27 June 2010

Portraits of B

Short-cropped curly hair. Elongated, triangular face. Bushy brows. Eyeglasses. A cigarette. Near the lips. About to blow. Telltale signs that I'm looking for in a cartoon or caricature. It was hard to select one to use for an online reading group avatar. A lot of good drawings of B were uploaded in the web.

1. This illustration by Phillip Fivel Nessen for The Stranger is one of my favorites. Notice the fingers. And the background tells a story.

2. I love this illustration by Carlos Cardona. The exaggerated broad forehead, the background wash of colors, the prominent vein in the hand. Beautiful. The yellow eyes and the ashen skin color make him look like a zombie. This is in my top 3. In fact this is the avatar I've chosen, for now.

3. Noir look. It makes me smile. The nose, the smoke, the open fingers. It's from Marci, also in deviantart.

4. A photograph of a street art, posted in flickr (by gsz, via Global Graphica).

5. This is fun, too. The Chilean looks like a sulking teen. Art by Tomas Leal Elgueda.

6. This appeared in The New York Times review of 2666. Art by Christoph Niemann.

7. From The New Yorker review of The Savage Detectives. The ilustrado look. The novelist looks more like a doctor or a lawyer here. Art by Riccardo Vecchio.

8. Accompanying an essay translated from Entre paréntesis. Published in Molossus.

9. Two-face. I've written about it previously. Art by Renzo Podestá. The ciggie is placed like a thermometer.

10. "Malogrado esténcil de Roberto Bolaño." Photography taken in Barrio República, Santiago de Chile. Published by Gabriel Muelle / Mr. Fiasco.

11. From a review of 2666 in The Fanzine. Illustration by Danny Jock.

12-13. Two pencil sketches by

14. From a review of Nazi Literature in the Americas in The New York Times. Art by Kim Demarco

Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes

Paula Cabeçadas inSuite de ideias

Suite de ideias

THE FLUX I SHARE. Mixed media-like chaos.

I'm sure I left out some great drawings and illustrations. Send me the link through a comment here or email if you've spotted anything else. The images here are copyrighted by their respective illustrators, photographers, bloggers, or magazines, publications, and blogs that published them.

UPDATE (July 6): I found more portraits here.

21 June 2010

GIVEAWAY: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places

Open only to readers with address in the Philippines.

This will be my first book giveaway to celebrate... To celebrate space. I’m trying to mitigate the perpetual chaos residing in my room. My room is spilling out boxes of books – I don’t have a shelf – and so, starting now, I might have a monthly book giveaway to recover some space.

The book:

The book is The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi, "newly updated and expanded" 1999 edition. It's got 756 pages. I can't find the ISBN in the book but the cover is similar to what's pictured below.

It’s in hardcover, very good condition, though there’s a tear in the front bottom right edge of the dust jacket. There’s a tag price at the back, and there are some wearing in the edges of dust jacket but they were minimal. It’s pretty solid.

It's illustrated by Graham Greenfield, with additional illustrations by Eric Beddows, and maps and charts by James Cook. Published by Knopf Canada.

Blurb from the back cover: "For the intrepid literary traveler, an invaluable guidebook to more than twelve-hundred places-that-never-were"


Just drop me an email, with the subject "A DICTIONARY ENTRY" (case sensitive). Include your full address with the email. Only readers with Philippine address can join. One address per reader, one reader per address. The winner will be randomly chosen from the entries.

This contest ends on July 2, eight in the evening, local time.

Thank you and happy reading to all.

EDIT (July 3): Congratulations to JM for the win.

13 June 2010

Second epilogue for variations: “The Lost Detectives” (Roberto Bolaño)

As with "Godzilla in Mexico," wording and phrase substitutions ("Teen Theater" vs. "Theater of Youth") and punctuation in a poem can hint at a subtle change of meaning, a subtle creation of feeling ...

The Lost Detectives
-Translation by Laura Healy

Detectives lost in the dark city.
I heard their moans.
I heard their footsteps in the Teen Theater.
A voice coming on like an arrow.
Shadows of cafes and parks,
Adolescent hangouts.
Detectives who stare at
Their open palms,
Destiny stained by their own blood.
And you can’t even recall
Where the wound was,
The faces you once loved,
The woman who saved your life.

