23 December 2014

10 great books, in lieu of an anti-list


Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw
Our Father San Daniel
The Leprous Bishop
What Now, Ricky?
The Last Novel
Culture and History
Antipoems: New and Selected
What Passes for Answers
Diwalwal: Bundok ng Ginto

Ryan's favorite books »

1. Diwalwal: Bundok ng Ginto (Diwalwal: Mountain of Gold) by Edgardo M. Reyes

From a master novelist in Filipino, the reality based story of a people living in a mining community in Monkayo, Compostella Valley, in Mindanao. The mountain area is infamous for the "open secret" illegal mining operations tolerated by inept national and local government. Diwalwal is a place where laws are blatantly violated and where big people (politicians, military soldiers, businessmen) blatantly get the best of small people (the poor, the disabled, women, children, the aged). Almost documentary in style in some parts, this novel is a true exposé. The characters are so alive, especially the two friends, one hero and one anti-hero, whose destinies define the complexity of human struggles in a lawless society.

2. Bullfight by Inoue Yasushi, tr. Michael Emmerich

Inoue Yasushi managed to pack a lot of human observations in this elegant novella. The bull sumo was almost a side event in his exploration of the ethical aspect of human transactions; the lead up to main event was almost an excuse to investigate human profiteering and shady deals of businessmen. The novelist shrewdly introduced extreme situations to generate the responses he want from his characters. (review)

3. What Passes for Answers by Mikael de Lara Co

What passes for answers is a book of poetry, conceived in the mind of a poet, held in the mind of a reader. It is a quiet type of book, and the answers are withheld by careful writing. (review)

4. Antipoems: New and Selected by Nicanor Parra, ed. David Unger, tr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Edith Grossman, and others

This brand of poetry called antipoetry was more a worldview than a movement. On its surface, it was more like personal stuff than philosophical slash political stance. More myth than legend. If there was a guiding principle to it, then perhaps it was the anti-establishment position. A show of bravery and bravado, it knew not serious pretense nor preternatural seriousness. It was a show of freedom more than anything else. (review)

5. Culture and History by Nick Joaquín

Not every essay Nick Joaquín wrote is agreeable, but his arguments are thoughtful if not thought provoking, and the ways he phrased them are a display of skill and intelligence. He argued that the pre-Hispanic civilization in the Philippine islands are not too far advanced compared to China and India. He called it a "heritage of smallness": the Filipino works best on a small scale and by implication is unable to commit to big projects, hence, our ancestors built small boats (barangay). They also choose to work in soft, easy materials like clay, molten metal, and tree bark. According to him, our artifacts show that they did not develop to the next level, our pottery not as advanced as the Chinese porcelain. In contrast, the arrival of the Spanish brought advancements in technology that led to cultural progress. Joaquín is often accused of being a Hispanophile. He is a Hispanophile. His writings offer a reckoning of the Filipino in terms of colonial influences and the way diverse identities blended to produce the imprints of a culture and history.

6. The Last Novel by David Markson

This novel – a series of aphorisms – infuriated me at first. I wanted to hurl the book, to abandon it entirely. Until finally I began to get the hang of it, and get to feel the larger story in small installments. It was brilliant really. A very human story of a life nearing extinction.

7. What Now, Ricky? by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes 

The novel proposes electoral reforms, not bloody revolution, as a viable solution to the ills of Philippine society. The novel's epigraph said as much about how a nation's leaders were only a reflection of the greater society that elected them in the first place. The novel's backdrop was the First Quarter Storm in 1970, a period of unrest where students and laborers were violently dispersed by the police during demonstrations. (review)

8-9. Our Father San Daniel and The Leprous Bishop by Gabriel Miró, tr. Marlon James Sales 

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. (review)

10. Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw (Three Nights, Three Days) by Eros Atalia

While the true face or faces of the villain still can not reveal or unmask its legion, the dignity of the characters - the dignity of the people of Magapok - reigns as the unquestioned hero of the story. Men encroached into the rural area of Magapok and squeezed the life out of it, sucked the blood of the people in it and pillaged its natural resources. Mechanization, militarization, mineral extraction. The spooks have many faces. Just ask Pedro Paramo. Three nights and days of passion is all it takes for a disaster - man-made or simply inhuman - to strike hard.

It takes a special kind of writer to internalize the endemic problems plaguing his society and use them as materials to an allegory or parable or plain horror story that provokes, mystifies, and sows fear and 100% terror. It takes plenty of gumption to collectivize the ills of neglected countryside, then structure a broad fictional framework out of them. Hang together all seemingly loose elements in a fragmented story. Let the reader's imagination range freely in a created context of terrifying evil. Misunderstandings and puzzlement reign, comprehension and meanings are devoured, if meanings are still redeemable in purgatory, in case we are not yet immersed in hell.


  1. This has been a fine year for you, of reading and writing, although I admit a challenging one for me, since you have been reading so many books for which I have so little reference or grounding. How else am I going to learn, though? So I am not complaining; rather the opposite.

  2. Rise, thanks for another great year of blogging. If your other anti-books are as good as the Parra, I'll need to find time for them some day (+ maybe find time to take on a new language, he he). By the way, I hope you haven't given up on Bifurcaria bifurcata but that you've just been too busy with work this year. I've missed your other blog and the complement it forms with this one, I said, sitting in the wing chair.

  3. - Thanks, Tom. Even I am often unable to give the appropriate context in some books. Quick blog postings will not supply a well rounded treatment to a subject I otherwise would like to explore in more depth. But I am glad to have imparted a bit of the strangeness I also feel while reading some works. In addition to some works not written in English, I recognize that more than half of the titles in the list are not published outside the Philippines, so availability is also an issue. My interest in local literature is growing and I have built a shelf for it. A trend for mixing local and international literature will most likely continue in 2015.

    - Richard, thanks too. I missed posting on the other blog too. I'll see if I can revive it next year. If I'd known I will be an inveterate reader of works in Spanish and Japanese and others then I could have taken up a degree in linguistics. He he. But I have no regrets since great translations can usually fill the gap, Reger told me, said Rise.

  4. I'm glad to have discovered your blog this year (hat tip to Richard and Tom for the introduction). Most of these books are completely new to me, but I loved Bullfight and hope to find a place for it on my end-of-year list too. The bull sumo tournament itself does feel like a sideshow - I guess it's all about the interactions and dynamics in the run-up to the event. I'm intrigued by your comments on The Last Novel so I might take a look at that one.

  5. Thank you, Jacqui, and likewise. You've been well warned about Markson's novel. Will await your year-end list. I hope to read more of Inoue if not more works from Japan. It turned out I read only two novels from Japan this year, a far cry from the previous effort.

  6. Hi, have bullfight sat on my shelf waiting for my attention & have enjoyed Parra since Bolano enlightened me to his work.The rest I've no knowledge of so thanks for the introduction

  7. Gary, I too owe Bolaño the introduction to Parra (not to mention other excellent writers). You have Bullfight? Perfect.