Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

August 27, 2010

The first Duino elegy (in Filipino)


Unang Elehiya
ni Rainer Maria Rilke


Sino, sa aking pagtangis, ang makikinig mula sa orden
ng mga anghel? Maski ang isa sa kanila’y dagli akong itutop
sa kanyang dibdib: Ako’y titiklop sa tanang kapangahasan.
Isa itong kariktang di maitawid sa kagampan. Ito’y simula ng katakutan
na ating sasambahin pagkat tayo’y kanyang lilipulin.
Nakagigimbal ang arkanghel.
Kagyat ako’y nagtimpi at tinikom ang hikbing awit ng
pagsinta. Ah, sino pa ang malalapitan?
Ni tao, ni anghel ay hindi, maging ang hayop na maalam ay dama
na hindi tayo kailanman magiging palagay
dito sa ating kinalakhang mundo. Marahil ang maiiwan na lamang
ay ilang puno sa parang, na siyang dudungawin ng ating
paningin. Marahil ang lakarin kahapon
at ang kinagisnang ugali na panatag na sa atin,
mananatiling tapat at di maiisipang mawalay.
Ah, ang gabi: naririyan sya, may taglay na hanging puspos
ng kawalang hangganan, kumukurot sa ating mukha.
Sinong makatatanggi sa kanya, habang tayo’y
nahihimlay sa kalmada na pinakaaasam
ng nagtatagong damdamin. Ganuon ba
kadali para sa magkaniig? Minarapat nilang magkubli
sa sumamo ng bawat isa. Hindi mo pa ba nalaman?
Iwaksi ang kawalan sa pagdipa ng iyong mga kamay,
patungo sa bawat pagitan ng hininga, nang makamit ng mga ibon
ang bugso ng hangin at lukso ng paglipad.

Oo, ang tagsibol ay nangailangan sa yo. Minsan
may talang dinarasal ang iyong pagtangì; may daluyong
nagmula sa nakalipas, humampas patungo sa iyo;
may biyoling ipinaubaya ang kanyang sarili,
sa pagtapat mo sa harap ng bintana. Ang lahat
ay tinakda. Mamarapatin mo bang tahakin ito?
Manapat ika’y di mapakali sa pag-asam,
na tila sinadyang dumating ng pinakamamahal?
(Saan mo kaya siya maisisilid, kasama
ng makabagong ideya, labas masok at magdamag
naglalaro sa iyong isip?)
Sa sandaling mangulila, awitan mo ang silakbo ng pag-ibig;
pagkat kapusukan nila'y kulang pa sa walang katapusan.
Halos nanibugho ka sa kanila, silang mga nalihis,
silang umibig nang higit sa busog na pag-ibig.
Paulit-ulit na pupunan ang papuring walang kinahinatnan.
Tandaan: ang bayani ay nabubuhay. Ang kanyang pagbagsak
ay daan lamang patungo sa huling pagsilang.
Ang kalikasan naman, kapos at muling aanyaya ng manliligaw,
na tila walang lakas para lumalang ng mga
bagong sugo. Pinag-isipan mo ba ng husto
itong si Gaspara Stampa, nang sa gayon, ang dalagang iniwan
ng kanyang mahal ay mabubuhay sa darang ng isa pang
pag-ibig, habang sa sarili ay sasambit, “Kailan ako magiging ikaw?”
Ang matagal nang dalamhati ay hindi ba dapat
pakinabangan na natin? Di ba’t oras na para pakawalan
ang ating mga sarili sa tanikala ng puso at pagtitiis,
ito’y nanginginig, katulad ng palasong tinitikis ang batak ng búsog
upang sa sandaling paalpasan, ito’y hihigit pa sa
sarili? Marahil wala na tayong patutunguhan.

Tinig, mga tinig. Makinig ka aking puso, gaya ng mga
banal na taimtim nakapakinig: hanggang sa ang tambuli
ay magpalutang sa kanila; kahit binalewala nila, nagpatuloy
silang lumuhod, ang mga wala nang pag-asa:
nakinig nang buong-buo. Hindi nangangahulugang malalampasan
mo ang boses ng Dyos—malabo ito.
Pakinggan mo ang boses ng hangin, ang mensaheng isinahugis
ng katahimikan. Mula sa mga kabataang nasawi,
ito’y bumubulong papalapit sa iyo. Tuwing sasamba ka sa katedral
ng Roma o Napoli, hindi ba marahang nakikiusap
sa iyo ang kanilang mga tadhana?
O kaya nama’y isang elehiya ang iniatas sa iyo
kagaya nung isang taon, nakaukit sa lapida ng Santa Maria Formosa.
Ang tulong na ipagkakaloob ko sa kanila, ang paghuhugas
sa di makatarungan nilang pagkamatay—magkaminsa’y
pumipigil sumandali sa pag-akyat ng kanilang espiritu.

