December 6, 2012
The year's best
This should be a fun exercise, selecting the standouts from the pile, the outstanding from the standouts. In cases where I couldn't decide whether to include or exclude a certain title, I ask myself some questions: Did I feel I totally get what the writer was trying to say? If yes, it's off the list. Any sense of humor, however miniscule? No? Then it's stricken off. Am I dying to reread it? Yes. Maybe. Include it.
1. The Aesthetics of Resistance, volume 1, by Peter Weiss, translated by Joachim Neugroschel
A group of students debating about art in the dialectical style of Plato. Squabbles and machinations between Social Democratic and Communist parties. The art and poetry of resistance, rebelling against the existing order, supplanting the prevailing thoughts with progressive notions, ideas. The first translated volume of a German trilogy, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, must already count among the high points of resistance art. It is difficult, stylish, philosophical, and Marxist. Novel is too limited a genre to describe its complex structures. One could identify it as a hybrid of philosophical categories: a manual on Marxist literary criticism, a guide to the appreciation of proletarian art, a manifesto of aesthetic revolution, a treatise on the history and philosophy of political art. These categories provide the key words but lack the corrosive power of the text. Whatever literary species and genera it belongs to, this work of Weiss is a construct of profound inventiveness. It contains probably one of the best readings there is of The Castle by Franz Kafka. Its aesthetics is ultimately a resistance against death, against mortality.
2. The Box Man by Abé Kobo, translated by E. Dale Saunders
A simple setup: a man in a box. From this the Japanese novelist explored relativism and subjectivity with a mind-bending mastery of shifting perspectives and moving frames of reference. Maddening and shattering, it shall exercise the mind, for good or bad.
3. The Gold in Makiling by Macario Pineda, translated by Soledad S. Reyes
A post-war (1947) Filipino classic novel, finally translated this year. It's a love story, with elements of folklores, myths, legends, and history. At its center: the "cream of the race", the pride of the nation. That they all lived together at the heart of mythical Mount Makiling was plausible. Where else but in magical novels can these people be assembled? But Pineda went beyond this fantastical idea by raising a more fantastical possibility. What if these people come back to us? What if they climb down the mountain at some future time and assist their people in their struggles? What if they are already with us right now? The novelist struck literary gold with his excavation of native materials and customs. He presented a unique magic realist narrative rooted in local lores and nationalist history. The novel hinted at the need to break free from the shackles of colonial mentality and to renew traditional moral imperatives. It must be squarely in the crème de la crème among postwar Filipino novels. (review)
4. Laughing Wolf by Tsushima Yūko, translated by Dennis Washburn
About a young man and a girl who took a train trip across the physical and mental ruins of Japan right after the second world war. They came face to face with a people plagued with poverty, disease, and crimes. A novel must somehow clear a path, demonstrate its mastery on the page, and Laughing Wolf did that by writing about aspects of Japanese postwar history in a manner that was not entirely beholden to the methods of conventional historical fiction. Tsushima was doing something interesting and innovative to the fictional form of the novel. Her postmodernist technique had unassuming intelligence behind it. Laughing Wolf was a jarring text, in a provocative and brilliant sense, because it unsettled the pace and expectations of reading. And yet it was heartwarming for its generous sympathy and understanding. (review)
5. Luha ng Buwaya (Tears of the Crocodile) by Amado V. Hernandez
From a Filipino master of Tagalog prose, the story of a teacher who led the people in his village in resisting the machinations of the rich and corrupt landowners. It prescribes social organization and unity as keys to toppling the hideous reptiles in our midst. The novel is full of revelations about character while sharing ways of overcoming the travails of Philippine postwar agrarian society.
6. Maganda pa ang Daigdig (The World Is Wondrous Still) by Lazaro Francisco
Like Hernandez's Luha ng Buwaya, Lazaro's novel is a postwar novel of agrarian concerns and a worthy successor to José Rizal's political novels. It lays bare the injustices of the tenancy system by dramatizing the conflict between the landlord and the landless. Power comes to those who stand up to fight for what is just and right: "Ang mga matang naidilat na ay hindi na maipipikit!" (The eyes that had been made to see shall no longer close!) As with Hernandez's novel, it is ostensibly a love triangle amidst conflicts and confrontations. It engages with its fast-paced scenes right up to its melodramatic conclusion.
7. Mandarins, stories by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, translated by Charles De Wolf
Fifteen stories by the Japanese grandmaster defined what 'rashomonesque' was all about. The translation was elegantly done and the selection revealed Akutagawa's preoccupations with themes centering on adultery, Christian legends, the passing of a generation, and suicide. The concentration of trenchant images in this collection allowed for the characters to inhabit shifting states of feelings: from anxiety to serenity, from lust to resignation, from paranoia to ferocity. The latter feeling, that of fierceness or ferocity, of vulgarity and passion, may fully describe the elevated state of 'having deeply lived and loved' – in contrast to a life of pure intellect and culture – that lingers in the horizon of Akutagawa's artistic vision. (review)
8. Sa Aking Panahon (In My Time) by Edgardo M. Reyes
Pinatutunayan ng aklat na si Reyes ay isang maestro sa larangan ng maikling kuwento. Hindi lamang sa aspetong teknikal masasalat ang kanyang galing. Masusi, madamdamin ang pagninilay ng kwento sa masalimuot na sitwasyong kinasangkutan ng mga tauhan. Ang kwento nila ay kwento ng pagtutuos sa kapalaran ng mga walang-wala o ng mga nawawala. Sila ang kadalasang mga agrabyado sa buhay, mga dukha, mga "maliliit na tao." Ang mga tema ng kuwento sa koleksyong ito, ang kanilang kabuuan at konektadong epekto, ay nagtatanghal sa estado ng pamilya at lipunang Pilipino sa panahon ni Reyes. Hanggang ngayon ay masasabing nananatili ang nobena at nobela ng nagbabagong panahon at tradisyon. Sa ganang kanya, naipahayag ni Reyes ang isang uri ng "kapangahasang manggiba ng balag ng tradisyon" nang hindi sinasantabi ang dignidad ng indibidwal, at pinagdidiwang pa ang kanilang katapatan. (review)
9. Style by F. L. Lucas
This cult manual, holy grail of creative writing, was finally reissued in a third edition. One discovers an altogether fine book of "literary criticism" posing as a manual on writing. The medium is the message. In evaluating prose, Lucas is a convincing authority on what constitutes the stylish and what is rubbish. His own irreproachable writing demonstrates the championing of the concise, the clear, and the impeccable. Highly recommended for the conscientious reader and writer.
10. Trilce by César Vallejo, translated by Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi
Unique strokes of lines, phrases, words. Archaic formulations, neologisms, and visually suggestive puns are the order of the day. The poems possess the lambent quality of a poker face and an audible silence. The varied interpretations of each poem at the end are a fulsome treat. Through his translators, the Peruvian poet Vallejo destroys old words by creating new meanings.