22 March 2023

Yuri Herrera's fables of grimreaperies


Sometime before 2013, before the publication of La transmigración de los cuerpos, Yuri Herrera rode a time machine, arriving in the year of the COVID-19 epidemic. He carefully observed the hygiene protocols, the atmosphere of fear, the characteristic panic and panorama of paranoia. He took notes; he had to register the bite of the present. He must have the pall of the moment and the virulence down pat. Research was key to novel writing. Because verisimilitude. And then he came back from when he was transmigrated. And then he reported what he had seen. 


Ditto with the translator. Lisa Dillman took a wild ride into the future, steeping herself with the language of the times, as if sipping a potent ale, and then marinating the words in her belly.

Dolphin's son died, and so did the Castro's daughter. And each family has the other one's corpse.

For a second Gustavo's eyes popped out of their sockets.


Now the Redeemer was the one to enjoy letting the information steep a few seconds, as he took a sip of his beer.


Gustavo narrowed his eyes.

Those things just don't happen, he said.

Only in novels. And only in Shakespeare.

Anyway, the translator had been marinating the words of the novelist about a queer retelling of corpse switching. Queer because it was a skewed modern adaptation and really it's a bit steeped in literary theory too. 

But oh grief, such universal feeling accompanied the telling, and the power of prose proposed a lot of profundities for a straightforward story of hostage corpse exchange. Translator Lisa must have studiously combed urbandictionary(dot)com for any low hanging colloquialisms to fit Yuri's narco-state lingo. And she had neologisms to match: "In the faint light of his fitful sleep he saw Óscar’s outstretched hand, pointing, and suddenly sat up in bed because he knew somehow it contained a clue to how this grimreapery had begun."


The novel began in medias res, when the Redeemer was about to have sex with a neighbor. His copulation-to-be, however, was cockblocked every which way. As he desperately searched for condoms, his attempts at sex were sandwiched by the story of body swapping of two young ones who died in the throes of malevolent proboscises that kidnapped the lives of people. The vector culprit was no anteater or bat or raccoon dogs.


The villain in Yuri's story was an insect, a carrier of the virus. But really they were just a vehicle for crepuscular truths about human foibles and fables. Yuri's world was a symptomatic reflection of our asymptomatic selves. 


Reading The Transmigration of Bodies (And Other Stories, 2016) in the year 2023 was a rereading of our fabled era. What the world underwent in the last three years was a palpable fiction and virulent novel, alive with the illogic sequence of events. The body count was high; the truths we learned kept the stories alive. We, the living, were survived by our dead.


In Yuri's world, language was slang. The characters' names were their referents, their jobs, their surfaces, their cons. The gestures and thoughts of his characters were caricatured, almost giving them a legal standing: "Óscar glanced at him for a single second: long enough to draw up, read through, sign and notarize a confidentiality clause between the two of them." His way with words signed, sealed, and delivered the fate of his characters. His plot resolutions: deus ex makina.

The death-drenched landscape of Transmigration (and really in all three novels) was an ongoing struggle of living. 

[H]e went to the Big House door to make sure it was actually locked but first stepped out on the street. Still an overcast morning, he thought. Afternoon, he corrected himself. We’re still alone, not even anyone to offer wrong directions. And then he thought he heard a muffled sound to his left, but didn’t bother to turn and look to see what it was, since nothing but the lingering trace of silent complaint seemed possible in that bleak and stricken city. Or because his black dog wasn’t there to remind him that anything was possible.  

That "black dog" was metaphorical, an amulet of sorts. Something our protagonist, the Redeemer, could latch onto as he went through the motions of mediating between two warring families. All kinds of job in Yuriland were dangerous.


The apocalyptic landscape was subbing for a nightmare in hell. A Borgesian idea, this flavor of nightmare that suffused Yuriland in the trio of novels, a dreamworld trilogy of sorts. The emphasis on the word "flavor" was Borges's, or his translator's.


I no longer have my copy of Borges's Seven Nights (New Directions, 1985), translated by Eliot Weinberger, which contained his lecture on dreams and nightmares. I will recycle the general idea from a previous post.

