29 March 2011

Chronicle of My Mother (Inoue Yasushi)

[If] an emotional love—even just a tiny fragment—has endured throughout a person's life, then one cannot say that life has been entirely wasted. [p. 33]

Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) was primarily known as a historical novelist from Japan and author of such acclaimed works as Tun-huang. – I haven't read Tun-Huang but the review in Coffeespoons captivated me so I decided to pick up this one, my first Inoue. – In Chronicle of My Mother, translated by Jean Oda Moy, the novelist wrote about the last decade of his mother's life. It charted the mother's aging, senility, and death, up to the late age of 89. The chronicle was divided into three parts. "Under the Blossoms," the first, was published in 1964. The succeeding, "The Light of the Moon" and "The Surface of the Snow," were published five years apart from each other. Inside these poetically titled sections, Inoue shared first-hand accounts of the difficulties he and his siblings faced while caring for their mother ("Granny"). Tthe deterioration of Granny's physical and mental health was detailed in very concrete terms that were surprisingly devoid of self-pity. The children tried to rationalize the puzzling gaps in Granny’s memory. The events that she was able to recall from her past and the possible explanation for this selective memory were a constant preoccupation for Inoue. Granny's senility was evident from her utter forgetfulness, repetitiveness, and mood swings: "We first became aware of the severity of her condition when we realized that Mother herself did not understand, or accept, the fact that she kept forgetting what she said and repeated herself. . . . although she heard what was said, she retained it only that moment and promptly forgot about it." Despite Granny's condition, which was stressful for all those caring for her, her children were very understanding of her condition. They were supportive of each other and were very willing to attend to her needs.

The family culture that was described in the chronicle was exclusively Japanese, though the universal theme will resonate for anyone. In the translator’s introduction, Jean Oda Moy, an Asian American, described the increasing lack of regard for aging parents as a result of materialism: "With the unprecedented social and cultural changes taking place in Japan today, many traditional values which might appear to interfere with productivity and 'success'—in short, with rampant materialism—are losing ground. . . . In Japan as in the West, the elderly today are frequently shunted aside, ignored, or made to feel they are a burden." Inoue's family, as portrayed in the book, was one of those who adhere to a strong sense of duty and love for old parents. The economy of words, the poetry, and the lack of sentimentality made Chronicle of My Mother a touching and accessible read. It is a good example of "grief literature," one that was by no means a depressing elegy. On the contrary, the reader can sense positive feelings from the book and this could be attributed to Inoue's empathy, compassion, and love for his mother. He produced an intimate memoir, one that also served as a paean to motherhood and family ties.

28 March 2011

Fourth epilogue for variations: "Phone Calls" (Roberto Bolaño)

Roberto Bolaño's fame as a major novelist in the Spanish language shot up in 1998 after the publication of The Savage Detectives and after his winning back-to-back major awards in Latin America: the Premio Rómulo Gallegos and the Premio Herralde de Novela. His fame in the English-speaking world will begin gradually, and then suddenly, beginning with the publication of his first translated book (By Night in Chile, tr. Chris Andrews) in 2003.

His first English-translated short story, however, appeared early on. It was probably "Phone Calls," from Llamadas telefónicas, that was to also appear (in a new translation) in Last Evenings on Earth. Translated by Mark Schafer, "Phone Calls" was published in 1999 in Issue 67 ("Fire") of the now-defunct magazine Grand Street. It was later to be reprinted in the magazine's Issue 72 ("Detours"). Mark Schafer is a visual artist and translator of poetry and fiction, most recently of Belén Gopegui's novel, The Scale of Maps (2011). Belén Gopegui was one of the writers admired by Bolaño.

"Phone Calls" starts as a love story of B and X. Then it suddenly metamorphosed into a murder story. The sudden plot shifts in the story create an atmosphere of vertigo. It condenses the novelist's universe in miniature.

Here's an excerpt from "Phone Calls" in Schafer's version.