Talagang kaiba kung wala nang tatao sa mundo
na susunod sa mga kinagisnang di madaling natutunan,
na pipitas sa rosas at mga bagay patungkol sa manigong
kinabukasan, na hihilig gaya ng dati sa malilikot na kamay, at sadyang
kalilimutan ang ibinansag na ngalan, tulad ng
pag-iwan sa laruang di na umaandar.
Kaiba kung hindi na papangarapin ang pangarap. Kaibang
mamalas ang mga bagay na dating pinagbuklod, ngayo’y
nagkawatak-watak sa lahat ng dako ng daigdig. Mahirap mamatay,
madaming pagkakaabalahan bago matamasa ang kakaunting
walang hanggan.—Kahit ang mga nabubuhay, mali
ang pakiwari sa talim ng tama at mali.
Malimit (anila) di matanto ng mga anghel kung sila’y nasa piling
ng mga patay o buhay. Saan mang hantungan,
walang humpay, tinatangay ng buhawi ang nagdaraang
panahon, at kinukulong ang kanyang hikbi sa gitna ng dagundong.

Sa katapusan, wala na tayong silbi sa mga pumanaw:
namulat sila ng mga bagay na makamundo, tulad ng unti-unting
pagkawalay sa gatas ng ina. Habang tayong may pangangailangan pa
sa malalalim na misteryo, tayo na kumukuha ng matinding
lakas sa dalita, kaya na ba nating wala sila?
Wala na bang saysay ang alamat na naitala kung saan,
sa matinding hapis kay Linos, ang maigting na pagkamanhid ay tinulos
ng mapangahas na pasok ng tugtog—biglang tumayo at lumakad papalayo
ang binatang matipuno; mula sa nagitlang espasyong iniwan nya,
sa unang pagkakataon, ang kumpas ng kawalan
ay sumasaatin: pumapatnubay, nakikiramay, at nakikiisa.



(salin mula sa Ingles ni Stephen Mitchell at ni William H. Gass)

"Against the Irreversible" (W. G. Sebald)


When he crossed the border into exile in Belgium, and had to take on himself the Jewish quality of homelessness, of being elsewhere, être ailleurs, he did not yet know how hard it would be to endure the tension between his native land as it became ever more foreign and the land of his foreign exile as it became ever more familiar. Seen in this light, Améry's suicide in Salzburg resolved the insoluble conflict between being both at home and in exile, "entre le foyer et le lontain."
                         - W. G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction


Sebald's claim of the inadequacy of postwar German literature extended not only to the subject of destruction from air bombings but to the entire postwar experience. For him, the literary world then was characterized by a "huge moral deficit" that was gradually being addressed by a handful of writers slowly emerging from their labyrinths of silence. One of these writers was Jean Améry (1912-1978), the subject of Sebald's third essay in On the Natural History of Destruction. Améry started late into writing about his personal experiences of the war. He entered the literary debate in the 1960s when his essays on "exile, resistance, torture, and genocide" appeared. He wrote from the perspective of the victim, which is to say "the guilty one," guilty for being tortured and silenced and for having the memory to remember it all. Sebald's analysis of Améry's works often relied on role-playing and on the findings of William Niederland, a psychoanalyst. Sebald detected in Améry the "anguish of memory which is partly vague, partly full of a still acute fear of death." One could detect in Sebald's essay sympathy for a writer trying to come to terms with his own failure to memorialize (rationalize) what happened to him in the torture chamber. The attempt to articulate unspeakable emotions through language, Sebald observed, possibly led Améry to adopt the genre of essay in order to embrace the freedom of exposition. This was perhaps the only freedom one can enjoy when expressing the pain of suffering. Sebald quoted a passage of Améry's that exemplified the strategy of understatement (and irony) that the writer used to avoid "pity and self-pity." (Niederland found such avoidance to be typical of the accounts of torture victims.) Because the reconstruction of memory required a set of language which can dislocate the shoulders, the passage had to end in linguistic perversity: "... I had to give up rather quickly. And now there was a cracking and splintering in my shoulders that my body has not forgotten to this hour. The balls sprang from their sockets. My own body weight caused luxation; I fell into a void and now hung by my dislocated arms which had been torn high from behind and were now twisted over my head. Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist. What visual instruction in etymology!" This passage Sebald saw as reaching the breaking point of composure, as consciously "operating on the borders of what language can convey." When writing about the physicality of pain, the writer had to become the torturer himself. Torture has "an indelible character," Sebald quoted Améry: "Whoever was tortured, stays tortured." Whoever was killed in spirit, died ever after. And the long delayed terminus was never slow in coming. After writing the essays, which include At the Mind's Limits (1966) and On Suicide (1976), Améry's voluntary death was no twist of fate.

August 23, 2010

Rilke



Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

                                                         - from the Duino Elegies (1923),
                                                           Rainer Maria Rilke,
                                                           translation by Stephen Mitchell
 


The opening of Rilke's classic sequence of elegies. Beautiful, isn't it? Beautiful and scary at the same time.

I recently acquired a book called Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Gass. It's classified as both biography and autobiography, an interesting combination. The subtitle alone makes me excited. And it's about translating poetry, one of my interests. A browse of the table of contents will give you some mysterious titles for chapters. They already sound like lines of a poem:
 
Lifeleading
Transreading
Ein Gott Vermags
Inhalation in a God
Schade
The Grace of Great Things
Erect No Memorial Stone
The Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke

The final chapter, Gass's full translation of Duino Elegies, is the cherry topping. Add to that the translations of some of Rilke's other poems scattered throughout the text, then I can't wait to down the pages of this book.