In the lecture of Borges on "Nightmares" (from the book Seven Nights, and also collected in Everything and Nothing), Borges mentioned that, although we might wish otherwise, in dreams what is important is not the images but the impressions produced by them: "The images are minor; they are effects." And also two ideas: first, dreams are part of waking life; and the other idea, the splendid one, the belief of the poets: that all of waking is a dream. Borges then mentioned that there is no difference between these two ideas. He gave some brilliant examples from literature and if I recall it right, an example in real life. Borges ended this lecture, first delivered in Argentina, with a speculation about the particular horror of nightmares, which is beyond the horror of the waking life, and which can be expressed by any story, a horror that has something more to it (the flavor of the nightmare).

Borges’s theological/supernatural speculation at the end of his lecture is also scary: "What if nightmares were cries from hell? What if nightmares literally took place in hell? Why not? Everything is so strange that even this is possible."

That essay gave me the shivers. 


Placeholder: It is likely I would hate Yuri's third novel if I read it before the pandemic. Ditto Mario Bellatin's pitch perfect Beauty Salon (Deep Vellum, 2021), in an earthshaking translation by Shook. (I was shookt.) The uncomfortable sense of fatality behind these works might be too visceral and hysterical without the grounding of real nightmare unfolding before one's eyes. 

Maybe not: The language in Trasmigration was inoculated with wit and grit. The code words were downright contagious.

Well you know. Unhappy people aren't the problem. It's people taking their unhappy on you.


She was wearing makeup but it couldn't hide the sneer of someone who swallowed bile every day as tho it were water.


We never know how much we actually hate one another, the Redeemer thought, until we're locked in a room together.


There were even fewer cars out now. On one avenue, where trying to cross normally meant taking your life in your hands, the only thing on the street was the fear of penned-up people. As if everyone’s prejudices about everyone else had suddenly been confirmed.


So many fiery aphorisms in Yuri's books, filtered through slang. The sketches of wit were quick and efficient.

It was He who answered. No mask. He smiled poignantly. A smile that said I’ll always love you but my promises are in the pawnshop. He was a sad, handsome little devil. He looked at the Redeemer like an electrician who’d come when the lights weren’t broken.

The novels' page counts themselves were skimpy. The efficiency and economy of words was as curt and sincere as a drug transaction, tho the word "cartel" did not appear in the translated novels.

He was spine-chilling, the Heir, with his impeccable solid-colored shirts, never a single stain, tho his eyes foretold explosion. The man contained himself as if always on his best behavior.

That last passage was from Kingdom Cons (And Other Stories, 2017) where the Artist had a similar talent as the Redeemer's: a streak of code-switching. Given the ways language was handled in the novels (almost functioning as the bylaws of the novel's kingdom), this was not a surprise. Yuri's singular kingdom operated in code words. Once more from Kingdom Cons:

What was all that about having been here before, in another life? About God having a chosen path for each of us, since the start of time? For a while, the idea kept the Artist up nights, until he beheld an image in the Palace that freed him: an exquisite apparatus, a turntable with diamond stylus that played thirtythrees and belonged to the Jeweler, who one weekend forgot to turn it off, and, when he noticed two days later, found it no longer worked. 

That’s it, thought the Artist. That’s all we are. Contraptions that get forgotten, serve no purpose. Maybe God put the needle on the record and then went off to nurse a hangover.

You hack away with the language and what do you get? Epidemic novel alias The language of mortality alias In your face truth and death alias World's end succeeding grim signs. A world where God himself had a hangover. That flavor of shit was scary.

06 March 2023

Eka Kurniawan's revolutions


Mga Himutok sa Palikuran at Iba Pang Kuwento (Graffiti in the Toilet and Other Stories) by Eka Kurniawan, translated from Indonesian to Filipino by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III (Savage Mind Publishing House, 2021)


And then the storm of shit begins.