At night X invites him to share her bed. Deep down, B has no desire to sleep with X, but he accepts. When he wakes in the morning, B is again in love. But is he in love with X or is he in love with the idea of being in love? The relationship is problematic and intense: X borders on suicide from day to day, is in psychiatric treatment — pills, lots of pills, which nevertheless do nothing to help her. She cries often and without any apparent reason. So B takes care of X. He cares for her tenderly, diligently, but also awkwardly. His ministerings imitate those of a person truly in love. B realizes this right away. He tries to lift her out of her depression but only succeeds in leading X down a dead-end street or one X judges to be a dead end.

Here's the same excerpt in Andrews's version.

That night X invites him to share her bed. B doesn't really want to sleep with X, but he accepts. When he wakes up in the morning, he is in love again. But is he in love with X or with the idea of being in love? The relationship is difficult and intense: X is on the brink of suicide every day; she is having psychiatric treatment (pills, lots of pills, but they don't seem to be helping at all), she often bursts into tears for no apparent reason. So B looks after X. His attentions are loving and diligent but clumsy too. They mimic the attentions of a man who is truly in love, as B soon comes to realize.

The stories can be read in full at the following links:



Related posts:

"The Slaughter of the Ponies" (João Guimarães Rosa)

Stairway to hell: Two translations of "Rashōmon"

22 March 2011

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (José Saramago)

I shall go on painting the second picture but I know it will never be finished. I have tried without success and there is no clearer proof of my failure and frustration than this sheet of paper on which I am starting to write. Sooner or later I shall move from the first picture to the second and then turn to my writing, or I shall skip the intermediate stage or stop in the middle of a word to apply another brushstroke to the portrait commissioned by S. or to that other portrait alongside it which S. will never see. When that day comes I shall know no more than I know today (namely, that both pictures are worthless). But I shall be able to decide whether I was right to allow myself to be tempted by a form of expression which is not mine, although this same temptation may mean in the end that the form of expression I have been using as carefully as if I were following the fixed rules of some manual was not mine either. For the moment I prefer not to think about what I shall do if this writing comes to nothing, if, from now on, my white canvases and blank sheets of paper become a world orbiting thousands of light-years away where I shall not be able to leave the slightest trace. If, in a word, it were dishonest to pick up a brush or pen or if, once more in a word (the first time I did not succeed), I must deny myself the right to communicate or express myself, because I shall have tried and failed and there will be no further opportunities.
Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, trans. Giovanni Pontiero

The opening paragraph of José Saramago's Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is unmistakable in its trademark tone. The lulls and pauses in the phrasing are searching for a way forward. The prose is laden with hesitations and qualifications, trying to overcome the clauses that skirt away from the general idea. The ideas are spreading like ripples in the pond, emanating from the center of consciousness. Above the surface hovers a unique voice, a singular mind, a ruthless thought process. Below is raging calm, propagating through perfect control of rhythm. The only comparison I can immediately think of is the artful opening of a Javier Marías.

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is a work of fiction, a novel, but it is an essay in the same way that Blindness and Seeing are essays on blindness and lucidity. It is narrated by H., a fifty-year old painter commissioned by S. for a portrait. The first few pages unfold slowly, telling of H.'s difficulties in producing two simultaneous portraits of his client. In order to get around to this problem, or more like to escape from it, H. decided to produce another third portrait of S., but this time the image will be in words. Through sudden impulse or instinct, H. decided to turn into writing (the "calligraphy" in the title).

I never expected this book to develop right off the bat a similar theme of another novel I finished last year, also from the Portuguese. The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector (translated by Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz) is narrated by a female painter who writes of her innermost consciousness and feelings the way colors unravel from the strokes of her paint brush, the way consciousness streams forth from a fountain of imagination. But where Lispector's prose issues forth quick as silver, Saramago's brush paints from a slow easel, building from primary colors as he established his plot. As in Lispector's "art book," plot is probably the least of Saramago's concern here. Manual is, from the outset, a novel of ideas: ideas about art, about the expressions and forms that art makes, and the relationships of these art forms.

Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia first came out in 1976, only Saramago's second published novel at that time. The first, The Land of Sin (still untranslated), appeared almost thirty years earlier. In between the two, he produced three collections of poetry (he did not publish poetry since then) and four collections of newspaper articles. The English translation of Manual, by Giovanni Pontiero, appeared in hardcover from Carcanet Press in 1994, and in paperback from the same publisher a year later. Among his earliest works in the original Portuguese, this is the first "window" to his works as it remains to be the earliest with an English translation. The translation, however, has since gone out of print.

