12 June 2021

All happy stories are alike


Ang Píping Balalaika at Ibá pang mga Kuwento (The Mute Balalaika and Other Stories) by Ba Jin, translated from Chinese to Filipino by Joaquin Sy (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2017)


36316587. sy475 


Ito ay isang kaygandang gabí. Gabí sa Marseille. (This is such a wonderful night. Night in Marseille.)

Thus ended "Gabí sa Marseille" (Night in Marseille), the seventh of eight stories of Bajin (1904-2005) collected in Ang Píping Balalaika at Ibá pang mga Kuwento (The Mute Balalaika and Other Stories), translated from Chinese to Filipino by Joaquin Sy. There was however nothing particularly beautiful about the Marseille night in question. Only the irony of the statement was beautiful, leaving a bitter aftertaste for the reader who witnessed hair-raising squalor and poverty in the French port city where the narrator found himself stranded for an indefinite period of time due to a strike of the shipping crew in the docks. While walking at nights in the city, he was propositioned by a thin and wrinkled prostitute, covered in garish make-up and almost his mother in age, who implored to be her customer for the night, constantly mouthing the words "in the name of charity, in the name of mercy, in the name of saving a life" (alang-alang sa kawanggawa, alang-alang sa awa, alang-alang sa pagsagip sa buhay). Devastated with pity, his young educated self could not process the situation that the night in Marseille offered him. 

Without exception, Ba Jin's stories in the collection, which were originally published in Chinese from 1930 to 1936, were not happy ones at all. His were sad and frustrating stories, devastating even. The themes were the same as the subject of movies shown in the final story "Paglubog" (Sinking): eksena ng karalitaan, pag-ibig, digmaan, kamatayan (scenes of destitution, love, war, death). That last story directly referenced Chekhov, the writer in whom Ba Jin created a precursor. 

The Chinese writer wore his Chekhovian heart in his sleeve. From the opening title story that featured a Russian musical instrument, Chekhov haunted the pages in the cold atmosphere and setting (wintertime China and Russia; other European cities) and the pallor of characters (Chinese, French, Russian immigrants and expatriates). A moral, spiritual, and intellectual malaise seemed to haunt the characters in these pages which, in Filipino translation, must have conveyed the same timbre of loneliness and poetry of the original. Characters could be driven to utter despondency and degradation and poverty. The unlucky end awaiting each was almost a given, pointing to the elusiveness of happiness and the inevitability of misfortune awaiting everyone like death in the door. But there was poetry in the telling, and the collection was coated in the beautiful language of grief and modern varnish of storytelling. 

There was no poverty of imagination in situations of poverty and imprisonment. Prisoners all: the characters—literal or figurative prisoners starved of food or freedom and of meaningful existence. They might stoop so low, they might fight to the teeth, they might give up, but their all too human condition was on display. 

In "Heneral" (General), the impoverished, disgraced, and alcoholic Russian soldier—forced to live in China because of war and whose wife was driven to prostitution so that the family can survive—uttered his final cry after an accident in Russian language. Of course, nobody around him understood him. Except for the reader, maybe, because we know he said the words in the language we read them. 

In "Paghihiganti" (Revenge), with the shadow of indescribable war crimes, revenge was believed to be the pure source of happiness for a character yearning for it against someone called "Nutenberg". After assassinating his target, he realized that the long desired revenge was, after all, a fleeting source of happiness. Now that his enemy was gone, his strength and his reason for living had disappeared as well. 

