January 31, 2014

Oleza


Our Father San Daniel by Gabriel Miró, trans. Marlon James Sales (UST Publishing House, 2011)
The Leprous Bishop by Gabriel Miró, trans. Marlon James Sales (UST Publishing House, 2012)



Think of what this world would be if all of us aspired to be great! What use will it be if Oleza knows you? Know your birthplace yourself and love her accordingly. Look at her: Oleza is like one of those women who seem beautiful even if they are not. I love her so much. Those stars seem to be hers alone, so that they could twinkle over her towers and orchards. If you observe them the same way as I do, you will be moved with contentment even without good fortune. It is a good kind of happiness, though it is sad, where a lot of things are felt even without thinking in something concrete.

Oleza was a memorable character in the double novel with her name. She was traditional and Catholic, her virtues intact and yet constantly tested by circumstances. Oleza was in transition; modernity was knocking on her doorstep. She was being courted by new values and attitudes. Her provincialism was in danger of being supplanted by dangerous ideas.

Spanish writer Gabriel Miró (1879-1930) created a haunting central character in Oleza, except that Oleza was not a person. She was the setting of the novel, patterned after the author's Spanish hometown, Orihuela. The town was celebrated in the novel through detail-rich, postcard descriptions. The writing style was married to the pomp and pageantry of the novel's Catholic rites and ceremonies. It was a costume drama (and comedy) about how tradition and religiosity could occupy a dominant place in the personal and collective lives of a small town community and about hypocrisy and self-righteousness that were always bound to pervade any such community. It was a pulsing novel of humanity, in microcosm, limited by geography and historical time of late nineteenth century, but unlimited in its generous delineation of a gallery of fascinating characters, mainly clerics and their parishioners.

Gabriel Miró was a Catholic writer and a prose stylist in the mold of modernism. That he is relatively unsung at present was a quirk of literary fate. He was also earlier ignored by the Spanish literary establishment who did not elect him into the Real Academia de la Lengua Española, apparently due to the controversy triggered by the publication of El obispo leproso (1926), the second part of Oleza. Apparently, the novel was taken as an attack against the Church hierarchy, specifically the Jesuits.

Contemporary readers have yet to catch up on Miró whose religious upbringing and close observation of a pious society provided ample material for a novel about fall from grace and redemption through compassion and forgiveness. His faith in literature allowed him to recognize the power of authorship to grant the power of self-determination to his own characters. One character in the novel, a liberal doctor, underlined this principle of self-determination.

The joy of living must possess its own character. Our character, that is. I do not read books on leisure because the people mentioned in them lack character. […] In other words, each of the characters in those books has been formed before anything happens to him. That is not creation. Man must be created bare so that he later could create himself.

Miró did not have the fanatical zeal of Flannery O'Connor (in Wise Blood) or the sly decorum of J. F. Powers (in Morte d'Urban), though he might have anticipated the devilish comic touches of the latter. The characters for Miró were not mere chess pieces. He imbued them with free agency and the capacity to choose and to will decisions. He was not judgmental of them. He did not make a mockery of the vanities, frailties, and weaknesses of his vain, frail, and weak characters. Similarly, his good characters were capable of not succumbing to judgement or censure of others. The young man Pablo, the protagonist of the second part, learned the humble lesson of empathy: "This must be what is required of a man: to see one’s own nakedness and see the nakedness of others."

He pitied himself with disdain, and yet he also felt sorry for her. This must be what is required of a man. To be moved to pity and to deprecate. To harbor feelings for and toward other people. To have a heart that echoes with humanity.

The conflict in this modernist novel (a crisis of faith) was carried out through innovative prose. It was writing laden with details, details, and more details. The sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory information were evoked with mastery. "A lot of things are felt" from the sumptuous layers of description. Plot development was slow and some characters might at first appear to be caricatures, but they were hardly a liability in a novel of gorgeous prose.

