29 October 2012

"The Golden Hare" (Silvina Ocampo)


Two years ago the online translation magazine Words Without Borders (WWB) published an issue devoted to contemporary Argentinean fiction. "Beyond Borges", the title of the issue, was proof of César Aira's assertion that every writer from Argentina finds herself writing against the master.

A year ago The Argentina Independent also launched a series called "Beyond Borges". It profiled writers like Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Leopoldo Lugones, Silvina Ocampo, Ernesto Sabato, Alejandra Pizarnik, Rodolfo Walsh, and many more.

"The Golden Hare", a story by Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993), was included in the WWB issue. Ocampo, who was part of a literary set with Borges and Bioy Casares, wrote poetry and story collections. She was younger sister to Victoria Ocampo, the founder of the influential literary journal Sur. She edited with husband Bioy and friend Borges the anthology The Book of Fantasy (1940) which contains 80-plus stories from an international set of writers. Her own writing style was considered as belonging to the surrealist-fantastic mold. Only two other books of hers appeared in English: the collection Leopoldina's Dream (1988) and the novella The Topless Tower (2010).

"The Golden Hare" is a fable for children and adults. It first appeared in the collection La furia in 1959. The story was about an immortal hare who had undergone a series of metamorphoses ("innumerable transmigrations" of soul) and then was pursued by a pack of dogs. Its meaning was not readily transparent. At some point, the narrator warned, "This is not a children's story, Jacinto", but then acknowledged that the conversation between the animals could enchant a curious seven-year old boy.

The opening was rather ornate: "In the bosom of the afternoon the sun illuminated her like a conflagration in the engravings of an ornate Bible." The overall tone hovered between menace ("The dogs were not evil, but they had sworn to catch the hare just to kill her.") and whimsicality ("The black Dane had time to snatch up an alfajor or some other pastry, which he kept in his mouth until the end of the race.").

Meanings can surely be attached like prostethic antlers to the head, although that's another animal. There was something about the tale that resembled the slipperiness of a hare, or a deer. Andrea Rosenberg, the story's translator, wrote a brief note about gender and word choice. She pointed out that "it is impossible to read Ocampo’s original without noticing how the contrast between dogs and hare is underscored by their opposing grammatical gender." The story was not limited, however, by the assumed gender of its participants.

If not for any earth-shattering insights, read it for the sake of reading. It was a short playful race too.

A Halloween-ish post for the Argentinean Literature of Doom. More translated works by Argentinean writers – Saer, Piglia, etc. – appearing in WWB can be accessed here.

28 October 2012

The Devil's Causeway (Matthew Westfall)

The Devil's Causeway: The True Story of America's First Prisoners of War in the Philippines, and the Heroic Expedition Sent to Their Rescue, by Matthew Westfall (Lyons Press, 2012)

In 1896, the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish who occupied and governed the Philippine Islands for more than 300 years broke out. The Katipunan, a clandestine organization bent on toppling the colonial government, was discovered, and this commenced a series of bloody confrontations between Spain and the freedom fighters.

Two years later, the Empire of Spain was threatened by another interest. The Americans intervened in the Spanish government in Cuba and later defeated the Spanish armada both in Santiago de Cuba and Manila Bay. By June 1898, the Philippine revolutionary force proclaimed the country's independence from Spain. Its leader, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, became the first president.

The Spanish surrendered and ceded its territories to the American victors through the Treaty of Paris in December 1898. The Philippines was effectively sold to the American government who did not recognize the sovereignty of the islands. The Filipino freedom fighters woke up to find their territory annexed to a new imperialist government, once again threatened to become colonial subjects to a new master. Those who previously resisted the Spanish rule also opposed the new government which appeared to be bent on implementing its own program of expansionism. A new war ensued in 1899. The turn of the century saw the turn of another chapter of history book, still tainted with tears and blood.

This historical gloss, familiar to students of Philippine history, was unfortunately simplified and incomplete, like all versions of history. Nonetheless, it was a necessary background to understand The Devil's Causeway by Matthew Westfall. The book filled in some gaps in the Philippine-American War, and provided new facts and perspectives while recounting an untold story of combat and rescue. The details of the incident would have been forgotten, but thanks to Westfall, a spotlight was now trained on a 110-year old encounter whose significance was not lost on modern conflicts and use of force.

