22 November 2020

Final notes on The Childhood of Jesus

 

Halfway through The Childhood of Jesus, I was asking myself more and more if Coetzee's novel is science fiction. I meant that in the sense with which Kafka's and Borges's stories are said to fit the genre. The world in the novel was similar to but not quite a kingdom of this world. Signal images in the book at least invited comparison to Kafka's signature props.

Leaving the tennis players behind, they plunge on through the undergrowth, following the wall, until they emerge onto a dirt road leading to a pair of high iron gates. Behind the bars, through the trees, they can glimpse an imposing building in dark stone.

Though closed, the gates are not locked. They slip through and walk up a driveway ankle-deep in fallen leaves. A sign with an arrow points to an arched entranceway that opens into a courtyard at whose centre stands a marble statue, a larger-than-life figure of a woman or perhaps an angel in flowing robes gazing at the horizon, holding up a flaming torch. [80]

The Amerika-like vibe might seem a bit forced. Yet the Kafkaesque confusion and flow of philosophical ideas were somehow emulated. Meanings collapsed into uncertainties, with the characters always having Platonic dialogues to advance arguments relating to the  questionable correspondence of the signified to the signifier. That the young David's favorite children's book is an illustrated, condensed version of Don Quixote added to phantasmagoric questionings about the nature of reality, fiction, and happiness.

The light sci-fi conceit was reinforced by the fabulistic background we found the characters in. They were refugees from a place called Belstar, come to inhabit this Spanish village. Their memories were wiped out or erased for some reason. Hence, David and his guardian Simón were without a past, starting a clean slate, forced to occupy a world of forgetting, even if the disappeared past seemed to haunt both of them, "not memories themselves but the feel of residence in a body with a past, a body soaked in its past" [162].

Living in a body without past made it doubly hard to establish human connections in a foreign world. A world starved of meaning was a perfect world to concoct meanings and study the chair-ness of a chair. So Coetzee came up with this disconsolate yet still trivial world that was hardly comforting for readers desperate for an escape from the trivial. Something was off in the world of the novel, yet that something, an alternative reality, was still a subset of this created world.

Nobody could be entertained by the philosophical digressions into the laws of nature when readers look out for something transcendent and miraculous and divine. The title of the book felt more and more like a dirty finger to the reference code, the clash of the universal and personal, the general and specific. Even the English of the novel was codified as the Spanish language the characters speak in, while the German song chanted by David [77] was attributed in the novel as sung in English. The late Coetzee always made his readers aware of the seams and the constructedness of his narrative.

Don Quixote might be struck by a mind disease called enchantment, yet the modern novel that was created by Cervantes was an early symptom of the disenchantment of the world. The thread of disenchantment ran deep in the modernist novels such that storytelling in novels was no longer a straightforward suspension of belief. The invasion of self-consciousness and fiction-ness meant that it is no longer possible to write epics with heroes and heroic deeds and valiant songs as Borges decried. Because the forbidden fruit of knowledge was already consumed, it was only ever possible to write novels that moonlight as literary criticism or as mythmaking.

The Weberian disenchantment of the world planted seeds of doubt on the creation of meaning, in particular religious meaning. The divine as perceived by non-believers was non-existent in mythmaking. The divine was in everyday life, a human construct, a secular imposition of wonder that clouded appreciation of magic and fantasy. Even Simón acknowledged that books were not powerful enough to validate miracles and dispense irreproachable mantras that could bring comfort or relief to the dazed and confused.

'Something is missing, Eugenio. I know it should not be so, but it is. The life I have is not enough for me. I wish someone, some saviour, would descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered. Or, behold, here is an entirely new life for you. You don't understand that kind of talk, do you?'

'No, I can't claim that I do.'

The Childhood of Jesus was not the kind of book Simón was contemplating. On the contrary, it proudly wore its titular burden not as a balm but as fake gospel for agnostics.