The Lost Detectives
 -Translation by Guillermo Parra

The lost detectives in the dark city
I heard their moans
I heard their steps in the Theater of Youth
A voice advancing like an arrow
Shadow of cafés and parks
Frequented during adolescence
The detectives who observe
Their open hands
Destiny stained with its own blood
And you can’t even remember
Where you were injured
The faces you once loved
The woman who saved your life

12 June 2010

Epilogue for variations: “Godzilla in Mexico” (Roberto Bolaño)

Here are two versions of  Roberto Bolaño’s “Godzilla in Mexico,” an apocalyptic conversation between a parent and child. Essentially the same, but the subtle differences in word choices and line breaks provide two distinct readings.

Godzilla in Mexico
Roberto Bolaño
-Translation by Laura Healy

Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You'd just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn't tell you we were on death's program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn't be afraid.
When it left, death didn't even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
Ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We're human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.

Godzilla in Mexico
Roberto Bolaño
-A version by B. H. Boston

Hear me, my son: bombs were dropping

all over Mexico City,

but no one realized.

The air spread poison through

the streets and open windows.

You’d just eaten breakfast and were

watching the detectives on TV.

I was reading in the next room

when I knew we were going to die.

Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself

to the dining room and found you on the floor.

I held you close. You asked me what was happening.

I didn’t tell you we were on death’s telethon

but I whispered, We are going on a journey,

you and I, together, don’t be afraid.

When leaving, death didn’t even close our eyes.

What are we? you asked a week a year later,

ants, bees, wrong numbers

in the great spoiled soup of chance?

We are human beings, my son, nearly birds,

public heroes and secrets.

04 June 2010

Prologue to Ilustrado (Miguel Syjuco)

A review of the prologue, not the entire book.

1. Rizal

Early on in this award-winning Filipino novel, Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco (the novel's author and the writer of the prologue) announced its high ambitions by echoing the words of national hero José Rizal in one of his two quintessential Filipino novels in Spanish, Noli Me Tangere (1887). This is Crispin Salvador talking to Syjuco, his protégé:

“The reason for my long exile is so that I could be free to write TBA [The Bridges Ablaze],” Salvador had said, that first time, spitting out the bones of chicken feet we were eating in a subterranean Mott restaurant. “Don’t you think there are things that need to be finally said? I want to lift the veil that conceals the evil. Expose them on the steps of the temple. Truly all those responsible. The pork-barrel trad-pols. The air-conditioned Forbes Park aristocracy. The aspirational kleptocrats who forget their origins. The bishopricks and their canting church. Even you and me. Let’s all eat that cake.”

This has the tone of satire. The relevant passage in the Noli appears in the dedication of Rizal, “To My Motherland” (Europe, 1886):

Desiring your well-being, which is our own, and searching for the best cure, I will do with you as the ancients of old did with their afflicted: expose them on the steps of the temple so that each one who would come to invoke the Divine, would propose a cure for them.

And to this end, I will attempt to faithfully reproduce your condition without much ado. I will lift part of the shroud that conceals your illness, sacrificing to the truth everything, even my own self-respect, for, as your son, I also suffer your defects and failings.” [translation by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin]

The epigraph of the same novel by Rizal is taken from Schiller’s “Shakespeare’s Ghost,” containing the lines condemning the “laughable medley” of “priests and shrewd commercial attachés, / ‘Subalterns and scribes, majors enough of hussars.’ ” The very personalities that Rizal also skewered in his novel – the people in the halls of power – are also the figures that correspond to Salvador’s targets in his final book: the traditional politicians, the aristocracy, the kleptocrats, the bishops and the church.

The novels of Rizal, the Noli Me Tangere and its sequel El Filibusterismo, are the formative documents in the securing of Philippine independence from the Spanish government before the turn of the twentieth century. The tinder that set on fire the hearts and spirits of Filipino freedom fighters, they inspired the revolutionaries to fight for their own independence. The Noli and the Fili were written, like Salvador’s purported book, when the author was studying abroad, in a sort of exile.

By invoking Rizal, the most illustrious Filipino ilustrado there ever was, even if in a tone of parody, Syjuco is drawing on the tradition of political Filipino novels, the tradition of social realism and protest.

2. Bulosan

It seems that Ilustrado is surveying the accomplishments of its predecessors. A reference to Carlos Bulosan’s publication of a story in The New Yorker reflects an awareness of the literary achievements of Filipinos abroad. A footnote, referring to Crispin Salvador’s short story (“Matador”) published in the same magazine, mentions that Salvador’s fiercest critic Marcel Avellaneda dismissed the story as being sourced out from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. What the footnote does not say is that the same accusation of plagiarism was leveled against Bulosan. This rather ugly affair was detailed in the introduction by Carey McWilliams to Bulosan’s autobiography America Is in the Heart, a work of profound testimony against racism and poverty of the spirit. Syjuco is hinting at the challenges and anxieties faced by the previous generation of Filipino writers, migrants, and expatriates, men whose experiences became a catalyst for their written works. Behind any form of literary success in another country is the struggle to be recognized on their own terms, to dispel the anxieties and insecurities of being in a foreign land. This bookish book knows and is paying homage to its antecedents.

