"Where are Asia's Nobel Prize-winners?", asked the Filipino novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez in 1985. A prelude to his thoughts on "what literary prizes are for".
To Robert Frost the test of time is irrelevant. There is, in Frost's view, an "immortal wound" that is inflicted upon us by a good poem. He must have had the novel also in mind. Frost said this much, in a single-minded stand against being carried away by much-publicised literary trends.
Given the right circumstances, Gonzalez believed that prize-giving can be reminders that we might become "some writer's right kind of reader, soon to be 'hurt', to be 'immortally wounded – and ever grateful". But he eventually discarded his idea about prize-giving since "the Nobel committee misses the mark on occasion" because "to begin with, it doesn't, or can't, for some reason or other, collectively get 'wounded'".
Surely, the problem of accessing the novels in a language the gatekeepers understand is a key consideration for being considered for the prize.
The keepers of the garden gate would perhaps do well to remember that it would be unfair to quibble over whether certain credentials of entry, if in their original, are available in agreeable translations. Something truly substantial should be the basis for consideration [for the Nobel Prize].
Whatever that "something truly substantial" is, it could not be discovered unless one understands the letters on the page. Consider Kawabata Yasunari:
Kawabata appeared on the list of candidates for the first time in 1961.
But at that time, the translation of his works into foreign languages was limited to “Thousand Cranes,” which was released in serial form from 1949, and “Snow Country,” the novel that was published in serials between 1935 and 1947 and cemented his status as a leading author in the Japanese literary world.
The academy did not award the prize to Kawabata [from 1961 to 1967] as it deemed that it “cannot accurately evaluate his accomplishments due to a paucity of available translations of his novels.” [from: The Asahi Shimbum, via the complete review]
All of which brings me to the exemplary books I read during the previous year. All Asian works (from the Philippines and Japan), written by mostly dead (except for one) novelists.
They are fictional works that have impacted me by "wounding" me, the way Frost would never get over a good poem, and perhaps akin to how Kafka was stabbed and wounded, in his oft-quoted violent axing of the inner frozen sea.
1. The Locked Door and Other Stories (2017) by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, translated from Tagalog by Soledad S. Reyes (review)
Like her novels, Lingat's short stories were products of a discerning imagination. In this collection, her female protagonists navigate a social, economic, and cultural landscape inhospitable to women's desires and ambitions. But they resisted and persisted. These narratives were conflict-ridden, oftentimes reflecting the social unrest simmering in the background. They contained motifs and images that stirred the already troubled atmosphere.
2. Territory of Light (2018) by Yūko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt (review)
Tsushima would have been a very worthy Nobel laureate from Japan. In Territory of Light, the play of light and shadows was palpable, providing succor to a female character faced with domestic and societal pressures. The well-controlled mood, the nuance of feelings,
3. Driftwood on Dry Land (2013) by T.S. Sungkit Jr., translated from Cebuano by T.S. Sungkit Jr. (review)
This epic novel, influenced a lot by the oral tradition, straddles between two kinds of time: mythic time and historical time. But its ingenuity is in relying much on the former, making it similar to the style and content of folk tales like "the epic and the bayok". According to Resil Mojares, these narratives "are constructed out of a repetitive, limited set of verbal formulas and units of action, which is what allows the poem to be spontaneously composed, extemporized, as it is performed. In the epic Mindanao bayok, the language is highly figurative, elliptical, and improvisatory. Typically the action take place in mythic (rather than historical) time and construes place, person, and action differently from modern narratives". By his creative combination of both mythic and historical times, Sungkit provided density (history) to an otherwise light (mythic) narrative and produced a hybrid text characterized by its close attention to the dispossessed people, and hence the celebration of a marginal, off-center literary-historical tradition.
4. The Cry and the Dedication (1995) by Carlos Bulosan
If we go by hurt and feels, then this posthumously published (unfinished) novel was certainly wounding. Flawed, sometimes erratically written, it conjured character personas for the author who could be considered spiritually exiled in America. It was not something I enjoyed reading but something I couldn't get out of my mind. Its Dantesque approach (going to the underground and experiencing various circles of hell) might be sloppy and contrived but the "hurtful" ideas it generates on nationalism, revolution, and the aesthetics of resistance are worth pondering.
5. Ilaw sa Hilaga (Northern Light) (1997) by Lázaro Francisco (review)
A unique form of socioeconomic novel, if there was one, complete with analysis (in microcosm) of competition, trade, and foreign investment and its impact on local (rural) development. The specter of collective suicidal tendencies was satirized here, one wherein the elite of society ran headlong toward its self-demise due to being seduced by colonial mentality of Filipinos during the early decades of American occupation. A translation of the novel is underway.
Note: Quotations from N.V.M. Gonzalez were from “Among the Wounded”, in The Novel of Justice: Selected Essays 1968-1994 (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 1996). Words of Resil Mojares were from “In Search of Lapulapu: A Critical Introduction”, in Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Magellan, a novel by Vicente Gullas, translated by Erlinda K. Alburo (University of San Carlos Press, 2018).