Gass's translation first came out in 1999; Mitchell's in 1982. In Gass's bibliography a list of 16 more translations of the same poem are given. This German poem surely resists the many rewordings of it, but it also survives miraculously in these interpretations.

A look at the end of Reading Rilke gives the same lines but with a different flavor:

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions
of Angels? And even if one of them suddenly
held me against his heart, I would fade in the grip
of that completer existence—a beauty we can barely
endure, because it is nothing but terror's herald;
and we worship it so because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is awesome.

I would certainly prefer an awesome Angel over a terrifying one. But not in this poem. "Terrifying" is simply a better choice and this poem ought to be that, terrifying. The poem inhabits various states of terror and tenderness and confusion. There is a searching edge to the voice. Mitchell's version reads well in terms of the forward movement of the lines and the rhythmic elegance of despair.

I am attempting a translation of "The First Elegy" into Filipino, my vernacular language. As my German is nil, I will use the English texts of both Mitchell and Gass. It will thus be a translation of translations. The inaccessibility of German to me is the main reason why I will be translating more the sense of the poem (from English), rather than the words.

I hope to be able to post my own version before the end of the month. August coincides with the Buwan ng Wika, or the National Language Month, in the Philippines. This exercise then will be my way of celebrating the Filipino language. I shall start like this:

Sino, sa aking pagtangis, ang makikinig mula sa orden
ng mga anghel? ...


August 22, 2010

Third epilogue for variations: "Literature + Illness = Illness" (Roberto Bolaño)


The August issue of Harper's contains an excerpt from Roberto Bolaño's "Literature + Illness = Illness," an essay collected from The Insufferable Gaucho (El gaucho insufrible, 2003) which comes out this month from New Directions. The book contains 2 essays and 5 stories - two of which, the title story and "Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey," already appeared in The New Yorker. It's translated by Chris Andrews. You need to subscribe to view it online. The same essay, translated as "Literature + Sickness = Sickness" by an unnamed translator, was published in News from the Republic of Letters in 2005.

Sections of the essay have titles like “Illness and freedom”, “Illness and French poetry”, “Illness and travel”, and “Illness and Kafka.” The two versions are quite different in approach that one wonders if two patients were made out of one sick person. But no, it's obvious that both essayists are terminally ill. Here's a bit of comparison:


SICKNESS AND LITERATURE
(from News from the Republic of Letters)

No wonder the lecturer beats about the bush. Take the following case. The speaker is going to talk about sickness. There are all of ten people in the theater. Each of them waits there with a dignified expectation worthy of a better subject. The lecture is scheduled for seven or eight in the evening. Nobody’s eaten a thing. So when seven o’clock comes round (or eight, or nine) everyone is sitting there with their cell-phones turned off. It’s a pleasure to speak to people with such good manners. Nevertheless, the lecturer doesn’t show up, and finally one of the organizers of the event announces that he can’t come: at the very last moment he’s fallen grievously ill.


ILLNESS AND PUBLIC SPEAKING
(from The Insufferable Gaucho, translated by Chris Andrews)

No one should be surprised if the speaker loses his thread. Let us imagine the following scenario. The speaker is going to speak about illness. Ten people spread themselves around the auditorium. The buzz of anticipation in the air is worthy of a better reward. The talk is scheduled to begin at seven in the evening or eight at night. No one in the audience has had dinner. By seven (or eight, or nine), they are all present and seated, with their cell phones switched off. It’s a pleasure to speak to such a well-mannered group of people. But the speaker fails to appear, and finally one of the organizers of the event announces that he will not be coming because, at the last minute, he has fallen gravely ill.




[Note: This post edited Nov. 27, 2010. The passage translated by Chris Andrews above was taken from the book, not from the Harper's excerpt.]

August 19, 2010

Reading diary: April 2010


More quick reviews. But before that, I should mention that this blog is now proud to be in the directory of Filipino Book Bloggers. I invite you to visit the site and link to many enthusiastic book reviews by bloggistas from the Philippines.






APRIL 2010

19. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard

"It is the the misfortune (but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself," says Barthes. For that we may need images and photographs to certify the text. Barthes's reflections on photography offer some subversive theories on the persistence of images in the imagination. In the end, however, the writer's memoirs provide a surprisingly affecting portrait of a man coming to terms with his personal loss.



20. Piercing by Murakami Ryū, translated by Ralph McCarthy

A book for the faint of heart, that the heart may skip a beat, or several beats, and then resume its life of pumping. A send-up to the psycho killer setup in movies and books, Piercing is transgressive fiction at its creepiest. And yet it's very funny. That funny-scary combination must be one of the hardest to pull off but Ryū is criminally accurate in puncturing the reader's ready expectations. He is a serial novelist who aims for the kill. I'd like to be victimized by his other books.



21. Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer

Paris is a moveable feast. It is a place for finding love and of losing it. In this novel we find two couples struggling with circumstances of their own making. It's like The Sun Also Rises for the 1990s in which the once-hippie lover will ask at the end of the affair, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

The book escapes the bathos of nostalgia and ennui by embracing them. The drifting ways in which love ebbs and flows are well told by George Dyer, who lately have been known to produce some hybrid novels of journalism. This novel is of the traditional sort. But it's crisp in its portrayal of longings and loves as it is.



22. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews

Aira is an incandescent talent. This novella is beautiful, poetic. The episode just ended too soon. The book's theme is the creation of a masterpiece, and it's very near producing one itself. It unfolds like a canvas of lighted landscapes here traversed by artists in the making.

What I love about An Episode and the other Aira I've read (Ghosts) is that you keep reading the books even after you finished reading them. They linger in your mind like a flash of lightning or something. The story ends with always the maximum impact. In between the flashes of brilliance are musings of the poetical nature.

Ghosts is a bit longer in length. And I think it is just as well made if not better. Aira is a puzzle-maker. I asked myself after reading each of the books: What the hell was that all about? Yet it all made sense in the end. As if the abrupt way the story ended is the only possible way to end a story already unhinged from its frame.



23. Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Jaime Deza, the protagonist of this novel, has this power of reading people. His mentor, an old man, is the same. They can know people's history and psychology and what they're capable of just by observing them and hearing them talk. Nothing happens much in this the first volume of the story. What is certain is that by the end of the third volume, someone will be betrayed and will pay the price for "careless talk." This is ultimately a spy story, but it's James Bond in the role of a psychologist.

Marías is Marías. His characters talk and talk and think and think. They can be repetitive and exasperating. Very few paragraph breaks and sentences that go on and on and on and on. Some beautiful insights into telling stories and the capacity to betray others with a single word.

I’m bracing for less talk/more action in Act II (Dance and Dream). But I wouldn't be surprised if the spies still battle with their minds here. Dance and Dream is proving to be another mental bloodbath.

August 17, 2010

"Air War and Literature" (W. G. Sebald), 2


In "Air War and Literature," Sebald was trying to account for the unexplained disengagement from reality of the works of German literary writers right after the second world war. Self-righteousness, pedantry, insensitivity - these can be leveled against this attempt to recover some forgotten memory, soul, or conscience that was left in the ashes of ruined shelters and buildings. Why bring out to the surface what has been safely kept from sight? Given Sebald's high standing in contemporary literature - achieved through the publication of a series of radical novels which broke new genre grounds while essaying the stories of melancholic survivors of history and atrocity - his arguments cannot be easily dismissed. His persistence on the matter brought discomfort and provoked a critical examination of literature that has so far come out in Germany in the past half-century.

Sebald identified some consequences of his perceived literary self-censorship and selective amnesia. One is the lack of masterpieces. There is a clamor for the “great German epic of the wartime and postwar periods.” The economic miracle in Germany is another possible consequence. As if the citizens became conscientious traders and miracle workers to cover for their ruined livelihoods.

Whereas recounting “truthfully” is an activity that requires soul-searching, it is still not antithetical to hanging one’s own head in guilt. A neat explanation is impossible. Should the victims insulate their selves or express open grief? Sebald was right to refer to psychoanalytic explanations of the mental stress experienced by victims, but it is such a confounding phenomenon that his quotations are hardly definitive. One of the implicit causes of the breakdown of collective memory is the legacy of an unorthodox worldview. The assumption is that forgetfulness is a fruit of fascism: a lewd legacy of totalitarian regime.

A potential weakness of Sebald’s line of thinking is a pedantic critique of trauma and guilt as originators of desensitized mental state. One of the causes he gave is the shared guilt by the Germans to the holocaust. They cannot complain of massacre because their kind has done similar terrible crimes. This is the default “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle which in this case cannot be easily abstracted for its complex psychological nature. The causes and the effects of violence, cruelty, and evil may be so interchangeable that one does not know where one begins and the other ends. This is the bane of modern humanity.


* * *


Sebald decried the lack of German masterpieces yet failed to mention the novels of Günter Grass, notably The Tin Drum (as Hydriotaphia commented on the previous post). This novel is widely read and considered a masterpiece. It also contains scenes of the aftermath of bombings, as the critic Ruth Franklin pointed out. This elimination of Grass by Sebald speaks volumes. It can only mean that he does not subscribe to Grass's aesthetic representation of suffering.

Grass himself was critical of Sebald. He said in an interview with The New York Times that he welcomed books about the Allied bombing such as the one written by Jörg Friedrich (Der Brand, or The Fire):

But he agreed less with W. G. Sebald's essay, "Air War and Literature," published [in Germany] in 1999 and in English [in 2003], in a collection called, "On the Natural History of Destruction." Mr. Sebald, who died in 2001, argues that postwar German writers ignored German suffering during the war. "The novels of Henrich Böll and Wolfgang Koeppen deal with these things," Mr. Grass said. "If I had met Sebald, I would have asked him, 'Why don't you write a book about it?' "

The novelist did write something. In "Air War" itself, he provided a summation of what happened during that time. His problematique begins with a sweeping diagnosis: The Germans have abdicated their role to provide a credible witness to history’s errors. To correct this, the novelist has to produce his own version of the events with graphic details culled from the diaries of survivors. The novelist maintains that a synoptic and artificial view of the bombings are needed because eyewitness accounts are either unreliable or clichéd. In producing his own synopsis of the bombing, the novelist is reliving an un-witnessed carpet-bombing, enacting his own repressed history, reading the silent documents from the archives, and ultimately satisfying his own hunger for truth. He is lighting a new fuse, creating another possibility, and surviving his own firestorm. His means are his ends.