The online sales pitch for this book goes like this: 'A rare first edition of the author's hard to find second novel. The novel is often thought of as his first but he published The Land of Sin in 1947; the book received little attention and upon being told that the book was out of print, Saramago replied "Thank God".' I'm not sure about the veracity of this claim. The alleged exclamation (from an avowed atheist) is interesting, and it is at least intriguing why this book has not been reprinted.

Last year The Collected Novels of José Saramago was released in e-book format, as an exclusive compendium of Saramago's fiction (twelve novels and one novella). This collection is missing Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. Why this book was not reprinted or included in the collected edition of his fiction is a mystery to me. It wasn't clear if he wanted to suppress this translation of the book. Was it due to the quality of the translation? Saramago was known for being very exacting about translation of his books. There was an instance when the novelist requested for a more faithful English translation of Baltasar & Blimunda as the first published version contains editorial amendments that he wished to be overruled. It could not be the translation since Giovanni Pontiero is a very good translator and esteemed even by Saramago. His prose work on The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Baltasar & Blimunda, Blindness are some of my favorite writings.

Maybe initial sales of Manual were poor so the publisher did not produce any more copies? But Saramago, Nobel laureate, is a big name now, almost a brand. His name recall alone will be enough to pull new readers and drive sales of this book, especially a book with such a mysterious title.

Perhaps Saramago considered this early effort to be minor, not at par with his later novels which are considered masterpieces? But the book has been released lately in other languages.

Maybe there are some copyright issues with this book? Or maybe the supposedly overt political theme of the book is the reason? Saramago was a staunch follower of communism and this book had some political color directly linked to its historical backdrop, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 and the overthrow of Salazar. But I still doubt that the politics of the novel was enough reason not to republish it. In the arenas of politics and religion, Saramago courted controversy like black ink stain on bright white paper.

Whatever the reason, the rarity of this novel makes it Saramago's priciest book. By sheer luck, I was able to acquire both the paperback and hardcover. A month or so before the Senhor died, the OOP book suddenly appeared online at a very cheap price. Through a friend, I was able to snag a copy of the hardback. The paperback I got, of all places, from the book swap site BookMooch.

First posted in Project Dogeared.

Flips Flipping Pages will discuss Saramago's Blindness on March 26.

Related post: Stark white

21 March 2011

"Huling Lagapak ng Kandado" (Axel Pinpin)

The Lock's Last Thud

The calendar is weathered and withered
The chain is clanging and slamming
Time is slowing and speeding
The bars are bruised and skinned
The cold is here and gone
The heat rose and receded
Boredom mocked and endured
Anger, sneering and jeering

Eight hundred and fifty-nine days
Over and over, a spiralling dance

Two years and four months
Back and forth, spinning with no end in sight

This freedom expected to battle the deepest
darkness of the tomb of the living,
was snatched stolen buried
by the dump of flawed laws
which were even the first to rot and agonize
over the demise of the acrobat, a witness inexpert
in the lessons of walking and balancing.
Ay! He slipped from the rope of lies
knotted by the corrupt fiscal, all reason
mumbled and stumbled,
turned into black magic
each time a false witness sprang
a surprise from the box of evidence, not
the white rabbit which was trained to be swift
and clean, fooling the stunned
masses, guardians of justice
in the Judge’s carnival court.

Eight hundred and fifty-nine days
Over and over, a spiralling dance

Two years and four months
Back and forth, spinning with no end in sight

In an instant, before eyes blink,
The fracas is ended!


