Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

July 12, 2014

Smaller and Smaller Circles

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan (The University of the Philippines Press, 2002)

Perhaps I should preface this post with a trigger warning. The quote below describes in graphic detail the method to a cold-blooded crime.

"We know from the clean incision at the neck that he would slit the skin under the chin first, from ear to ear. I think he needed help to peel the skin back from the chin, so he would hook this under the skin and flesh, using it much like you would use a chisel, and start to pull the skin upward. But it couldn't have been easy. For something so thin, these things are pretty tough, made from surgical steel or chromium; the skin and flesh would tear in place. So he'd hook in again and again, and in the process of pulling the skin over the chin bone, he would leave these marks."

Perhaps the novel itself should come with a bit of a warning. Nothing could have prepared the reader for—pardon the comparison—a prose that cuts and slices cleanly. The violence in this detective novel was unflinching.

A series of killings was being committed in Payatas, in a garbage dump site in Metro Manila. All victims shared the same profile: all adolescent boys, all poor, and all with slight body frames. They were found dumped on a mountain of garbage, with facial skin peeled off and with vital organs missing.

The National Bureau of Investigation enlisted the help of Father Augusto Saenz, a Jesuit priest and renowned forensic anthropologist. He was easily becoming the go-to person in solving high profile cases in the city. Saenz was assisted in this case by Father Jerome Lucero, another priest, a clinical psychologist and his former student. During the course of their investigation, an unflattering portrait of urban poverty and ineptitude of law enforcers was drawn. The characters meanwhile were shown as full, rounded human beings worthy of our sympathy—the detective priests hard at work, the victims' relatives, and most disconcertingly, the killer himself.

F. H. Batacan's debut novel won the two prestigious literary awards in the country—the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel and the Philippine National Book Award. It was a surprise hit, too. It had several print runs and must now be considered a cult novel.

Part of its appeal, I think, is its quick and efficient sketches of characters and situations. It effectively dramatized the professional work of the two detectives priests and rather menacingly tapped into the psyche of the serial killer. Hunter and then hunted, the killer was as creepy as the ubiquitous rats, large and numerous, running around the garbage heap. He was as much offender as offended quarry.

I can feel them. Scurrying in circles around me, smaller and smaller circles like rats around a crust of bread or piece of cheese. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the right moment. The moment when I slip up, when I make a mistake, when I get careless.

I can hear their feet. Some of them pass by the gate on the sidewalks; they think I can't see them. Some of them are brave enough to rattle the gate; they bring my mail, my bills, they ask for donations. Some of them get into the house while I'm sleeping, and I wake up and I hear their feet on the stairs, yes I do.

As the world of the killer gradually narrows down and collapses into a point, detectives Saenz and Lucero, and the reader with them, began to sense that the crime scene of a garbage dump was the very emblem of social and economic ills that drove human beings to despair and destruction. The quiet moments of anguish and reflection in the novel proved to be as devastating and desperate as the violent acts they seek to redress.

This turned out to be an old-fashioned detective story, using the conventional effects of the genre to create suspense. Despite the artifice, the paradox of deriving pleasure and excitement from reading crime novels was obvious.

Satisfied, Saenz steps carefully towards the body. He feels more than a bit ashamed of the way sorrow and horror and revulsion are warring with the excitement mounting within him; the shame feels like sand in his mouth, rough and gritty, and he wishes he could spit it out.

Saenz himself could not properly acknowledge the giddy feeling he felt as he found a critical evidence near one victim. This was the evidence that could help solve or explain the crimes. The gratuitousness of it all was at least fully acknowledged.

Two-thirds into the novel, the identity of the killer was already revealed. The remaining one-third was spent on the search for the root of evil, its motivation, its internal workings. In the end, the case was solved rather too neatly. The novel's strength lay not in the plot, but in the characterization and in the writing. The sentences were arresting and clinical in their precision and passionate intensity.

Blunt to the point of occasional abrasiveness, he has few friends.

A thin blade of fear, cold like surgical steel in the brain, slices through the priest's consciousness.