August 16, 2010

GIVEAWAY: Totto-chan



It's the middle of the month, time for another giveaway. Here is what's at stake.






Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window
by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
Translated by Dorothy Britton
Illustrated by Chihiro Iwasaki.



Please note that this giveaway is open only to readers in the Philippines.

The book is not new but the pages are in very good condition. It has a fold on dust jacket and front cover. It's a mass market paperback, with dust jacket.

Learn more about this book from the publisher's page.

The rules are too simple. Just drop me an email. Subject: "Hello, Totto-chan". Include your full name and your full mailing address (within the Philippines only). One address per reader, one reader per address. A winner will be chosen from the entries using a random number generator.

The deadline is midnight of August 31st, local time. I'll update this post and announce the winner here.

Good Luck!

UPDATE (Sept. 2): Congratulations to Faye of Dasmariñas City.

"Air War and Literature" (W. G. Sebald)

On the Natural History of Destruction is W. G. Sebald's first collection of literary criticism to appear in English. (A few more essay collections of his are scheduled for release in the next two years.) The first essay, called "Air War and Literature," is an edited version of a lecture first delivered in 1997, the so-called "Zürich Lecures," which was published in German magazines and in book form in 1999. Its controversial subject polarized its readers and listeners.

Sebald's criticism is primarily directed against the German writers and their inability to write about air bombings in WWII Germany. Sebald is concerned about the interplay of memory and history, the role of writers in times of crisis, and their moral/ethical obligation to bear witness to destruction.

"Air War and Literature" is written from the perspective of a literary writer and a German citizen. It is a condemnation of a kind of literary silence hanging over the German literary scene in the post-war years. Sebald's poetics abhors the willed forgetfulness of writers who did not produce literary works on the subject of bombing raids and the total destruction of several German cities. He partly ascribes it to a form of cultural defect, not only of writers but of readers as well (from the foreword):

[W]e Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition. We do not feel any passionate interest in our earlier way of life and the specific features of our own civilization … [W]hen we turn to take a retrospective view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the same time. As a result, the works produced by German authors after the war are often marked by a half-consciousness or false consciousness designed to consolidate the extremely precarious position of those writers in a society that was morally almost entirely discredited.

* * *

The trick of elimination is every expert’s defensive reflex.

The essay's epigraph came from Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude, a novel consisting of introductions to non-existent science fiction books. In the context of "Air War," it implies a discourse on fake or unwritten literature, those existing solely in the mind of the author.

The irony of illustrious writers (the "experts") withholding information is not lost here. Sebald is highlighting the grave sin of omission that the experts committed by neglecting to produce lasting works of art that flesh out the plight of the German victims. For Sebald, it was tantamount to the erasure of history, or a cleansing of the past collected in a silence that was as deafening as the detonation of bombs. Sebald points out the glaring gap between literature and historical truth that constitutes an undeniable ethical and moral failure of individuals and the nation.

Heinrich Böll's novella, Der Engel schwieg (translated as The Silent Angel by Breon Mitchell) was singled out as a rare exception to a handful of works that focused on carpet-bombing. It was only published 50 years after it was written, presumably because its gloomy subject was not suitable to the time.

(Note that there are notable non-German works which depicted the same subject. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five contains a harrowing aftermath of the air raids in Dresden. The entire book treated the subject in a metafictional solution that was itself a symptom of its inability to confront hard reality unless a certain authorial distance or narrative playfulness was adopted. The air war was also touched upon in one of the volumes of memoirs by the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard (collected in Gathering Evidence). He gave a powerful, if brief, description of air bombings during his childhood.)

Other writers and historians have written on the subject but Sebald found their efforts incompatible to the gravity of the subject. Their documents and studies “did not alter the fact that the images of the horrifying chapter of our history have never really crossed the threshold of the national consciousness” (p. 11).

The trick of elimination: The publications “seemed curiously untouched by the subject of their research, and served primarily to sanitize or eliminate a kind of knowledge incompatible with any sense of normality.” Skewed normality is yet another by-product of the “order-loving minds” of the Germans. But why? Why do German writers, almost wholesale, held back their human stories? Isn’t it uncharacteristic of wronged peoples to keep silent and endure their suffering and still emerge from the “war of annihilation without any signs of psychological impairment”?

(To be continued)

August 12, 2010

Reading diary: March 2010


First off, I would like to thank Aloi over at guiltless reading for ... [drumrolls ... ] a blog award!




The recipient of the award is supposed to do the following*:

1. Thank and link back to the person who gave you this award.
2. Share 7 things about yourself.

* Modified, as per the recipient's prerogative. I opted not to pass along the award as I will also give them to some of the persons who already received them. All one need do is look at the right hand side of this page to see my blog roll. Every one of them, 30-plus links and counting, deserves to receive the Versatile Blogger Award.