- Roberto Bolaño, By Night in Chile


According to the book's introduction by Carlos M. Piocos III, the selections in Mga Himutok sa Palikuran at Iba Pang Kuwento were taken from Eka Kurniawan's two short story collections in Indonesian where seven out of 11 stories are still untranslated in English. The only collection that appeared in English so far was Kitchen Curse (Verso, 2019), translated by Benedict Anderson, Maggie Tiojakin, Tiffany Tsao, and Annie Tucker. 

Masterful irony was on display in each one, more so in "Alingasaw" (Stench) where the pile of corpses (victims of summary execution) became a normalized scene in the city of Halimunda. This story, told in one breathless sentence, was not only a story from/of Halimunda but the stories of human rights abuses anywhere in the world. While the specifics of the story was Indonesian, Eka's smelly portrait of "stench" universalized the injustice and helplessness during the height of authoritarian, military governments. They are happening now (in real time) in many areas of the world (as we speak). The story critiqued the cycle of impunity that accompanied every unforgivable massacre. Why are people so forgiving and forgetful of the dark past? Is amnesia a kind of gene being transferred from one generation to the next to silence and immunize us from the storm of shit?

In "Ang Kasaysayan ni Baliw" (History of Crazy), we read about the effects of war on a crazy mind. In a few efficient words, we witnessed how a "crazed state" operates to steal the only things left of a person with mental disability. His life, his dignity.

In these and in the titular story, we particularly saw how Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III approached the translation of Eka's words and transcoded to Filipino the latter's idiomatic turns of phrases. From the translation of the title alone, "Himutok" is an expression of frustration, hence "Himutok sa Palikuran" can mean "Frustrations in the Toilet". The translation, like the source material, was full of angst. Rightly so, for Eka's themes required a fist pumping approach and a breathless pace plus a dissenting voice.

We saw how Eka dealt with the topic of colonialism in the Dutch East Indies through unusual and surprising angles. In "Pambobola para kay Marietje" (Pulling Marietje's Leg), Eka privileged the voice of a soldier from Europe (a serial liar) to explain the psyche of frontier mentality, racism, and barbarism behind conquest. In "Sinong Nagpadala sa Akin ng Bulaklak" (Who Brought Me Flowers), the unrequited love story of a cruel administrator of Boven Digoel prison camp, a man who lacked for love ("isang taong kulang sa pag-ibig"), was foil for the political and personal story in the background. The prison administrator got a taste of his own medicine when he learned he can never be with the woman he learned to love (the one who gave him flowers since, according to her, he lacked for love) because of a life-changing decision of his: his order to exile her parents in the prison camp.

Love, of course, was the casualty of big bad regimes. In "Peter Pan", "Ka-Date" (The Date), and "Kuwentuhan Bago ang Romansa" (Discourse Before Lovemaking), the protagonists failed to salvage their love stories. Their futures were stolen from them because the dictator-strongman created the social conditions and hierarchies that upend and defeat normal lives. Love, time, the freedom to love and to live freely: these were all stolen from them by the dictator-strongman. The stories were emblematic of the stolen futures and stolen freedoms that permeate an era that snuffed all desire to live, an era that placed the shackles of regimented life and feudalism to the youth. And yet the characters who lost their life force had to resist to the very end in any way they can.

Consider the paradox: the dark ages of repression breed the most innovative and revolutionary literature. There's nothing like shitty times to inspire the writer to sharpen his pencil or stretch his fingers as he typed away the drafts of his frustrations and bloodless revolts. This was the case for Eka whose stories dealt with the turbulent empire, colony, and (recent) dictatorship. His pages were graffito of execrable disparities between the powerful and powerless in troubled times, and the smelly outcomes of those reeking regimes, when our leaders lacked for love and fucked everything up.

State violence was the story collection's fulcrum: the acts of the scalawag, hoodlum, military police state. The "spirit of revolt", the critical spirit behind the stories, was the inventive unfurling of alternatives to the official histories and narratives of oppression, a resistance against the closure and forgetfulness that follow heinous crimes against humanity. These powerful stories of revolutions were reckonings and excavations of truth and conscience, wherein Eka (and the reader with him) was reclaiming love, freedom, sovereignty, sanity from oppressors.