***

For Max Weber, meaning in a scholarly work (perhaps in a novel, too) is always problematic because human knowledge will always be limited and incomplete. Hence, his question: Why should we do something that will never be finished, in fact can't be?A rhetorical question if there was one.

The young David's burning question, What are we here for?, was best viewed as a rhetorical question, too, just like Tolstoy's question, as viewed by Weber:

When Tolstoy rises up within you once more to ask, "Who if not scientists and scholars will answer the question of what we should do and how we should live?"—or, in the language I have used tonight, the question of "Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or maybe there is a completely different god, and who is that?"—then the answer must be: Only a prophet, or a savior. If there is no such figure, or if his message is no longer believed, then you won't in any case make him appear on earth by having thousands of professors, petty prophets living off state salaries and benefits, try to take up the mantle of one in their lecture halls. All you will do is make fully clear the decisive fact that this prophet, so longed for by so many in the younger generation, does not exist and will never come in the full force of its meaning. In my view, obscuring this basic fact—that our destiny is to live in an age without prophets, far from God—with surrogates at the academic podium will never serve the personal interests of anyone who truly hears the "music" of religion. The integrity and honesty of his or her religious "ear" will rebel and refuse.

Was Coetzee's unmusical novel then a revolt against the existence of prophets? That's another rhetorical question. Weber at least distinguished believers in "positive" religion from precisely those other people who have the "virtuosic ability" to successfully "sacrifice their intellect". From Coetzee's secular school of writing, we came full circle to Coelho's alchemical school of writing, an easy target. Weber, again, from the Disenchantment section of Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures (translated by Damion Searls):

Such a "sacrifice of the intellect" brings the prophet a new disciple, brings the church a new believer, as it should. But never has a new prophecy come into being as a result of—people have found this image offensive, but I intentionally repeat it here—the need many modern intellectuals feel to furnish the apartment of their soul with some antiques that are guaranteed genuine. They remember that religion is one such fine piece. They may not possess it, but they can whip up a replacement—a kind of private chapel, playfully stocked with little pictures of saints from the four corners of the world—or else can create a substitute out of all kinds of experience that they then ascribe a sacred dignity to and go hawking around the book market.

It was a pity that Coetzee refused to supply those furniture or chicken soup for the soul that readers could anchor themselves to in the comfort of their apartments during a pandemic. His human novel was hardly spiritual or experiential, devoid of the sacred dignity or palatable ideas that modern readers crave for to achieve escapism, or respite, or a fleeting feeling of mystical transcendence. Coetzee's picture of Jesus was a fabricated cat in an empty apartment.


01 October 2020

Notes on The Childhood of Jesus, 2

 

‘You and Fidel seem to get on well together,’ he remarks to the boy once they are alone.

‘He is my best friend.’

‘So Fidel feels goodwill towards you, does he?’

‘Lots of goodwill.’

‘How about you? Do you feel goodwill too?’

The boy nods vigorously.

‘Anything else besides?’

The boy gives him a puzzled look. ‘No.’

So there he has it, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.

So there he has it, Coetzee, spouting Biblical truth near the closing of Chapter 7 of The Childhood of Jesus. The reference was to Matthew 21:16.

and said to Him, "Do You hear what these [children] are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes. Have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise'?"

And Psalms 8:2.

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength, Because of Your enemies, That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.

The phrase soon entered the currency of idiom and had come to mean the wisdom of young children, or children who are wise beyond their years.

The passage continued and closed the chapter in a ponderous turn. Coetzee's philosophical spirit soared.

So there he has it, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. From goodwill come friendship and happiness, come companionable picnics in the parklands or companionable afternoons strolling in the forest. 

The word companionable – unusual, repeated – jogged my memory of college reading years, when I relished commentaries on stories and poems in a textbook on literature. I knew the word companionable streams was a phrase used in a poem by Keats because the import of the word companionable was emphasized in a close reading that accompanied the poem.