In a Spanish church in Baler in the eastern coast of Luzon Island, some Spanish soldiers were trapped by the Filipino Army of Liberation. The siege lasted for all of several months, prompting an attempt of the Americans in Manila to rescue the soldiers of their former enemies. A battleship, the USS Yorktown, was sent to Baler. Following the ill-advised command of an American officer, a gunner boat from the ship entered a river and was ambushed by Filipino soldiers. A couple of soldiers were killed. Some were mortally wounded. The commander and the rest of his sailors were held captives. The dead were buried on the spot while one of the critically wounded was buried alive by order of a cruel Filipino commander.

The rescue of Lt. James C. Gillmore Jr. (the officer) and his men was a run to the hostile mountain passes of Sierra Madre and the Cordilleras. The pursuit was more like a cat-and-mouse game. Every attempt by the Americans to corner the mobile Filipino soldiers to get to the prisoners was rebuffed. The prisoners of war were dragged deeper and deeper into the forest interior of Luzon, battling not only war wounds and fatigue but deadly tropical diseases, not to mention being exposed to the territories of notorious headhunting tribes.

Their advance brought them to steeper and rougher trails. In places, the prisoners had to crawl hand over hand, helping each other over the large boulders.... Gillmore later recalled, "The penalty of a single misstep [would have been] to dash to death into the rapids perhaps a hundred feet below." They had entered, he colorfully described, "a veritable devil's causeway." Just before dusk, they reached the head of the dark canyon and camped for the night, "more dead than alive."

Westfall spent considerable time researching the primary materials for this book from various libraries in the US, the Philippines, and Spain, sometimes even taking the trouble to have the Spanish documents translated. The credibility of his historical narrative was due in part to his use of first-hand accounts by participants in the conflict.

A remarkable quality of his version of events was its objective presentation. One could sense the writer's attempt to tell a balanced view of events by considering both the military objectives of American and Filipino officers. Westfall, a filmmaker on the side, had the instinct of a storyteller to tell a compelling drama. He assembled a narrative that appeared at times like a detailed treatment for a period war movie. He knew when to fade out from his immediate narrative to set out the larger historical contexts and when to point out the far-ranging implications of seemingly small but ultimately decisive political and military decisions.

The use of vintage photographs was also rather effective. His motivation to pursue the story itself, Westfall admitted, was inspired by his discovery of a photograph of the then-nameless rescued American soldiers, whose stories he vowed to research and write. Appearing on the book's front cover, the photograph was one of its kind. At the time it was taken, the folding pocket Kodak camera was just introduced.

The photograph was moreover a fitting emblem of the book's photomontage style. The filmic editing of multiple narrative strands was appropriate as Westfall was able to zoom in and out of the viewpoints of a large set of characters, panning from one location to the next without loss of continuity. It would have been easy for The Devil's Causeway to be overwhelmed by details, but the details were used ingeniously to produce a singular photograph of a protracted war.

It was finally refreshing to read a historical narrative with a post-nationalist perspective centered on actions and motivations. By taking advantage of a novelistic framework, The Devil's Causeway was not weighed down by nationalistic ideologies that were sometimes detrimental to a holistic appreciation of history. It was also crucial that the writer knew who was "the center of gravity" of the war; and for this narrative, he had himself chosen a young American soldier as the conscience of his story. The latter was the boy Venville whose story of disappearance became a sub-plot from which the book gained some of its emotional tug.

In his epilogue, Westfall was able to tally up the "cost of conquest", which might as well be the cost of arrogance. The cost was no less than the life and health of many soldiers on both sides. (It was disheartening to learn how unfairly the American government treated its own veterans of the Philippine-American War by refusing to assist them as they age and battle health problems, most likely caused by their war experience, at home. It was now no longer surprising to me why the Filipino war veterans who fought side by side with the Americans against the Japanese in the Second World War were up to now denied just recognition and compensation for their efforts.)