Corollary: I must read Eka's novels next.

18 February 2023

On Natsume Sōseki's late novels

In the Chronology that prefaced Natsume Sōseki's Sanshirō (Penguin Classics, 2009), translator Jay Rubin divided Sōseki's novels into two phases: early novels (1905-08) and late novels (1909-16). The first of the late novels was And Then, where the protagonist, as described in the Chronology, was "more intelligent and internalized than Sanshirō" and the novel contained "much darker view of human and international relations".

Of the early novels, I've so far read I Am a Cat (just the first of three volumes), Botchan, Nowaki, and Sanshirō. Others included in the early phase were Kusamakura (aka The Three-Cornered World), Gubijinsō (1907, still untranslated), and The Miner. Sanshirō, the last novel in this phase, was the bridging novel or transition novel. In fact, Rubin lumped this with the next two novels (And Then and Mon) to comprise a trilogy of sorts. 

Among the late novels, I read Mon (aka The Gate), Kokoro, Grass on the Wayside, and Light and Darkness (read around 80% of this last, uncompleted novel). Others in this period were And Then, To the Spring Equinox and Beyond, and The Wayfarer.

The first novels were said to be characterized by humor and lightness. For me, the late novels were the richer of the two periods in terms of complexity of characters, thematic richness, and vision. His masterpiece was often considered to be Kokoro, but Haruki Murakami begged to differ in his assessment of the novels. 

For me, Sōseki’s apparently most popular novel, Kokoro, left something to be desired, and while I did enjoy the late works so widely praised for their psychological insight, I could never fully identify with the deep anguish of the modern intellectual depicted in them. “What’s the point of going on and on about this?” I would often feel. In that sense, I’m probably a bit removed from the “mainstream” Sōseki reader. There is no doubt, however, that the “Sōseki experience” I had at that time, belated though it was, remains firmly rooted within me to this day, and that, whenever I have a chance to reread Sōseki’s novels, I am always struck by how fine they are. Sōseki is always the name that first comes to mind when someone asks me who my favorite Japanese author is. 

I quite liked Kokoro but I also thought the novels I read from the late period (Mon/ The Gate, Michikusa/ Grass on the Wayside, and Light and Darkness) were more grounded in reality and offered more quiet devastation. Like Murakami, I also think Soseki is the top-of-mind best Japanesse novelist. But what was telling on the part of Murakami was his admission that he "could never fully identify with the deep anguish of the modern intellectual depicted in [Soseki's late works]". Somehow it was not surprising how Murakami was unable to identify with the materialist (and Marxist) subjects of Soseki's late oeuvre: being dirt-poor, duties of an individual and obligations to a family, greed, betrayal, societal expectations, individualism.

Yes, the late novels were dark. But there were lightness in them too. Just consider the title of the last work. Rubin considered Mon/ The Gate the dark culmination of a trilogy as the "protagonist fails to find comfort in religion". My reading of that novel was different. I found it life-affirming and thought the protagonist emerged from his inner struggle far from a failure but renewed and more wise.

Of course this arbitrary division of a writer's work might be misguided. I suppose I better read (and reread) Soseki again to find beauty in the darkness.

13 February 2023

Rosmon Tuazon's still lifes


A month ago I read Sa Pagitan ng mga Emerhensiya (Between Emergencies), a collection of poetry in Filipino by Rosmon Tuazon. I'm still thinking through the lines. I intuit a question behind some poems. The lines tried to supply an answer to the question by circling around images and ideas. No answer was forthcoming as the question gave rise to more questions. There was a profundity beyond the reach of the reader. The poetic images came short of a satisfying answer because the reader was blocked by some roundabout illusion. The reader was unsure if he's being had.

Two months ago, I read Rosmon's bilingual Forth, with English translations by Ben Aguilar, published by the brave indie press Balangay Books. The "free" translations, untethered from literalism, provided a way to approach the clipped and disparate shadows of a poem. 