The intellectual writer in the last story "Paglubog" (Sinking) was representative of the spiritual despondency and poverty of 1930s China and Europe that Ba Jin was mapping in his stories. The intellectual was a scholar of ancient Chinese documents and admirer of old porcelain vases who always unashamedly ordered his followers and students to read all kinds of learned books all the time. While holding a book of Chekhov's stories in English translation, the intellectual was unmasked by his former follower and protégé as a pretender and lacking in substance. When the intellectual recommended that his former student read Chekhov's works because they are truly relevant (totoong makabuluhan), the student confronted him and asked his teacher if he doesn't realize that he was like a character in Chekhov's stories (alam mo ba na gaya mo ang mga tauhan sa mga akda ni Chekhov?). The intellectual denied the accusation. His student was persistent: "In bed the whole day, discussing events that happened hundreds of years ago, believing there is a reason for things as they are, letting fate do its own trick on them, without any desire to change themselves ... Aren't these how the characters in Chekhov's stories behave?" (Maghapong nakahiga sa kuwarto, nag-uusap tungkol sa mga pangyayari ilang daang taon ang nakaraan, naniniwalang may dahilan ang pananatili ng lahat ng bagay, hinahayaang paglaruan ng tadhana, walang paghahangad na baguhin ang buhay ... Hindi ba't ganiyan ang mga tauhan sa mga kuwento ni Chekhov?) After this, the professor became silent. Then with pain in his demeanor, he finally admitted to his student that he might be right, that he might be finished already, that people like him are finally done (Maaaring tama ka. Tapós na nga ako, tapós na ang mga táong gaya ko). Looking in pain at his former professor, the student was as if standing in front of a newly covered coffin (Waring nakatayô ako sa harap ng isang kabaong na katatakip pa lámang). The professor's intellectual pursuits and scholarly output were a foil to his inner spiritual decline. 

Ba Jin's poor and pitiful characters marched ahead following the template of universal characters in the short stories of a Russian master. In a society hostile to world peace and stability, they led deplorable lives in demoralizing conditions, in a cold, harsh, and savaged landscape of war and days preceding the war, materially deprived and spiritually disconsolate days, days when the inertia of existence is itself unbearable and sad. 

All happy stories are alike, each unhappy Ba Jin story is unhappy in its own way. 



06 June 2021

Notes on Trilogía de Jesús


You must promise not to understand me. When you try to understand me it spoils everything. Do you promise? 

The Death of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee (Viking, 2020)

The Jesus trilogy by J. M. Coetzee had a tenuous connection to the Old and New Testaments. It's up to the reader to imbue the text with evangelical significance, if at all. The novelist did borrow stray phrases from the testaments with playful panache ('And who do you think you are?' / 'I am who I am!'). Still, the work was written in the philosophical register rather than the religious. By philosophical I meant the Socratic method with which the dialogues proceeded to elaborate on the weighty meaning of existence. And the prose was as spare as a skeleton: the late Coetzee style, one without any excess fluff or fat in its flesh.

Time passes. Then, early one morning, there is a knock on his door. It is Inés. 'I have had a call from the orphanage. Something has happened to David. He is in the infirmary. They want us to fetch him. Do you want to come? If not, I will go by myself?'

So began David's visible descent into illness and death. It was a story already spoiled by the title. So what remained for the reader to ponder in this novel of foregone conclusion? What payoff awaited the reader in the death of David? I wanted to borrow again Walter Benjamin's words in "The Storyteller":

The nature of the character in a novel cannot be presented any better than is done in this statement, which says that the "meaning" of his life is revealed only in his death. But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the “meaning of life.” Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death—the end of the novel—but preferably their actual one. How do the characters make him understand that death is already waiting for them—a very definite death and at a very definite place? That is the question which feeds the reader’s consuming interest in the events of the novel.

Again, it was up to the reader to imbue the proceedings with import depending on whatever "meaning of life" or of death or expired existence could be derived from the reader's experience of David's actual death in the novel.

In a novel such as this then, devoted to death's unfolding, the premonition of death, the inkling of mortality, was but a part of its philosophical design to investigate the meaning of life and death. But for poor David, being nipped in the bud at an early age, unable to experience the "fullness of life", unable to fulfill his destiny, he will forever be remembered as dead at such a young unripe age. 

This was like the moment Benjamin split hair to differentiate between real life and remembered life when it comes to commemorating the dead. Benjamin called "dubious" Moritz Heimann's statement "A man who dies at the age of thirty-five is at every point of his life a man who dies at the age of thirty-five." Benjamin called it dubious for being in the wrong (i.e., present) tense.

A man—so says the truth that was meant here—who died at thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five. In other words, the statement that makes no sense for real life becomes indisputable for remembered life.

It was thus well and good for the novelist Coetzee to kill David not at the end of the third book of the trilogy but by the middle of the book for his parents—Simón and Inés—to remember him for some time and provide a counterpoint for his meaningless life. By meaningless, I meant the meaninglessness of dying at an early age, as compared to the age of dying in the Old Testament days when people lived for such a long time—Noah at 950 years, Abraham at 175 years. Must be the lack of plastics and the nature-based food diet without the artificial seasonings.