This history book that reads like an adventure novel was a riveting look at the earliest American "adventure" in the Philippines. Westfall prefaced the chapters in the book with excerpts from Joseph Conrad's contemporaneous Heart of Darkness (1899), making clear his position on the vagaries of imperialistic war. Time and again, a nation's soldiers fought and waged war in the name of the flag – the flag which was the easiest way for the war machine to solicit blind obedience. As Harry Wilmans exclaimed in Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1916):

With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,
And days of loathing and nights of fear
To the hour of the charge through the steaming swamp,
Following the flag,
Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts.
Now there’s a flag over me in Spoon River!
A flag! A flag!

I received an advance reading copy of this book through Goodreads.

03 October 2012

The Gold in Makiling (Macario Pineda)

The Gold in Makiling (1947) by Macario Pineda, translated and with an introduction by Soledad S. Reyes (Anvil, 2012)

The Gold in Makiling began with the mysterious disappearance of an old woman in the town of Malolos in 1947. When informed of this by a letter, the editor of a popular weekly magazine sent a writer (the narrator) to investigate this incident and perhaps write about what he finds out there. The narrator was in fact a bit familiar with the story of the woman. He himself was a relative of hers: "If it was true that an old woman disappeared, and that woman's name was Susana de los Santos, what I would face in Malolos was the culmination of a story of love, unique and not comparable with any other story written and published elsewhere in the world."

The novelist was getting ahead of himself, but that love story, between Sanang and Edong, was the story told to the narrator by Tata Doro, the nephew of Sanang and who as a young boy was witness to the mysterious series of events in the novel. Tata Doro's story went back to the beginning of the century (1906, in the early years of American occupation in the country).

When Doro was a young boy, his aunt's lover Edong went to Mount Makiling with his friends to gather orchids. The mythical Mount Makiling in the province of Laguna was believed to be haven of a goddess-like being called Mariang Makiling. Edong met an accident while trying to save a small bird at the edge of a ravine. He fell down the mountain cliff and was believed to have met a certain death. His body though was never found.

What followed was the beginning of magic, mystery, and enchantment, including an encounter with the mountain goddess herself. Edong returned to the village. He was alive after all. His survival he attributed to the power of Maring Makiling, who saved and healed him because of his concern for the animals of the mountain.

Mariang Makiling was as perfect as she was idealized: "She's a ray of light, a flower, a drop of dew teetering on the tip of a blade of grass in the early morning, a brilliance, a fragrance, a lovely poem, an idea ..." The land she guarded in the heart of the mountain was a secret village. In this community everyone treated each other like brothers and sisters; food was shared by all; peace reigned; there's a strong sense of bayanihan or unity; there's no political structure, no hypocrisy. Every smile was sincere and true. Most significantly, it was also a version of utopia and Elysian Fields. It was populated by the most noble and charismatic figures in Philippine history, both real and imaginary: the real heroes who contributed to the fight for independence against Spanish oppressors and the imaginary characters in great literary works. Think of the likes of Filipino great José Rizal rubbing shoulders with some of his characters in his novel Noli me Tangere.

They are people who, because of their constancy and steadfastness, became victims. There were those that life took advantage of, like a tenant, working on the land for fifty years, but because he lost his leg, in an accident, he also lost his job and was in danger of starving and facing imminent death. There is a servant from a town, mauled by his master, because of some baseless accusation. There is someone named Crispin, who was accused of stealing money and severely beaten up in a convent during the Spanish period. His mother is also there ... There is a man with a magnificent physique, respected by all. He has a huge scar on his forehead and it is said that his body bore wounds inflicted by a spear.

The novelist was offering an alternative reality. He had put in one place, to live as a community, the best men and women of the past, the champions of history, what he called kakanggata ng lahi, a beautiful concept and term in Tagalog. Kakanggata is literally the first milk extracted from freshly grated coconut meat. The translator rendered it as "the cream of the race", a good approximation that contains the sense of "cream of the crop".