The hatred on his face [is] so intense and terrible that she feels it almost as a kind of heat on her own.

Fr. Saenz will later return in a short story by Batacan in Manila Noir. Hopefully his wits and expertise will be put to use in another novel of great human interest. I am almost ashamed to wish so.

July 5, 2014

Shadow Without a Name

Shadow Without a Name by Ignacio Padilla, trans. Peter Bush and Anne McLean (Picador, 2004)

An adept chess player, my father used to say whenever he explained a masterly move to me, recognizes immediately, even in the strangest of circumstances, those who are his peers. However, he embarks on a game only when he is sure he has measured his opponent's strengths, and never – absolutely never – will he wager on the outcome anything less than his own life. I don't know which of the two made the initial proposal, or at what ill-starred moment the board eventually made an appearance. I do know the game's parameters were soon starkly defined, through the haze which clouds the rest of the story. If my father won, the other man would take his place on the eastern front and hand over his job as pointsman in hut nine on the Munich-Salzburg line. If, on the other hand, my father lost, he would shoot himself before the train reached its destination.

The wager could not have been more rash. It was a calculated risk, as every momentous situation in this novel was. A man (or his opponent, it was not clear) decided to challenge the other to a fatal game of chess. This was all the novelist's doing, we might say. He made the two do it. The novelist's selection of details – seemingly random but actually momentous details – were the engine through which ordinary confrontations became extraordinary. Suspense hang in the air precisely because the initial conditions were set up to make it appear as if there is a higher intelligence at work whenever the strangest of circumstances end in something definitive. Something like death or defiance of death. That form of intelligence could just be a shorthand for destiny or fate or God. But we were in the realm of fiction, and even our reliance on the decadence of the fantastic or the surreal had to be contextualized in secular (literary) terms.

The game of chess, its decisive outcome, was perfect representation for the ways a novelist adopts a strategy, moves his pieces around according to his plan, and goes for the kill when the opportunity arises. At the back of the characters, with all their attendant complexities and motivations, we tended to assume it was the novelist who was doing the pushing. Behind the novelist, it was harder to see who was in control.

In the second part of a poem by Jorge Luis Borges called "Chess" (trans. Alastair Reid), the idea of God's enabler was raised.

Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
Straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn—
Over the checkered black and white terrain
They seek out and begin their armed campaign.

They do not know it is the player’s hand
That dominates and guides their destiny.
They do not know an adamantine fate
Controls their will and lays the battle plan.

The player too is captive of caprice
(The words are Omar’s) on another ground
Where black nights alternate with whiter days.

God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
Of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

Ignacio Padilla's novel Shadow Without a Name (Spanish title: Amphitryon) was a game of chess. There were certain movements and exchanges of pawns but we were never really sure what comes next or which piece will be sacrificed. The commanding free will was as opaque as the face of a seasoned chess player.

In the opening game of chess at the start of the novel, one man wagered his life, the other his identity. In the second game, we learned that the man who lost his identity was himself an impersonator. And so on. There were multiple identities being exchanged and replaced, like a pawn who was finally promoted to another piece. The many chess games played in the novel and the deadly wagers behind them took place during the two world wars and the Nazi occupation, right up to the trials of infamous Nazi soldiers.

Tension was generated in the novel through the multiple shifts in time and place. In four chapters, four chess players narrated the exchanges of identities. Four narrators; many games of chance. The transfer of character identities was also the transfer of evil. The identity of evil was seemingly the puzzle being constructed, a puzzle whose solution was withheld because, in the first place, the objective of the puzzle was always to prevent it from being solved.