3. Silver Swan Soy Sauce

And it is very funny in parts. The parade of the who’s who in international and local publishing, one by one bringing out Salvador’s books, is enough to make us question his erudition (and that of Sjyuco, the novelist, himself). A worldly writer is being produced right before our eyes, and we are reading him with a smirk. Do we really have here the ring bearer of Philippine writing out to conquer the international literary scene? Aren’t the self-awareness and self-reference too much of a farce? The Enlightened (which is but another term for Ilustrado), Salvador’s first novel, “won prizes before it was published but could not live up to the fairy-tale hype.” Why do I think that this self-mockery is inserted for its own good? The book is alive with comedy. Plausibility and possibility merging into a kind of hysteria.

Salvador’s fastidiousness of manner also opened him to rumors of homosexuality, yet he was criticized for being a womanizer “with the lascivious energy usually found in defrocked clergymen.” And he could never live down his 1991 TV commercial which showed him being served lunch in a book-lined study, shaking a cruet over his food before turning to the camera to deliver the now immortal words …

Okay, that was funny. I didn’t even need to hear the punch line to rofl and lol. But another layer of funny here is the word association buried between the “defrocked clergymen” and the “cruet” of condiment. Don’t priests shake their small bottles of wine too, especially the renegade drunken ones? It appears as an uncalculated association of ecclesiastical terms but it is funny, period.

4. Sionil José

Literature is an ethical leap, says Crispin Salvador in his unfinished speech. It is a dictum he shared with F. Sionil José, the only Filipino writer, save for Salvador in this book, who has been constantly rumored to be a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I’m reminded of Sionil José here because he and Salvador seem to share the same grim view about the social ills of the country. Sionil José’s greatest shame, according to his double platinum essay collections Why We Are Poor and Why We Are Hungry, is that he did not shout loud enough, loud to the point of hoarseness and breathlessness. The angst of youth is potent indeed, but the protestations of an old writer – Sionil José is in his mid-eighties – are more scathing, more wounding, and more irreproachable.

The experience of eight decades in the Philippines is history lived. For the old writer, hostage to the plethora of world-changing events, events that shape and destroy a nation, the Philippines, with its corrupt system of government and its people shackled by the colonized mind, is still a place of hope. In his essays, he described in sometimes harsh and harrowing details the naked truth, the essence of his life-witness. From the second world war, to the various uprisings besetting the country, to the dark years of Marcos dictatorship, to the people power revolution, right up to the ongoing era of corruption and thievery, Sionil José lambasted everyone who has a contributed to the economic, moral, ethical, and cultural decline of this country. His primary target: the elite of this country who formed a self-serving oligarchy.

With his repetitive tirades and exhortations, Sionil José is the closest thing we have to a living conscience of the nation. We have yet to see whether Salvador’s missing manuscript will carve out a national story with the same earth-shaking force, albeit posthumously. It’s not that I’m seeing here, in the book's opening, a passing of torch from Sionil José to Syjuco. I am just reminded of the way Syjuco framed Salvador’s convictions in terms of “literature as ethics.” I am also reminded of the evil band that the two writers are bent on demolishing with their letters: Sionil José’s oligarchy and Salvador’s kleptocracy-aristocracy. Both are concerned with the pricking of the dying conscience.

5. Salvador

The writer Crispin Salvador was pronounced dead by a news obituary, even before he was dead. Part of the obituary is in the prologue’s epigraph. The prologue then has an epitaph for an epigraph, one that merely described the writer’s name: Crispin Salvador. The prefabricated death sentence did not mention the manner of his death, but the post-newspaper truth is that he died and was fished out of the Hudson River. Possibly a murder, possibly a suicide. This is the narrative frame from which Salvador's tale unfolds, a writer grappling not only with his own writer’s block demons but also with an enlightened readership. The government of the few and the church are shaping up to be the formidable enemies of Salvador and Syjuco. The media, the literary establishment as well, is equally heinous in its shallow beats. Salvador before his unscheduled death is already in the throes of an epiphany. But Salvador in his death is still waiting for his break, struggling for a proper context to detonate the time bomb, the exposé, the whatever that will allow him to fish out the truth from the blue river. Now that his time is up, it remains for his story to be pieced together, as told by Syjuco.

