text, feeding the manic momentum of her prose. This was, for example, the same force that wrote A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke's autobiographical novella about his mother's suicide.

Private grief was indeed laminated in the pages of The Hand of the Enemy. But as with the best works of grief literature, the personal and the political (historical) were intertwined. Set in the postwar period of 1950s to 1960s, the novel was the story of two marriages and their dissolution. The title was so ambiguous it could be applied to any enemy, and to either of the two hands.

"Kerima Polotan Skips a Dinner", Nick Joaquín's witty introduction to the novel, echoed the novel's skewering of the hyprocrisy of the noveau riche. During the literary dinner in honor of Polotan's publication of her novel (which she skipped), Joaquín asked questions about the relevance of the novel in the time of the rice shortage (this was 1961). Food for thought or food for stomach?

The blather of one "chairman of the cultural committee of the Philippine Columbian", as quoted verbatim by Quijano de Manila, was not lost on the reader.

I submit that literature—and novels in particular—should not be considered as just a form of entertainment. In portraying characters and dramatizing conflict, novelists can influence society and change behavior patterns. Novels and other forms of literature can serve a social purpose; in the present preoccupation with intensive economic development we are likely to neglect this powerful tool for social change, if we could only show that contemporary novels can be an effective vehicle in attaining the economic objective, then the campaign will have been won.

Novels? Change behavior patterns? Powerful tool for social change? Effective vehicle in attaining the economic objective? My goodness. What daunting tasks for the contemporary novel! One could detect the journalist's amusement in hearing such nonsense. As with any highfalutin dinner, the spirit of Rizal was invoked in full measure.

Andres Cristobal Cruz wrote a paper on honoree Kerima Polotan. He began with a long quote from Rizal, ended with another long quote from Rizal. The rest of the paper was also mostly abut Rizal but Mr. Cruz occasionally remembered that his subject was Kerima Polotan, who, he said like D.H. Lawrence, explored the theme of forbidden relationships with a passion that touches the heart. He opined that, by "the hand of the enemy," Kerima Polotan meant the superstitions still around us, the poseurs and phonies of our society. This inevitably reminded him of what Rizal had said about superstition and Kerima Polotan vanished for good in the incense offered to the national hero.

Ever attentive to the nuances of literary reception, our guide Joaquín quoted at length from a Chronicle column published the next day by fellow writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, expressing her minority position. She must have, Joaquín presumed, "shuddered at what seemed hucksterism running wild at what was supposed to be a cultural soiree".

"It must have been curiously humiliating for writers to sit at a dinner-forum intended to create more awareness of the need for reading books by Filipino authors—as many of them did last night at the Philippine Columbian. It was rather an uncomfortable feeling—rather as if one were a brand of soap whose sales had fallen off or a consignment of abaca matting which was losing out to a more popular, washable, colorfast kind imported from the United States.


"One cannot help wishing ... that people ... would buy and, more important, read what one had to say between the covers of a book without someone important beating a large promotional drum or holding the sword of philistinism over their heads.

And what of the novel itself? What of the anguish between its covers?

No, this novel would not alleviate poverty or prevent rice shortages. On the contrary, Polotan offered a healthy dose of reality. She must have a checklist for the purpose of avoiding any sense of redemption or indulgence or absolution for the reader. Every action seemed to be haunted by the past—the transgressive, unforgiving past. Every other scene allowed for restrospective leaps of telling, for further digressions into the past, always auditing the temporal present for an account ("Just two weeks ago ..."; "But that day ..."; "Earlier that week"; "that day long ago"). She imbued every gesture, every word with import.

Fleeing Glo's over-percolated charm, Emma Gorrez ended up in front of the largest department store in the city. The mannequins in the window, the silks, the porcelain ware, all seemed vaguely familiar. The curving bridge nearby and the fetid odor of the shallow creek brought back that day long ago when she had come to this same place, money and misery together, to bury the presence of Mr. Navarro. She had interred the memory of that tragic old man beneath piles of the most useless things she had ever brought in her life. How instinctively a woman turned to bangles for surcease! She had bought a pendant that day and hung it around her neck, loud and noisy and vulgar, as if the sound of brass would exorcise the dangers of the dark—there was something fundamentally comforting in the process of buying: you pushed your money over the counter and clutched whatever foolishness you had paid for, grasping it like a talisman against the shadows in the long corridor of the mind.