I meditated on the surprises the unchained beast of memory might hold in store. I thought of Efrussi, of the loneliness of boys isolated by their fathers' designs. I could almost hear him dragging his feet on the way to synagogue, as if the mere idea of flaunting his Jewishness through the streets of Vienna was an unbearable weight upon him. I also conjured up his innumerable precocious chess victories, always gained under the watchful eye of his father, who strove to turn those childhood victories into public demonstrations of the superiority of his people. More than a game for the jeweller, chess was the indisputable proof of a collective identity of genius, bred in his son across millennia of persecution, diasporas and fearful defence of a racial consciousness maintained through pain and blood. [emphasis added]

The twentieth century, like the previous ages – like the present – was the age of chess. It was the age of prejudice and racism. Black and white were forever opposed to one another. Intolerance was like a dominant genetic trait. The contentious spirit of the game, the violence embodied in its competitiveness, was constructed in dueling persons, in nations at war or in conflict. In one story by Borges, the indisputable solution to the puzzle was staring right in front of us.

“In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only prohibited word?”

I thought a moment and replied, “The word chess.”

The novel's fascinating structure of changing points of view produced a riddle whose solution was still a few more moves in advance to be discerned just yet. The puzzle – the nature of evil – we could hardly detect because there were just too many pieces and they obstructed the larger view of the board. In the end, one sensed the passage of evil in history or one took a whiff of its utter banality. Or perhaps another puzzle behind the puzzle begins to form, begins the round of dust and time and sleep and agonies.

July is Spanish Lit Month, brought to us by Stu and Richard

July 3, 2014

The Tenant and The Motive

The Tenant and The Motive by Javier Cercas, trans. Anne McLean (Bloomsbury, 2005)

After writing for 15 years since 1987, Javier Cercas finally arrived in the world literary stage with the publication of Soldados de Salamina, a multi-awarded novel in both its original Spanish and English translation. The novel was ranked at a lucky place (# 13) in the Semana magazine list of 100 best Spanish-language novels of the past 25 years. Soldiers of Salamis, the English version by Anne McLean, won back-to-back prestigious translation awards in 2004, receiving the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Premio Valle-Inclán. The novel revealed a writer concerned with the duplicitous workings of memory and the metafictional, intertextual tendencies of modern Q-narratives. It capitalized on a brilliant structure as it investigated a significant historical (wartime) memory. Like W. G. Sebald, Cercas explored the ethical dimensions of remembering and forgetting with a strong emotional force.

The two translated novellas in The Tenant and The Motive were only symptoms of Cercas's novelistic greatness, or perhaps manifestations of his potential aesthetic energy as a writer. Its retrospective appearance only set into relief his meteoric development as a writer. Between "The Tenant" and "The Motive", the second had the more self-reflexive creative design. It told of a writer beginning work on a novel closely patterned after his dealings with real people in his neighborhood. He stalked his neighbors and pursued relations with them in the service of his art:

Over the following days his work began to bear its first fruits. The novel was advancing steadily, though it diverged in parts from the outline arranged in the drafts and the previous plan. But Álvaro let it flow freely within that precarious and difficult balance between the instantaneous pull that certain situations and characters imposed and the necessary rigour of the general design that structures a work. As for the rest, if the presence of real models for his characters facilitated his task and provided a point of support where his imagination could rest or derive fresh impetus, at the same time it introduced new variables that would necessarily change the course of the tale. The two stylistic pillars upon which the work was being raised were nevertheless intact, and that was the essential thing for Álvaro. On the one hand, the descriptive passion, which offers the possibility of constructing a fictive duplicate of reality, by appropriating it; moreover, he considered that, while the enjoyment of sentiment is merely a plebeian emotion, the genuinely artistic enjoyment comes from the impersonal pleasure of description. On the other hand, it was necessary to narrate events in the same neutral tone that dominated the descriptive passages, like someone recounting incidents he hasn't entirely understood himself or as if the relationship between the narrator and his characters was of a similar order to that which the narrator maintained with his toiletries. Álvaro frequently congratulated himself on his immovable conviction of the validity of these principles.

