27 December 2013

Some great books of the year


A Time for Everything
The Discovery of Global Warming
Work on the Mountain
The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems
Labyrinths:  Selected Stories and Other Writings
The Woman Who Had Two Navels
Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting

Rise's favorite books »

The obligatory end-of-the-year list does not feel obligatory at all when one is reminded of why one reads.

1. Salamanca by Dean Francis Alfar

The imagined leap from the promiscuity of procreation to the promiscuity of creativity is one way of looking at art as perpetual giving birth to and bringing forth of artworks, the progeny of the imagination. Sexual reproduction as the mode of literary production: the prolific outputs of the protagonist Gaudencio are direct products of his sexual proclivity. "His muse was the instant of passion", that instant when he "experienced his body's familiar transubstantiation of carnal lust to sublime vocabularies, and he would mentally partition texts as they were composed in his mind". Dean Francis Alfar seems to be hinting that, in the continuing process of national imagining and becoming, the liberal attitudes toward sexuality is the liberating force that makes us aware of the mystery of love and existence. (review

2. A Time for Everything by Karl O. Knausgaard, translated by James Anderson

A systematics of the angelic orders was what the Norwegian novelist Karl O. Knausgaard attempted in A Time for Everything. The literary imagination, along with its unlimited sympathy and generosity, was a robust stage in which to construct, from available materials, the conditions and assumptions on the angels as the direct link between the human and the divine. The manifold riches of the modern novel, unshackled by dogma, could approximate the variety of life experiences and their daily miracles. Its prose and form could hold up large vistas of physical and spiritual landscapes. The religious order of readers was constantly inducted into the novel's power to mesmerize, to quicken the senses and open up selves to radical ideas and identities. (review)

3. The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart

The book presents a lively narrative of bickering scientists. It is full of momentous scientific incidents and discovery and wide historical analyses and perspectives. It sustains an enthusiasm in a subject that is gaining more and more import as new researches and global computer models give uncomfortable predictions about the future of humankind. Even as the book discusses complex concepts from seemingly disparate but actually well connected scientific disciplines, it successfully lays down the historical basis for climate change and makes convincing arguments for the present peoples to act urgently on the issue at hand. (review)

4. Work on the Mountain by N.V.M. Gonzalez

The generosity and intelligence of the writer are evident in this collection of literary criticism. N.V.M. locates his writing within the margins of civilization – "on the mountain" – as differentiated from the city and the plains. There are some wise commentaries about writers and their craft of writing, full of experiential reflection and meditation on the power of words to reshape thought.

5. Makbet by William Shakespeare, translated by Rolando S. Tinio

"A translation is a different book", said Thomas Bernhard. "It has nothing to do with the original at all. It's a book by the person who translated it." In his colloquial translation of Shakespeare's drama, Rolando S. Tinio probably came close to approximating the "original spirit" of the Bard's language. He owned the tragedy of Macbeth as well as other canonical plays. (His bibliography is breathtaking.) His attempt to transpose tricky metaphors and word plays was not mere hat-trick but a grand slam. The premise that "languages, like men, are equal" may be valid. (interview)

6. The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems by Edith L. Tiempo

If her novels are imperfect, her short poems can be masterful.

What Distance Gives

When you reach for me in that obscure
World where like ashes of the air
Your eyes and hands and voice batter
With a stark and ghostly urgency
The transparent doors of my closed lids,
I struggle to confine the precarious grace,
The force, the impulse of this fantasy:
Yes, I grieve. But in its sure
Wise way it is this grief that bids
The ghost to go.
This is the reality we stand to lose:
That the push of muscle-strength
Is also a dear enfolding brute embrace
Of reason shocking all our length.
The loss is gain for the will to choose
The distance-given right to know.

7. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby

One of the undisputed ABC – with Arlt and Cortázar – of Argentine letters. The terrain of JLB's imagination is philosophical science fiction dictated by a dreamer after waking up (twice) from a dream within a dream. It is encoded in one of the books in one of the shelves in one of the hexagonal rooms in a particular library, which is only one of the libraries in a network of libraries in one of the planets of one of the planetary systems in a network of universes contained in an egg yolk surrounded by the egg white enclosed by the shell of a quail egg. Which is swallowed by a rat which a snake swooped down on. Then a hawk fell and flew off with the snake, was shot by an arrow, and landed on a book. The book is real because it exists in indefinite reality. I heard it was mentioned (twice) in an article about a fictional alphabet. (article, in Spanish)

8. Daluyong (Gathering Storm) by Lázaro Francisco

This 1960s novel, together with its precursor Maganda pa ang Daigdig, is about the peasant struggle against the cacique or landed class in agricultural plantation economy in post-war Philippines. It is written in dense and rich Tagalog that only a few probably speak any more, and yet what the characters speak and do are just as truthful as the certainty that the powerful will always take advantage of the powerless and the certitude that the powerless will rebel against them and prevail. Lázaro Francisco's committed writing was a clear instance of the flowering of vernacular prose. His novel is punctuated with political satire against colonial mentality, some comic moments, but the ending is dramatic and devastating.