The cream of the race were the pride of the nation. That they all lived together in the heart of Makiling was plausible. Where else but in magical novels can these people be assembled? But Pineda went beyond this fantastical idea by raising a more fantastical possibility. What if these people come back to us? What if they climb down the mountain at some future time and assist their people in their struggles? What if they are already with us right now?

To be able to live in this community, a sacrifice must be made, an unconditional offering of the self. This was the fate of Sanang as a lover; her love must be tested to the limits; her fortitude, her worthiness must be weighed against gold. Sanang was destined to brave the ravages of time before she could return to the arms of Edong and finally ascend and join the commune in Makiling.

The "gold" in the title was the stones of gold in the magical mountain but its symbolic meaning was evident. Men tried to plunder the mountain of its riches but they might as well be pursuing a curse. As Edong told the young Doro, gold is precious only to the lowland people but the illustrious people that dwell in the mountain had no use for it. No amount of gold in the world could buy the happiness of Makiling's chosen few.

In her introduction, the translator pointed out that the gold also refers to "Filipinos who through education can make a difference in the lives of people". This was embodied by Tata Doro who gained education and who was able to form ideas on the "meaning of life" and the painful lessons of history under colonial rule. The gold could also symbolize the "gold" inside a human being: purity of character and the resilience of an individual to the hardships thrown her way. The same gold standard that the nation's heroes adhered to and which earned them a special place in Makiling.

The translation by Soledad S. Reyes rang true and confident to me. It gave a distinct flavor that must be beholden to the original quality of the Tagalog prose. The novelist himself, like other writers in his time, was a writer first in English, but he eventually wrote his novels in his native language. The English captured the magic and lyricism of the story. It was able to communicate a strong sense of atmosphere, as with the following passage before a climactic event, notable for its snappy rhythm and a sense of dread to come.

The whole village was quiet. The windows were shut in the early evening. No one walked about. All the lights in the houses were turned off. Even the dogs seemed not inclined to bark, and the owners immediately restrained the occasional growl. The owl roosting on Tandang Isko's bamboo tree was the only creature left to make a vigil, but its repeated hooting, echoing in the forsaken night, merely heightened the desolation that cloaked the town. In a manner of speaking, it could be said that the whole village of San Juan, in the grip of fear, hardly dared to breathe.

The seconds ticked, dragging themselves in the night. Time seemed to have stopped, and the night appeared endless. At ten o'clock the bell tolled, as if to signal the impending doom that would befall the town.

Slowly, the seconds passed and at midnight, the silence that shrouded the town appeared ready to explode, and if not allowed to, could be worse than the tragedy for which the town was bracing itself.

Published in the year 1947, Ang Ginto sa Makiling was considered the finest novel by Macario Pineda (1912-1950). The novel was a window to the attitudes and lifestyles of townspeople in the Philippines during the first half of 20th century. It was a time when divorce was never considered an option for married couples and when lies told of a woman besmearing her reputation demand the penalty of death.

Pineda struck literary gold with his excavation of native materials and customs. He presented a unique magic realist narrative rooted in local folklore, legends, and nationalist history. The novel hinted at the need to break free from the shackles of colonial mentality and to renew traditional moral imperatives. It must be squarely in the crème de la crème among postwar Filipino novels.

I was glad to find a copy of it in English translation and did not hesitate to buy one even if I could obtain a copy of it in its original Tagalog language. English translations of works in Tagalog or other Philippine languages must be rare. Perhaps there are a good number of them out there, but right now I could count in one hand the number of Filipino novels translated into English.

The main reason I can think for this lack of translation culture here is that there already exists a tradition of Philippine literature in English. There is then a kind of parochialism with regard to translation in a country where majority of the citizens are bilingual. It's the usual tired comment: Why read the English translation when you can read the original? Or, more worrisome: Why translate at all when the original is understood?

I will not go into making a case for reading translations here and for doing translations not only for the benefit of non-Filipino readers in English but for Filipino readers as well. I'm just glad that this novel finally saw publication in English after 65 years. The credit must go to the book's translator Soledad S. Reyes, editor Bienvenido Lumbera, and publisher. Reyes also published studies on Macario Pineda's fiction and her knowledge clearly made its mark on her excellent version.