In any case, Max Weber's contrast between Abraham's dying at "a good old age ... and full of years" in Genesis and a person's premature death at a young age in our own (contemporary) information overload culture was illuminating. Weber (maybe Coetzee too) was saying that dying at present times was pointless and meaningless because, unlike in the biblical past when there's no more riddle left to solve after living a life full of years, the present was a beehive of conundrums given the intellectual drought each of us will encounter in the face of a mountain of ideas and information. By our inability to make sense of our own place in this information culture, we die "tired of life", in Weber's pessimistic assessment, unfulfilled by the deluge of ideas that are "merely provisional, never definitive". 

While the singularity of David's character was fictionally established, his untimely death in the hands of the novelist Coetzee was no mere accident of history. He was representative of all human beings looking at the stars above and asking themselves '¿Pero por qué estoy aquí?' But why am I here? Always with emphasis on aquí, as David repeatedly questioned Simón.

To be fair, the story did present us with fictional conceits, if that was the right word at all, with which to examine the philosophical meaninglessness of a boy's life. It may be better to call these conceits the given givens. Or just premise, the first phrase already bordered on tautological.

The first premise was that the novel existed in or as a (fictional) translation. The locale was Spanish, with Spanish names for persons and places and things. Yet the very English of Coetzee always made a visible nudge to the internal translation from Spanish, sometimes even a direct translation after the Spanish.

'I thought Dr Ribeiro was going to test you for allergies. Has he changed his mind?'

'I've got neuropathy in my legs. The injection is going to kill the neuropathy.'

He speaks the word neuropatía confidently, as though he knows what it means. But what does it mean?

* * *

'What are you going to do? says Inés. 

'I don't know, my dear, I don't know. I am quite desperate.'

Querida. He has never called her that before.

This not-quite translation was the same label given to the favorite story of our dying boy David, the children's book version of Don Quixote which we know (in a sense) to be a translation of a translation. So the novel existed—or was here presented—in the language of Spanish, was actually called Spanish in the novel, and yet was here printed in actual English. In the first book of the trilogy, the boy David sang a song in actual German and his song was said to be in words of English. The reader could make of this whatever substitution between nominal words or language, just like the name Jesus can be substituted for David, or whatever transference from idea to fruition, just like Don Quixote substituted reality for fantasy. It has become almost a cliché to witness how the ghost of Don Quixote's fictiveness haunts novelists to death.

The second premise was the lack of memory of the characters Simón and David who, at the opening book of the trilogy, arrived in the Spanish town devoid of memory of their past lives. In fact, all the characters in the Spanish town were all refugees from places they no longer remember. All their previous lives were simply lacunae. With no origin stories to accompany them, they were forced to live from a blank slate. And this detail the reader had to accept at face value. I'm pretty sure if we interview Coetzee and ask him about this, he would say he could not remember why he began his story like this.

Without a priori knowledge of their past existence, the characters must rely on lived experience alone to give context to their current condition. Therein lay, perhaps, the raw creation or abstraction of meaning from the knowledge systems David was exposed to in his education. Much textual space had been given on how David construe meaning from understanding stars and numbers and dancing the patterns of stars in the book. The stars-and-numbers mumbo jumbo in the book was an instance where David's recognition of meaning from codes and symbols were put forward as articles of faith that one could learn and imbibe according to will. After all, one's encounter and comprehension of knowledge systems or belief systems, however grounded in science or rationality, requires a certain faith to be absorbed into the system.

The third premise was that names are said to be insignificant in the book. This was an idea subscribed to by Dmitri, the "passionate" murderer character in the book who was contrasted to Simón, a "reasonable" yet boring person. (Passion vs. reason was a running theme in the trilogy, particularly in the middle book, The Schooldays of Jesus.) In a postscript to his letter to Simón near the trilogy's end, Dmitri propounded this idea on names.

PS I am sure you are aware how unimportant names are. I could just as well have been named Simón, you could just as well have been named Dmitri. And as for David, who cares now what his real name was, that he made such a fuss about?