 9. The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquín

Connie Escobar, the woman who thought she had two navels, fled to Hong Kong. She ran away from Manila, presumably to escape from her husband and to seek out Doctor Pepe Monson. She wanted to undergo an operation, "something surgical", that would remove one of the two orifices that peered from her belly like eyes. Her complaint clearly had something metaphorical about it. In his first novel, as with his only other one (Cave and Shadows), Nick Joaquín abstracted his ideas on memory and identity and played the devil's advocate on the subject of nationalism. He was ever the sly novelist and consummate prose writer. (review

10. Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting by Ramon L. Muzones, translated by Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava

The novel was set in early colonial times when Christianity reached the northern and central shores of the Philippines. Margosatubig was the name of the Muslim sultanate kingdom of Magindanaw and Sulu whose leadership was highly contested. Salagunting was the rightful heir to the sultan's throne which he was seeking to regain. His father Datu Ibyn Parang was expelled from the kingdom through the machinations of Sultan Mohamed who planned to take over the sultanate. Datu Ibyn Parang was censured for marrying a Christian woman and bearing a child (Salagunting) with her. After his ouster and his defeat in battle, the old sultan, Salagunting's grandfather, was poisoned by Sultan Mohamed. The latter was able to seize power and rule over Magindanaw and Sulu. Margosatubig positively fulfills Borges's dream of the epic's return: "As the future holds many things—as the future, perhaps, holds all things—I think that the epic will come back to us". (review)


16 December 2013

71 scars

In which the blogger lists the books he browsed, lingered over, snorted at, reread, rolled eyes over, cursed at, chortled over, was crazy like at, puzzled over, popped eyes at, was torn about, was disgusted about, was indifferent to, was smitten by, or stared with glazed eyes at in 2013.

Translated fiction

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerqueira, trans. Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay
How I Became a Nun by César Aira, trans. Chris Andrews
Don Juan: His Own Version by Peter Handke, trans. Krishna Winston
Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting by Ramon L. Muzones, trans. Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava
Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges, eds. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby
Evil and the Mask by Nakamura Fuminori, trans. Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates
The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, trans. Michael Hulse
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, trans. David McLintock
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa, trans. James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís
A Time for Everything by Karl O. Knausgaard, trans. James Anderson
Botchan by Natsume Sōseki, trans. Glenn Anderson
The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, trans. George Szirtes
The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira, trans. Katherine Silver

Fiction in English

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker
Gitarista by Reev Robledo
One, Tilting Leaves by Edith L. Tiempo
The Secret by Lin Acacio-Flores, illus. Dick Crame
State of Fear by Michael Crichton
Adventures of a Child of War by Lin Acacio-Flores
Manila Noir, ed. Jessica Hagedorn
Beacon Hill Boys by Ken Mochizuki
Ermita by F. Sionil José
Brightest by Johann de Venecia, Joanne Crisner, and Josephine Litonjua
The Builder by Edith L. Tiempo
The Kite of Stars and Other Stories by Dean Francis Alfar
Mass by F. Sionil José
Salamanca by Dean Francis Alfar
The Mission Song by John le Carré
The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquín
The Pretenders by F. Sionil José
My Brother, My Executioner by F. Sionil José

Fiction in Filipino

Lipad ng Uwak (Crow's Flight) by Mark Angeles
BAKA NG INA MO!: O bakit hindi palaging mother knows best ... by Ronaldo Vivo Jr., Erwin Dayrit, Danell Arquero, Earl Palma, Ronnel Vivo, and Christian De Jesus
100 Kislap (100 Flashes) by Abdon M. Balde Jr.
Daluyong (Gathering Storm) by Lázaro Francisco
Ang Hukuman ni Sinukuan (The Court of Sinukuan [bilingual]) by Virgilio S. Almario, illus. Mitzi Villavecer
Timawa (Wretched) by A.C. Fabian
Walong Diwata ng Pagkahulog (Eight Muses of the Fall) by Edgar Calabia Samar
Mga Agos sa Disyerto: Ikaapat na Edisyon (Streams in the Desert, 4th ed.) by Efren R. Abueg, Dominador B. Mirasol, Rogelio L. Ordoñez, Edgardo M. Reyes, and Rogelio R. Sikat

Graphic Novels

Trese: Stories From the Diabolical, Volume 1 by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo
Skyworld: Volume Two by Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria
Skyworld: Volume One by Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria
Kikomachine Komix Blg. 5 by Manix Abrera


Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Makbet by William Shakespeare, trans. Rolando S. Tinio
Ikalabindalawang Gabi (Twelfth Night) by William Shakespeare, trans. Rolando S. Tinio


100 Poems: Old and New by Rudyard Kipling, ed. Thomas Pinney
The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight, drawings by Terrence Tasker
Under the Storm: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry, eds. Khavn De La Cruz and Joel M. Toledo
Human Chain by Seamus Heaney
Electric Light by Seamus Heaney
Buwan, Buwang Bulawan (Moon, Gilded Moon) by Rio Alma, illus. Abi Goy
The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems by Edith L. Tiempo
After Nature by W. G. Sebald, trans. Michael Hamburger
To the Evening Star by Simeon Dumdum Jr.
Marginal Annotations and Other Poems by Edith L. Tiempo
Baha-Bahagdang Karupukan (Layers of Weaknesses) by Jim Pascual Agustin
Himno ng Apoy sa Gubat ng Dilim (Music of Fire in the Forest of Darkness) by Arlan Camba, Pia Montalban, and MJ Rafal