Here are seven things about myself: (i) I'm a six-footer. (ii) I teach maths and physics in college, part-time. (iii) I have extreme allergy to dust and smoke. (iv) I love lato seaweed. (I mean, eating them.) (v) I don't drink coffee, except at a café-bookstore near my place. I like it mocha. (vi) I hardly watch television at all. I prefer listening to local news radio. (vii) Favorite movies: Mars Attacks!, Ghost in the Shell, Black Hawk Down, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's films, Outbreak, The Thin Red Line, Gallipoli, The English Patient, The Lord of the Rings, Good Will Hunting, Unbreakable, and Children of Men.

Back to regular program, on what I've been reading these past months.


MARCH 2010

15. The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo

First published in 1906, The Book of Tea was written by a Japanese in the English language. Which makes me wonder if something still got "lost" in translation. Actually the book has something to say on the matter:

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade—all threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound? The ancient sages never put their teachings in systematic form. They spoke in paradoxes, for they were afraid of uttering half-truths. They began by talking like fools and ended by making their hearers wise. Laotse himself, with his quaint humour, says, “If people of inferior intelligence hear of the Tao, they laugh immensely. It would not be the Tao unless they laughed at it.”

There you have it, the book is full of these philosophical insights. It's more than a go-to book on the art of tea preparation. It also deals with still-fresh perspectives on art appreciation, on art and meditation. The flavor of this book is so natural it is like partaking of a cup of tea itself. Tea with dollops of poetry.


16. If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents by Gregory Rabassa

A memoir by wunderkind translator Gregory Rabassa, the book details his childhood intimations of a facility for languages and his initiation into the art of translation. It also describes, lovingly, his various relationships to authors he translated, the background information on the books he worked on, and his candid estimation of each of the author or book. What makes the book very palatable to me, other than Rabassa's priceless interactions with diverse writers, is the inside stories in the process of translation The book is priceless in this score.

You can view Rabassa's sterling résumé here.


17. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Murakami Haruki, translated by Alfred Birnbaum

This is Haruki's fourth book in order of original publication in Japanese. He is as silly as ever. What sustains the reader here is the mystery. I think his style best fits speculative fiction like these. The reader will need to swallow the red pill of make-believe and voluntarily suspend his irritation.

I'm reading Haruki's early books in chronological order in order to get some context for the latter books, particularly The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, both of which I abandoned reading after being put-off by the style. But I recognize that there is something there, beneath the pedestrian prose.

I was surprised that I ended up liking A Wild Sheep Chase and this book (to a lesser extent) when all the while I'm trying to resist them. Maybe by the time I brushed up again with the longer works I will finally "get it" (if there is something to get). Or have an INKling of what Haruki is trying to say (if he's trying to say something). I have a suspicion he's just messing up with me.


18. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews [reread]

Among Bolaño's prolific outputs, Nazi Literature is of unique standing. It's considered to be an explosion of his "objective" or journalistic style. He is an "influenced" writer, in the sense that his bookish erudition shows through in each of the write-ups of the "Nazi writers." I've written several blog posts about this book already. You can access them by typing "Nazi literature" in the search bar on the upper left corner of this blog.

August 6, 2010

Don Q, via Cercas


This is my post for Week 2 of windmills for the mind: a reading of Don Quixote at Winstonsdad's Blog. I' ve finished the Rutherford translation at around page 200. Eight more weeks to go.


There is in Soldiers of Salamis, a war novel by Javier Cercas, a striking scene at the beginning of the third and final part of the book. A journalist named Javier Cercas (yes, it was one of those books where writers name the protagonist after themselves) was asked by his publisher to do some interviews with "people of some prominence" who emigrated to Spain, one of which was the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño (yes, again). On the strength of a series of well-received novels in the 1990s, Bolaño - pithily described as having "that unmistakable air of a hippy peddler that afflicted so many Latin-Americans of his generation exiled in Europe" - was getting more famous and notorious in the Latin American literary scene. He was 47 years old at the time of Cercas's visit, and he just won a "considerable literary prize" (most likely the Rómulo Gallegos Prize for the best Spanish language novel, for Los detectives salvajes).

Cercas (the character, unless otherwise noted) was suffering from writer's block, having already written a big chunk of text for his novel-in-progress. He has taken a leave of absence from his work in the magazine to concentrate on the writing of his novel, a "true tale" of the Spanish Civil War. This unwritten story was slowly consuming him, and he was able to write the main storyline way before the end of his leave. However, after rereading his effort (which constitutes the second section of the novel), Cercas found himself at a loss as to how to continue the narrative. He then cut short his leave from magazine work as he could no longer find a way out of the story whose very incompleteness was taunting him. His attempt to simultaneously write the novel and to make sense of it was leading him to a dead-end. Here was the first conversation between the two character-novelists, just before the actual interview, quoted in dialogue form, but was in the actual written in prose, as translated by Anne McLean. The setting was in Bolaño's modern residence in Blanes, Spain:


Bolaño (opening the door): Hey, you're not the Javier Cercas of The Motive and The Tenant are you?

(Cercas nods.)

Bolaño: I know them. I think I even bought them.

Cercas: Oh, so you were the one, were you?

Bolaño (ignoring the joke): Hang on a second.

(Bolaño went to a hallway and came back after a while.)

Bolaño (brandishing the books triumphantly): Here they are.

(Cercas flipped through the books and saw they were worn copies.)

Cercas (sadly): You read them.

Bolaño (sort of smiling): Of course. I read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street.

...