The prose was leaden, ordinary. The tone was "neutral", parodying its own unremarkable style. It was a circular method. Later on, the protagonist Álvaro would acknowledge that "out of the material he'd written for the novel he would be able to construct its parody and refutation." It went back to the novel's signature and premise, attributed to Hegel, but echoing Borges's proclamation, after the American painter Whistler, that "art happens every time we read a poem":

Despite all the century's swipes, however, it was essential to keep believing in the novel. Some had already understood this. No instrument could grasp with more precision and wealth of nuance the long-winded complexity of reality. As for its death certificate, he considered it a dangerous Hegelian prejudice; art neither advances nor retreats: art happens. But it was only possible to combat the notion of the genre's death throes by returning to its moment of splendour, in the meantime taking careful note of the technical and other sorts of contributions the century had afforded, which it would be, at the very least, stupid to waste. It was essential to go back to the nineteenth century; it was essential to go back to Flaubert.

Flaubert in French untranslated was in fact found at the start of the novella, in its epigraph. Perhaps the only way to appreciate "The Motive" was to treat its rabid self-examination and its self-critical passages as irony and satire, which they were, although the delivery was rather solemn for its own good. And the cliches are too distracting to serve a satiric function.

"The Tenant", for its part, was an unsuccessful variation of "the double". Michael Rota, a lecturer in a university, was slowly being displaced by a newly hired professor who happened to be a tenant in the same apartment compound he lived in. He watched, seemingly helplessly, as his own tenured position and his girlfriend were usurped by the man. A Kafkan nightmare was being enacted at his expense. Something must have been out of sorts in the world, or a new dimension of reality must have opened up. "The Tenant" would have been an effective tale were it not for the obviousness of the literary devices used: the recurring images and metaphors, the surreal details doled out to connote and denote wrinkles in time: twilight zone-ish, déjà vu situations. As with the second novella, its reception would have to be adjusted to appreciate what the writer was trying to achieve using very transparent effects.

An apprentice work, The Tenant and The Motive was a merely amusing window into the full literary maturity found in the Sebaldian or memory-haunted false novel Soldiers of Salamis and its false sequel The Speed of Light

For the Spanish Lit Month by Stu and Richard.

Ang Kuwento ng Haring Tulala

Ang Kuwento ng Haring Tulala by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, translated from the Spanish by Marlon James Sales (Cacho Publishing House, 2013)

Crónica del rey pasmado (1989) was a comic novel set in the midst of 17th century Spanish Inquisition. Its writer, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (1910-1999), was dead serious. Realism was one thing he would not let go of. Never mind if his story combined elements of the fantastical, the nonsensical, and the supernatural.
Saan ka naman makakakita ng lalaki na upang masarili ang kanyang esposa ay kailangan pang makialam ang mga protokolo at maging ang mga pari?

– Sa bahaging ito ng mundo kung saan ka naroroon, pangkaraniwan ito at ang iba pang kababalaghan. Huwag kang bibitiw sa realidad.

[Where have you seen a man who, in order to be with his wife alone, needs priests and protocols to interfere?

– In this part of the world where you find yourself, this as well as other sorcery is commonplace. Don't let go of reality.]

When it was learned the king slept the night before with a whore and later requested to see his own wife the queen naked, the news spread like wildfire in the kingdom of the religious. The die hard conservatives were scandalized and would have the king pay for his impure thoughts. Seeing his queen naked! Surely that was uncalled for.

In no time at all, the unforgivable offense became the agenda of an emergency meeting of the Holy Tribunal presided over by the Grand Inquisitor. The excellencies were hell bent to impose their doctrines. To add to the provocation, the country was raging a war against two territories and the king's indiscretion was seen as prelude to certain defeat. God would certainly punish the people for the sins of the king. And to add further to the devious turn of events, the Devil himself was seen roaming around in monstrous get up.

This period novel was a surprisingly sobering mirror of current times. Given the Church's penchant for intruding into secular affairs, the contemporary quality of its subject matter would not fade for a long time. Must leaders be put to a stricter set of moral standards than their subjects? Morality as a class issue, anyone?

Ang Kuwento ng Haring Tulala (The Tale of the Bewitched King) was translation into Filipino of Torrente Ballester's loud-funny novel of a sexually repressed young king and his kingdom under the clutches of clerical bigotry. The translator, Marlon James Sales, earlier produced his version of Gabriel Miró's Oleza novels, proving himself a proficient translator of satirical novels dealing with hypocrisy and religious conservatism. The two works were both concerned with what happens when dogmatism runs counter not so much against common sense (though it does that) but against human nature. As one character would have it: Magkaminsa'y maraming suliraning dulot ang matibay na pananampalataya sa kaayusan ng sambayanan. (There are times when resolute faith brings its fair share of problems to national peace and order.)