Work on the Mountain by N.V.M. Gonzalez
Looking Back 6: Prehistoric Philippines by Ambeth R. Ocampo
Bones of Contention: The Andres Bonifacio Lectures by Ambeth R. Ocampo 
The Opposing Thumb: Decoding Literature of the Marcos Regime by Leonard Casper
Looking Back 4: Chulalongkorn's Elephants by Ambeth R. Ocampo
Looking Back by Ambeth R. Ocampo
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler 
Personal: Mga Sanaysay sa Lupalop ng Gunita (Personal: Essays in the Territory of Memory) by Rene O. Villanueva
Caring for the Last Frontier by David A. Ponce de Leon
Halos Isang Buhay (Almost a Life) by Edgar Calabia Samar
Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Maslin
The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart 
From Darna to Zsazsa Zaturnnah: Desire and Fantasy: Essays on Literature and Popular Culture by Soledad S. Reyes

15 December 2013

The Antigone Poems

The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight, drawings by Terrence Tasker (Altaire Production & Publication, 2013)

Many feelings are evoked in this short book and in so few words. The short, clipped untitled poems are so confident in their lack of volubility they almost contain an entire biography of a truncated life in their tiny membranes. There is a Greek and tragic sense of violence ("Let blood pour fountains.") in the atmosphere of its pages, a violence spoken posthumously and no less graphic for the intervening time. The lines appear to describe the existential pains of an unspecified mid-life, domestic crisis. But one might as well be reading about a king's sobering behest and a subject's principled opposition to it. The brutal images announce the book's elliptical concerns. They range from the search for the closure of personal sorrows, coping with unimaginable frustration and grief, and erotic experiences. Like wrought iron, there is flexibility in the metaphors: "Your anguish sought this blackened veil. / Your anger wrought this iron hell." The statements might as well be a response to the iniquity of absolute power embodied by Creon's edict: Leave him unburied, leave his corpse disgraced, / a dinner for the birds and for the dogs.

Despite the inner darkness, there is the overriding figure of the sun that starkly burns with passion and abandon at the center of the poem. The blinding fires of "sunlove" purge and purify the deathly serious tone of the work ("All is aflame with life desirous / And death submits / To the laughing wilds."). And for champions of printed matter, The Antigone Poems is an objet d'art. Six charcoal drawings on French folds created from 1974-79 are interspersed between poems written in 1972-81. In space and time, the images are fittingly enclosed by poetry. Shadowy, textured sketches of faces and masks, brooding or menacing or with the countenance of indifferent death masks, the drawings reinforce the power of words to express, to startle, and to silence.

I received an advance review copy of the book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

10 December 2013

Tragedy of tragedies

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerqueira, translated by Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay (River Grove Books, 2012)

What if Fidel Castro is still alive? I mean the Fidel Castro born in 1926, Cuban communist leader, fiery orator, amply bearded, cigar-blowing military dictator, architect of prole dreams. That Fidel Castro, the fictive one, the figure mediated by television and consciousness. What if Fidel confidently walks the pages of a historical novel as if to prove the point that our greatest tragedy is to laugh when tickled and to cry when pinched?

What if, moreover, JFK is dead? We know he's not so we'll let the idea slide. And what of the cultural impacts of embargo? The ecological benefits of isolationism? The second coming-like arrival of the missile crisis?

As one novelist is fond of saying, with a smirk: Everything that begins as comedy ends in a prayer. Or a holy mass. Mass demonstration, demonstration rally, rallying cry, crybaby, babe in the manger, angry mob. There's a horde of comic associations putting many witty, lyrical realist (true) novels in the pale.

Once the official version (said to be true) had been launched, other versions (said to be false) multiplied; but as the first was false and those that opposed it were closer to the truth, truth and falsehood changed places, with each in the domain of the other. This might have seemed confusing, but in reality, no one had any doubts as to which was which.

Instead of static literary sameness coming from the tried and tested, true novel (the "official version"), the plot of this satire takes the romp to a new level of kinetic energy: "free of rules, logical sequence, or common thread". The threads stitching this satirical novel are showing, but they nevertheless leave the reader in stitches. Unraveling which was which was the co(s)mic challenge that puts the slap in slapstick and the black in black comedy.

This risqué novel by the Portuguese writer João Cerqueira is an exercise of sustained, dynamic comedy. From one ridiculous situation to another, Fidel is entangled in the fabric of fiction where he finds himself hostage to an imagination gone berserk. Restraint is gone, or has gone haywire.

Nearby, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman (who was, in fact, Fidel Castro in disguise) was shaking herself frenetically, spreading the aroma of expensive perfume ... sensually swaying her voluptuous body ... [an] unexpected carnal vision....

... Suddenly, there erupted the rumble of a salsa mixed with electronic rhythms, provoking a collective frenzy, as the dance floor was taken over by eager dancers. Consisting of felines and pachyderms in roughly equal measure, they squealed with delight, becoming entwined in complex dances in which the concatenation of two opposing forces transformed the four-legged tangle into a sensual writhe.

If there is a unifying thread in Fidel and JFK's revolutionary entanglement, it is perhaps the ideological absurdity of caricatured communism, especially as it closely resembles religious dogmatism. Hence, the proliferation of jokes at the expense of religion and biblical stories. Our Fidel, for example, upon hearing the story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba, could not contain his ideological fulmination even when he was struck by short term amnesia:

When the abbot finished his tale, words escape from Fidel's mouth. "This fictitious story is a good example of the abuse of the elite on the working classes, of the use of religion to legitimize the excesses of the powerful, and of the systematic punishment of women in imperfect societies that have yet to reach the superior level of scientific socialism. David is a despotic monarch whose wealth lies in the exploitation of an oppressed people deprived of access to education. He resorts to the brute force of the army and to the legitimating arguments of priests so that he can remain in power. His deprivation leads him to seduce a married woman of lower social standing. He then conjures up a strategy that will see him freed of her husband.

