28 September 2012

This Craft of Verse (Jorge Luis Borges)

I thought I'd never hear the brave librarian speak. Posterity saved the lectures that Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) delivered in Harvard University in the fall of '67 and spring '68. The Argentinian was nearing 70 when he gave this series of lectures. The recordings were discovered from the university archives and were transcribed and published in book form in 2000.

Borges's voice boomed across space and time. I found it ideal to listen to the lectures while following along with a transcription posted in a blog. It may be a better experience than just reading the transcriptions. Here is the free audio download page of the lectures.

He spoke in a clipped, staccato manner, catching breath and thought at once. He groped for ideas, rather like a blind man groping for things in the dark. But he always found them, and he brought them out to the light. We can sense him groping for ideas several moves in advance, building a construct from his previous readings, and then revealing the final elegant construction of the library of the mind, the library in his mind.

The audience listened intently, keenly, as the penetrating gaze of the master pierced through the lines of poetry and gave his literary interpretation and appreciation. He spoke the six lectures impromptu, with perhaps only a few days preparation for each topic.

The range of his subjects are as varied as colors. He began with the "riddle" of poetry and continued with metaphor, epic poetry and the novel, word-music and translation, and "thought and poetry". He ended with sharing his own creed as a poet wherein he "try to justify my own life and the confidence some of you may have in me, despite this rather awkward and fumbling first lecture of mine."

It was hardly awkward and fumbling. In every lecture he demonstrated utter erudition which was to be expected but still there's a pure kind of magic in the words he was unleashing. He had a way of saying things in a punctilious manner, of punctuating ideas even if they were, in retrospect, obvious observations. Like, for example, "Happiness, when you are a reader, is frequent." Or on reading lists: "The danger of making a list is that the omissions stand out and that people think of you as being insensitive." And on long books: "Though we are apt to think of mere size as being somehow brutal, I think there are many books whose essence lies in their being lengthy." And this came from a writer who never wrote a novel.

Among the verses he discussed included lines or passages from Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer", the sonnet "Inclusiveness" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Robert Frost and Browning, and a translation of San Juan de la Cruz. He recited them with feeling, bringing out the stresses where they fall, sometimes going at length in describing the choice of words of the poet and pointing out their distinctiveness, what makes the lines go on ringing in the reader's ears. Sometimes it felt like he was sharing his conversations with the old masters from Greek and Old English, giving us an exclusive preview to an anticipated blockbuster movie.

Aside from erudition, two other things marked the genius of these lectures: humor and humility. The speaker's rapport and interaction with the audience were amazing. One imagined the listeners hanging on to every word, as when he shared his propensity to book-buying:

Sometimes, looking at the many books I have at home, I feel I shall die before I have come to the end of them, and yet I cannot resist the temptation of buying new books. When I go, when I walk inside a library, I find a book on one of my hobbies—for example, Old English or Old Norse poetry—I say to myself, "What a pity I can't buy that book because I already have a copy at home."

That last statement elicited laughter among the listeners who also broke into a hearty applause. There are many similar moments in the recording that were given to the audience's acknowledgement of the speaker's humor. The interaction between speaker and listeners was just precious.

The lectures also revealed a man of humility and self-effacing disposition, one who acknowledged his forebears and influences, and the sources of his metaphysical ideas.

If I were a daring thinker (but I am not; I am a very timid thinker, I am groping my way along), I could of course say that only a dozen or so patterns exist and that all other metaphors are mere arbitrary games.

In fact he said them, those things about the patterns and the games of metaphors. But he always gave fair warning on what and what not to expect from him. But still the things he spoke about!

His thoughts on translation were as timely as ever. In his lecture on translation he debunked the supposed inferiority of translations to the original text by stating, "I suppose if we did not know whether one was original and the other translation, we could judge them fairly." It's one of the best defense of translations I've read.

On the strange beauty of literal translations, he had an interesting take:

In fact, it might be said that literal translations make not only, as Matthew Arnold pointed out, for uncouthness and oddity, but also for strangeness and beauty. This, I think, is felt by all of us; for if we look into a literal translation of some outlandish poem, we expect something strange. If we do not find it, we feel somehow disappointed.

He erroneously assumed, however, that FitzGerald's translation of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát—from which he quoted a quatrain as an example—is a literal one. And I'm not sure what he would make of Nabokov's extremely faithful Eugene Onegin.

That only a very few patterns and rhyming schemes existed in poetry led the poet to declare that free verse is much more difficult to pull off than rhymed poems.

I began, as most young men do, by thinking that free verse is easier than the regular forms of verse. Today I am quite sure that free verse is far more difficult than the regular and classical forms. The proof—if proof be needed—is that literature begins with verse. I suppose the explanation would be that once a pattern is evolved—a pattern of rhymes, of assonances, of alliterations, of long and short syllables, and so on—you only have to repeat the pattern. While, if you attempt prose (and prose, of course, comes long after verse), then you need, as Stevenson pointed out, a more subtle pattern. Because the ear is led to expect something, and then it does get what it expects. Something else is given to it; and that something else should be, in a sense, a failure and also a satisfaction. So that unless you take the precaution of being Walt Whitman or Carl Sandburg, then free verse is more difficult. At least I have found, now when I am near my journey's end, that the classic forms of verse are easier. Another facility, another easiness, may lie in the fact that once you have written a certain line, once you have resigned yourself to a certain line, then you have committed yourself to a certain rhyme. And since rhymes are not infinite, your work is made easier for you.

This idea, unorthodox as it is, was way more interesting than William Childress's rant against free verse. The latter's arguments was sometimes occluded by fundamentalist attitudes. In contrast, the poet here spoke with a fire in his voice, a bibliophile's enthusiasm that was hard to resist. Perhaps because he primarily thought of himself as essentially "a reader".

As you are aware, I have ventured into writing; but I think that what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes—yet one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write.

And here I am thinking all along that Roberto Bolaño's line, "Reading is more important than writing", was his own. Borges practically said everything, as the Chilean writer himself acknowledged.

"When I write", the poet confessed, "I try to be loyal to the dream and not to the circumstances."

Of course, in my stories ... there are true circumstances, but somehow I have felt that those circumstances should always be told with a certain amount of untruth. There is no satisfaction telling a story as it actually happened. We have to change things, even if we think them insignificant; if we don't, we should think of ourselves not as artists but perhaps as mere journalists or historians.

A similar aesthetic was taken to heart by the late W. G. Sebald, who featured Borges in The Rings of Saturn. Writers, take heed.