6. Syjuco

The prologue to Syjuco’s Ilustrado is one of the excellent openings I have ever read in a novel. To some extent, it reminds me of the way Rizal masterly painted the opening of El Filibusterismo, with the cast of characters shuttling between the upper and lower decks of a steamer. Here, the cast of characters are the books in Salvador’s résumé, shuttling past each other with the speed of a writer’s aborted lifetime. As described by Syjuco on his way to Manila, the opening is a biting literary biography, with too many questions hanging in the air, too much anger served on the plate.

My expectations are set. I hope to be able to read a Filipino novel that kicks some ass. Not for a desire to be liberated by the truth. That is too salty. But rather to watch a first writer enact his “freedom to write.” To try to be a free reader.

Now on to the jigsaw proper.

03 June 2010

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands: Translation bedeviled

"Grande Sertão, Veredas by the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa is the greatest novel of his country – and one of the most extraordinary attempts to render simultaneity of time and space in the modern novel."
– Carlos Fuentes, “Forgotten Treasures: A Symposium

"One of the greatest books our literature has produced, brutal, tender, cordial, savage, vast as Brazil itself, the image of Brazil drawn by a writer with a consummate mastery of his craft."
– Jorge Amado, “The Place of Guimarães Rosa in Brazilian Literature,” in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

"His literature is pure stream of consciousness in the Joycean sense: language dances free, unabated, across time and space zones .... As in the novel-as-mural, exemplified by his most memorable opus, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (in Portuguese, Grande Sertão: Veredas), he believed the challenge in Brazilian literature was “to be inclusive and exclusive, to strive for the universal and the particular.” … [H]is fabulous display of language and his encyclopedic knowledge are neutralized by a Chekhovian attitude to character: Guimarães Rosa turns the speaker into [an] unsanctimonious storyteller, at once map and compass to Brazil."
– Ilan Stavans, Introduction to Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction: Eight Novellas (ed. Cass Canfield Jr.)

"It’s a damn good book. Some have said it’s the best contemporary Latin American novel of them all, but it’s hard. The American version, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is a travesty. Can you imagine such a title!"
– Gregory Rabassa, interview

"[Guimarães] Rosa would have to be rewritten, not translated, unless by the likes of James Joyce."
– Gregory Rabassa, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents

1. About the book

Apropos of the blurbs above, Grande Sertao: Veredas (1956) is a notoriously difficult novel, employing puns, neologisms, and archaic words from the Portuguese. The writer, João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1964), was a diplomat, fluent in many languages, and had a wide experience as a doctor in the countryside of Brazil. The novel is about bandit wars in Brazil, about making a pact with the devil, about leadership politics, about the celebration of the flora and fauna of the land, and about things not seeming what they are.

When The Millions last year asked readers about what out-of-print classics they think should be reprinted by NYRB, I did not hesitate to name The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (1963). This despite the fact that this novel, as translated by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís, is generally regarded as a flawed translation. The translators supposedly disregarded the rhythms and linguistic innovations in the original novel, cutting certain scenes in the books, and producing a western landscape instead of a backland country of north Brazil.

In the absence of a new translation, English readers can only consult the one English translation if they want to access the book. Though they can always wait for a retranslation, it will take some time, many years, if at all. Someone commissioned by New Directions (presumably, Gregory Rabassa) was supposed to retranslate it, but later backed out due to the difficulty of the task.

2. Availability

The book is out of print. A used copy in the Amazon (the bookseller jungle) costs some 300 bucks.

By default, we read what we have, what is given us, and what is handed down to us by the translators Taylor and de Onís, who must have wrestled with the Joycean intricacy of the language created by the master novelist. In reading this not-well-received translation one still recognizes the stream of genius, a genius which even if only a fraction of the original, is still a generous flow. For now, it’s the closest we can ever be to an obra maestra.

3. Selected bibliography

All of Guimarães Rosa's English-translated works below, except the latest (The Jaguar and Other Stories) and the story anthologies, are out of print. They've become collectors' items for their literary merit and the beautiful illustrations and binding, usually featuring the drawings of the artist Napoleon Potyguara "Poty" Lazzarotto (1924-1998). (See for example A Journey Round My Skull and A Missing Book.)

Magma, 1934 (poetry, published 1997).

Sagarana, 1946 (English translation by Harriet de Onís: Sagarana: A Cycle of Stories, 1966).

Corpo de baile: sete novelas, 1956 (7 novellas).

Grande sertão: veredas, 1956 (English translation by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, 1963).