THE PROOF
What is striking about this scene was Cercas's bittersweet sense of dejection and personal vindication by having been read by a fellow writer. Later on, when Bolaño summarized what he remembered of the two books and pronounced his generous assessment of them, Cercas was touched by this gesture that he almost felt like hugging the "softly-spoken, curly-haired, scruffy, unshaven Chilean [he'd] only just met."

Cercas flipped through the books and saw they were worn copies. - It is characteristic of Soldiers of Salamis to rely on the physical evidence or an eyewitness account before accepting the truth or falsity of the claims. The novel is concerned about the search for truth, and the mere mention of a statement will not simply be enough for the claim to be accepted as "the truth." The whole novel, with its meta-structural design, is about the unearthing of evidence about an execution that took place during the war. The conversation just quoted is a representative of this acid test for truth; it is only one of the many trial-like scenes that consciously assesses the veracity of claims. Cercas had to note that the books are worn and this will be perfect evidence that Bolaño did read the two books. The book is littered with these scenes of validation and parsing of evidences, testimonies, and first-hand accounts in books and interviews. The sole test of the validity of truth is in the hard evidence.

The conversation between the two writers is also striking for two more reasons. One, the interview that took place became an impetus for a new story to take place in the novel, for a shift in the direction of the war story that Cercas was trying to finish. The consequence is that the novel was actually finished and the privileged reader (privileged in the sense of being dragged to the adventure like the sidekick Sancho Panza) was privy to how the story reached its conclusion. The other thing to note here is how Bolaño's last statement above was, in fact, Cervantean.

I read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street. - This bookish sentence stuck to me and I was surprised that a similar one appears in Don Quixote. This is the narrator (Cervantes?) recounting how he found the missing section of the book, which suddenly materialized in a shopping market [Part I, Chapter IX, Rutherford translation, my emphasis]:


I say, then, that for these and many other reasons our gallant Don Quixote is worthy of continuous and memorable praise - which shouldn't be denied me, either, for all the hard work and diligence I devoted to searching out the conclusion to this agreeable history; although I'm well aware that if heaven, chance and fortune hadn't helped me, the world would have been left without the pleasurable entertainment that an attentive reader of this work can enjoy for nearly two hours. And this is how I found the missing part:
One day when I was in the main shopping street in Toledo, a lad appeared, on his way to sell some old notebooks and loose sheets of paper to a silk merchant; and since I’ll read anything, even scraps of paper lying in the gutter, this leaning of mine led me to pick up one of the notebooks that the lad had for sale, and I saw that it was written in characters that I recognized as Arabic.


I don’t know how both statements appear in the original Spanish, but they are essentially alike that one cannot help but assume that Bolaño (or more precisely, the character named Bolaño, as told by a journalist named Cercas, in a book by the novelist Cercas), knowingly or unknowingly, appropriated a statement by Cervantes (or more accurately the narrator of the Quixote).

Both the Quixote and Soldiers of Salamis are soaked in meta-fictional solutions and both are concerned with a mimesis of authenticity. The three parts of Soldiers of Salamis are, structurally, fictive write-ups: (i) the journalist’s research about an incident in the Spanish war, (ii) the novel he wrote about it, and (iii) the continuation of an "interrupted" book whose ending was initially obfuscated but later brought into focus. The conceit - the telling itself of the novel - is its own wordplay.

The Cervantean statement is a classic aphorism for bookworms. Don Q is about books, bookishness, bibliophilism. The character of Don Q and his conception of himself are a composite of the heroic characters in books of chivalry. The tricky realism of Cercas's novel, and any novel masquerading as a proto-novel for that matter, can be traced to the post/modernist Don Q. Whereas Soldiers of Salamis ended its story by relating how the ending was achieved in the final chapter, the ninth chapter of the Quixote tells of the narrator's efforts to continue the story which abruptly ended in the eighth chapter. There are two authors to the Quixote; Soldiers of Salamis has one, though he was assisted by another, in a manner of speaking.

At which point, seeing that it is quite late already and I have said too much, I decide to publish these notes and to say more what will be related in the next blog post.

August 2, 2010

Corridor is Chile


It’s strange returning to Chile, the corridor country, but if you think about it twice or even three times, returning anywhere is strange. Provided, of course, you’re actually returning and not dreaming you’re returning. I returned after twenty-five years. The streets, actually, looked like they always had. So did the faces of the Chileans. That can lead to the most fatal sort of boredom or to insanity. So this time I kept calm for a change and made up my mind to wait for things to happen while seated in a chair, which is the best place to avoid being surprised by a corridor.

That's the start of Bolaño's essay on torture and the Chilean literary establishment, "The Corridor with No Apparent Exit," first published in Barcelona in May 1999. The English translation of the essay appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review in 2008.

The first half of the essay (no translator was credited) is viewable online. Paying subscribers can view it in full.

In the same journal issue, a profile on Bolaño by the perceptive critic Marcela Valdes discusses the political-literary context of this essay and Bolaño's books, here.


August 1, 2010

Reading diary: February 2010



Bibliogamy (noun). I don't think this word or its derivatives (bibliogamist, bibliogamous) have entered common usage. It roughly means an inveterate reader or a reader who develops relationships (love affairs) with books. It can mean someone who is faithfully reading one book at a time (in the sense of monogamy), or one who is unfaithful to one book (i.e., reads several books at a time, which isn't a bad thing).