On novels, it was clear he doesn't like the narrative strategy of Ulysses. He liked epics instead. He disdained self-conscious stories. By epic, he meant the simultaneous singing of a verse and telling of a story. By self-consciousness, he meant stories where "the hero is the teller, and so sometimes he [the hero] has to belittle himself, he has to make himself human, he has to make himself far too believable. In fact, he has to fall into the trickery of a novelist."

If we think about the novel and the epic, we are tempted to fall into thinking that the chief difference lies in the difference between verse and prose, in the difference between singing something and stating something. But I think there is a greater difference. The difference lies in the fact that the important thing about the epic is a hero—a man who is a pattern for all men. While, as Mencken pointed out, the essence of most novels lies in the breaking down of a man, in the degeneration of character.

So, better to fall into the trickery of a poet than novelist? It was possible the lecturer was averse to the encroachment of postmodernism on the novel. Like many critics, he saw the "death" of the novel:

I think that the novel is breaking down. I think that all those very daring and interesting experiments with the novel—for example, the idea of shifting time, the idea of the story being told by different characters—all those are leading to the moment when we shall feel that the novel is no longer with us.

What is to be done? The poet was not worried. "Because we are modern; we don't have to strive to be modern", he said. "It is not a case of subject matter or of style."

Even if we are now postmodern, we are still modern. He was confident that something was at hand. He prophesied the comeback of the epic:

Maybe I am an old-fashioned man from the nineteenth century, but I have optimism, I have hope; and as the future holds many things—as the future, perhaps, holds all things—I think that the epic will come back to us. I think that the poet shall once again be a maker. I mean, he will tell a story and he will also sing it. And we will not think of those two things as different, even as we do not think they are different in Homer or in Virgil.

Things could only go up from there. The epic novel was nigh. Maybe it was already with us. Maybe the metaphor was already made. He had made the suggestions, pointed to some interesting directions, and these were enough to fertilize the mind.

Anything suggested is far more effective than anything laid down.… When something is merely said or—better still—hinted at, there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination.

That's what it felt like listening to the poet. One was a visitor being treated to the hospitality of an estimable and kind imagination.

"All writers in Argentina have had to find themselves against Borges", said César Aira, the Argentinean writer who chose an anti-Borgean path. "He is cold; he is an Everest of intelligence and lucidity uncontaminated by reality." In these recordings compiled as This Craft of Verse, the poet was not cold. He exuded warmth, like a grandfather. And the mountain of intelligence and lucidity had chosen to be accessible and scalable. The climb was memorable. The view from the summit was a postcard.

There's this end-of-the-year Argentinean literature doom-fest, with Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) at the helm.

24 September 2012

Soledad's Sister (Jose Dalisay)

Soledad's Sister by Jose Dalisay (Anvil, 2008)

"The Woman in the Box", the title of the first chapter of the second novel by Filipino writer Jose Dalisay, recounts the story of Aurora Cabahug's journey as a corpse in a casket from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to her home country. Aurora was one of millions of Filipino workers scattered all over the world who left the Philippines in droves in order to bring home the dollar, or riyal or whatever currency can fill empty pockets. Lacking sufficient source of income at home, they were swayed into working day jobs abroad to earn enough for a few years and then come home to live the Filipino dream. There's a profession for every determined person.

These were the maids, cooks, drivers, dancers, plumbers, draftsmen, welders, able-bodied seamen, and other purveyors of sundry services and trades who had left their kitchens, pigsties, classrooms, fruit stands, videoke bars, shoe factories, and vulcanizing shops in search of better jobs—in roiling sea and burning sand, from Singapore to Stockholm, London to Lagos, Riyadh to Reykjavik, in backstreet bar and oil rig, in nursing home and cannery, in wave after leaping wave across all the seas and oceans that ringed their island.

In exchange for financial gain, they had to make the sacrifice of leaving their children, spouses, parents, siblings, and friends. They had to brave the discrimination and abuses that some intolerant foreigners heap on them. Sometimes Filipino women who were taken in as domestic helpers were maltreated by their employers. Along with hard-earned dollars, some were unlucky enough to also earn bruises, scratches, and marks of flat iron on their back. Some had to escape their place of work and run to the Philippine embassy to report the physical assault and torture they suffered under their cruel employers. One also hears of news reports of a Filipina leaping from a high building in order to escape male employers who were about to rape them.

The government, instead of creating attractive jobs at home, was complicit in this diaspora. Grateful for the cash that their Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) bring home, the government hailed them as bagong bayani (modern-day heroes). Their sacrifices and martyrdom were a big factor in bolstering the economy. Those who were hardworking and lucky managed to come home moneyed and triumphant. But some 600 of them—the likes of Aurora Cabahug who was dead from a mysterious drowning and Filemon Catabay who was beheaded for some reason—yearly arrived in Ninoy Aquino International Airport in boxes, sealed tight and properly tagged with names and other identifying information.

Soledad's Sister is a darkly comic novel of Aurora's premature homecoming. The tragedy is not lightened by the frankness of the telling but the comedy is so potent it brings silent chuckles with its prose alive with brilliant asides, snides, and scathing ironies.

And so it happened that a family of seven had come all the way in a jeepney from Lingayen to meet and to claim the two segments of Filemon Catabay, who had been executed three months earlier. They had learned of his death the way many others did—after it happened, from a routine news report on DZXL, between an involved discussion of a movie star's rumored abortion and a commercial for a new and more potent livestock dewormer. The man's mother was gutting fish when her grandson ran in with the news; the fish she was holding trembled in her hand and then leapt out altogether in a final spasm, as though it had come back to life.

It was a case of corpse switching. It was a mistake, like every mistake and quirk of fate that materialized in the rest of the novel's trajectory. The body in the box was that of Aurora's, not Filemon's. The cause was a switching of the documents in the hands of an inconsiderate and vengeful vice-consul.

Dalisay used an irreverent omniscient narrator so powerful that he (the narrator) had recourse to every detail from what's being reported in radios to what the fish did after its last moments on earth. The seamless enjambment of scenes delineates the fickle narrator's switching from one detail to another. The narrator did not lack for things to say about certain characters introduced in the novel. In fact, new characters are still introduced even until late in the game. The narrator was without let up in describing things and people and their background and their circumstances in life. At the same time, he seems to be the harbinger of the fateful happenings in the story. Just like what the real Aurora, Soledad's sister, observed:

Who knows why people do what they do? Every day we do things we ourselves don't understand, although they seemed to make sense when we did them. Why is that? Can you tell me?

Who knows why novelists do what they do? The narrator will not tell but he sure will describe every nook and cranny of whatever, whatnot, anything his mind alights on. The rest of the novel's plot ambled along according to this principle of random-like addition of story elements. But instead of swiftly panning from one area of interest to another, the narrative started to linger longer on every character. This had the effect of killing the steam of the story. The pace rather flagged in the end such that the masterful, darkly comic start devolved into a solemn exercise in writing descriptive passages. It became a bit monotonous when its embrace of its initial conceptual framework began to loosen.