A few clicks in Google and it turned out I was wrong. It was by Yeats.

This was from "The Wild Swans at Coole" by Yeats:

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

The poet was revisiting a forest and lake where swans were frolicking. It was a regular sightseeing event, going for almost two decades now. At this particular visit, one could almost hear an audible sigh of melancholy as the poet gazed at the flock of 59 swans. There was marked contrast between the vitality of the swans and the world-weariness of the poet.

Coetzee, on the other hand, had Simón reflecting on missing human connections in a Spanish speaking refugee camp-like community. He was continually ignored by the people in the community who seemingly lacked for passion and energy. His attempts at flirting were unreciprocated.

So there he has it, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. From goodwill come friendship and happiness, come companionable picnics in the parklands or companionable afternoons strolling in the forest. Whereas from love, or at least from longing in its more urgent manifestations, come frustration and doubt and heartsore. It is as simple as that.

... Is he insisting on the primacy of the personal (desire, love) over the universal (goodwill, benevolence)? And why is he continually asking himself questions instead of just living, like everyone else? Is it all part of a far too tardy transition from the old and comfortable (the personal) to the new and unsettling (the universal)? Is the round of self-interrogation nothing but a phase in the growth of each new arrival, a phase that people like Álvaro and Ana and Elena have by now successfully passed through? If so, how much longer before he will emerge as a new, perfected man?  

Soreness of heart amid companionable surroundings. What are the odds? 

The playful wild swans were absent in Coetzee's formulation of longing and impatience and frustration. If anything, the contrast was between the friendship of the two innocent boys and Simón's longing for an adult connection, for companionship. Simón thought he still had some way to go to renew his older self. Whereas the boys, in their innocence and carefreeness, were already perfected in their wisdom. 

 

28 September 2020

Notes on The Childhood of Jesus

 

A writer deliberately wanted to be inscrutable on the page, and it was the fault of the reader not to see the thicket for the bush. In the beginning were words, and the words were with the novelist, and the words were inscrutable to the reader. 

The title of the book was a devil trick of the novelist. The first few chapters were not indicative of any hallowed subject. The nature of the divine did not knock on the page. It was not simply granted for the atheistic reader. But why invoke the son of God into the discourse if this was not a superhero's tale?

David, the precocious boy in the book, was a Chess whiz. He easily beat an old man in a blitz chess. The man would surrender and say, 'I'll think twice before taking you on again ... You've got a real devil in you.' Can you make it any more obvious, Sir?

There definitely was something different about the boy's disposition. He doesn't like chess even if he is very talented in it. He doesn't flinch when a physical threat of violence was made right in front of him. He doesn't like violence. There was something of a pacifist, if not divine, in his comportment. But the Coetzee school of writing still resisted the equivalence of his childhood with that of sweet Jesus.

* * *

A novel is not a vaccine that could trigger an immune response to the reader. But there are certain writers who have a way with stringing words together that could trigger mass delusion on the part of the thirsty flock. An extreme case, at the end of the spectrum, was the Coelho school of writing. This was a writing characterized by an imposition of hack ideas and quack medicine about finding alignment in the universe for the circumstances to constellate into your own Personal Legend.

Another extreme case, at the other side of the spectrum, was another instance of "placebo effect", a novel variant. This was the Coetzee school of writing. This writing was not sociable, hardly helpful, full of ludic misdirections. It was not the sub-meter accurate GPS device truth-seekers yearn for. 

'What did she mean? Do you really want to push something inside her?'

'It was only a manner of speaking. She meant that I was trying to force my ideas on her. And she was right. One should not try to force ideas upon people.'

It was quite a leap: the forcing of ideas on someone (or in a novel) was satanized as sexual assault. I may be taking the dialogue out of context. In this novel, it was quite impossible to force meaning out of words when it was the meaninglessness of life itself that seemed to emerge like a castle of sand.