Like holding a talisman, yes. Hers was a careful exercise of the apocalypse. She was a conjuror of doom, an existential witch. The vision of the novelist was one of fatalism. Life was a force majeure. As one character said: "Life is a bitch ... a foul-smelling, filthy bitch".

The world was something outside him; life was something outside him; a great big something, a mighty merciless great big hand picking up people and lives and hopes and tossing them athwart the sharp prow of circumstance.

So how to conduct and keep one's self, how to keep it "dear, inviolate, true"? In the face of the merciless blows dealt by the hand of the enemy, the hand of circumstance, how not to make it—one's self—one's own sworn enemy?

For one, one must avoid unhealthy literary soirees that bred further bitterness and disillusion. Joaquín concluded just as much.

The state of Philippine literature may be as bankrupt as the critics say; but Kerima Polotan is not concerned with improving the state of literature or the state of the nation. She simply writes; her motives are private. If she should stop and ponder if she should not be writing in Tagalog instead of English, or be writing pamphlets instead of novels, or be writing books that are easy to sell, or not writing at all at a time when people are standing in line to buy rice but should do something to solve the rice crisis, go to the province, maybe, and plant rice—she would be destroyed. Her selfishness is her salvation.

No wonder Kerima Polotan skipped the dinner held in her honor. There were temptations everywhere of violence and misconduct. There was enough drama already. The book was written already.

July 9, 2015

Old Masters

Old Masters: A Comedy by Thomas Bernhard, tr. Ewald Osers (The University of Chicago Press, 1992)

"Stifter is no genius, Stifter is a philistine living a cramped life and a musty petit bourgeois and schoolmaster writing in a cramped style, who did not even meet the minimum requirements of the language, let alone was able to produce works of art, Reger said," wrote Thomas Bernhard. "All in all, he said," Bernhard wrote, "Stifter is one of the greatest disappointments of my artistic life. Every third or at least every fourth sentence of Stifter's is wrong, every other or every third metaphor is a failure, and Stifter's mind generally, at least in his literary writings, is a mediocre mind." The creaking complaint almost echoed Prospero's lament, in an inverted sense,"And thence retire me to my Milan," Shakespeare wrote, "where / Every third thought shall be my grave." This last line formed the epigraph of Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, a lacerating lengthy monologue on sex and mortality. The same lashing voice, unflagging in intensity, characterized the comic novel Old Masters. But where Prospero consigned himself to resignation, Bernhard's tempest was only starting to brew. It was only the beginning of inspired verbal lashing. He was a cultured dragon spewing fire and brimstone and vituperation at the mediocrity and pettiness of writers and artists in Austria, represented by Adalbert Stifter, Heidegger, and the composer Bruckner.  He breathed fire and scorched everything in the path of his fire-breath.

In a novel of art criticism, raw and extreme, his call was as much for the rejection of anything hopeless and base—like Stifter's "unbearable provincial raised-finger kind of prose"—as for the celebration of excellence, for the "highest art". Even if that kind of art, Bernhard wrote, was a strange mix of utter sublimeness and revulsion.

Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously, he said. But we must make ourselves believe that there is high art and the highest art, he said, otherwise we should despair. Even though we know that all art ends in gaucherie and in ludicrousness and in the refuse of history, like everything else, we must, with downright self-assurance, believe in high and in the highest art, he said. We realize what it is, bungled, failed art, but we need not always hold this realization before us, because in that case we should inevitably perish, he said.

What lent authority to Bernhard's voice, what made his narrators convincing, was not so much his aesthetic pronouncements but his delivery, his style. His characters, Reger and Irrsigler and the narrator Atzbacher, were his stand-ins, refracted through a loop of successive narrative appropriation. This tendency for perfect attribution was demonstrated early on (p. 4):

The art historians only swamp the visitors with their twaddle, says Irrsigler, who has, over the years, appropriated verbatim many, if not all, of Reger's sentences. Irrsigler is Reger's mouthpiece, nearly everything that Irrsigler says has been said by Reger, for over thirty years Irrsigler has been saying what Reger has said. If I [Atzbacher] listen attentively I can hear Reger speak through Irrsigler. If we listen to the guides we only ever hear that art twaddle which gets on our nerves, the unbearable art twaddle of the art historians, says Irrsigler, because Reger says so frequently. All these paintings are magnificent, but not a single one is perfect, Irrsigler says after Reger. People only go to the museum because they have been told that a cultured person must go there, and not out of interest, people are not interested in art, at any rate ninety-nine per cent of humanity has no interest whatever in art, as Irrsigler says, quoting Reger word for word.... Reger hates Reni [the painter], therefore Irrsigler hates Reni too. Irrsigler has achieved a high degree of mastery in appropriating Reger's statements, indeed he now utters them almost perfectly in Reger's characteristic tone. [my underlining]