Primeiras estórias, 1962 (English translation by Barbara Shelby: The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories, 1968).

Tutaméia: terceiras estórias, 1967 (very short stories & essay-like "prefaces").

Estas estórias, 1969 (short stories).

Ave, palavra, 1970 (miscellaneous).

The Jaguar and Other Stories, 2001, English translation by David Treece.

In selected anthologies:

Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story, ed. K. David Jackson – contains 7 stories by Guimarães Rosa.

Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction: Eight Novellas, ed. Cass Canfield Jr. – contains the long story "My Uncle, the Jaguar," trans. Giovanni Pontiero.

The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature, Volume II: The Twentieth Century – from Borges and Paz to Guimarães Rosa and Donoso, eds. Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie – contains a "chunk" of Grande Sertão, trans. Thomas Colchie.

The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories, ed. Roberto González Echevarría – contains 1 story ("The Third Bank of the River"), trans. William L. Grossman.

"Pahupain ang Ligalig ng Maghapon" (Axel Pinpin)

Becalm the Day's Troubles

Allow the peaceful waves to reflect
the cooling rays of the sun;
the sprays will rub
our companioned shoulders.
A calm posture is noble.
Our evanescent silence is indigo.
And those who were insensate, who did not listen
will be deafened by soundlessness;
the brilliance of the rays that rose into a shout
will flower, will rise tomorrow.

(translated from Filipino)

(Axel Pinpin, Verses from Behind the Bars)

01 June 2010

Monsieur Pain (Roberto Bolaño)


I read Monsieur Pain a week ago. The "Epilogue for Voices" section is another rug-sweeping metaliterary device that reminds me of Nazi Literature in the Americas' "Epilogue for Monsters." I think Monsieur Pain is a prefiguration of Nazi Literature in that aspect and also in the structure itself of the "voices" where the name of the character in question is followed by the city and year of his/her birth and death. The narrator of Nazi Literature is identified, at least in the final story "The Infamous Ramírez Hoffman" where the storytelling voice shifted to a more personal one and where the name of the narrator is revealed in the story. We know also that the last story in Nazi Literature is further reworked and extended by Bolaño in Distant Star, which contains a sort of preface where the self-effacing narrator mentions his identity and that of his collaborator. So by extension, the narrator of Monsieur Pain could be the same two voices, Bolaño and his collaborator, except that I don't think that the time frame of the story in Monsieur Pain, 1938 Paris, supports this authorship. Bolaño's co-writer, and alter-ego, was born at a later date. The point of view of the novel proper of Monsieur Pain itself is a sort of first-person in a free indirect style before moving to an omniscient one in the epilogue, both of which manifest the winking narrator in Bolaño's latter books. This is getting pedantic, but it's one way of identifying the narrator of this elusive and enigmatic novel. Bolaño certainly conceived of his literary universe not as independent works but as part of a greater design, an entire oeuvre. It appears that the presence of an alter-ego is a necessary invention for the latter works which appear to be more autobiographical.

The present novel is soaked in an atmosphere of dread, fear, pain, and disorientation. It's a sort of an extended dream sequence. I like the idea of a friend of mine about the relationship between mesmerism and the rise of fascism. It's a very subtle and disturbing connection that transforms an apparently mystery novel into a political one. The motivation for mistreating the Peruvian poet César Vallejo in the hospital is an indication of the possible role of literature that is being suppressed by, here again, the embodiments of Fear and Hate, elements that we see also harassing Padre Urrutia Lacroix in By Night in Chile. The final character that Pierre Pain meets at the end certainly appears as a prototype of evil, specifically evil engendered and sponsored by an authoritarian government. We can think of the novel's characters as emblems or stand-ins for abstract/literary concepts, with Vallejo representing Poetry, and Pierre Pain as a failed Cure, and the circumstances as Sickness itself. The two foreign strangers who accosted the acupuncturist Pain are dead set at preventing the meeting of the poet and Pain, who can be his only cure. (Just imagine the name of your healer as Pain and you can't get more ironic than that. If we think of Vallejo's poetry output as something that is "humanist" (I read a collection of his translated posthumous poems called Poemas Humanos. Bolaño himself described Vallejo as "Virtue and spraining. The lyric that neutralizes itself.") then we get the idea why certain bad people are trying to censure him.) In the end, the reader is left to ponder the tale, pierced by images and voices as if pricked by needles all over the body. His curiosity remains unsatisfied, as he is prevented from getting the cure or absolution or closure that he wants to get from a book. But what do we expect?