On page 42, a running joke on rats to prove a point that we were not reading a gospel.

'It seems to me,' he continues, 'that a growing child needs more variety, more nourishment. One cannot live on bread alone. It is not a universal food. You don't know where I can buy meat, do you ... ?

Álvaro scratches his head. 'Not around here, not around the docklands. There are people who catch rats, I have heard tell. There is no shortage of rats. But for that you will need a trap, and I don't know offhand where you would lay your hands on a good rat trap. You would probably have to make it yourself. You could use wire, with some kind of trip mechanism.'

'Rats?'

'Yes. Haven't you seen them? Whenever there are ships there are rats.'

'But who eats rats? Do you eat rats?'

'No, I wouldn't dream of it. But you asked where you could get meat, and that is all I can suggest.'

He stares long into Álvaro's eyes. He can see no sign that he is joking. Or if it is a joke, it is a very deep joke.'

A trap with a trip mechanism for catching rats? Why belabor the talk of rats when the suggestion was absurd in the first place? And this coming from a vegan author of The Lives of Animals

And: "One cannot leave on bread alone". We know what you're trying to do there, Mr Coetzee.

Later on, a villainous character was introduced, a new worker in the docks.

The next day a stranger makes his appearance at the docks. He is small and wiry; his skin is burned a deep walnut shade; his eyes are deep set, his nose hooked like a hawk's beak. He wears faded jeans streaked with machine oil, and scarred leather boots.

The amount of words Coetzee heaped upon the character, Señor Daga, indicated that this guy was up to no good. Here at least was a novelistic trope we could rely on.

Come pay time, all workers lined up to receive their pay. Señor Daga received money from the paymaster.

'What's this?' says Daga.

'Your pay for the days you have worked,' says Álvaro.

Daga picks up the coins and with a quick, contemptuous movement flings them back in the paymaster's face.

'What's that for?' says Álvaro.

'Rat's wage.'

'That's the rate. That's what you earned. That's what we all earn. Do you want to say we are all rats?'

Later there was fight between Señor Daga and Álvaro. Daga wounded the latter with a knife before mounting the paymaster's bicycle and skirting away.

The boy David would ask his guardian: 'Why is he called Señor Daga?'

Simón the guardian would reply: I don't know if Daga is his real name. It doesn't matter. Names don't matter. If he wants to call himself Daga, then let him.'

Throughout this part I was laughing. Names do matter, especially in the Coetzee school of writing. In Tagalog, the word daga, with the accent in the second syllable, actually means a rat. A rat's wage for a rat. Tit for tat.

* * *

So much for the first seven chapters of this first book in the Jesus trilogy. In spite of the flashes of humor, there was no reprieve for the reader. The opaqueness of its presentation, borrowing from the Kafka school of narrative, was jarring. So far, the experience (as perceived by this reader) was antithetical to the communion of reader and writer as perceived by Martin Amis.

The relationship between the writer and the reader is a mysterious one, and rather unexamined in my view. At its simplest, it’s a matter of straightforward transmission: I am telling a story. But it goes much deeper than that, until reader and writer become identical, almost indivisible. One mustn’t, of course, baby the reader, but one must be very considerate of them. The frame of this novel is a direct dialogue with the reader.

Contrary to what were emphasized above, the novelist in question (Coetzee) was very inconsiderate of the reader. To hell with the reader. And isn't it concerning that reader and writer could become one and the same, like one is being possessed by the other? That's a disenchanting thought. It's like forcing ideas on the reader.


12 September 2020

On Arlt's broken threads and mixed metaphors

 

The streetlamps shone feebly, their shafts of woolly light only penetrating the dark of the pavements for a couple of yards, while the rest of the suburb remained invisible. Filled with an immense sorrow, Erdosain walked on as disconsolate as a leper.