17 March 2011

Crossing the Heart of Africa (Julian Smith)

I draw the basic outline of my trip in the air: six and a half thousand miles through seven more countries, a crooked line heading north and west up the scar of the western branch of the Great Rift Valley (technically the East African Rift System), a massive fracture in the earth's crust where the continent is tearing itself in two. My goal, like Grogan's 109 years ago, is to go as far as I can down the Nile into southern Sudan ... [34-35]

Julian Smith's Crossing the Heart of Africa is part travel writing, part memoir. Smith journeyed into the continent following closely the itinerary of legendary explorer Ewart Grogan who undertook more than a century before what was then considered an impossible feat. The parallelism in the two men's travels rests not only on the similar roads they took but on their motive for their respective crossings: they both, in their own ways, did it for love. Grogan was challenged by his beloved's stepfather to the task as precondition for his marrying her. Smith, on the other hand, did his own travel on the eve of his scheduled wedding. Each of their separate travels was recounted in the book in alternating sections, with some flashbacks of the developing relationship between Smith and Laura.

The book's subtitle, "An Odyssey of Love and Adventure," promises the reader two things. The romantic notion of braving all odds to get the girl was enacted here. Grogan accomplished it and he and Gertrude lived happily ever after. (There's a long denouement recounting Grogan's further "adventures" even after his famous journey.) Smith's attitudes on his own relationship with Laura were a bit more complicated.

Thankfully, the book escaped the self-centered kind of confession from Smith. He candidly shared his personal thoughts on the matter of love. This "inner" journey into the self, the parsing of feelings before a major life-changing commitment, the need to "know oneself" through solitary travel: these are all equally perilous territories for a writer to dwell on, one that could easily fall prey into the trappings of chick lit books. I was actually resisting the book from the beginning, not sure whether I will still find two journeys whose ends were already predetermined still engaging. Yet the book was filled with enough anecdotes and concrete stories to make it a singular reading experience.

"To travel" originally meant to "suffer." A thousand years ago, life was dangerous, but leaving home was worse. The word itself comes from the Old French travailler, meaning to toil, as in "travail." It's rooted in the Latin tripalium, a torture device made of three poles tied together, to which victims would be attached and lit on fire. [101]

I was a bit put off at first with the forced alternation of chapters, feeling lost as I navigated the brief transitions between the two men's parallel travels. This device felt a bit overused and artificial for me at first, but eventually the book grew on me. I much appreciated the cultural and political contexts that Smith integrated into the text. The realization that Africa is a place fraught with danger and threats precisely because men tried to tame it. That the heart of darkness in the continent stems from personal and historical interests staked on it.

In the end though, while I found interesting the mixture of romance and adventure in the book, I actually enjoyed more the larger silent story that Smith was telling in the background. One was shown revealing aspects of human nature as Smith recalled ordinary incidents with people he interacted with. The historical precedence of violence in Africa was evident in Grogan's time as it is in the present. The all too real incidents of genocide, cannibalism, colonialism, and slavery; the challenges of wildlife and national parks management in Africa; the unstable history of newly founded African nations - all of these provide a very forceful backdrop to the shared passions of Grogan and Smith, two lovers trapped by frontier dreams. Crossing the Heart of Africa is a sometimes stirring, sometimes humorous, often barefaced and plain account of overcoming personal and emotional challenges amid the forces of nature, the clash of cultures, and the humanitarian crises enveloping the dark corners of a continent.

From here on, every step I take will be toward home. [202]

I received a copy of the book from the publisher.

16 March 2011

Kafka and the end of the world

31. I dreamt that Earth was finished. And the only human being to contemplate the end was Franz Kafka. In heaven, the Titans were fighting to the death. From a wrought-iron seat in Central Park, Kafka was watching the world burn.
- Tres, Roberto Bolaño

Tres, translated by Laura Healy, is coming in September from New Directions.

For a limited period, excerpts from Bolaño's "A Stroll Through Literature," the final section of Tres, can be accessed online at BOMB Magazine, Issue 115/Spring 2011.

More here. Via: Work in Progress.

Cross-posted from The 2011 Roberto Bolaño Reading Challenge.