And he goes full steam from there, explaining the circumstances and motivations of Bathsheba and Uriah under the watch of "bloodthirsty" Capitalism.

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is a succession of overboard, overwhelming comic set pieces. It overwhelms because the scenes change in light speed. Like its eponymous ruler, the satire overthrows a lot of things historical, among them the tragic seriousness of (fictional) realism. Like Fidel in his prime, the novel never loses steam, it goes on and on, for prolonged distances, for hours and hours on end, bouncing a lot of provocative ideas. And like a fictional Fidel, it has to come to an end. Unfortunately, that is the tragedy of The Tragedy of Fidel Castro.

"Are you aware that it is you who will destroy your work? That you'll end up resembling those that you overthrew?"

"This is the price I have to pay. My tragedy."

The tragedy of tragedies.The stubborn cycle of history. The numbing repetition.

The reader's shrug.

In TTOFC, João Cerqueira produced a "miracle cure", an infidel, complete with a visit from Christ and accompanied by rumors of a total solar eclipse. Its politico-religious skewering is an often diverting comedy insulating readers from the legendary halls of holiness and banality. Readers, have faith.

I received a review copy of the book from the author. Also check out the post from Caravana de recuerdos.

08 December 2013

The poet's burden

100 Poems: Old and New by Rudyard Kipling, selected and edited by Thomas Pinney (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Old favorites and new gems are bound together in the latest selection of poems by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). From a round figure of 100, a fourth are old poems and the rest appears for the first time in book form. It is a modest cut from the three-volume The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling, published earlier this year and with the same editor, Thomas Pinney. The new are harvested from the more than 550 pieces found in obscure newspapers and magazines and unpublished manuscripts. It is not clear why Kipling left them uncollected. Perhaps they are not what he considered his best.

But the labels old and new might as well be arbitrary. The poems are not actually marked as such in the text, and the distinction is only given in the index of sources at the end of the book. One can assume the titles using the first lines of the poems and enclosed in brackets are the "old" poems. In any case, readers unfamiliar or uninitiated with the poet's work might as well be in for the shock of the new. The poems span more than half a century (1882-1935) of the poet's career. Collectively, they reveal a voice of quiet forcefulness and political controversy. They leave some impressions of an imperialist age, fruits of both wisdom and failing.

The sample also manages to showcase a mix of Kipling's registers and styles: tender, lyric, playful, political. His engagement with the historical developments in his own time is apparent from signature works like "The White Man's Burden". The poem's subject is spelled out below the title: "1899 / (The United States and the Philippine Islands)".

Take up the White Man's burden –
   In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
   And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
   An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit,
   And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden –
   The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of Famine
   And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
   The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
   Bring all your hope to nought.

After all these years the myth, and now concept, of "the White Man's burden" still speaks of the moral questions behind invasions, and conquests of nations and territories. The poem can be seen as a moral justification for American imperialism as Kipling's position was supportive of the US policy of "benevolent assimilation" in the Philippine islands. Kipling can't be serious.

And yet the poet appears to satirize his own glum position. With the "burden" of imperialism comes the false burden of a false conscience and the all too recognizable arrogance associated with any colonial design. I will not go so far as to call Kipling 'racist' – as others have done with regard to this poem – when there's an alternative, and more damning, reading of it. An interesting poem, after all, has two or more faces. Kipling may be expressing this very idea when he wrote in another poem, "Do I write jestingly? Believe me no – / Between the lines a deeper meaning lies".

Less problematic is his poem about the loss of a son in wartime. "My Boy Jack" almost condenses the whole World War I enterprise into a narrative of loss and mourning. Its subtitle "1914-18" says as much about the poem's emblematic rendering of the cost of war coincident with the "last" years of his son who went missing in 1915.

"Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?"
   None this tide,
   Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind –
   Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
   This tide,
   And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
   And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

It is a very personal poem and yet it is also a poem of the age, seeming to bottle up parental sorrows in the world. The empty consolation of pride is not enough compensation for lost children in the war. But there's a quiet dignity in grieving. I can't think of more fitting lines to commemorate the 100th year of the war next year.

Elsewhere, the poems use a freer, looser slang language. In poems like "The Irish Conspiracy", one hardly needs to strain hard to catch the drift of the slang. The poet's strong ear for the gossip of suspected conspiracy actually makes for a suspenseful reading. Some poems feel like military marching songs; others are almost like children's poems with an unsettling theme and rhythm. The following lines are examples of the latter:

[from "The Dedication":]

Time has whirled the spade away,
    Turned to slang the baby-speech,
And the child of yesterday
     Hunts, alone, a flinty beach –
Catches starfish as of old,
Gives 'em not for Love but gold.

[from "As One Who Throws Earth's Gold Away in Scorn":]

Wherefore, while each new day brings some new thought
    And life's chain sparkles, golden link by link
Write quickly; good or evil, all is fraught
    More deeply than you think.

And then there are the fickle, mischievous lines. "New Year Resolutions" is so heartfelt and true it bests the promise of every smoker not to light a smoke the whole year. One can safely bet the promise will not go up in flames.

I am resolved – throughout the year
    To lay my vices on the shelf;
A godly, sober course to steer
    And love my neighbours as myself –
Excepting always two or three
Whom I detest as they hate me.