He felt as though his soul had finally become detached for ever from any human emotion. His anguish was that of a man who carries a fearful cage inside him, where prowling, blood-stained tigers yawn among a heap of fish bones, their remorseless eyes poised for their next leap.

The mixed metaphors in that passage of Roberto Arlt's were oddly cinematic. The foreboding was almost its own parody. From the walk of a leper, to the fearful cage inside Erdosain, to blood-stained, yawning tigers on a heap of fish bones, you've got to hand it to the man. The noir and hysterics combined to produce a quirky animation of a forlorn man as he walked toward the dilapidated home of the Espilas, a family of misers. 

The first time he had seen them in their new surroundings had been a great shock. The Espila family had moved into a ramshackle three-story building near Chacarita, divided up by corrugated iron sheets. From the outside the tenement looked like a huge ocean liner, with kids swarming all over it as if it were a religious commune.

The "huge ocean liner" tenement where kids swarm all over as if it was "a religious commune" – the mixed descriptions teased out the absurdity of life in the underbelly of Buenos Aires. The hint of humor, however cruel, was suppressed but it bubbled to the surface like the hiss of chemicals mixed in a beaker.

The fog blocked off the road beyond sad patches of light around the oil streetlamps. Suddenly, Luciana grasped Erdosain's arm and whispered to him:

"I care for you so much, I really do."

Erdosain shot her an ironic glance. All his anguish had turned to cruelty. He said: "I know." She went on: "I love you so much that just to please you I've studied how a blast furnace and a Bessemer converter work. D'you want me to explain what the joists are for, or how the cooling process is carried out?"

Erdosain gritted his teeth. He stumbled along the street thinking only that man's existence is absurd, and an inexplicable anger rose in him again, directed against this sweet girl who was clutching his arm.

Erdosain rejected Luciana's feelings even if she did everything – even studied the alchemy of making a copper rose – for him. He could not simply imagine a fuck up trying to woo a fuck up like himself.

In the absurd, fucked up world of The Seven Madmen, characters were mostly unemployed or down on their luck. They wallowed in the poisonous pit lake of desperation and destitution. They fired off monologues as if saying their piece of mind was enough to atone for their sins. But their unedited speeches condemned them further to a life sentence. 

"Now I've reached the end. My life is a disaster … I have to create the foulest messes for myself … to commit sin. Don't look at me. Perhaps … listen: people have forgotten the meaning of the word sin … sin is not simply a mistake … I've come to realise that sin is an act by which a man breaks the slender thread still linking him to God. It means God is denied him for ever. Even if after committing the sin that man's life were purer than the purest saint's, he could never reach God again. And I'm going to break the slender thread that connected me to divine charity. I know it. As from tomorrow, I'll be a monster on the face of this earth … just picture it, a little creature … a foetus … a foetus that was somehow living outside its mother's womb … unable to grow … covered in hair … tiny … with no fingernails … walking among men without being one itself … its fragility horrifying all those around it … and yet there's no force on earth capable of restoring it to the lost womb. That's what's going to happen to me tomorrow. I'll cut myself off from God for ever. I'll be alone on this earth. My soul and me, just the two of us. With infinity in front of us. Alone for ever. Night and day … under a yellow sun. Can you picture it? Infinity growing all the time … a yellow sun up above, and the soul which cut itself off from divine charity wandering alone and blind under that yellow sun."

Erdosain's anguish before committing murder had made him philosophical and voluble. But his self-picturing of a fetus detached from its mother's womb was the summary statement of the negated status of Arlt's lost wanderers. People lost to the womb, cut off from charity and from the source of its life force. 

In Arlt, possession of life is malum prohibitum. Unlinked from God, his characters were walking dead sinners whose mere existence was itself a crime, or a sin. In the bleak, rank world of Arlt's novel, how does one create beauty from the savagery of existence? Remove the last traces of humor and the paradox is suffocating.