Nevertheless, Dalisay consistently cultivated at the heart of his tale a paradox as universal as it is inscrutable. Something to do with a person's pining for and expectation of something right, something better, something that will improve her station in life. When the overseas worker is far from home, there is no contingency for which she is ever prepared for. Her loved ones, for their part, are no less ready for any externality. Just like that.

Soledad's Sister is in the shortlist of the 2007 inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize.

15 September 2012

Dekada '70 (Lualhati Bautista)

Dekada '70: Ang Orihinal at Kumpletong Edisyon (1988) by Lualhati Bautista (Cacho Publishing House, 1991)

What better way to jump-start the martial law fiction reading project than with what was arguably the defining novel of the period? Lualhati Bautista gained notoriety when Dekada '70 came out in 1984, after having shared the grand prize for the Palanca Award for Best Novel one year previous. This novel about a Filipino family drastically affected by forces beyond their control was a national narrative of resistance against the Marcos dictatorship, against its repression of individual and societal rights and liberties. The story was told by Amanda Bartolome, wife to a dominating husband, mother to five sons, and – as she learned in the course of the novel – woman of her own mind. We found Amanda contemplating her role beyond her family of men, beyond a traditional patriarchy where a woman is only expected to serve a husband and rear children. This even as her world was being swept by the tides of history. Her strong-willed eldest child, Julian Jr. (Jules), was becoming more and more sympathetic to the ideology of leftist groups even as he increasingly felt alienated to the national government's raw display of totalitarian power. When the President handed down martial law in 1972, civil rights suffered in consequence. Student councils and school papers were closed down; the freedom of the press and the freedom to organize were curtailed; curfews were set; the writ of habeas corpus was suspended. It was only a matter of time before Jules joined the communist insurgency and for Amanda to lose many a night's sleep over her son's uncertain fate.

Higit kailanman ay ngayon ko nadarama ang mga trahedya ng maging ina. Hindi pala natatapos ang hirap at kirot sa pagsisilang ng anak, may mga sakit na libong ulit na mas masakit kaysa mga oras ng panganganak.

(Now more than ever I feel the tragedies of being a mother. It appears that my pains and sacrifices did not end with my giving birth to my son. There are pains a thousand times more painful than the hours of labor.)

What started as a domestic drama suddenly became a politically charged look at the lives of ordinary individuals in repressive regimes. Bautista dramatized the temper of the times using explicit images, language, and scenes. The action of the novel revolved only around a single family and yet she managed to infuse the domestic conflicts among brothers and parents with conviction. The Bartolomes were a nuclear family that could be viewed as a microcosm of a country descending into chaos. We followed Amanda as she began to question her relationship with her husband and internalize the violence threatening her children. From the seventies until the lifting of martial law in 1981, and even beyond that, we were privy to Amanda's increasing awareness of injustices around her, the socioeconomic and political issues hidden from sight, and her emerging political and feminist principles – these two principles becoming inseparable and closely tied together.

As the Bartolomes braved the dark shadows of military rule, vigilante killings, and social unrest, the reader was witness to a freak history. There were some wrenching scenes that seared into the mind, yet there were simple moments in the book that were equally hard-hitting in their emotional tenderness. Dekada was squarely in the tradition of José Rizal's 19th century protest novels against Spanish colonialism, the Noli and Fili, because it dared to question and critique the ruling power and its cohorts, and because it presented a forceful synthesis of abuses, corruption, and violence under martial law. No other novel had so lived up to its titular era as perhaps no other could have proposed its own "truthful", and hence "subversive", aesthetic of resistance against a dictatorship regime.

The family is the basic unit of society, we are taught and constantly reminded in schools. Bautista had shown that its values are also its pillars and that the seeds of resistance to any unjust authority at any time could very well dwell in a family. Dekada had set the bar for a martial law novel so high that I shall be reading succeeding Filipino novels for this reading project against Bautista's standard. She managed to distill an epoch of madness in those trying times, in that "world of men" that Amanda was starting to reject. For the record, in her record, in the words of her protagonist, the novelist defined the role of the writer in those circumstances: "Manunulat ang nagpe-preserb sa katinuan ng lipunan nya." ("It is the writer who preserves the sanity of her society.") Indeed they do, the very best of them, the authentic ones. They restore it to its senses. They slap it so hard that it may wake from its long sleep.

First published in edited form in 1984, Dekada anticipated the 1986 EDSA Revolution that toppled President Marcos from power. In one of its deft ironic touches, it was prescient in detecting a major change in the air: Naiisip ko . . . naiisip ko lang naman . . . wala sanang magalit sa 'kin pero naiisip ko . . . na kailangan na nga yata natin ang rebolusyon! (I was thinking . . .  I was just thinking . . . let no one mind me but I was thinking . . . that maybe it's time we need a revolution!)

The writing style of Dekada was considered controversial during its time because some passages in the novel were written in Taglish, a mixture of Tagalog and English words. Language purists must have felt discomfort at the threat to the purity of the Tagalog vernacular and so failed to acknowledge the realist style of Bautista's language. Her writing was also deemed "unpolished" for its straightforward, colloquial dialogue and presentation even if that's how Filipinos talked then and now. The Taglish aspect of the prose is one consideration for the translator should the novel be translated into English.

11 September 2012

The castle

Angkor Wat, Cambodia (image source)

Sometimes he would tell her the story of the guard who protected the imaginary castle.

There was a castle. No. It wasn't necessarily a castle, it could be anything: a factory, a bank, a gambling house. So the guard could be either a watchman or a bodyguard. Now the guard, always prepared for the enemy attack, never failed in his vigilance. One day the long-expected enemy finally came. This was the moment, and he rang the alarm signal. Strangely enough, however, there was no response from the troops. Needless to say, the enemy easily overpowered the guard in one fell swoop. In his fading consciousness he saw the enemy sweeping like the wind through the gates, over the walls, and into the buildings unhindered by anyone. No, it was the castle, not the enemy, that was really like the wind. The single guard, like a withered tree in the wilderness, had stood guarding an illusion.

– from The Woman in the Dunes by Abé Kobo and E. Dale Saunders

See also "A Message from the Emperor" by Franz Kafka and Mark Harman, a sort of streamlined version of Das Schloß.