I am resolved – to flirt no more,
    It leads to strife and tribulation;
Not that I used to flirt before,
    But as a bar against temptation.
Here I except (cut out the names)
x perfectly Platonic flames.

Overall, the 100 Poems selection distills the poetic works of Kipling in an accessible, balanced volume. His poems on empire, wars, and human nature are still potent pieces for reflection and debate. The new and old throw a new light on the poet and his times. Culled from the trenches of a life, the poems still carry the burden of their meanings.

I received a NetGalley copy of the book from the publisher.

11 November 2013

A broken grammar

How I Became a Nun by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2006)

"Seneca says that culture is what always saves that country", wrote the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes in La silla del águila (2002, The Eagle's Throne). "César Aira is, after all, the first Argentinian to receive the Nobel Prize." Fuentes's speculative fiction was set in the year 2020 when Argentina was 'Balkanised' ("once a united republic and now an appalling assortment of petty 'independent' republics ... each one with its own local Facundo, its own autocratic local boss"). Aira's Nobel win and hypothetical role as a messiah figure may or may not be a compliment from Fuentes. The Mexican may be retaliating against the Argentinian's audacity to make him a comic character in the madcap science fiction El congreso de literatura (1999).

Fuentes's own epistolary novel was a political farce. It imagined a presidential power struggle after the breakdown of Mexico's satellite communications system. Aira's novels, on their own, were almost non-political (or apolitical, what is the difference). But in an excellent essay by the critic Marcela Valdes in The Nation, one was given to see in Aira's fiction a reflection of socio-political and economic realities of Argentina during its tumultuous history. Valdes's political reading of Los fantasmas (1990, Ghosts) was an example.

Set in an unfinished luxury apartment building in Buenos Aires, the novel recounts a day in the lives of a group of construction workers who can see the dead. The ghosts hover around the building’s concrete skeleton, and look much like the workers they haunt. They’re strong young men “with small feet, and rough hands”; they’re covered with a “fine cement dust” that looks “dirty.” The building’s wealthy owners, and their architects and decorators, can’t see the phantoms. But the workers treat them with familiarity, grabbing the ghosts’ hilariously elastic penises and shoving bottles of wine down their throats—a technique that not only cools bad wine but also improves its quality.

A few details suggest that the ghosts may be desaparecidos. The first is their gender and youth: 70 percent of the disappeared were men, and 81 percent of them were between the ages of 16 and 35. The second is their revulsion at the sight and smell of grilling. When the workers cook steaks for lunch, the ghosts “disappeared…as they did every day when the smell of meat rose from the grill, as if it were detrimental to them.” In the slang of Argentina’s detention centers, the word for “grill”—parrilla—was also the word for the metal beds where captives were tortured with electricity. As one survivor recalled, “Despite the bonds [tied around captives’ hands and feet], when on the ‘grill’ one jumps, twists, moves about and tries to avoid contact with the burning, cutting iron bars.”

Notwithstanding the weighty politico-historical undertones of Aira's fiction, the comic surface of his stories was entertaining enough. The diversity and sheer number of his works were indications of an inventive imagination willing to push the boundaries of novelistic form and content. What makes reading him addictive was the flexible range of interpretations readers can apply to his allegories. In reading between the lines, one was parsing out a challenging puzzle.

In Cómo me hice monja (1993, How I Became a Nun), Aira told a straightforward story of a hypersensitive, intelligent, and self-conscious six-year old child (boy or girl, it was not clear) who was taken by his/her father for a first taste of ice cream. The bonding moment between father and child over ice cream was broken when the strawberry flavored ice cream the child ate turned out to be contaminated by cyanide. The father, very proud to introduce to his young César the delicious delicacy, was disappointed at the revolting reaction of the child gagging from the bitter taste of the spoiled ice cream. He disbelieved the child's reaction and started badgering and scolding him for ruining the day. César, meanwhile, was undergoing a painful epiphany. His first taste of poisonous reality: "I looked in horror at the pink of the ice cream. Farce was beginning to impinge on reality. Worse than that: farce was becoming reality, right in front of me, through me."

Mechanically I dug the spoon in. I felt faint at the mere thought that this torture was going to continue. All willpower had deserted me. I was crying openly, making no attempt to hide it. [...] I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what. That I didn't like the ice cream? I had already said that. That the ice cream tasted foul? I had said that too, and it was pointless, because I couldn't get it across; it was still there inside me, impossible to convey, even after I had spoken.

That unacceptable experience, of being forced to ingest poison, was torture to an innocent child. This was also the revolting experience of an innocent person (someone wrongly accused of crimes, some member of the political opposition) forcibly told to put into his system some poisonous concoction or idea or propaganda. His torturer was deaf and blind to any of his protestations.

The novel has clear autobiographical elements. It was set in Rosario, after the family of the child character César Aira moved from Pringles. The actual César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles in 1949. The temporal setting of the novel could then be set in the mid-1950s Argentina, during and after the military government of Juan Perón. It was a time of frequent coups d'état, crippling inflation, detention and torture of those in the opposition, social unrest. The political atmosphere was very like a poison, a wave of food poisoning.