 

04 September 2020

Stefan Zweig's shame


The quest for spices began it. From the days when the Romans, in their journeys and their wars, first acquired a taste for the hot or aromatic, the pungent or intoxicating dietetic adjuvants of the East, the Western World found it impossible to get on without a supply of Indian spices in cellar and storeroom. Lacking spices, the food of Northern Europe was unspeakably monotonous and insipid, and thus it remained far into the Middle Ages. Centuries were to elapse before the fruits, the tubers, and the other products which now seem commonplaces were to be used or acclimatized in Europe. Potatoes, tomatoes, and corn were unknown. There were no lemons to prepare acid drinks, there was no sugar for sweetening, the cheering tea and coffee were still lacking; even at the tables of the rich and the powerful, there was naught to relieve the sameness of perpetual gluttony – until, wonderful to relate, it was found that a touch of spice from the Orient, a dash of pepper, a minute addition of ground nutmeg, the mingling of a little ginger or cinnamon with the coarsest of dishes, would give an unwonted and wholesome stimulus to the jaded palate. Precious culinary overtones were interspersed between the crude treble and bass of sour and sweet, or sapid and vapid; and the still barbaric medieval gustatory nerves speedily found it impossible to dispense with these exotic flavourings. More and more of them was demanded. A dish was not properly prepared unless it had been pricked up with so gross an excess of pepper that it bit the eater's tongue immoderately. Even beer was strongly seasoned with ginger, and mulled wine was so laden with spices that it tasted like liquid fire.

Stefan Zweig's opening salvo to his biography Magellan: Conqueror of the Seas (translated from the German by Eden and Cedar Paul) set the spicy pretext for his conqueror's travel from Portugal to the Philippines in the 16th century. In search of spice in the Eastern world, a flotilla of five ships started on a circumnavigation of the Earth that ended fatefully. Zweig was in owe of his subject's audacious exploits, extolling the navigator's Conradian suffering and sacrifices at sea. The teller's motivation for writing his tale was explained in the book's introduction.

It would be well for every author to analyse what urge, what desire for personal gratification, has led him to commit his thoughts to paper. For my part I have no doubt as to the internal causes that led me to pen the present work. I did so under stress of a comparatively unusual but very powerful sentiment – that of shame.

How come shame? Apparently, Zweig felt guilt at the modern comforts afforded by his slick travels in calm seas that he could not imagine his present luck compared to the struggles of ancient voyages and sailor battling the harsh elements and dire conditions of the sea. Thus, he felt shame at his enjoyment of the amenities of the modern ship he was on.

Compare your present experiences with those of the valiant navigators who were there first to cross this ocean, and to make the world known to us. Are you not ashamed of yourself when you think of them? Try to picture how they set forth, on ships little larger than fishing-smacks, to explore the unknown, to sail they knew not whither, lost in the infinite, ceaselessly in peril, exposed to all the vicissitudes of storm, to every kind of privation.

I could almost imagine the hapless and pathetic situation of our novelist. So moved was he by the romantic idea of sailors battling the winds and tides and having to endure bad food, cramped quarters, and unbearable loneliness. There was a sigh in these pages that cried for those star-crossed spice boys marooned in their fates, "alone in the unending desert of waters". Clearly, Zweig identified with the romantic notion of danger as men ventured into the unknown "to make the world known to us". This was the very European, very Western perspective of frontier mentality. And what was in store for Zweig's civilized sailors but doom as they entered the lair of the barbarians?

And so Zweig was "thoroughly ashamed of [his] impatience" while recalling the travels of his "nameless" conquistador heroes. So he studied them in libraries to learn more of their destinies, leading him to the one person that epitomized his dream. "Was not this the most glorious Odyssey in the history of mankind, the departure of two hundred and sixty-five resolute men of whom only eighteen got back to Spain on a crumbling vessel, but with the flag of triumph flying at the masthead?" There was something fanatical and obsessive about this perspective of Zweig's. Almost pitifully, shamelessly – in spite of his initial shame – he stanned Magellan.