Irssigler was almost the alter-ego of Reger, and Atzbacher was proving himself to be the alter-ego of both Irrsigler and Reger, their willing mouthpiece. Atzabacher quoted them accurately and perfectly like a journalist. Did Atzbacher serve as the alter-ego of Bernhard too? This supposition was a trap for the reader. Whatever the case, the novelist and his characters were not self-styled aesthetes. They are stylists. Therein lay their authority and believability. It didn't matter whether the reader agreed with his (with Reger's) literary taste or not, with whether Stifter was a dumbass quack or not. What matters was the conviction with which he banged his literary gavel, his emphatic judgement, his didacticism and mad belaboring.

Old Masters was the last published volume of his so-called Trilogy of the Arts (1983-1985), an otherwise arbitrary grouping of successively published books that include The Loser and Woodcutters (or Cutting Timber). In this concluding volume, he at least arrived at the unity of the arts, at a hard-won consilience. And this brought him happiness.

I am a critical artist, he said, I have been a critical artist all my life. Even in childhood I was a critical artist, he said, the circumstances of my childhood made me a critical artist in an entirely natural way. I certainly regard myself as an artist, that is as a critical artist, and as a critical artist I am of course also creative, that is obvious, hence a performing and creative critical artist, he said. What is more, a creative and performing critical artist of The Times, he said. I certainly regard my brief reports for The Times as works of art, and I think that as the author of these works of art I am always in one person and simultaneously a painter and a musician and a writer. That is my greatest delight: to know that as the author of these works of art for The Times I am a painter and a musician and a writer in one, that is my greatest delight. I am not therefore, as the painters are, only a painter, and I am not, as the musicians are, only a musician, and I am not, as the writers are, only a writer, you must understand that I am a painter and a musician and a writer all in one. That is what I perceive to be the greatest happiness, he said, to be an artist in all the arts and yet reside in one of them. It is possible, he said, that the critical artist is the one who practises his own art in all the arts and is aware of it, utterly and totally aware of it. This awareness makes me happy. To that extent I have been happy for over thirty years, he said, even though by nature I am an unhappy person.

So much remains to be said about this relentless comedy, its protagonists and writer, a critical artist of "the times" who panned from one topic to the next. Reger was an extension of Bernhard for they were in sync temperamentally. Bernhard in his collected memoirs Gathering Evidence was as vocal and ceaseless and unforgiving and invigorating as Reger in Old Masters. Reger abhorred the small-minded and the provincial, the "twaddle" of authority (art historians), the "universal anti-intellectual meanness" in Austria, the brutal and corrupt and Catholic Austrian education system, the politics of (compromised) art.

The "old masters" had to be questioned, were not to be easily trusted. They represented a kind of stale idea and "twaddle" that must be interrogated time and again. The critic must not be beholden to old masters.

The old masters, as they have now been called for centuries, only stand up to superficial viewing; if we view them thoroughly they gradually become diminished, and when we have studied them really and truly, and that means as thoroughly as possible for as long as possible, they dissolve, they crumble for us, leaving only a flat taste, in fact most of the time a very bad taste, in our mouths. The greatest and most significant work of art ultimately weighs heavily on our heads, as a huge lump of baseness and lies, rather as an excessively large lump of meat might weigh on our stomachs. We are fascinated by a work of art and ultimately it is ridiculous.

If an artwork survived the scrutiny of truly discerning art critics, then it was safe for now. The artist, wherever in the afterlife, could heave a sigh of relief. The true works of art will withstand re-readings and re-viewings. But no work does, as all great works are fallible. Some texts fall out of taste and fall out of touch to the contemporary art world.

In the disillusionment we experience upon discovering that the greatness of the one we have venerated and loved is no greatness at all and never was such greatness, but only an imagined greatness and is in fact pettiness, and indeed baseness, we experience the merciless pangs of the deceived. We quite simply pay the price, Reger said, for having lent ourselves to blindly accepting an object, moreover for years and decades and possibly for a lifetime, and even to venerating and loving it, without time and again putting it to the test. If only, let us say, thirty or even twenty years ago, or fifteen years ago, I had put Stifter to the test I should have saved myself this late disappointment. Altogether we should never say this or that person is the thing, and will then remain the thing for all time, we should again and again put all artists to the test, because we keep developing our art scholarship and our artistic taste, that is unquestionable.