Miró's double novel had a more realistic bent. In terms of prose style it was a bit more dense, and the scope was broader. But the saucy topic and playful bent of Torrente Ballester compensated for its slim (186 pages in translation) and streamlined treatment of good and evil (or shall we say, sense and senselessness). Torrente Ballester's novel was faster paced, more spontaneous in giving a succession of hilarious set pieces. The awesome conversation between pragmatic Satan and a priest was one highlight of the novel, not to mention the long debate during the Holy Tribunal, the climactic picaresque scene involving the queen being spirited away to finally consort with the king, and cameo appearance by the poet Luis de Góngora. Did I mention it was funny and exciting? How it managed to be so in a novel where there are constant reminders of auto-da- was crazy. The erotic part was a bonus.
This Spanish novel also appeared earlier in English as The King Amaz'd: A Chronicle (1996, trans. Colin Smith) and was adapted into film. Readers in English and Filipino would have to content themselves with this lone translation of Torrente Ballester's fiction so far. The knowledge that more major works from the same novelist await translation was enough to give us hope. La saga/fuga de J.B. (The Epic/Escape of J.B., 1972), for instance, was said to be the master work, the 800-pager to loose oneself in. I wonder who would be the intrepid translator and publisher for the task.... Miguel of St. Orberose had the scoop on Torrente Ballester's must-translate texts. As it is, Ang Kuwento ng Haring Tulala was already a comic marvel in miniature.

For the Spanish Lit Month by Stu and Richard.

June 23, 2014

The healing powers of mediocre fiction

"'I'm thinking,' [Montano] said to me in a sensible and very thoughtful tone, 'that Walter Benjamin speculated about the possible relationship that exists between the art of storytelling and the healing of illnesses.'" The narrator of another of Enrique Vila-Matas's lecture novels thus shared his conversation with his son, Montano, in the novel of the same name (trans. Jonathan Dunne).

I was forced to confess the truth, namely that I had no idea about this curious relationship between narrative and healing. So Montano explained, in a sweet and friendly voice, that the connection between storytelling and curing illnesses had been suggested to Walter Benjamin by a German friend who told him about the healing powers of his wife's hands, saying that their movements were very expressive, but it was impossible to describe their expressiveness, because it was as if those hands were telling a story.

'In such a way,' said my son, 'in such a peculiar way, Walter Benjamin was reminded of an intimate scene: that of the boy who, when he falls ill, is sent to bed by his mother, who then comes and sits by his side and starts telling him stories. As a result of this memory, Walter Benjamin wondered whether narrative might not in fact be the most propitious atmosphere, the most favourable condition, for a large number of cures.'

This talk of healing, illness, and storytelling was a main concern of the novel. At the outset, the novel's speaker, who happens to be a literary critic, admitted that he is afflicted with "literature sickness", similar in symptoms to his son's disease, what he termed "Montano's malady", a kind of writer's block. We learned that Montano was the author of a "dangerous novel" about writers who were unable to put pen to paper.

The form of the novel was a lecture, although it was supposedly culled from diary or journal entries of the critic. We might as well say "speculative criticism" (an unfortunate term, considering that every criticism is some kind of speculation, and yet speculative fiction also suffers from the same terminological inadequacy), because the diarist's very literariness intruded on his writing. He was literature-sick because he analyzes every aspect of his life as if it was a text, as if every lifestyle was a writing style. He was "saturated with so many books and so many quotations" that it was impossible for him to escape the labyrinthine ways in which literary ideas connect and interconnect. While he was trying very hard to prevent his mind from making associations between texts and real life, his son was desperately trying to recapture his ability to string words together. Both were exhausted or fatigued by the same literariness.

