May 29, 2015
Reading list: Best 20th century Philippine novels in English
What are the 10 best Philippine novels written in English in the last century?
Who knows? For every subjective reader's list, there are always gaps and provocations. Any list will be faulted not for what's included but for what's excluded. But I expect more for what's included. Whatever. I offer the following list not to canonize or beatify. Not to spur discussions or debates (if anybody disagrees, please let him post his own perfect list), but to create a reading list for myself.
These are the books that I have read, partially read, or will read as I feel they offer something literary and lasting. I do not want a safe list or a predictable list, or a list of well-digested books. The three basic criteria are language, power, and technique. Perhaps I might be bothered to post another list of honorable mentions. But I suppose that secondary list will be more controversial for what were still excluded.
I want novels that go beyond place (Philippine setting or abroad), time (Second World War, Marcos regime), nationality of writer, and subject matter; though I find that the watershed for all of this novelistic creativity, the reference marker and benchmark, is the violence and injustice of the martial rule. This is an era that still has to yield "untold novels" of corruption and decadence. These are novels written before, during, and after the Marcos dictatorship.
These, I suspect, are novels worthy of their wasted words. They are "Philippine novels" because they are superficially about the Filipino experience. Their universal value is for anyone's judgement. The list is ranked, starting from what I consider to be the best of them.
1. But for the Lovers (1970) by Wilfrido D. Nolledo
More dreamscape than novel, But for the Lovers is a linguistic aria of war and memory. Wilfrido D. Nolledo is an unjustly neglected writer in his own country where his works are not known or not even widely available. Aside from this novel, he completed two others in his lifetime. Sangria Tomorrow (1982) and 21 de agosto or Vaya con Virgo (1984) were winners both of the prestigious Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel. Both are mysteriously out of print.
2. The Peninsulars (1964) by Linda Ty-Casper
Linda Ty-Casper is probably the most qualified Filipino writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Almost exclusively a historical novelist, she has produced a body of work that follows the template of history but with its own interpretive flair. In her novels about the turn of the century American occupation and the Marcos regime and its aftermath (Awaiting Trespass; Wings of Stone; Fortress in the Plaza; A Small Party in a Garden; DreamEden), she is an ardent historian not only of events but of human nature. The Peninsulars is set in the Spanish-occupied Manila in the 1750s, a prelude to the British invasion of the city in 1762. Also criminally out of print.
3. America Is in the Heart (1946) by Carlos Bulosan
A Marxist novel based on the life of Carlos Bulosan, this "personal history" is a living document of racism and emigration. It is full of adventures and longing, full of despair and hope. What the narrator states in the title is succor for himself, in whatever country can take the place of America. In whatever welcoming place will unequivocally give him salvation and redemption, staking his hope in discovering this shelter for his wounded self. Any country one finds himself may reside in the heart. Bulosan shows why.
4. The Bamboo Dancers (1959) by N. V. M. Gonzalez
I read it earlier this year and can attest to its enduring literary value. In tracing the peripatetic journey of an artist (sculptor) in post-war America and Japan, mid-twentieth century, it just might offer a floating portrait of a floating artist in a culture-clashing world. Yet Gonzalez does not provide that totalizing portrait, only snapshots of a quest for a life of meaning, a life devoted not solely to art and beauty, perhaps to the elusive peace of mind. The Bamboo Dancers is the cosmopolitan counterpart, and a direct response, to his almost ethnographic A Season of Grace. I just might write a blog post on it.
5. State of War (1988) by Ninotchka Rosca
Sharp prose and biting irony characterize this novel about the Marcos regime. The forceful, language-driven delivery of the novel, and its surrealism, sets it apart from other works of the period. In this novel and in another (Twice Blessed) Rosca is an staunch satirist of political repression and greed. Her fictional state of war predates the confusing, kaleidoscopic countries of other writers abroad like Jessica Hagedorn (Dogeaters; Dream Jungle) and Merlinda Bobis (Fish-Hair Woman).
6. The Hand of the Enemy (1962) by Kerima Polotan
Accused of being a compromised writer during the Marcos regime (she wrote a biography of Imelda Marcos), Polotan's writing prowess is undeniable. In The Opposing Thumb: Decoding Literature of the Marcos Regime (1995), the critic Leonard Casper criticized her for writing under the cloud of dictatorship as if nothing was afoot. "Although her 1975 collection of essays, Adventures in a Forgotten Country, was filled with pleasant reminiscences ... nothing in it was confessional: she had managed to remove herself from the agony of her fellow Filipinos as if, indeed, she lived in a forgotten country." Notwithstanding her ties with Marcos, her novel The Hand of the Enemy is an unapologetic narrative of domesticity. Not a political novel for her in the traditional sense. Only gender politics.
7. The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1961) by Nick Joaquín
Joaquín calls himself a man who had two novels. (He actually wrote three, if one counts A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, the quintessential Filipino text, an "elegy in three scenes" and a novel in the form of a play.) I almost chose the play just to rebel against form. But this novel set in Hong Kong is not just a 'proper' novel. Like everything Joaquín wrote, it is poetry in motion. This first novel is just an instance from a unitary body of work, from a constellation of greatness.
8. His Native Coast (1979) by Edith L. Tiempo
Tiempo is more appreciated as a poet. Her novels (The Builder; One, Tilting Leaves; The Alien Corn; A Blade of Fern) are played in minor key.What they always offer, however, is a reconfiguration of ideas about identity, duality, and finding a permanent sanctuary – a home, a dwelling place – for exiles. His Native Coast is representative of Tiempo's tortuous and spiritual engagement with a tortured psyche.
9. Renegade or Halo² (1999) by Timothy Mo
Timothy Mo is not even Filipino but here is the book anyway. I should maybe consider also other works written by foreigners and set in the Philippines, like Fires on the Plain by Shōhei Ōoka (originally in Japanese, however) or The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (in a fictional setting, but based on Mailer's wartime experiences in the country) or Ghosts of Manila by James Hamilton-Paterson (certainly in the honorable mention list). Renegade makes the list just because it adds diversity to the list, like the halo-halo of the title. Like Mo's own divisive Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, like the disagreeable Mo Twister, this picaresque novel is something out of place.
10. Empire of Memory (1992) by Eric Gamalinda
Gamalinda (Planet Waves; Confessions of a Volcano; My Sad Republic) is arguably the best contemporary Filipino novelist, perhaps rivaled only by Gina Apostol (The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata; Gun Dealers' Daughter). His novels are as diverse as they are inventive. Empire of Memory is another Marcosian novel, an ubiquitous genre, but distinguished by its modernist-revisionist approach to history.