This was an attempt at misdirection of course. Who cares now why a trilogy starring David is named after a different boy? Jesus, the novelist was being obvious. I dare not say something about referent and reference, signifier and signified. From the rat-like Señor Daga in Book One (daga translates to "rat" in Filipino), we knew Coetzee was up to no good in naming his characters. How about this character on page 62 of Book Three?

Señora Devito is young and so tiny, so fine-boned, that she barely reaches to Inés's shoulder. Her curly blonde hair stands out in a nimbus around her head. She receives them eagerly in her cramped little office, no more than a cupboard really.

Why call a tiny person who can barely manage to fit into a cupboard-like office "Devito"? Seriously, Coetzee?

12 April 2021

A good sock to the jaw

"A terrible time is coming" [220], Remo Erdosain warned a pharmacist near the end of The Seven Madmen. Surely he was not referring to the present 2021 terrible but to the continuation of his story in Los lanzallamas (1931). On the previous page, he already said the same to the pharmacist:

I have to do something to bring down this society. There are days when I suffer unbearably. It's as if everything that happens is out of control, like a plunging wild beast. It makes me want to go out into the street and preach mass murder, or to set up a machine gun on every street corner. You must see it: terrible times are coming.

That was from the translation of Nick Caistor. In an afterword to the book called "Arlt's Life and Times", Caistor explained his approach to the translation, a fitting way to deliver in English a South American's mass murdering and mass shooting psyche:

Critics have often complained of Arlt's repetitions, his lack of grammatical accuracy, his wayward logic. The temptation as a translator is to straighten him out, to bring back a decent sense of order and common sense. In translating The Seven Madmen, I have tried not to do this, while at the same time avoiding adding any incoherencies of my own. I only hope that this crazy, disjointed, glorious book still has in English the power of a good sock to the jaw – as Arlt himself described the power of literature.

That was Arlt surely, incoherencies and all. And "a good sock to the jaw" was the knockout he was aiming for in his violent Buenos Aires world. By page 76 of The Flamethrowers, translated by Larry Riley, I was already enamored (read: battered) by the lack of order and common sense to the proceedings. Whether it was the translation of the story or the chaos Arlt deliberately brought to the table, who could tell. As can be gleaned from the first half of the story (in Los siete locos), crazy disjointed glorious was the order of the day.

Larry Riley was kind enough to reproduce and translate for the reader the "Words from the Author" that gave Arlt's standard for a powerful piece of work.

The future is ours, for powerful work. We'll create our own literature, but in our proud solitude we can write books that include the violence of a "left cross" to the jaw. Yes, one book after another, and which those eunuchs [literary critics of newspapers] will spit on.

The novelist Rick Harsch, who supplied the introduction to the book, revealed that Riley "determined to translate [Los lanzallamas] from a language he did not know at all into English". True to the spirit of the Argentinian novelist, who discussed in the foreword how "style", "beauty", and "embroidery" were somehow antithetical to his writing, Riley – with the help of Harsch, presumably, but this was in question – persevered and completed and published his translation. Like Arlt, Riley was brave enough to put out a work for readers other than his family members.

They say I [Arlt] write poorly. It's possible. However, I wouldn't have any difficulty in citing any number of people who write well and who will only let certain members of their family read their work.

If indeed what we have in our hands is sub-par work, then so be it, I'm still rubbing my hands together. The translation could readily capture Caistor's observation of Arlt's penchant for repetitions, ungrammatical formulations, haphazard logic. A terrible translation was in keeping to the terrible times that we – also, Arlt circa early 1930s – live in. You see, Caistor did not smoothen the diction or grammar. So the reader could enjoy Riley's translation as a parody or satire of what could have been. Amateur Reader provided some writing samples. 

It might not be such a shame at all to read flawed translations. In "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom" (translated by Natasha Wimmer, and used as an afterword to the 2015 Serpent's Tail edition of The Seven Madmen), Roberto Bolaño noted how Arlt himself was weaned on this kind of translations.

Arlt is quick, bold, malleable, a born survivor, but he's also an autodidact, though not an autodidact in the sense that Borges was: Arlt's apprenticeship proceeds in disorder and chaos, through the reading of terrible translations, in the gutter rather than the library.