09 September 2012

Augustus (John Williams)

Augustus (1972) by John Williams, introduction by John McGahern (Vintage International, 2004)

John Williams (1922-1994) wrote a supreme novel in Augustus, his fourth and last. It's a historical drama set in the ancient republic of Rome and revolves around the eponymous emperor. The style is epistolary, with letters, memoirs, and memoranda exchanging hands among a fairly large dramatis personae deserving of an ensemble acting award, or rather distinct voices award, for moving along the strands of plot toward a visionary conclusion. Williams's cohesive vision of power and consequential human destiny is in many senses Shakespearian. He has consolidated exacting language, strong characters, flashes of awesome feelings, and moments of simplicity and grace. I was actually quoting these qualities.

Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant, and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant or the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men moments of simplicity and grace.

Augustus shared with Williams's early novel Stoner not only the well-chiseled and polished prose of a modern classicist but a rather ruthless understanding of characters, their deep contradictions and inconsistencies, and their heroic and base natures.

"How contrary an animal is man ... !" exclaimed Augustus at one point. The book is a theater of human contrariness and inconsistency. Its cinematic scenes have the heft of an epic. Wonderful to see the action develop from the volley of hand delivered letters. I suppose the snappy emails of today have nothing on the deliberate transcription of experiences written by hand on a blank page. The novel's sequencing of letters alone is informed by the craft of a builder of suspense. The privileged peeks at human quirks and spontaneous madness are worth the price of reading. Without the televisual prompts, the novel enacts an intelligent game of thrones.

The quote above is from a letter of Octavius Caesar (Augustus) to Nicolaus of Damascus, dated A.D. 14. Here's another clip, from an earlier letter by Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) to Sextus Propertius, 10 B.C.:

I shall not subject you, my dear Sextus, to one of my disquisitions; but it seems to me more nearly true, as the years pass, that those old "virtues," of which the Roman professes himself to be so proud, and upon which, he insists, the greatness of the Empire is founded—it seems to me more and more that those "virtues" of rank, prestige, honor, duty, and piety have simply denuded man of his humanity.

How Ovid was able to come up with a bleak assessment of civilization lies at the core of this historical novel. It is a brilliant aphoristic text, especially the essential Book III, and I am here resisting the urge to ransack the many scintillating passages I've noted on my copy.

Powerful and literary figures of the day populate the book. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Ovid, Livy, Brutus, and Horace. Their relations play out in a stunning display of hunger for power and immortality.

In Stoner the novelist classified the rubric of love under its different objects, as love of literature, love of a woman, love of an offspring, love of work, love of life. In Augustus the same loves are explored but has expanded to include other forms: the love of country, love of family, and love of power. The love of literature is particularly traced to the love of philosophy, scholarship, and poetry. But above all to poetry. Hence, the poets in this novel have a role that transcends versification. Theirs is a function related to the maintenance of power in the empire.

Through the character of the charismatic emperor, Williams comes close to establishing a hierarchy of these loves. At a very high price, Augustus comes close to recognizing "the highest form of love ... for an object that approaches the absolute." He also comes close to identifying the essential attribute of a true leader, the key to fulfilling a destiny.

The character of Augustus is a direct ancestor of Stoner. Only, Augustus comes face to face with the violent, world-changing upheavals that Stoner plays in his mind. The emperor, like the professor, is given to self-reflection. What he always finds in himself is not a wholesome person. What he finds in others is not enlightened citizens. What is said of him by Mark Antony, his perennial rival to power, is accurate: "I know that he does nothing from passion or whim. He is such a cold-blooded fish that I must almost admire him". From one Machiavellian leader to another, that is as good as an acknowledgement of the complex well-rounded character of the emperor, his cunning and intelligence. Of what the human race has achieved in his time, Augustus is not optimistic.

We tell ourselves that we have become a civilized race, and with a pious horror we speak of those times when a god of the crops demanded the body of a human being for his obscure function. But is not the god that so many Romans have served, in our memory and even in our time, as dark and fearsome as that ancient one? Even if to destroy him, I have been his priest; and even if to weaken his power, I have done his bidding. Yet I have not destroyed him, or weakened his power. He sleeps restlessly in the hearts of men, waiting to rouse himself or to be aroused. Between the brutality that would sacrifice a single innocent life to a fear without a name, and the enlightenment that would sacrifice thousands of lives to a few that we have named, I have found little to choose.

This is a very wise novel if only because it underlines life's crucial paradoxes and the compromises, traditions, and belief systems we can never escape from. If Augustus has no faith in a Roman god or an ancient god, then in humanity at least his trust is not completely revoked. He himself, as shaper of destinies, is part of this remaking.

It was more nearly an instinct than knowledge, however, that made me understand that if it is one's destiny to change the world, it is his necessity first to change himself. If he is to obey his destiny, he must find or invent within himself some hard and secret part that is indifferent to himself, to others, and even to the world that he is destined to remake, not to his own desire, but to a nature that he will discover in the process of remaking.

In this novel of power, the novelist has hardly changed the world. Yet in registering the changes in his characters as they take over the world, he has remade it.

08 September 2012

Mondo Marcos, and a martial law fiction reading list

Mondo Marcos: Writings on Martial Law and the Marcos Babies, edited by Frank Cimatu and Rolando B. Tolentino (Anvil, 2010)

Walang subersibo dito. Bakit magiging subersibo ang katotohanan?
(There's nothing subversive here. Why will the truth be considered subversive?)
Dekada '70

Mondo Marcos is an anthology of short fiction, essays, and poems looking back on the years 1972-1986, when the Philippines was under the iron rule of the dictator president Ferdinand Marcos right up to his ouster by the People Power Revolution of 1986. It is a companion volume to the Filipino anthology of the same title and with the same editors. The writings in these two volumes are distinct from each other, not translations.

I maintain my impressions of the Filipino anthology, and I think that these apply as well to this volume. The two Mondo Marcos anthologies are a mixed set of writings, particularly the fiction section where brilliant works sat alongside the humdrum.

But the editors certainly knew how to put their best pieces up front. The English anthology started with an outstanding story ("When Dovie Moans") written by R. Zamora Linmark, just like what they did in the Filipino volume where they started with the eye-opening "Kulto ni Santiago" by Kristian S. Cordero. Linmark's story was about a crude aspect of the "Marcosian" – the president's maintenance of his macho public image through his publicized sexual relationship with his mistress. The story was taken from Linmark's novel Leche which came out last year. On the strength of this excerpt, Leche immediately landed on my wish list.

Another wonderful, and linguistically playful, story from the collection was the one from Cesar Ruiz Aquino, "The Diaries of Mojud Remontado: 55 Days in Dumaguete". The influence of Borges was evident in this story's imaginative, intertextual, and metaphysical handling of the epistolary form, creating effective layers of inquiry from the journal entries of a writer who was seemingly shielded from the reach of history. I would bet there are plenty more contemporary stories by Filipino writers that were as good, if not as better, as these by Aquino, Cordero, and Linmark. Their stories made me doubly aware of my neglect of excellent writings right here at home.