Reading Rosmon's poems, one was prodded into feeling the entire architecture of shadows instead of grasping at straws of comprehension. One must not isolate and translate the lines but situate them in the canvas of their borrowed, still life. The black ink of Rosmon's letters form a collection of still lifes.

Hindi matuklap ng mga anino ang sarili.

The shadows cannot peel their eyes.

In "Silbi ng Still Life", the poet relied on the art of seeing tactile objects to bring out the grooves and textures of his fruit.

Silbi ng Still Life

May sumisipol-sipol sa tahimik na pasilyo.
Sinisiklot-siklot niya sa palad ang isang kahel.

Bawat silid na kaniyang lampasan ay may abalang
pumapanaw. Bawat isa ay buo ang konsentrasyon

sa mangkok ng mga prutas na hindi na matiyak
ng mata kung tunay o plastik o pinta

ngunit sa sulok na iyon ay unti-unting nalulusaw,
lumiligwak sa lamesitang wari ding nalulusaw.

Umaabót ang ulirat sa mapipiga
ngunit lalo lamang lumalapot ang lagkit sa lalamunan.

Hindi naman nagmamadali ang sumisipol-sipol sa pasilyo.
Kay lamig ng kahel nang sa palad ay mapirmi.

Value of Still Life

Someone was whistling in the quiet hallway.
In his palm, he was sculpting an orange.

In every room he passed by, somebody was busy
dying. Everyone’s concentration was directed

on a bowl of fruits the naked eye
could not discern as real or plastic or paint

but in that corner it was slowly dissolving,
spilling on a small table that seemed to dissolve too.

Consciousness reached up to what can be squeezed
but the phlegm in the throat only became more viscous.

That someone whistling in the hallway was not in a hurry
How cold the orange when encased in the palm.

Even in "Pessoa, Pessoa", the reader cannot escape emulating the "message" of the Filipino poet channeling the Portuguese poet in the final couplet.

Nilisan nya kaming nahanap ang sadya
ngunit tuloy sa paghalukuya.

He left us alone who have found what we were looking for
and yet we are still excavating. 

The reader was almost sure he found the meaning behind Pessoa's notebooks, but he could not help but dig more. More.

28 January 2023

"Pessoa, Pessoa" (Rosmon Tuazon)


Pessoa, Pessoa
by Rosmon Tuazon

                               Sou somente o lugar
                               Onde se sente ou pensa.

1 Pessoa, Pessoa

Pessoa, you dispel the disquiet of strangers,

passing through, it looks like.
They wish each other an afternoon of quiet, Pessoa,

Pessoa. You pull the hat down the face
whenever you feel you will be trapped in the middle—

you were sure you will get away with it, Pessoa.

You were sure they will leave you be.

2 Persona, Pessoa

You goad them to their fake individual suicides,
a hand weighing down their hands, a manual

for jotting down their most courageous failures,

so that you can weave together the history
of your own demise, the end that did not proceed as planned

for you to be as one, again, to be you,

to be pure ambition and anonymity, Pessoa,

3 Pessoa, Persona
When the trunk of his writings was discovered
(verses, a love letter, a notebook

used to practice loops and lengths of signatures),
it was too late when they realized it was a casket

they opened. Because beneath the pile
of words, the corpses were gaping,

as if buried alive while giving their testimonies.

4 Mensagem

Not a casket really but a chest. Container.

From the pile of corpses emerged
the disturbed one, shaking off the dust, refusing to be assisted.

He left us alone who have found what we were looking for
and yet we are still excavating. 


The epigraph is from a poem by Fernando Pessoa (writing under the pseudonym Ricardo Reis) called “Vivem em nós inúmeros.” As translated by Richard Zenith, the lines read “I am merely the place / Where things are thought or felt.”

Translated from Filipino by Ryan Fuentes.

From Sa Pagitan ng mga Emerhensiya (Between Emergencies) by Rosmon Tuazon (The University of the Philippines Press, 2022).