This 'textual' intrusion of literature into life was of course not an unusual phenomenon, especially in writers. And the idea of storytelling having healing properties was already present in the myths and legends. The 'germ' of the novel as the very antibiotic, so to speak, against real and imagined ailments.

In Rene O. Villanueva's memoirs (Im)Personal: Gabay sa Panulat at Pagmamanunulat ((Im)Personal: Guide to Writing and the Writerly), the writer used as his primary metaphor for writing the idea of a magic cure from the epic of Ibong Adarna, the Adarna bird. The story was about how three princes set out to capture the mythical bird whose renowned beautiful song was the only (magical) antidote to the mysterious malady that afflicted their father king. For Villanueva, this epic about a bird's enchanted song was the very embodiment of storytelling's miraculous ability to cure individuals and nations of individual and societal ills. (César Aira, of course, had his own potent and playful concoction with his own miraculous cures.)

Let it be said that the assumed ability (or power) of storytelling to cure maladies was not monopolized by epics and legends or great modernist works such as those by Vila-Matas or Aira. Mediocre and genre fiction, insofar as we understand the terms 'mediocre' and 'genre' at face value, had their own special thing going. A case in point is Stephen King, whose own writing manual On Writing was proof of the storyteller's own belief in his own formulaic writing.

The first story I did actually publish was in a horror fanzine issued by Mike Garrett of Birmingham, Alabama (Mike is still around, and still in the biz). He published this novella under the title "In a Half-World of Terror," but I still like my title much better. Mine was "I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber." Super Duper! Pow!

I confess I was not able to finish the book due to its shallow prescriptions and self-justifications. King had only to describe his writing process and validate his own personal narrative style and literary preferences for the magic to appear on the page and his fans to applaud and be cured. Pow! Super!

A narrative can be said to have two poles—form and content—to be able to function as a story. But it requires a third element (substance) for discerning readers to be able to attach values and judgements, not value-judgements, in a work of fiction and to distinguish stories that matter from those that do not.

Consider another popular medicine—The Alchemist (1988) by Paulo Coelho. This unprecedented bestseller, with more than 65 million copies (and counting) sold in original Portuguese and in various translations, was also world record holder for being translated into the most number of languages (56 and counting). I came across a copy of its very recent translation, Ang Alkemista (Lampara Books, 2014), a Filipino version by Edgardo B. Maranan. The translator was a great poet and translator who contributed to the marvelous reconstruction of the epic version of the Palawan epic Kudaman (1991).

Ang Alkemista is a tale of a shepherd who exchanged his sheltered life in a seminary for a life on the road. It was a tale of adventures and various encounters with characters who are destined to define his nomadic existence.

I can't say I was not warned about Coelho. Roberto Bolaño called the Brazilian's prose poor "in terms of lexical richness", in terms of "richness of vocabulary", scoffing at the latter's induction to the Brazilian Academy of Letters. For Bolaño, no language was capable of withstanding any translation if it is in the first place written in pale prose. The whiff of this poorly contrived language may be hard to assess in translation. What could more obviously be detected was the philosophical richness (or impoverishment) of the translated text. Ang Alkemista lacked the complex and fertile ideas that would propel the novel beyond its fabulist intents. Coelho himself confessed in the introduction that the novel was meant to be symbolic and not realist.

Sa pamamagitan ng librong ito, ipinamamana ko ang lahat ng aking natutunan sa buhay. Sinikap ko ring parangalan ang mga dakilang manunulat na nakatuklas sa Unibersal na Lengguwahe—sina Hemingway, Blake, Borges (na gumamit rin ng kasaysayang Persiyano sa isa niyang kuwento), Malba, Tahan, at marami pang iba.

[With this book, I bequeathed everything I learned in life. I also tried to honor the great writers who discovered the Universal LanguageHemingway, Blake, Borges (who also used a Persian story in one of his tales), Malba, Tahan, and many others.]