"Engine Trouble" by Robert J. A. Basilio Jr. had all the makings of an absorbing suspense story. It was about a man hired to assassinate the senator and once political prisoner Benigno Aquino Jr. Despite a promising material, the pedestrian language of the story failed to capture a sense of inevitability to the plot. His use of bland metaphors partly hampered its telling. But overall I still found it a good short story. It's my third favorite in the volume. The rest of the stories did not engage me as these ones I mentioned. There was, to me, a sense that the remaining pieces fell prey to either too little effort at imagination or too much nostalgia (i.e., the pining for popular childhood television fares of the period, like robot cartoons). In fact, popular culture seemed to be the entry point of some of the stories, essays, and poems in the two anthologies. Nothing wrong with that; a totally valid approach. But then again, capitalizing on these familiar markers without saying anything new creates a danger of trivializing the imaginative experiences in a critical historical period like the Martial Law years. If all that the filters of memory could provide were itemized lists of cultural references, they worked less as powerful synthesis of injustice than as misplaced nostalgia.

Regarding the essays and poems in the volume, I would say that, like the ones contained in the Filipino volume, those included here were particularly strong. The variety of subjects in the personal essays alone formed a very balanced view of an era fraught with personal and collective disappointments and hopes. The essays, and a good proportion of the poems, saved the two anthologies from being mere exercises in nostalgia. They were not only informative and personal. Their very tones were critical. And the critiques did not end with the past. They went beyond their years, beyond being "Marcos Babies" of their time, to speak their minds to contemporary readers.

* * *

Reading Mondo Marcos at least spurred me to searching out other works that imagined this "world", this era. It motivated me to explore works of fiction based on, inspired by, or set during the martial law years in the Philippines. So I came up with the list of "martial law in fiction" below.

The list was confined to fiction because for me there is something in the imaginative frame of fiction that sets it apart from other genres. There is that strong element, let us say the sympathetic element, that enables the novelist (or short story writer) to critically, conscientiously imagine characters, their class status, plot, setting, time frame, and their interplay beyond the field of the novelist's own experiences. There is in fiction a more pronounced application of empathy. In her selflessness, the (ideal) novelist seeks a fair amount of altruism as she builds her fictional system. These are what I want to look for in martial law fiction: sympathy, empathy, altruism.

Another thing, perhaps the main thing, why I'm particularly curious about going through this reading list is that I am a part of this period. I belong to this period and yet I do not know it. I am a "Marcos baby", in sickness and in health. Whether that collective name is appropriate or something necessary to adopt, I can't say for now. In any case, having been born in a province a safe distance from Manila, the seat of political power, I grew up in my own world ignorant of many things that happened during the martial law years. I grew up in the shadow of this time. I had never been an active participant. I knew learned the basic story, but I felt left out. I wanted to know the finer details, the living stories, the unexpurgated history.

I was particularly inspired in this direction by W. G. Sebald whose essay "Air War and Literature", in On the Natural History of Destruction, was a stinging critique of the inability of German writers to write about air bombings in postwar Germany. Like Sebald, Anna Funder, in her revealing work about the reign of the German Democratic Republic in Stasiland, defined the primary role of political literatures to preserve memory and reveal the atrocities and abuses of a repressive regime. Filipino writers during and after the Marcos administration had fortunately several works, more than 40 books, to show for it. Key works on the subject were published during the tumultuous period itself. More impressive was that the writers are still not bored with the topic. The dictatorship of Marcos is still being mined and related fictional works have appeared in the past few years. Our writers are still writing about the martial law. And we are prompted to ask: how good are they? How true are they? Which ones contribute to a critical understanding of the Marcos years? Which ones deserve to be read?

This brings me to another motivation for this long term reading project. I am also interested in the ways a certain work dramatized its "aesthetics of resistance", estetika ng paglaban (after Peter Weiss's novel). What is the framework behind a writer's story, behind her prose style and compositional choices? Why did she write it in the first place? What did she want to accomplish with it? More important: what should the reader look for, or look out for, in judging the truth values of writings of this kind?

I seldom read fiction under the lens of literary theories and political ideologies, especially in those works falling under the rubric of "national literatures". But now it appears they can't be escaped when one was primarily faced with political novels. The discontent of the working class beginning in the 1960s, their labor movements, was said to be one of the reasons for the declaration of Martial Law in '72. Novels during and prior to the martial law, in the '60s up to the early '70s, supposedly had strong emphases on political and power structures. They were said to be characteristic of the period of unrest which culminated in the First Quarter Storm of 1970. So the struggle of the proletariat, along with modern forms of colonialism, is one robust framework to gauge the quality and success of these works.

Other reasons for this reading list and reading project:
– the nonfiction list is very long; most of the nonfiction books were voluminous and boring; a handful of them were propaganda materials
– a good excuse to read more from the Filipiniana shelf
– Writers who wrote and assimilated their critical writings during martial law must be given their due. They were a brave bunch. They wrote at a time when activists (including writers, journalists, and students) who opposed and resisted the military dictatorship were harassed, jailed, and tortured. Some were 'salvaged'. Others went into exile. Some were forcibly 'disappeared'. Their writings were either censored or banned. But then again, the novelist F. Sionil José said in one of his essays something about the complicity of several writers with the Marcos regime. Then again some writers opted to keep silent, or to write 'harmless' novels that did not offend the government. But only those writers who resisted the injustices of the dictatorship through their actions and writings, those who essayed the plight of the victims and the underdogs, have claims to being called real Filipino artists. With this reading project I hope to be acquainted with them through their books.

The list below is a work in progress. My online search for titles was rather cursory. I got great suggestions from online friends and reading sites. Thanks to Karlo, among others. The titles are limited only to fiction in English and Filipino languages. My cut-off date is 1971, a year before Proclamation 1081 declaring martial law 40 years ago, in September 21, 1972.

I have only read four titles from the list: Cave and Shadows, Lualhati Bautista's defining novel Dekada '70, and the Mondo Marcos anthologies. Four more titles are currently on my shelf; a few more are accessible to me. Many titles are still found in bookstores but some texts may already be out of print.

The years given refer to the date of the first edition. I wanted to include only works that explicitly deal with the Marcos dictatorship, but that would be a very limited list. Thus, I included some titles that can also be considered “martial law fiction” in terms of metaphor and in their verisimilitude and background. Further suggestions are welcome.