06 March 2011

Don Q, via Syjuco

Authorship and the self-determination of characters

At the start of Miguel Syjuco's puzzle novel Ilustrado, a character named Miguel Syjuco began investigating the mysterious death of his mentor, the writer Crispin Salvador. There's no shortage of possible motives to his death. Salvador blazed through the Philippine literary scene with a series of books that divided the critics and earned him a lot of enemies. The character Syjuco reflected on Salvador's career as he searched for papers left behind by the deceased in his apartment:

To end his own life, Salvador was neither courageous nor cowardly enough. The only explanation is that the Panther of Philippine Letters was murdered in midpounce. But no bloody candelabrum has been found. Only ambiguous hints in what remains of his manuscript. Among the two pages of notes, these names: the industrialist Dingdong Changco, Jr.; the literary critic Marcel Avellaneda; the first Muslim leader of the opposition, Nuredin Bansamoro; the charismatic preacher Reverend Martin; and a certain Dulcinea.

Dingdong Changco Jr, Nuredin Bansamoro, and Reverend Martin are not-so-veiled references to actual personalities in Philippine politics and church affairs. If they were not Danding Cojuangco, Nur Misuari, and Bro. Mike Velarde, then they were at least possible stand-ins or stereotypes of these recognizable personalities who continue to persist in Philippine society: the oligarch and Marcos crony, the Muslim separatist leader, and the fanatical preacher.

Two names are not readily identifiable: Dulcinea and Avellaneda. Who are they in Salvador's life? Avellanada is mentioned earlier on as Salvador's fiercest critic. And we learned later that Dulcinea's relation to Salvador is quite significant after all.

Syjuco's "quixotic" quest to find out the truth about Salvador's death brought him to unexpected places and enabled him to confront some of these characters. "Quixotic," along with "messianic," is a word that appears in page 21 of Ilustrado (via), mentioned in Salvador's Paris Review interview while he is discussing his current engagement in polemical writing.

Dulcinea is of course the name of Don Quixote's object of affection. Don Quixote, the messianic knight errant, is so enchanted with Lady Dulcinea of Toboso that she almost becomes his battle cry, the sole reason for his existence. She is a lady of incomparable beauty, peerless, the one and only muse that drives him to chastity, spurning the designs of other women. The only catch is that Sancho Panza also knew Dulcinea, the three of them being inhabitants of La Mancha, and if we are to believe Squire Sancho, then she is in reality a crude peasant woman, not a lady of noble birth, certainly a far cry from Don Quixote's idealization. (In some ways, what Dulcinea is for Don Quixote, is probably what "the Intended" is for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.) Cervantes's sharp irony is always in full effect as Don Quixote is to finally "meet" Lady Dulcinea later, but this time only in enchanted form.

To discuss the circumstances of the character Syjuco finally meeting the Dulcinea character in Ilustrado is to spoil a lot of things. Let me just say that it is one of the best parts of the book and completely overturns the whole puzzle, such that what one is looking at all along is not a completed jigsaw but the jigsaw turned upside down to reveal another puzzle.

At the start of the second part of the history of the ingenious knight Don Quixote, in its prologue, we are told that a "false" second part of the Quixote was published in 1614, a year before the actual second part by Cervantes came out. In one of the rare moments in the errant knight's history, the "real" author of the Quixote directly speaks to the reader of the book ("illustrious or perhaps plebeian reader") in a furious, or at least ambivalent, tone about certain licenses taken by another writer, a native of Tordesillas, to continue his history and to do so in very poor imitation. Cervantes's resentment is evident as he starts to refute and discuss the disagreeable personal attacks to his character in the spurious second part. The full title of this second part is Segundo tomo del ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha ... compuesto por el licenciado Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, natural de la villa de Tordesillas. Avellaneda is a pseudonym. The identity of the author was never known.

Yet another notable scene in Ilustrado is the character Syjuco's "confrontation" with the critic Avellaneda. This direct reference to the author of the false Quixote, in the guise of a literary critic, is a brilliant play on a book that is, like the true Quixote itself, concerned with truthful transcription of history and ultimately with the question of authorship.

The last chapters of the Quixote are almost devoted in fact to the question of authorship and of Avellaneda's poor depiction and appropriation of the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. What better way to demonstrate the falsity of Avellaneda's version than to point out that Don Quixote is "no longer in love with Dulcinea del Toboso" and that Sancho Panza's wife is not given the same name she had in the first part (Part II, Chapter LIX). It is understandable that Don Quixote flared up whenever mention of this second part reaches him.