Don Daniel sat back into the cushion and distracted himself by looking at the grass at the wayside, those which never caught his attention and his inclination to plants before. They all greeted him like neighbors would. A centaury tall with its bosoms teeming with clusters of violet flowers and ogive leaves, as well as spears of teasels that jutted out with their prickly, strawberry-colored flowers in a wreath of spiny bracts. A big thistle flower drooped pensively as bees swarmed about its membranous shrub. There were white, star-shaped chamomile florets with golden centers; daisies with ornate discs and white petals with reddish undersides; tremulous and fragile lady's mantles; wild sneezewort that boys used to insert in one sleeve and let out through the opening on their shoulders; dandelions; mallows; ears of wheat; mignonettes with yellowish spikes; brier patches that snaked though the field; the soft hues of grass ...

***

All of a sudden, the crag, the hermitage, the ruins and the hedges turned red as if they were put before a forge.

A scintilla of the setting sun cut through a layer of cloud and a shower of sunlight bathed the land. It came out with an ejaculation of happy soft hues, of opaque brightness. The raging waters of the gullies and the river were ignited, and so was the stagnant water from high and low, the bronze of palm leaves and cacti, the silver of the olive orchards, the torches of the cypresses, the rusty gold of the walls, the white of the barnyards, the spongy foliage, clean and fresh in recently divested blues. Summer's bosom rose. It had been held back all day by the storm. The afternoon – long, damp and fragrant – was resurrected.

Marlon James Sales, the translator, must have arrived at sterling solutions to thorny problems. The novel was said to be a "difficult" one to translate. The lyrical and rhythmic diction of the end product was a marvel. This was evident in passages which offer surprising verbal twists.

A light drizzle splashed on the bark of the trees, the sideways and the greenery of the fenced orchard of the Bishop. The fog, thin and clammy, lingered on the glass panes of the grilled windows as if asking those inside to let it in.

***

On the dais rested the desk of the archivist, Mossen Orduña, the sole archaeologist of the Diocese, a burly priest with smoked glasses fastened on the fleshy part of his nose. He held his head up high as if his nape had been corroded with rust, in a way that he had to move his entire body whenever he needed to look at something behind his back. His hands trembled; he usually clasped them together like a pair of obedient twins to hide his affliction. At times, however, he could not prevent himself from making his favorite move, the one he did with his palms ad altare versus, a liturgical gesture stipulated in the privilege granted to the clergy of Spain by Pius V in the bull "Ad hoc Nos Deus" on the 16th of December, 1570, a date that became an enduring source of pride for him as a Spanish cleric. He apparently kept on stammering whenever he spoke, so he talked monotonously and without pause. Moreover, his eyes were motionless and distracted, and his mouth, weak. Everything about him was sluggish and cold, with the robustness of innocence: his cassock was sloppy; his cloak, hanging carelessly from his shoulders; and in a shelf inside his cabinets lay ensconced his hat, as hairy as a fat hedgehog that it could be quite tempting to skin it. In sum, he was of an archaic presence, and oftentimes not very priestly, a man with a guise of both naughtiness and refinement, who because of his being so withdrawn from his routine and so indifferent to the world, could be robbed of all his garments and still would not pay attention.

***

The lady was sewing in her shop. She had placed a wicker basket full of chicks by her side. They got agitated at times and escaped toward the stave, or climbed onto her and bit on her fine mahogany-colored stockings. Doña Corazon felt then that she was the most helpless creature in this world, because she had to keep them from escaping, while trying not to crack the three eggs she was hatching inside the warmth of her bodice. Widowhood sometimes evoked an uncontrollable desire in her to be a mother, something she would fulfill with the tenderness of a mother hen.

Oleza's humor, particularly in the first novel Nuestro Padre San Daniel (1921), was of a very dry and quiet sort. It was the altar-like quiet humor of an all-knowing authorial voice, slightly intrusive but nonetheless able to conjure the ironies of existence (or a parody of that existence). It was a humor that grows on you. And oh, by the way (as the slippery narrator suddenly interjected, as if in conversation with the reader), the dry humor did not stagnate. It evolved and became wetter (less dry) and darker by the second part, El obispo leproso.

The second part of Oleza commenced with the construction of a modern train that will link Oleza to the rest of Spain, and hence the world. The train construction elicited a lot of criticism from the religious as it was seen to herald the entry of liberal ideas. It at least became the platform for a sequence of events, functioning not only as physical (technological) contribution to the progress of Oleza but catalyzing the spiritual and moral climate of the place. The train could be seen as a harbinger of another (modern) revolution, opening up the town to the possibilities of human understanding, tolerance, and happiness.