In recounting this Odyssey as faithfully as I could after the examination of all the documents available, I have been animated throughout by the strange feeling that I must be painting a fanciful picture, must be relating one of the great wish-dreams, one of the hallowed fairy tales of mankind. Yet what can be better than a truth which seems utterly improbable? There is always something inconceivable about man's supreme deeds, for the simple reason that they greatly transcend average human powers; but it is by performing the incredible that man regains faith in his own self.

The downside to all these fanciful picture was Zweig's deliberately Western and colonialist privileging of the white man's burden. Zweig's misplaced shame in 1937 could only be called out by asserting the point of view of the "savage". While European historians and novelists waited for the barbarians, no one really understood the barbarian within.

The historical clash between Magellan's forces and Lapulapu's warriors in 1521 provided the flashpoint in which to understand and misunderstand each other and the 'Other'. In his critical introduction to Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Magellan by Vicente Gullas (a novel translated by Erlinda K. Alburo), the critic Resil B. Mojares called into question the Western colonialist appropriation of modern history and denigration of the pre-colonial subjects.

Magellan biographer F.H.H. Guillemard (1890) saw the battle in anti-heroic terms, "a miserable skirmish with savages." Stefan Zweig (1938) wrote that the great Magellan was "felled by a ludicrous human insect named Silapulapu," who was "one of the most insignificant of the princes," and referred to the Mactanons [people of Mactan] as "a horde of naked islanders." Playing with sarcasm, Zweig write of Lapulapu's refusal to give up Magellan's body:

He valued the trophy he had won, for now the news was spreading through the islands that Silapulapu the Great had destroyed the white lord of thunder and lightning as easily as he would have destroyed a fish or a bird. [Mojares quoted from the 1938 edition of Zweig's novel titled Conqueror of the Seas: The Story of Magellan].

Mojares considered modern historians' one-sided histories, including Zweig's, as embellishments of "the bare bones of fact". The acts of imagination could be blinded or blindsided by one's limited experience or deliberate limitation of feelings. One could not blame Zweig for his spicy narrative and (racist?) narrative. After all, the "ludicrous human insect" that defeated Magellan in battle was not Gregor Samsa's transformed body but an insect beyond the horizon of shame that the novelist saw in his binoculars as he looked back to re-imagine history.

I do not have anything to say about Zweig's fictional version of history – sapid or vapid – for I have not read it except for Introduction and a few pages of the first chapter called "Navigare Necesse Est". Of Vicente Gullas's 1938 novel – to which Mojares provided his lengthy introduction – which apparently mythologizes Lapulapu on the other hand, I have nothing to say either. Mojares's honest assessment of the book was trying to convince me not to read it further.

As a novel, [Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Magellan] has few literary merits. Its plot is loose, repetitive, and episodic (in the manner of popular, serial fiction at the time) and its characters flat and sentimentalized. ... Transposing early twentieth-century realities to sixteenth century Cebu, the novel is filled with anachronisms, incongruities, and contradictions. Freely drawing from history and oral lore, Lapulapu is an excessively fictional invention.

Later Mojares would describe Gullas's novel as peddling "a mendicant form of nationalism that claims that what the West has brought has been ours all along".

Soaring free of the ground of empirical facts, he distorts the historical Lapulapu beyond recognition.

A work of fiction, Gullas' Lapulapu is the most extreme example of the reinvention of the hero.

Was Gullas "re-inventing a hero"? Was his reinvention of Lapulapu a form of "veneration without understanding"? Was the legacy of Lapulapu distorted or misunderstood, tainted enough for him to be included in Nick Joaquín's gallery of flawed heroes in A Question of Heroes.

Two unfinished books, one seemingly racist, one obviously over-fictionalized. These imagined heroisms, these hagiographies. Just what is the limit for (historical) fiction to be excessive?