MARTIAL LAW IN FICTION (updated April 2014)

Lagablab ng Kabataan (Fire of Youth) by Fausto J. Galauran (1971)

Madilim ang Langit sa Bayan Ko (Dark Are the Skies Over My Country) by Mercedes Jose (Liwayway Magazine, 1971)

Ano Ngayon, Ricky? (What Now, Ricky?, 1971), in Kung Wala na ang Tag-araw / Ano Ngayon, Ricky? by Rosario de Guzman-Lingat (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1996)

Mga Buwaya sa Lipunan (Crocodiles in Society) by Celso Al. Carunungan (1971)

Satanas sa Lupa: Nobelang Pangkasalukuyan (Satan on Earth: A Novel of the Present) by Celso Al. Carunungan (1971)

Nangalunod sa Katihan (Drowned in the Shallows) by Fausto Galauran and Gervasio Santiago (1971)

Mga Kaluluwa Sa Kumunoy (Souls in the Cesspit) by Efren R. Abueg (1972; reprinted by University of the Philippines (UP) Press, 2004)

Panakip-Butas (A Poor Substitute) by Benjamin Pascual (1972)

Sigwa: Isang Antolohiya ng Maiikling Kuwento (Storm: Anthology of Short Stories), eds. Mila Carreon Laurel et al. (1972; reprinted by UP Press, 2007)

Canal de la Reina (1972) by Liwayway A. Arceo (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1985)

Ito ang Rebolusyon (This Is Revolution) by Clodualdo del Mundo and Gervasio Santiago (1972)

My Brother, My Executioner by F. Sionil José (1973)

Ginto ang Kayumangging Lupa (This Brown Soil Is Golden) by Dominador Mirasol (1975; reprinted by UP Press, 1998)

Dread Empire by Linda Ty-Casper (Heinemann, 1980)

Hulagpos (Breaking Free) by Mano de Verdades Posadas (Palimbagang Kubli, 1980)

The Apollo Centennial by Gregorio C. Brillantes (1980)

Utos ng Hari at Iba Pang Kuwento (King's Behest and Other Stories) by Jun Cruz Reyes (New Day, 1981)

Surveyors of the Liguasan Marsh by Antonio R. Enriquez (University of Queensland Press, 1981)

The Praying Man by Bienvenido N. Santos (Cellar Book Shop, 1982; New Day, 1982)

Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquin (National Book Store, 1983)

Mass by F. Sionil José (Solidaridad Publishing House, 1983)

The Monsoon Collection by Ninotchka Rosca (1983)

Dekada ’70 by Lualhati Bautista (Jingle Clan, 1984; Carmelo & Bauermann Print Corp., 1988)

Fortress in the Plaza by Linda Ty-Casper (New Day, 1985)

Awaiting Trespass by Linda Ty-Casper (Readers International, 1985)

Lumpen by Federico Licsi Espino Jr. (Limbagang Araro, 1985)

Wings of Stone by Linda Ty-Casper (Readers International, 1986)

Subanons by Antonio R. Enriquez (1986; UP Press, 1999)

Tutubi, Tutubi, 'Wag Kang Magpahuli Sa Mamang Salbahe (Dragonfly, Dragonfly, Don't Get Caught by a Bad Guy) by Jun Cruz Reyes (New Day, 1987)

A Small Party in a Garden by Linda Ty-Casper (Cellar Book Shop, 1988)

Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café by Alfred Yuson (Adriana Print Co., 1988; revised ed., UP Press, 1998)

State of War by Ninotchka Rosca (W.W. Norton, 1988)

Planet Waves by Eric Gamalinda (New Day, 1989)

Bamboo in the Wind by Azucena Grajo Uranza (Vera-Reyes, 1990)

Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn (Pantheon Books, 1990)

Slow Burn by Sabina Murray (1990)

Sebyo by Humberto Carlos (Linang, 1990)

Gera (War) by Ruth Firmeza (LINANG/Mainstream, 1991)

Empire of Memory by Eric Gamalinda (Anvil, 1992)

Killing Time in a Warm Place by Jose Y. Dalisay Jr. (Anvil, 1992)

Salvaged Prose by Emannuel Lacaba (Ateneo de Manila University, 1992)

Twice Blessed by Ninotchka Rosca (Norton, 1992)

Viajero by F. Sionil José (Solidaridad Publishing House, 1993)

Writings in Protest, 1972-1985, ed. Alfrredo Navarro Salanga (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1993)

Eating Fire and Drinking Water by Arlene J. Chai (Headline Book Publishing, 1997)

America's Boy by James Hamilton-Paterson (Granta, 1998) – history/nonfiction

The Umbrella Country by Bino Realuyo (Random House, 1999)

Edad Medya: Mga Tula sa Katanghaliang Gulang (Edad Medya: Poems on Middle Age) by José F. Lacaba (Anvil, 2000)

Paghuhunos (Shedding Skin) by Ellen L. Sicat (UP Press, 2001)

Walo at Kalahating Dekada ng Isang Buhay (Eight and a Half Decades of a Life) by Genoveva Edroza-Matute (Anvil, 2001)

Kung Baga sa Bigas: Mga Piling Tula (As With the Rice: Selected Poems) by José F. Lacaba (UP Press, 2002)

Letters to Montgomery Clift by Noel Alumit (MacMurray & Beck, 2002)

Mata ng Apoy (Fire's Eyes) by Domingo G. Landicho (UP Press, 2003)

Tilad na Dalit (Mga Piling Tula: 1973-1999) (Palindrome: Selected Poems: 1973-1999) by Teo T. Antonio (UP Press, 2003)

Banyaga: A Song of War by Charlson Ong (Anvil, 2006)

The Jupiter Effect by Katrina Tuvera (Anvil, 2006)

Desaparesidos by Lualhati Bautista (Cacho Publishing House, 2007)

Baby Jesus Pawn Shop by Lucia Orth (Permanent Press, 2008)

Martial Law Babies by Arnold Arre (Nautilus Comics, 2008) – graphic

Lihim ng Ultramar (Secret of Ultramar) by Rhod V. Nuncio (Numina, 2009)

XXth Century: 2 Plays by Malou Jacob (UP Press, 2009)

Gun Dealers’ Daughter by Gina Apostol (Anvil, 2010)

Mondo Marcos: Mga Panulat sa Batas Militar at ng Marcos Babies, eds. Frank Cimatu and Rolando B. Tolentino (Anvil, 2010)

Mondo Marcos: Writings on Martial Law and the Marcos Babies, eds. Frank Cimatu and Rolando B. Tolentino (Anvil, 2010)

Underground Spirit: Philippine Short Stories in English 1973 to 1989, 2 vols., ed. Gémino Abad (UP Press, 2010)

The Activist by Antonio Enriquez (UST Publishing House, 2011)

Leche by R. Zamora Linmark (Coffee House Press, 2011)

Further reading: Alternative Histories: Martial Law Novels as Counter-Memory by Ruth Jordana Luna Pison (UP Press, 2005), “Against the Dying of the Light: The Filipino Writer and Martial Law” by Ed Maranan, and The Opposing Thumb: Decoding Literature of the Marcos Regime by Leonard Casper (Giraffe Books, 1995).