The rare intrusions, and parenthetical insertions, of the narrator were significant for breaking the third person epistemological certainty. He appeared as either singular (I) or plural (we).

It is difficult to avoid success on some occasions. If it does not come through the usual paths, it takes the byroads. If we walk slowly, we will find it there sitting on a rock, waiting for our arrival. However, it is likewise possible to outpace it if we are running too fast, and since we cannot bring ourselves to a halt, success will never reach us.

This passage was later emphasized in an aside ("It is difficult to elude success. But success also slips away from everybody’s hands. It is a bucket that goes up full and goes down empty."), as if to own the fabrication of the narrative.

The dry humor of the first novel gave way to the dark comedy of the second.

“There is an old saying …,” the priest quipped, “… that says if the triangles were to interpret God, they would imagine Him as having three sides. Luckily for the blessed ones, even if there are men who go to great pains in invoking a god that best suits them – and among them, Don Álvaro –, God is always far better than all of us.”

“Far better?” Jimena cringed while making the Sign of the Cross. “Don Álvaro’s god is purer and harsher than Don Álvaro himself!? Ay, Don Magín, what a terrible god it must be! May God deliver us from that god!”

 ***

"If you get bored, I will lend you a book."

He chose a volume from the Actas de Mártieres, and quipped, "Here you have cyphonism. Take a look."

He took a chair, knelt on it and bent to look. His eyes were wide-open. Padre Bellod pointed to the book with his middle finger, and began explaining some entries to the boy as if reciting the recipe of a preserve:

"The martyr is taken and placed in a pillory or skiff. You know what skiffs are? And pillories ... ? Well, two wooden boards nailed together tightly, but bored with holes for the legs and the arms. Like a reversed tortoise. There is a trapdoor that opens on top of the mouth, into which milk and honey are forcibly poured. The martyr is then left to bake in the sun. Afterwards, he is given more milk and honey, and then placed under the sun. More milk and honey, and then to the sun. Flies and wasps sting the person. More milk and honey, and then to the sun. The martyr is eaten away but is made to suffer for a long time. He feels the seething in his flesh, which by then would be reduced to a pulp. It is said that cyphonism is derived from the scaphism of the Persians, a very ingenuous [sic] lot."

Like a reversed tortoise! What a sobering image. And note the possibly deliberate selection of the word ingenuous, the obsolete of ingenious.

English translation of Miró previously appeared during his time. Figures of the Passion of Our Lord (1924) was translated by C. J. Hogarth. An earlier translation of Our Father San Daniel: Scenes of Clerical Life (1930) was made by Charlotte Remfry-Kidd. (This translation had an introduction by Arthur Machen, one of the writers admired by John Gawsworth, the early King of Redonda.) The second part of Oleza was also translated recently as The Leper Bishop (2008) by Walter Borenstein.

The present translations of the Oleza novels appeared as part of the University of Santo Tomas's 400 Years, 400 Books project, a monumental publication undertaking in celebration of the university's quadricentennial foundation as the oldest university in Asia. The publication of the two novels was supported by Instituto Cervantes and other institutions in Spain. It is to be hoped that the novels will be distributed to a wider audience outside the Philippines. They offer a glimpse of the verbal riches of a unique writer and the consistency and continuity of his holistic vision of a compassionate world.


Read for the yearlong Spanish reading festival, the 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong.

2 comments:

  1. I know next to nothing about Miró, Rise, so this was a most welcome introduction (thanks for considering it for the readalong as well). Interesting to hear about the combination of supposedly difficult to translate lyricism and humor, an unusual combination! Speaking of which, would you say that these two novels could be enjoyed as standalone works or ought they be read as a duo?

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  2. I think they are best read in order, Richard. Our Father San Daniel first, followed by The Leprous Bishop. That was how the author conceived of his work, a single unit. Now, if only an enterprising publisher (indie or otherwise) would acquire the rights and produce an omnibus. Or maybe, a boxed set.

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