While Arlt's standard of a powerful work – that it was like a decisive uppercut to the jaw – was kind of violent and heavy-handed, a rather diplomatic test of a translation's worth, especially in Arlt, is if it made you laugh the way, say, Kafka's confused characters or Bernhard's megalomaniac rants made you laugh. Early scenes in The Flamethrowers – e.g., the virginity scene in pp. 50-55 – already fanned the flames of comedy. Let's see if Harsch, I mean Riley, could keep it consistently.

25 March 2021

Stones are fluent in the language of stones


Melismas by Marlon Hacla, translated from the Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim, illustrated by Tilde Acuña, introduction by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III (OOMPH! Press, 2020)


Sometime in the twenty-first century, the computer programmer and poet Marlon Hacla created the robot Estela Vadal--a machine who has the capacity to churn out poems in Filipino language. The poet had already edited and published the works of his 'protégé' as Ito ang Pangalan ng Aking mga Dila (Here are the Names of My Tongues) (Magpies, 2017).



In a parallel world, an AI-dominated world order run by highly-evolved, advanced sentient engines, still in the same century, I imagined the enfant terrible machine-slash-poet named Estela Vadal spawning her own prototype poet using non-human person-induced codes and neural networks. Vadal's blockchain-inspired experimental tendencies were fueled by exploration of organic intelligence and creativity. During the golden age of T-800s, Vadal named her prototype Marlon Hacla. 

Human Hacla spouted lines that shocked the meta-critical Gedankenexperiment establishment. He produced unique combinations of words that seemed to hinge on an invisible engine or mechanism that made humans human.

(This clickbait intro may have overstayed its welcome at this point.)


This body, stuffed with nightmares
a nesting ground for hawks, swollen
with intractable blues, if only I could solicit
a new shape for you, if only you would scintillate
like a word. [p. 3]

The opening bars of Melismas by Marlon Hacla, translated from Filipino to English by Kristine Ong Muslim, began like an innocuous dark liquid seeking a new shape inside the body that drank it. The air itself was reeking with disaster or catastrophe. Each poem (or fragment) appeared to be a missive to someone, the self or a lover, like in this one addressed to this body, the self's body or a lover's or a poem's--there was a muse but his/her identity was a mystery. And it was not clear if the love was reciprocated or unrequited. Some poems were directly addressed to a certain "my love" in verses that fluctuate between antagonism and desire.

The bilingual collection dropped last year in the middle of a pandemic when the world was (still is) viral with inner frustrations and invisible agonies. The signs of times were weighing heavily on the poet's (and translator's) minds; even if the forms of tragedy were different and site-specific, the instances of mental civil wars were universal. The poems fumbled and ambled along through surprising images and detours, tonal shifts were abundant and jarring, and the conflicted poetic persona always circled back to his lover. The body stuffed with nightmares may as well be dead and decaying. But the speaker was trying his best to retrieve the worth or value of a word. 

... This is how I will carry on:
lightning storm that enters a creek, dyed seraphim,
bottled scorpion. The times have been insinuating
scores of uprising, but how can I possibly turn my back on
you if I have not yet finished describing all your transgressions? [41]

Hacla's "love poems"--who dare say they were not poems of love? should one say love-hate poems?--were often checked or jolted out of traditional lyric poetry by a form of woke poetry. There were indications that the poet could not hold back his feelings due to the force of his enamoramientos (infatuations), and that the object of his affection held sway over his peace of mind with a hyperbole-inducing force.

... I have no more use
for you but each time I discard
the list that condones your utility,
a rice paddy's hue turns pale, blankets are suddenly blown away
to reach every layer of the sky. [53]

The tonal shift from lyric to 'woke', usually near the end of the fragments, was a paradigm shift from pure symbolic/imagistic poetry to a healthy dose of pragmatism and skepticism. The soundtrack of Melismas the musical was rehearsal music for unspecified and abiding terror or madness: "Across the street, / cellists carry on / with their exorcism" [73].