It is almost as if the whole conception of the "real and truthful" second part of the Quixote is but a kind of direct response or reaction to Avellaneda's book. In any case, Cervantes has given Cide Hamete Benengeli enough leeway to write and publish the continuation and to faithfully incorporate what happened outside in his history. As the events in real life directly impinge on the fictional, the extra-literary is given a life of its own.

The Avellaneda affair has so consumed Don Quixote that, on his own initiative (yes, possibly without any intervention from any author, real or imagined), he intentionally changed his itinerary just to prove that he is the authentic character, to assert his own palpable existence. Here he and Sancho are speaking to a certain Don Álvaro Tarfe, a character from the false Quixote(!), who they "accidentally" met at a village inn. They were able to persuade Don Álvaro Tarfe that they were the real characters (Part II, Chapter LXXII, tr. John Rutherford):

   'I do not know,' said Don Quixote, 'whether I am good, but I do know that I am not the bad Quixote, as proof of which I should like you to know, Don Álvaro Tarfe sir, that I have never in my life set foot in Saragossa; on the contrary, having been told that the fantasy Don Quixote had taken part in the jousts in that city, I refused to go there, to prove to all the world that he is a fraud; and so I went straight on to Barcelona ... And although what happened to me there was not very pleasant, indeed was most disagreeable, I can bear it all without heaviness of heart, just for the sake of having seen Barcelona. In short, Don Álvaro Tarfe sir, I am the Don Quixote de la Mancha of whom fame speaks - not that wretch who sought to usurp my name and exalt himself with my thoughts. I entreat you, sir, as you are a gentleman, to be so kind as to make a formal declaration before the mayor of this village to the effect that you have never in all the days of your life seen me until now, and that I am not the Don Quixote who appears in the second part [by Avellaneda], nor is this squire of mine Sancho Panza the man whom you knew.

Don Álvaro Tarfe was convinced and subsequently executed an affidavit in front of the village mayor and the notary (both of whom, as it happened, conveniently entered the very same village inn they were eating in) to the effect that "Don Quixote was not the man who appeared in print in a history entitled The Second Part of Don Quixote de la Mancha written by one Avellaneda, from Tordesillas." De facto and de jure then, Don Quixote's authenticity was validated beyond reasonable doubt.

Don Quixote's reactions to the spurious sequel and the actions he took to uphold the truth demonstrate the freedom granted by the storyteller to his own characters, such that the character is given complete power to set the record straight in the story he found himself in. The storyteller has transferred to the character his right to self-determination, to speak for himself, to chart his own plot in his own story. Right up to his own death, Don Quixote was so affected by the false character impersonating him that the author of the false history, Avellaneda, even featured in his last will and testament, albeit in a tone of reconciliation.

The author Syjuco, in the spirit of granting his characters the same freedom and right to self-determination, has produced Ilustrado. It is a novel that is a fitting tribute to what is authentic and original in books.

Related post:

Don Q, via M. Menard

01 March 2011

GIVEAWAY: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Black Dossier)

  • The prize is the graphic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Black Dossier) by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Hardcover in very good condition.
  • The giveaway is open to all readers with address in the Philippines. One address per reader, one reader per address.
  • Entries are accepted through email. Email subject: Extraordinary Giveaway. Please include your full name, complete address, and blog/site (if you have any).
  • Deadline is midnight of 15th March, local time. The winner will be chosen using a random number generator.  I'll update this post and announce the winner here.

    “Ang Maisisilid sa Bulsa” (Eugene Evasco)

    What Can Be Stored in a Pocket

    Our yellowing photographs;
    Petals of ylang-ylang;
    Wilted leaves of santan;
    Three sticky bottle caps;
    And a rusted nail bolt.
    Bus tickets stuck together;
    A brittle letter, torn and tattered;
    Postage stamps,
    And filched songhits.
    Worn pencil, cigarette butts
    Filthy towel (crusted with sweat)
    A scandalous pen
    Faded ribbons from a recent gift.
    Dusty calling cards, picture of Nora
    A foul-smelling wallet, a folded palanca
    Tear-stained handkerchief

    I cannot store you
    In my pocket.