I was a victim of the terrible cyanide contamination ... the great wave of lethal food poisoning that was sweeping Argentina and the neighboring countries that year ... The air was thick with fear, because it struck when least expected; any foodstuff could be contaminated, even the most natural ... potatoes, pumpkin, meat, rice, oranges ... In my case it was ice cream. But even food lovingly prepared at home could be poisoned ... Children were the most vulnerable ... they had no resistance. Housewives were at their wit's end. A mother could kill her baby with baby food. It was a lottery ... So many conflicting theories ... So many deaths ... The cemeteries were filling up with little tombstones, tenderly inscribed ... Our angel has flown to the arms of the Lord ... signed: his inconsolable parents. I got off lightly. I survived. I lived to tell the tale ... but in the end I had to pay a high price ... like they say: Buy cheaply, pay dearly.

He/she was a survivor of the times. But the high price little César the erstwhile ice cream survivor will pay in the end will still involve a kind of dealing with poison. The whole story was in fact a sort of adjusting to the fearful existence, to the paranoid atmosphere of living in troubled times.


The story of the child César Aira was told in retrospective manner. The older person was looking back on the comic misadventures of a (her) younger self. It was notable how gender identification was handled in the story. It was, presumably, the story of a child's coming of age, his/her trials and tribulations until becoming a virtual nun. And yet the child character was viewed as a "boy" by persons around her. During school break, the child went to a "boy's bathroom at school". Five times, to be exact, the character was referred to in the masculine – as "son", "boy", or "young Master César" – each by a different character, while there were some 23 separate incidents where the character referred to herself in the feminine – as "girl", "little girl", "daughter", or "mistress". (These are the translator's word choices. I'm not sure how the original Spanish handled the gender shifts.) For good measure, the child once liked to own dolls. 

It was only the child who viewed herself as a girl. What to make of this intentional gender confusion? For all intents and purposes this was hardly a queer or LGBT story. It seemed whimsical on the part of Aira. Perhaps his infamous writing method was to blame, the method of not revising what he already put to paper. At one point in the narrative, the writer probably decided to be consistently vague about his character's gender. 

It was a devotion to fiction's capacity to surprise. The mixed use of gender, together with the wicked, crazy ending of the story, was seemingly the product of the fertile imagination of the little child César Aira, who throughout the story was narrating (constructing) hysterical scenarios left and right.

But there was another possible reason for Aira's unorthodox telling. It had to do with the embrace of unorthodoxy itself, spontaneous writing as an act of resistance to or transgression of narrative convention. The consistency of transgression was nun-like, or martyr-like; that is, the consistency to be arbitrary and experimental in storytelling, to embrace unorthodox narrative principles.

Aira may simply be breaking the rules of grammar. He must have closely followed Fernando Pessoa's principles of creative writing. In Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet), the Portuguese poet revealed his writing system.

Today, during a break from feeling, I reflected on the style of my prose. Exactly how do I write? I had, like many others, the perverted desire to adopt a system and a norm. It's true that I wrote before having the norm and the system, but so did everyone else.

Analysing myself this afternoon, I've discovered that my stylistic system is based on two principles, and in the best tradition of the best classical writers I immediately uphold these two principles as general foundations of all good style: 1) to express what one feels exactly as it is felt – clearly, if it is clear; obscurely, if obscure; confusedly, if confused – and 2) to understand that grammar is an instrument and not a law.

Let's suppose there's a girl with masculine gestures. An ordinary human creature will say, 'That girl acts like a boy.' Another ordinary human creature, with some awareness that to speak is to tell, will say, 'That girl is a boy.' Yet another, equally aware of the duties of expression, but inspired by a fondness for concision (which is the sensual delight of thought), will say, 'That boy.' I'll say, 'She's a boy', violating one of the basic rules of grammar – that pronouns must agree in gender and number with the nouns they refer to. And I'll have spoken correctly; I'll have spoken absolutely, photographically, outside the norm, the accepted, the insipid. I won't have spoken, I'll have told.

To speak "absolutely, photographically, outside the norm, the accepted, the insipid", that was Aira alright. In Pessoa's simple summation: "Let grammar rule the man who doesn't know how to think what he feels. Let it serve those who are in command when they express themselves."

In How I Became a Nun, Aira was in command of a singular childish consciousness. Breaking the rules of grammar, he proceeded with his cultivated style ascetically. It was not that different from clinging tenaciously to a chosen faith. From taking the veil, becoming a full pledged nun. Taking the vows and entering the sacred convent of fiction. Irreverently, of course.

Read for the second edition of Caravana de recuerdos's Argentinean Literature of Doom.

02 November 2013

The gospel according to Don Juan

Don Juan: His Own Version by Peter Handke, translated by Krishna Winston (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)


The German Literature Month is in full swing. I have chosen to read Peter Handke's version of the ageless lover boy Don Juan, in the latter's "own version". We have a confessional narrative, told in a frame story. Don Juan was telling his adventures and exploits, sexual and otherwise, to a cook in a French country inn. We learned many things about the lover. But what appears to be a saucy story was anything but that. The epigraph gave everything away. Da Ponte and Mozart: Chi son' io tu non saprai. Who I am, you shall not know.

Don Juan was recently mourning the death of his son. To distract himself, he went around Europe and Middle East and, alas, found women attracted to him, to his "active gaze". His travels lasted for a week, what was known as his womanweek, his seven days of womantime. One day at a time, he told the cook about what happened on a particular day exactly a week before. He forbade the cook to ask questions or make unnecessary comments about the story he is telling. It was enough that Don Juan make a truthful account in his own version, in his own way.

Handke is a modern novelist. And by "modern" I meant someone interested in a story about stories, in the artifice behind narratives. The cook was an easy stand-in for the novelist. But there are several indications he was subbing for the reader.