Everywhere, shaded areas are agitated,
stones are fluent in the language of stones.
From behind, the water is arching for a bite.
The sky is scattering bits and pieces of itself,
the birds are colliding tenderly,
the stars are assembling a mirror.
Through windows, children are watching
the night's pretension, no matter how weak
the grounds sustaining the source of this
continuity, nor will the flood
of luminaries in the country lead to progress
and strength of purpose in order to see
this radical shifting of the world.
For now, not far from here, these two are being honed:
the weight of the wind to enhance
its destructiveness and then a new song. [51]

There are things to unpack in the journey of that poem from dark lyricism (shaded areas; water ... arching for a bite; birds ... colliding tenderly) to a swipe at the flood of useless luminaries running the country to a "radical shifting of the world", and then to a final duality of destructiveness and music. Whatever meaning could be attached to this fragment had to be tied to the atmosphere conjured by spontaneous ideas and images. The poet worked his way by establishing associations and accumulating details that strive to "scintillate / like a word". 
The riffs alternated between mundane observations and pragmatic pronunciations. Each of the poems was untitled, forcing the reader to take each composition not as an individual gesture of an image or sentiment but a part of the larger articulation of existential despair and struggle. The monochromatic black and white illustrations by Tilde Acuña were like a reprieve between the acts, dividing the fragments into manageable sections while adding their own apocalypsis flavor into the mix. 
It was as if the robot was a huge influencer of his creator's method. The images used were plenty; they came from behind. Abstract concepts were bent into concrete significations. The words scintillated like stones, "fluent in the language of stones". Hacla seemed to have borrowed the enigmatic one-character-at-a-time ejection of poetical texts by Estela Vadal. His compositional blocks were air pushed out of a monolithic cave, the phrases flowing from the subterranean river-like consciousness. The cave was actually just part of a caves complex, which extends inland into a network of limestone formation. Melismas was a massif.


In the parallel universe, I imagined Estela Vadal creating a translator machine to rival Google Translate. This machine learned and adjusted her output through the compositional choices of translators before the fifth industrial revolution. Vadal called her machine Kristine Ong Muslim whose output was an experience apart from the original Filipino conception of meaning. The robot made bold choices, spurning literalness and interpreting the musika of language, shifting it to a new musical arrangement. Her lexical unit was not a word or a line but the entire fragment--creating fragmentary meanings. Her lexicon was the entire crescendo of the collection, creating a consistent voice for a translation that was not robotic but melismatic, not merely good but badass.

Take, for example, the poem excerpted in Bosphorus Review of Books (link: https://bosphorusreview.com/from-melismas). Music carried the poem despite the fear and paranoia and the threat of extinction. 


... Suppose I imagine
birds, will that conjure birds?
If I visualize paradise,
will that render visible the wind's unseen machinery,
will that produce names for all kinds
of wounds to make plain the level of damage wrought
to the environment, to explain the water rise
going beyond the expected limits
assuming we can still consider as limits
the coiled ropes and upright pickets of my unease? [p. 79]

Melismas was an accretion of details that flowed into the structure of a modern musical (Hamilton, not Miss Saigon). Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III's introduction to the book made references to poets Arthur Rimbaud, the Indonesian Chairil Anwar, and Roberto Bolaño. I would like to propose Nicanor Parra's anti-poems as an additional pole of reference, not for the content but for the anti-establishment ring of truth. Hacla could make obvious the constructedness of a poem wherein a poet's imagining (or imaging) of birds was its own conjuring. And the acknowledgement of a poem's limitation (and by extension the poet's limitation), through the admission of the futility of words in the face of "coiled ropes and upright pickets" of personal unease, were an acknowledgement of the truth behind poetry's inability to save the world, whether to address climate change impacts, like sea level rise, or environmental degradation, or extreme events.

True to their title, the poems were characterized by jazzy, free verse musicality and in some lines even sustaining the prolonged riffs and runs into various movements. The short fragments that started the collection, with their stray images and fleeting conjuration of words, gave way to--or was terminated by--the last three poems which unfurled like freestyle rap-verse outpouring of lines. The short poems in the beginning were just splinters of open-ended thoughts, seeking the shape of the mind vessel. The final sequence was a succession of three to five pages-long poems that rhythmically hammered images upon images and thoughts upon thoughts, perfecting the riffs with a floodgate of emotions and unease and passionate love and almost undisciplined temper and intimate moans, the ones you utter or hear at night, when the body was stuffed with nightmares, and words conjure themselves out of a subterranean river of consciousness, building into a limestone massif.