Synonyms: book-lover; bibliophile; bookworm; biblioyena; bibliovulture.

Sentence example: Last February, the love month, Rise found himself bibliogamous.

And yet the word can fairly describe me the whole year round. Most of the time, I'm not a one-book man. I tend to have 4, 5, sometimes more books being read at any one time. I always have books, or should I say, they always have me.


FEBRUARY 2010

8. Sixty-Nine by Murakami Ryū, translated by Ralph F. McCarthy

I imagine that if Ryu and Haruki were classmates in high school, silly Haruki will be the sidekick of smartass Ryu. That Ryu will be the bully who will initiate Haruki to Rimbaud and rock music and Camus. And that the disciple Haruki will suck it all in and intellectually surpass the impulsive Ryu. But Ryu will not care so much. He already had a streak of enfant terribleness in him. I’m kind of describing the plot here.

The similarities between the two writers are obvious, at least with Haruki’s early books and this one of Ryu’s. They both have written angsty novels. That is to say, silly coming-of-age stories. They both mention a lot of songs in their texts. As if by mere mention you hear the soundtrack playing. I like 69 very much. Its humor is loud funny, constantly bluffing, un-literary. It’s not overdone. Haruki’s humor, for his part, is serious and delivered with a straight face. Haruki is deadpan. The kind of joke that's not spontaneous but can also be rewarding if you're into it. I'll read more of both.

I just gave away this book. This book is published by Kodansha. Kodansha books have nice covers and are so prettily bound they resemble yummy candies with chewy covers. The jacket over paperbacks, a good waste of trees.


9. City Gates by Elias Khoury, translated by Paula Haydar

A stranger enters an abandoned city. He meets some deranged characters. His adventures are surreal, illogical, like dream sequences. There really is no plot to speak of. The text is full of symbolisms about the dire consequences of nuclear war or some epidemic. The images used however are gratuitous, the narrative style most irritating.

It’s something like a hyper-poetic apocalyptic book that relies too much on effects and the manipulation of language. The effects slide into false imagery. I broke up with this book. It's one of the worst I’ve read in a long time.



10. Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview by Mónica Maristain, translated by Sybil Perez

Bolaño in conversation can sometimes crack you up, sometimes give you serious pause. He's very quotable. And what a bibliophile! He seemed to have read all the essential works from Latin America and beyond. He is generous in sharing his opinionated estimations of writers; he certainly knows his titans (Cervantes, Borges, Rulfo, Kafka, Twain, Melville, etc.).

One would think that the novels he wrote are a synthesis of a lifetime of parsing through the great books. The various schools of thought he teached himself (such as surrealism, magic realism, 'pataphysics, existentialism) probably enabled him to create his own visceral style.

This book is tailored for Bolaño aficionados. Considering that about 40% of its content is available online, this appears at first to be a book that capitalizes too much on the B hype. However, this is the first and so far the only available assortment of interviews (in English translation) with the writer that is quite necessary to understanding his body of work.


11. War by Candlelight by Daniel Alarcón

Alarcón's short stories are restrained, unassuming. He’s not overdoing them with catchy metaphors but they can be poetic. And he keeps them interesting enough to turn the page. The stories are distinctly Latin American, above average. Not a book to be hyper about but you get some sense of what is possible.

Some of Alarcón's stories can be accessed online at The New Yorker site. He is in fact just recently crowned as one of the "20 under 40": top fiction writers under the age of 40 to watch out for. Let the watching begin.


12. The Wild Geese by Mori Ōgai, translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein

A beautiful symbolic novel about the two states of nature that an individual can simultaneously experience: freedom and imprisonment. The story centers on a young woman who consented to become a rich man's mistress in exchange for material comforts for her and her father. The rich man's life and relationship with his legal wife are also explored. A complication arises when the mistress falls in love with a young man. Mori Ōgai's deft touch with characterization is evident in this small novel. The story is presented with the right mix of suspense, psychological acuity, and mystery. The ending delivers an open-ended resolution that sustains the originality of the story. If it had been the usual neat ending, then I would not recommend this book highly enough.


13. The Engagement by Georges Simenon, translated by Anna Moschovakis

Simenon is notorious for having penned a very large number of novels. This is one of those that concerns, in a way, man's precarious place in the world. It's a high-strung detective story that reads like a manifesto for modern man's futile search for happiness and understanding. This is the first book of the French novelist I've read and it looks like his prolificacy in novel writing was more than repaid by his large imagination. This is also the first book I've read under the imprint of New York Review Books. Certainly not my last as I've started collecting these select titles.



14. Homage to the Lame Wolf, selected poems by Vasko Popa, translated by Charles Simic

Charles Simic said in the introduction that it took him all of 20 years to finish the translation of one of the poems in this book. This kind of dedication is something that shows in the end product. The poems are couched in short lines, always courting the lower virtues of preciousness and precociousness, and yet they convey the careful pace of a poet who knows that the limits of his self-artistry are confined in the short telling lines. The strong presence (essence) of wolf (fauna) in the poems animates Popa's lines. Read it for the sheer pleasure of howling.