Even my reading meant less and less to me. On the morning of the day when Don Juan turned up, on the run, I decided to give books a rest. Although I was in the middle of reading two seminal works, seminal not only for French literature and not only for the seventeenth century—Jean Racine's defense of the nuns of Port-Royal and Blaise Pascal's attack on the nuns' Jesuit detractors—I concluded from one minute to the next that I had read enough, at least for now. Read enough? My thought that morning was even more radical: "Enough of reading!" Yet I had been a reader all my life. A chef and a reader. What a chef. What a reader....

Don Juan's coming on that May afternoon took the place of reading for me. It was more than a mere substitute. The very fact that it was "Don Juan," instead of all those devilishly clever Jesuit padres from the seventeenth century, and also instead of a Lucien Leuwen and Raskolnikov, let us say, or a Mynheer Peeperkorn, a Señor Buendia, an Inspector Maigret, came as a breath of fresh air. At the same time, Don Juan's arrival literally offered me the sense of widening my inner horizons, of bursting boundaries, that I usually experienced only from reading, from excited (and exciting), blissful reading.

The very fact that it was "Don Juan" should be enough liability for a writer to resurrect. The story, like the best love affairs, was cloaked in secrecy, drenched in the artifice of literary construction. It is short, 101 pages of distilled writing, just the right enough length for Handke to engage in César Aira-like "flight forward". Like Aira, Handke was novel-building through accumulation of seemingly benign details that suddenly acquired import—previously overlooked yet now sufficiently noticed because they were necessary for the story to proceed, to move forward into the continuum. Take for instance the scene when DJ was spying on a couple having sex al fresco.

Not until the week following this experience, when Don Juan was thinking about the couple, celebrating their one-week anniversary, as it were—he was sure he was celebrating it, and how!—did it occur to him that the labiate flowers on the broom branches framing the couple had been intensely yellow.


Not until the two naked couple in the hollow were apparently attacked by flies and ants did he turn to leave. Actually the insects had been there all along, but only now did they seem to start annoying the couple. Up to the last moment Don Juan had been waiting for something to happen with the two of them that would alter the course of events. What, for instance? No questions! he scolded me.

DJ was narrating from memory, and from memory details were added as if they were just remembered at the moment of the telling, exactly a week after. Not until the week following this experience ... did it occur to him. Thoughts occurred to him spontaneously, right there and then. Actually the insects had been there all along. DJ (the novelist) was waiting for things to add to the picture around the couple, the verisimilitude of their naked situation, perhaps to alter the course of events, if not to complete the story. Only now did they seem to start annoying the couple. There's the perfect excuse to clarify the version of things first witnessed.

As told by Handke, the story of DJ and his sexual encounters ("if in Georgia the floorboards had creaked under him and the woman there, here it was sand that crunched under them") was more than a pretext to move the story along. It was the vehicle for the character of DJ to go on with his sad life. He (Handke) had the baggage of fiction to consider, the appeal to make alive details surrounding a fictive character.

How to produce a narrative that can defy clichés? "In the end it was she who fled from DJ, and unlike his escapes, hers took place head over heels, without a moment's reflection, blindly, including movie-style collisions with the ferry passengers, knocking-over of metal drums, and the like." Perhaps to revivify the tired story-telling techniques, let the story embrace clichés, movie-style; apply chaos and stuff, and the like. It was a subtle approach to beat the daily grind of living.

It did not disturb him that most of  what had transpired before was repeated, and repeated again, with the women on the subsequent days of the week, nor did it cause him to hesitate, let alone recoil—he had recoiled for a moment only the first time, when there was not yet any question of repetition. Instead the repetition developed its own dynamics, each time more powerfully, and he let himself be carried along as if it were entirely natural, a law he had to comply with, if not a commandment. That was how it had to be: he had to do or avoid the same things with this woman here as with the one from the previous day. The very repetition lent him courage.

The inertia of repetition was a thing to be prized. The endless routine of things and his struggle to subvert it by seeking variations gave him comfort. Every experience of lovemaking was a consolation, a balm against death and irrelevance.

It goes without saying that I was not allowed to ask how they had got there. And I did not ask. It was enough that it seemed possible to me. Nor did I ask where Don Juan spent the night in Damascus, or where his servant slept. That was left to my imagination, as was the case with the next stages of the journey. But I did not need to picture settings, which would only have interfered with my listening, just as I did not need the Syrian weather report: it was clear that there, too, the May air was filled with swirling poplar-blossom fluff, and, as the story continued, I saw it rolling along the reddish yellow earth and floating past the likewise reddish yellow walls, while the material in its wake seemed increasingly weightless.

It was enough that the loose story hang together, that plausibility not be a total slave to logic. As long as fiction, its fruitful possibilities, seemed possible enough. The writer was there to trace the outline of a recognizable character, a timeless and repetitious lover. DJ's gospel was a version of a story that works enough for him. Apparently, by virtue of his close attention, the listener too (and who else was paying attention) has his own made up story. He has his own version.

21 October 2013

The epic will come back to us

Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting by Ramon L. Muzones, translated from Hiligaynon by Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2012)

The Hiligaynon language is one of many spoken in the Philippines, mainly in Western Visayas and parts of Mindanao, the central and southern part of the country. Spoken by around 8 million people, it is in some ways the prestige register of Ilonggo, the way Filipino language is to Tagalog.