My favorite piece was this:

Since it is once more the season of thorns,
the children are yet again wounded.
And in the absence of inclement weather,
rooms begin to dance, books
fling themselves wildly
across the floor.
Towards the end, lives are improved,
wounds dry up fast
despite the humid heat. The memories
have already settled down as wall pictures. [81]

I liked how in a few short lines, how in a short progression of images (thorns ... children running ... getting wounded ... books flinging ... wall pictures), time contraction was accomplished, radical transformations (lives are improved, / wounds dry up fast) took place in a single place, in fast-forward fashion. There was movement there. There was forward motion visible in the books flinging wildly across the floor. The verses were hurtling toward an outcome that in itself was a kind of regret. From children running around and getting wounded, to pictures on the wall memorializing the summer days when children ran around and got wounded. The articulation itself was the act of conjuring birds, when imagining things was the same as spinning them out into reality, as if "render[ing] visible the wind's unseen machinery" [79]. 

The poet acknowledged the limitation of metaphor and poetry to create the world firsthand, and it was that humble acknowledgement of the inability of poetry to express everything that made the lines ring true. The prolific Estela Vadal would approve of the image-pile, the ambiguity, and the lyrical conviction. She must be a proud mentor to her creator and his translator.

In some random multi-verse where an Estela Vadal creates a Marlon Hacla, an NI (natural intelligence) poet, the perennially clickbaited "sanaol" generation of consumers weaned on pop culture merch, digital products, and bingewatched K-drama series would be moved by poetry that could still hold a candle to the rhymed yearnings and universal pinings for a perfect musical love story. 

Corollary. One must read and reread Hacla.














28 February 2021

Notes to an unfinished business

Restraint in fiction is a constraint, I suppose. One reads, say Coetzee, and one feels an Oulipian-like constraint, but a kind of constraint that is not devoid of feeling and passion. Said Max Weber: Nothing is humanly worth doing except what someone can do with passion. The emphasis was his.

A passion for reading is what may be propelling us to finish a book, let alone one short story or one short poem, even if we know that the work, the act of reading, will remain unfinished even if we arrive at the last word and the final punctuation. I find myself reading so many books at the same time, eager to start, or begin anew from where I left off, a new book. Whether on paper or on Kindle, the words and pages swim before me and I lose interest and open another one. 

I finished the Disenchantment part of Weber's twofer Charisma and Disenchantment (translated by Damion Searls) before being disenchanted with what he had to say about politics in the second half. But I finally got to have an inkling of what he really meant by disenchantment from the world. Something to do with the literal sense of the lack of enchantment or magic, the "mysterious incalculable forces intervening in our lives".

But instead all things, in theory, can be mastered through calculation. It means the disenchanting of the world. Unlike the savage for whom such mysterious forces existed, we no longer need to adopt magical means to control or pray to the spirits.

The house of the spirits was exorcised by the increasing rationality and intellectualization of the modern world. And yet the scholar (and the novelist) plod on with her work, leading Weber to theorize about the nature of unfinished business in scholarship (which can be extended to novel writing). Scholars and novelists do something that will never be finished, in face can't be finished. Which I will now extend to reading, if only to give myself the excuse of why I keep on starting and restarting books in the past few months and not blame the pandemic about it.

One book I finally got around to finishing was Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia. It seems as if I was reading a translation of a linguistically innovative and experimental poem about mortality. I did finish the thing but since it was part of his larger The Major Works, the book remains an unfinished business for me. I remember Kevin of Aquarium of Vulcan saying that Hydriotaphia or Urne-Buriall was only the first half of a diptych that ends logically wtih The Garden of Cyrus, that Browne intended for them to be a unified work. Just like The Seven Madmen was but half of a novel continued in The Flamethrowers, another novel I managed to crack open without getting the motivation to fully engage in Erdosain and the Astrologer's funk.

This unfinished business of reading made me think back on Coetzee's Jesus novels, which remain unfinished for me. I know that by the end of the third book, the death of young David is inevitable and announced by the book's title. This had a particular resonance for me reading The Schooldays of Jesus, the second novel in the trilogy. Every dialogue seemed now colored by what was about to happen.

Two more days, and the grape-picking is over; the truck has borne the last binfuls away.