The Universal Language that Coelho spoke of is the simplicity of his words, and yet it is not only language that clothes an entire novelistic enterprise. For the symbol or metaphor to work, it must still be grounded in reality. The substance of ideas and the way they are developed are what makes for a convincing tale. How Coelho brewed his own alchemical ideas, his manner of punctuating words and branding them and selling them as proper nouns, can be an insult to a reader's intelligence. Yet for some, no words of healing and redemption could be sweeter. The constant reference to the quest for one's "Personal Legend" (Sariling Alamat) is too farcical to be taken seriously.

"Sinasabi ng librong iyan ang parehong bagay na sinasabi ng halos lahat ng libro sa mundo," patuloy ng matanda. "Inilalarawan ang kawalan ng abilidad ng tao na piliin ang mga Sariling Alamat. At natapos yan na sinasabing lahat ay naniniwala sa pinakamalaking kasinungalingan sa mundo."

"Ano ang pinakamalaking kasinungalinan sa mundo?" tanong ng binata na gulat na gulat.

"Ito: na sa isang tiyak na panahon sa buhay natin, nawawalan tayo ng kontrol sa nangyayari sa atin, at ang buhay natin ay kontrolado ng tadhana. 'Yan ang pinakamalaking kasinungaliang sa mundo."

["That book tells you the same thing all books in the world tell," the old man continued. "It describes the people's lack of ability to chart their own Personal Legends. And it concludes that all men believe in the greatest lie in the world."

"What is the greatest lie in the world?" asked the very shocked young man.

"This: that at a certain moment in our lives, we loose control of the events around us, and our lives are at the mercy of destiny. That's the greatest lie in the world."]

This. The greatest lie in the world. Sealed in a case and delivered with utter solemnity. The greatest lie in the world. The underlining was implicitly supplied.

And what about the "mysterious energy" and the "one great truth in this planet"?

"Sa paglipas ng panahon, isang mahiwagang lakas ang mangungumbinsi sa kanila na imposible nang matupad ang kanilang Sariling Alamat."

Para sa binata, walang saysay ang sinasabi ng matanda. Ngunit nais niyang malaman kung ano ang "mahiwagang lakas"; hahanga sa kanya ang anak ng mangangalakal kapag sinabi niya ito!

"Isang tila negatibong lakas, ngunit sa totoo ay nagpapakita sa iyo kung paano makakamit ang Sariling Alamat. Ito ang naghahanda ng iyong kaluluwa at kalooban, dahil may isang dakilang katotohanan sa planetang ito: kahit sino ka man, at kung ano man ang iyong ginagawa, kapag talagang may hinahangad ka, ang pagnanais na iyon ay nagmumula sa kaluluwa ng uniberso. Iyon ang misyon mo sa lupa."

["With the passage of time, a mysterious energy will convince the people it is no longer possible to realize their own Personal Legends."

For the young man, the old man did not make any sense. But he wanted to know what this "mysterious energy" is; the merchant's daughter would admire him if he shared this idea with her.

"A kind of negative energy, but in truth you will see for yourself how to realize your own Personal Legend. It prepares your own soul and being, because there is one great truth in this planet: whoever you are, whatever you do, when you truly desire something, that desire emanates from the soul of the universe. That is your mission in life."]

The writer here was enamored by his own proselytization. If I've read this book at an impressionable age, fifteen, twenty years ago, I could have become one of this book's high priests. But the medicine was lost on me. Maybe I suffered enough of a bookish malady and became immune to a sincere dosage of planetary truths.

The works of writers like King and Coelho (and Murakami Haruki, in certain novels) were a brew of self-validation and legendary fabulism. The form and content are fantastical, even magical, but the ideas are depauperate. Their avid readers, if they read it in the right frame of mind and in the right context, get their fix in this kind of thing. To borrow a concept from medicine, this is the "placebo effect" of mediocre writing. Technically it is a false cure, but some readers are administered a tyranny of quasi-philosophical ideas and became all the better for it.

The deep, healing novel was repository of all things profound. The tried and tested genre remained a potent drug. Even Bolaño's bookish pharmacists who snorted at the "great, imperfect, torrential works" would go for the perfect cough syrup. Storytelling had never been so curative. Even if wisdom always cautioned that prevention is better than cure. Should that prevent us from pursuing our own Personal Legends?