There lay the pragmatism of Bernhard's critical faculties. He recognized the value of ongoing criticism in deciphering the present and future value of art. There was a dynamic stock market of art appreciation. Works depreciate according to how they were defended and how they (helplessly) respond to the changing values and judgements of 2015 or say, 2045 or 2035 or 2030—30 or 20 or 15 years from now.

I'm only a third of the way through this novel and I can't help but write my own twaddle on it. Every third sentence of Old Masters is excruciatingly funny, every fourth is darkly refreshing, and every fifth leads to a trapdoor.

July 6, 2015

Tirante el Blanco

Tirante el Blanco: Ang Maputing Kabalyero by Joanot Martorell, translated into Filipino by Jeannifer Zabala and Isaac Donoso (Central Book Supply, Inc., 2010)

Something Cervantean-slash-Borgesian was detectable in the dedication page of Tirante el Blanco (1490), offered to Don Fernando of Portugal. Here I inverted the sense of literary influence—as in "Kafka and His Precursors" by Borges—with Joanot Martorell (c.1405-1465) creating his own precursors, through his posthumous novel, in Don Quixote and Pierre Menard. It turned out that Tirante el Blanco was a (fictional) translation.

Bilang pagkilala sa mga paglalakbay ni Tirante na nakasulat sa salitang Ingles, ang inyong kamahalan, na naghangad sa akin na ito'y isalin sa salitang Portuges, alinsunod na mula sa simula ay naglaan din ako ng panahon sa Ingland [sic] na higit kong nalalaman ang lengguwahe kaysa sa iba. Para sa akin, ang kagustuhan ng iyong kamahalan ang pinakamagandang kautusan. dahil bilang isang ginoo ako ay nararapat na maglaan para sa magigiting na gawa ng kabalyero lalong-lalo pa na ang gawang ito ay napakahaba at tumutukoy sa mga puwersa at mga gawain ng mga kabalyero.

... At nagtitiwala din ako sa iyong kamahalan na pagtiisan ang aking mga kamalian sa aking sanaysay, maging ito man ay istilo o sa kaayusan, na di sinasadyang lumabas o sa katotohanang dahil sa aking pagka-ignorante o kawalang kaalaman. Susubukan kong isalin ang kuwento ni Tirante, hindi lamang mula sa Ingles hanggang sa Portuges, ngunit mula Portuges hanggang sa salitang Valenciano upang ang sarili kong bansa ay magalak at kapulutan ng aral ang mga maraming magigiting na gawa na nilalaman ng aklat na ito. Ako'y humihiling sa kagitingan ng iyong kamahalan na tanggapin ang gawang ito na kaloob mula sa iyong mapagkakatiwalaang tagapaglingkod; kung mayroon man na mga pagkakamali o pagkukulang dito, makasisiguro kayo kamahalan, ang mga ito ay dahilan ng lengguwaheng Ingles, na ang mga sailita sa karamihang lugar ay impossibleng [sic] isalin pa ng mabuti. Sa kabutihan at patuloy na paghahangad na mapagsilbihan ang di-matatawarang pagkapanginoon, hindi ako magtatrabaho ng may kasunduan o maging interpretasyon man, upang sa iyong kagitingan, ang iyong kamahalan ay makakabahagi sa gawang ito lalo na rin ang iyong mga tagapaglingkod at iba pa. [trans. Jeannifer Zabala and Isaac Donoso]


Since the aforesaid tale was written in English, and Your Illustrious Highness has been pleased to beseech me to translate it into Portuguese, believing that as I spent some time in England, I must know the language of that isle better than others do—which request I consider a most acceptable order, for my chivalric vows oblige me to make known the valor of former knights, and even more so because the book's main theme is the code and order of chivalry ... [A]nd trusting that Your Highness will excuse any failings in style or presentation that may have entered this book through carelessness or ignorance, I shall dare to translate it not only from English into Portuguese but also from Portuguese into Valencian vernacular, that my native land may receive joy and instruction from the many worthy deeds recounted. Therefore, I pray Your Highness to accept the present work of his affectionate servant, for should it contain any faults, the blame lies with the English language, some words of which are impossible to translate. Be mindful of my affection and constant desire to serve you, and excuse my clumsy rendering of the various thoughts. Impart them to your servants and others, that they may extract the kernels of wisdom hidden therein, urging on their valor never to shrink from harsh deeds of arms but to champion noble causes, upholding the common good for which the knightly order was founded. [trans. David H. Rosenthal]

In the same manner that Don Quixote was presented as a translation (from Cide Hamete's Arabic into Castilian), so was Tirante a product of linguistic transfer (first from English to Portuguese, and then from Portuguese to Valencian). And it was just like the fictional author (Joanot Martorell the knight) to blame the original English language for any error that may be contained in his narrative.