06 September 2012

Translation and plagiarism

Vicente Sotto III, a former comedian and now senator from the Philippines, once again denied accusations of plagiarism when he delivered a speech--a speech countering the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill--whose passages were clearly lifted, albeit translated in Tagalog language, from the speech of US Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He made no attribution from where these passages came from. Mr. Sotto was previously criticized for an earlier speech which plagiarized passages from several blogs. (The novelist Miguel Syjuco had a summary of this fiasco in the New York Times and Rappler.) He brushed off this earlier accusation of plagiarism, citing that these passages were just taken from a mere blogger. He did not issue an apology to the bloggers.

Here are his recent statements from The Manila Bulletin Newspaper Online (my translation in brackets).

"Marunong pala managalog si Kennedy ah, [So Kennedy knew how to speak in Tagalog]" said Sotto with a chortle as seen in a report aired on "Unang Hirit" [a television program] Thursday.

"Nakakatawa na sila, [They make themselves laughable]" he added, referring to his critics. "Sila ang komiko, hindi ako. [They are the comedians, not me]"

"Madaming nagbibigay sa akin ng materials gaya ng sinasabi ko, marami ang nag-bibigay ng text, hindi mo lang alam kung kanino galing ang text o kanino galing 'yung ideas, [A lot of people gave me the materials like what I said, a lot were giving me the text (or giving them to me through texting), you just don't know where the texts or ideas came from]" he said.

After the recent brouhaha involving the blogger, Sotto thought it "safe" to tinker with materials, thus: "Tinagalog ko." [I translated them into Tagalog.]

"Sino ngayon ang kinopya ko? May Tagalog? May alam ba sila pinangalingan nito na Tagalog?" [Now whom did I plagiarize? In Tagalog? Did they know a source of this in Tagalog?] he asked.

(See also the report from ABS-CBN News.)

Was Sotto right in claiming that his translation of a speech, without attribution as to the original source, did not constitute plagiarism?

Hell no!

We know that a translation, a "faithful" or a competent one, has essentially the same substance and spirit as the original. Here's a relevant idea from Jorge Luis Borges in one of his lectures in This Craft of Verse:

The difference between a translation and the original is not a difference in the texts themselves. I suppose if we did not know whether one was original and the other translation, we could judge them fairly. But, unhappily, we cannot do this. And so the translator's work is always supposed to be inferior - or, what is worse, is felt to be inferior - even though, verbally, the rendering may be as good as the text.

Borges's argument was about the supposed inferiority--clearly not the case for him--of translations. The relevant point is about his belief that the translation and the original (and their merits) are comparable.

Mr. Sotto's justification for translation without attribution is unacceptable. As with his earlier plagiarism, he did not, will not admit to his latest fault. He even berated as "laughable" his critics who were right to condemn his kind.

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself", reads one of the passages from Senator Kennedy's speech, which Mr. Sotto translated into Tagalog. I hope that the likes of Mr. Sotto--in this case those who have the arrogance to bend things in a perverted sense--are few. Unethical and inept, his kind is a travesty to Philippine legislation.

01 September 2012

Ang Huling Dalagang Bukid at ang Authobiography na Mali (Jun Cruz Reyes)

Ang Huling Dalagang Bukid at ang Authobiography na Mali by Jun Cruz Reyes (Anvil, 2011)

The 2nd Filipino Reader Conference was held two weeks ago at the Filipinas Heritage Library. The event consisted of a day of panel discussions on various topics and live group read discussions. Nope, I wasn't able to come. But I was able to participate indirectly as one of the judges in the Filipino Readers Choice Awards. The awarding ceremony was one of the highlights of the conference.

The winners include Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco for the Novel in English and Ang Huling Dalagang Bukid at ang Authobiography na Mali by Jun Cruz Reyes for the Novel in Filipino. I took part in selecting the winner in the Filipino novel category. Here's the list of finalists in the various award categories; here's the full list of winning works.

Jun Cruz Reyes is one of the leading writers in the vernacular language. He is a multiple awarded author known for producing significant contemporary works, such as Tutubi, Tutubi ... Huwag Kang Magpahuli sa Mamang Salbahe (Dragonfly, Dragonfly ... Don't Get Caught by a Bad Guy, 1981), Utos ng Hari at Iba Pang Kuwento (King's Behest and Other Stories, 1987), and the 1998 Centennial Literary Prize winning novel Etsa-Puwera (2001). Ang Huling Dalagang Bukid at ang Authobiography na Mali (The Last Farm Girl and the False Authobiography) is his latest masterwork, once again capping a career of excellence in fiction.

I am impressed with the way the novel presented its unique strain of postmodernism. Its creative form is quite distinct from the realist novels that populate local bookstores. The enigmatic title hints at two strands of storyline splitting the novel. "Ang Huling Dalagang Bukid" (The Last Farm Girl) pertains to the title of a draft of a novel-in-progress within the novel which the narrator – a novelist-artist who bears the same name, physical appearance, and biographical details as the actual author – is attempting to write. But this draft novel is in danger of not being completed as the fictional-novelist veers off in many directions throughout his writing of this novel-in-the-novel. He specifically digresses on many topics, including his unusual approach to novel-writing, the germ of its idea, his literary influences, the draft novel's working plot and candidate real life-based characters who will appear in it, and the constraints and personal difficulties hindering him from finishing the work.

This part of the title also refers to the main character of the novel-in-progress. "The last farm girl (and boy)" stands for the young Filipino women and men who left the country in search of greener pastures abroad during the latter part of twentieth century. The females usually went to work in Japan to earn enough cash to escape poverty. They were known as "cultural dancers" at home but later were called "Japayukis", a derogatory name for club entertainers. Prof. Reyes emphasizes their previous status as "farm girls" as he discoursed on an increasingly alarming sight in the countryside: productive agricultural lands gradually sold and converted into industrial zones, giving way to factories, business spaces, housing projects, and malls. The novelist decries both the loss of agricultural lands and the mass diaspora of Filipino workers going abroad for better job opportunities – workers who were now ironically canonized as "bagong bayani" (modern-day heroes) for their efforts in pouring in dollars into the national economy. The Last Farm Girl in some ways expresses deep reservations on the implications of global capitalism on culture and values.