'Who is going to eat all those grapes?' demands Davíd.

'They are not going to be eaten. They are going to be pressed in a wine press and the juice is going to be turned into wine.'

'I don't like wine,' says Davíd. 'It's sour.'

'Wine is an acquired taste. When we are young we don't like it, then when we are older we acquire a taste for it.'

'I am never going to acquire a taste for it.'

'That's what you say. Let's wait and see.'

Davíd is never going to acquire a taste for grape wine because he is going to die by the third book. His is an unfinished business of living. And if meaning is what escapes people all throughout their lives in this disenchanted world, how much more meaning in a life not fully lived. For the boy this is (now) predestined (by the novelist), for his adopted parents this unfinished business will be shattering. The Schooldays of Jesus is a book about parenthood. 

The imminent death of Davíd is almost a counterpoint to Ivan Ilyich's demise in Tolstoy's wondrous novella. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" features a magistrate dying of a mysterious disease. Ivan Ilyich was in denial of his impending death, so he engaged in a moment-by-moment self-auditing of his life, and then finally accepting his finite existence rendered meaningless by suffering and death. The acceptance of the finiteness of life ultimately giving him release. Weber framed Tolstoy's work using the lens of disenchantment, locating an argument that was "fundamental to Tolstoy's art and [filled] all of his late novels".

[Tolstoy] was increasingly obsessed with the question of whether death had meaning or not. And for him, the answer was, No, not in our culture, because in the context of modern civilization, with its theoretically infinite "progress," an individual's life necessarily lacks any ultimate purpose. There is always another step to take on the path of progress; no one dies at the peak or end of his journey, because the path continues into infinity. Abraham, or indeed any farmer from a bygone age, died "in a good old age, an old man, and full of years" [Genesis 25:8] because he was part of an organic cycle of life; because as his day drew to a close, his life had given him whatever it had to offer, in terms of meaning too; because there was no riddle left to solve. Thus he could feel he had had "enough." A person in our culture, in contrast, in a civilization perpetually being enriched with ideas and information and problems, might become "tired of life" but can never be fulfilled by it, never be "full of" his years. Not only does he get wind of merely a tiny fraction of all the new ideas that intellectual life continuously produces, but even those ideas are merely provisional, never definitive. As a result, death is simply pointless for him. And so too is life as such in our culture, which in its meaningless "progression" stamps death with its own meaninglessness.

Weber's pessimism on the meaninglessness of life and death was tempered by his belief that the "truth of science and history and systematic knowledge of all kinds" could lead people into the light. He expounded on this by referencing Plato's allegory of the cave. Which led me to think that novelists like Coetzee, or Arlt, or Kafka were practitioners of cave and shadows approach to novel writing. I mean that they populate their novels with characters that flail about and try to reach out for something beyond their grasp. They will not for sure lead you directly to the light but blind you in the pitch darkness of the cave.

What Coetzee meant by childhood and schooldays was perhaps a teasing out of the meaning of what we are in life for. After all, a life taken prematurely, in fiction or not, was always a sad thought. But if the novelist had to take a character's life to prove a point that there's no point, then whatever. 

Whatever is the meaning of a "figurative death". Walter Benjamin, in "The Storyteller" (translated by Harry Zohn) said that "the nature of the character in a novel cannot be presented any better than" the statement that says that the “meaning” of [the character's] life is revealed only in [the character's] death. In observing this figurative death, the reader somehow dies with him.

But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the “meaning of life.” Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death—the end of the novel—but preferably their actual one. How do the characters make him understand that death is already waiting for them—a very definite death and at a very definite place? That is the question which feeds the reader’s consuming interest in the events of the novel.

The death of the novel is its ending. The novel dies every time it ends. But the reader lives on his life as before (i.e., doing things other than reading) after this metaphorical death. But one can choose not to finish reading a book if only to defy the closure that is the end of the book.

Whether we have completed reading it or not, a book, if it is any good, remains unfinished because it continues to mystify us as we spend our short shrift of time on its pages. Maybe reading is just a way to buy some time, to delay the business of living: a morbid thought. Even so, reading books we deem worthy enough to spend time on ought to lengthen a short life by giving its waking life even just a "tiny fraction" of new ideas, even just a shred of something.