Tirant lo Blanch was first published in Valencian (Catalan) language, the language being spoken in the province of Valencia. That this book existed in Filipino translation was almost an anomaly. Translators Jeannifer Zabala and Isaac Donoso explained in the introduction the affinity of this work with the Philippine literature during Spanish colonial period, particularly in its thematic links with texts like Florante at Laura by Francisco Balagtas (1788-1862). In 1511, the first Spanish translation of Tirant was produced by Vicent Escartí. An English version was made in 1984 by David H. Rosenthal, and a supposedly more complete translation by Ray La Fontaine appeared in 1993.

Part of the literary value and prestige accorded to Tirante could be traced to an oft-quoted short passage from Don Quixote I, Chapter VI. This was the scene where a copy of the Tirante book was almost fed to the fire during the great book purging of the knight errant's library. If it were not for the priest recognizing the title ...

"God bless me!" said the curate with a shout, "'Tirante el Blanco' here! Hand it over, gossip, for in it I reckon I have found a treasury of enjoyment and a mine of recreation. ... [I]n truth, gossip, by right of its style it is the best book in the world. Here knights eat and sleep, and die in their beds, and make their wills before dying, and a great deal more of which there is nothing in all the other books. Nevertheless, I say he who wrote it, for deliberately composing such fooleries, deserves to be sent to the galleys for life. Take it home with you and read it, and you will see that what I have said is true." [trans. John Ormsby]

"The best book in the world", Tirante el Blanco could very well be in the eyes of a well read priest. Yet this book contained such "fooleries" that Joanot Martorell well deserved to be incarcerated for writing this realistic account of knights eating and sleeping, and dying in their beds, and drafting their last wills and testaments prior to dying. Do we trust enough of a character's (much more so that of a priest's) outburst to believe the author's (Cervantes's) literary judgement of the book? Do we sense sarcasm and double talk in the priest's arguments with the barber? Whatever. Tirante's influence on the quixotic brand of chivalry was enough to ascribe importance to the value of the book.

Running for 972 pages, it was not light reading. With the incessant battles, pageantry, adventures, and violence in it, it truly live up to its reputation as an authentic chivalry romance. Themes of the honor and sanctity of knighthood and military service, the defense of Christian faith at all costs, the villains represented by the Moors, the awe accorded to the monarchy, slapdash of patriarchy. There was a manual here: a code for knights in honor, from a thousand pages of chivalry and cavalry and knighthood occupation being extolled and elevated to the highest pantheon and with knighthood being almost equated with sainthood and priesthood, the highest sacrifice. It was now understandable how the old man Quixote was driven to the brink of wayward knighthood.

The book was divided into seven parts. The first part detailed the colorful life of a count, Guillem de Veroych (William of Warwick), who was a veteran knight prior to becoming a hermit—the horseman becoming a veritable saint. Near the end of this first part, we finally encountered the titular character, who actually derived his name from his father's dominion (Tirania, fronting England) and his mother's name (Blanca).

What made this particular translation an anomaly, or a flawed one, was the preponderance of spelling errors, mistranslations, punctuation errors, grammatical slips, and other mistakes. Each page contained no less than five errors, which was surprising given that the book was supposedly vetted by language experts. The prefatory pages contained endorsements from Komisyon sa Wilang Filipino and The National Society of Filipino Translators.

These errors made the entire publication sloppy. I detected errors prevalent in software with auto-correct function. For example, the word dito (here) replaced by ditto. There was also the repetitive mistake in the use of  ng versus nang.

Fortunately, I still understood the general story being told. From what I have read so far in the book—some 100 pages—Tirante was a revealing work from the 15th century that could still inform the art of the novel and the critical appreciation of the Cervantean and chivalric romances. In its own right this translation was already an accomplishment, but it could have been more. I could only hope that there would be a second edition with all the errors cleaned out by a competent proofreader and the translation thoroughly reviewed by an editor for consistency to the original.

For this year's Spanish Literature Month, by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu (Winstonsdad's Blog).