The other strand of the novel, "Ang Authobiography na Mali" (The False Authobiography), refers to the semi- or quasi-autobiographical treatment of the narrator's own life as he tells his own story beginning from his birth and spoiled childhood to his days of student activism, his unfortunate experience as a target of harassment by soldiers because his published works were critical of the military establishment's abuses, and his travails as a PhD student, teacher, and academic in a state university that is not free from petty politics. With these narratives, the writer paints an absorbing picture of the artist in a society in the grips of global forces and corruption.

What particularly fascinates in these two intertwining strands of the novel (the novelistic and the autobiographical) is Prof. Reyes's honest, forthcoming presentation of personal details of his writing and working life. In the novelistic strand, we read something fictional but we note the disclaimer that it was just a rough draft. But it more or less resembles a writer's journal where he documents his process of writing and the socio-political environment around him. In the biographical strand, we are presented an actual biography of the novelist, but it was branded as "false" in the first place.

The most obvious deception lies in the misspelling of the word "Authobiography" in the title, which can be seen as a word play or shorthand for "Author's Biography". I personally do not know Prof. Reyes but his generous telling of the story of someone also called Jun Cruz Reyes left no doubt in my mind that the story he is telling has grains of truth in it. It is truthful and it is true. True in the sense that it captures the life of a man trying to live according to his principles and ideals. Here's a speculation: the "Authobiography" we have in our hands is really false, and so the converse is true: the "autobiography" we have here is true!

This "pseudo-novel", a provisional term for something whose radical form breaks away from what we usually think of as "novel", is subtitled "Isang Imbestigasyon". At the formal level, this can mean an investigation into the co-existence of fiction (albeit a draft) and nonfiction (though perhaps a "false" one) in a single discrete text. At the thematic level, this can mean the simultaneous mapping of the consciousness of the writer-artist (individual) and the society he is living in (collective).

The incorporation of a draft novel within an unstructured biography while investigating several themes at once is further turned on its head by the cross-pollination of several genres: informal essay, history, and memoir. It points to the potentialities of the novel to be an accommodating, all-inclusive medium of creative expression. Reinforcing this postmodern mix of genres and is an expansive, expressive style and a language of free play. Prof. Reyes's handling of language in his early works was labelled by literary critics as balbal (coarse or vulgar, from the root word of kabalbalan, coarseness/vulgarity). However, the narrator is right to reject this unfortunate classification. His language here is more colloquialism than coarseness. He does mix high and low registers in his prose. From this pseudo-novel alone there is no recognizable coarseness or transgressive value. The transgression partly comes from his handling of figures of speech which can be both playful and radical in their formulations. It is whimsical, like the postmodern quality of stream flow:

Dahil natataranta pati ang tubig, hindi na rin nito alam ang tamang direksiyon. Noong araw, nang sinaunang lumang araw, aagos lang ang mga bukal mula sa kabundukan, tapos ay magtatagpo sa mga sapa para magparami, saka tutuloy na sa mga ilog hanggang makarating sa dagat. Medyo formulaic at predictable ang dulo ng kuwentong ilog. Lagi iyong nagwawakas sa dagat. Ngayo'y postmodern na rin ang daloy ng naratibo ng ilog. May mga literal na twist and turn na rin ito. Anti-structure at anti-canon na rin. Ngayo'y nagmamadali ito, hindi na padaloy tulad ng isang tula, na dumadausdos mula sa bundok, kundi rumaragasa, kung minsa'y pabuhos at pabulusok, walang pasintabi ni awa, isang tropa sila, ang tubig na may kasamang troso, layak at burak. Kung minsa'y may patangay pang mga bahay at kalabaw, malauna'y may patangay pang mga taong nakagapos at may tape sa bibig at may nakapaskil sa dibdib na, "Huwag akong pamarisan." Bahagi rin iyon ng kalikasang postmodern. May mga patay kaliwa't kanan pero wala namang pumapatay at hindi rin naman nagpakamatay. Huwag nang alamin ang kuwento ng mga patay. Sapat nang magpasalamat na tayo'y buhay at nalilibang. Ang ilog ay parang militar na nag-ooplan lambat-bitag na ang madaraana'y collateral damage na lang. Mapahamak ang makasalubong ng nagwawala, ng nagwawalang kalikasan, ng mundo at ng tao.

(Even the waters are now in turmoil, not knowing the right direction to turn to. Once, once upon an ancient time, the springs flowed freely from the mountains, then congregated in streams to fill volumes, and then coursed through rivers and reached the sea. The end of the river story was a bit predictable and formulaic. It always ended in the sea. But today even the coursing of the river-narrative is postmodern. It now literally twists and turns. Anti-structure and anti-canon. Today it's on a headlong rush, no longer issuing like a poem, as it slides down the mountains, but gushing down, sometimes in a flood and in a flash, with no excuse or leniency, a troop of waters, a torrent accompanied by tree trunks, junk, and mud. Sometimes it washes away houses and carabaos, then later it washes away hogtied persons, with mouths taped shut, with notices pinned to the chests saying, "Don't follow my example." That is also part of postmodern nature. The dead appeared left and right yet nobody killed them and nobody took his own life. Better to close your eyes to the story of the dead. Be thankful for what we have. Play and be merry. The river is like the military with its operation fish-trap wherein those caught in crossfires are but collateral damage. They are at risk, those who encounter the rage, the rage of nature – of the world and men.)

This passage follows the writer along an indefinable flow of the "postmodern river" story, improvising from that whole chaos a riff on the human rights abuses by the military. Improvisation is the way with which Prof. Reyes merged his double stranded narrative and its forking themes, genres, and linguistic play. Smashing the categories attributed to modernist and even postmodernist works, the novel then becomes free-ranging and unconstrained, like an open mic performance. It becomes receptive to the scrutiny of literary theory (Marxism, post-colonialism, postmodernism, and even ecocriticism (as the sample passage above, along with the novel's discourse on mechanization encroaching on farm lands, illustrates).

In short, Prof. Reyes's novel of ideas is forward looking, futuristic. It is stitched from existing forms and yet reveals new ways of assembling and expanding the novel's universe. The only weakness I can think about it is its length. Its unwieldiness is evident from the introduction of extraneous ideas that could otherwise have been expunged. The novel's status as a "draft" cannot excuse it from having gone on interminably in several places. I feel that a good editor can tighten the book and strengthen further its readability. This editorial issue aside, I am looking forward to read more of Prof. Reyes's other fictional materials, particularly his works in the 1980s dealing with the subject of the martial law years under the Marcos regime.