Ramon L. Muzones (1913-1992) was the foremost novelist in Hiligaynon, according to translator Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava and to many of his writing contemporaries. He wrote 62(!) novels of various genre in his lifetime, and he was said to be an incomparable innovator in the Hiligaynon language, very much conscious of modern literary trends. A glimpse of his gifts as a writer was now made possible through the English translation and publication of one of his celebrated novels. Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting first appeared in 30 installments in a local weekly magazine in 1946. It is a historical fantasy novel in the grand epic tradition, a compulsive tale of adventure and love, filled with magic and incredible battle scenes.

The novel was set in early colonial times when Christianity reached the northern and central shores of the Philippines. Margosatubig was the name of the Muslim sultanate kingdom of Magindanaw and Sulu whose leadership was highly contested. Salagunting was the rightful heir to the sultan's throne which he was seeking to regain. His father Datu Ibyn Parang was expelled from the kingdom through the machinations of Sultan Mohamed who planned to take over the sultanate. Datu Ibyn Parang was censured for marrying a Christian woman and bearing a child (Salagunting) with her. After his ouster and his defeat in battle, the old sultan, Salagunting's grandfather, was poisoned by Sultan Mohamed. The latter was able to seize power and rule over Magindanaw and Sulu.

Thus Muzones set up the great conflict between two competing interests. Salagunting's "might of right" against the new ruler Mohamed's "right of might". Who deserves to rule remains a relevant question, especially in societies beleaguered by incessant fighting and constant change in leadership.

The rule of Sultan Mohamed, pretender to the throne, was aided by two figures with miraculous powers. His right-hand man Pandit Gulamu had magical powers as unbelievable as they were (un)intentionally ridiculous and funny.

"What amazing things has he done?" queried Salagunting.
"He walks on fire. Weapons cannot pierce his body and he does other wondrous things."
"What did they say his name was?"
"They call him Pandit Gulamu. He is said to be one of a few who succeeded in scaling the high mountains of the Himalayas in order to visit the Dalai Lama. It was there that he acquired his potent magic."

The other magical character, more powerful than Pandit Gulamu, was the sultan's extremely beautiful daughter Dayang-Dayang Morgana. Her powers of enchantment and ability to change forms (metamorphosis) will repeatedly thwart Salagunting in his bid to wrest the Margosatubig sultanate.

Central to the novel's use of magic is the concept of kinaadman, a term left untranslated (rightly, I think) in the novel. This roughly pertains to the characters' magical abilities and powers, often a result of their having amulets but also a sort of innate status as rightful claim to power. More than amulets of magic, the bearer of kinaadman is the bearer of the right to rule a sovereign kingdom. It is a leadership quality deserving heroes and heroines must possess. As defined in the novel's glossary, kinaadman means "ability, skill cleverness, learning, knowledge, [and] wisdom".

As used by Muzones in [...] Margosatubig and his other epicohistorical novels, it is a special kind of skill or power not unlike those shown by busalians [persons of "unusual physical prowess and special powers" bordering on the incredible] and dalagangans ["extraordinarily brave, heroic and powerful" persons] that enable its possessor [to] perform preternatural things. Thus, kinaadman like those possessed by Salagunting, Morgana and Pandit Gulamu can among others, render their possessor invulnerable to weapons, enabling them to appear or disappear at will, divine the future, cure the sick or even bring the dead back to life.

In the case of busalians, their special power could be derived in several ways: "It could be given without one's wishing for it as a form of bugay (or gift from God for being kindhearted), it could come from a sinagod (adopted spirit being) or a friendly tamawo (fairy or spirit being). It could be derived from 'rare and unusual objects like a nodeless vine, a rivershell without opening (libon nga banag) or a daplak bird's egg.'"

Kinaadman is comparable to Max Weber's concept of charismatic authority. As with kinaadman, the connotation of righteous leadership is apparent. Weber defined charisma as

A certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

The main difference was probably the kinaadman's stronger emphasis on superhuman abilities and the use of talismanic objects, making it more unearthly than charisma. The person may be inseparable from his/her power, was the very embodiment of that power. The legitimation of the kinaadman was obtained by its bearer through brave exploits and triumphs in adversities (wars). In the process, the warrior became a legendary, larger-than-life figure. Salagunting's powers made him a natural leader to be followed. His use of different kinds of power, derived from many talismans, would define his destiny.

"My son, the powers on earth are nothing compared to those on water. I have already conferred on you the gems of the himag and the tagalyas. Your body is invested with the most potent talisman on air and on water. You are a peerless busalian, my son, possessed with extraordinary magical powers. Go to the cave of Sanggub, get the magical banawug. This is a potent weapon against earthly sorcery and protection against any talisman. The evil spirits will recognize your powers because you are invulnerable, fortified against all charms. Take with you the hamusog and hanugon algae and you will never feel the need for food or water."

The passage not only demonstrated the many skills Salagunting possessed but also the variety of words the translator failed to find equivalents in the English language. Most of these untranslated words were compiled and duly defined in a glossary found at the end of the novel. There were a total of 70 of these words in the glossary. This deliberately opened the text up to a debate between so-called foreignizing translation and domesticating translation. The translator's strategy to retain some words in original Hiligaynon was a risky one—it risked putting off readers who can't be bothered to turn from the page he's reading to the glossary at the back—but she justified the decision in her translator's introduction. She simply could not find any exact equivalent for these words in dictionaries and, moreover, the range of possible English words was inadequate to the task.

Nevertheless, there's a certain rhythm to these words that would not have been preserved had the translator opted to "domesticate" some details. Take for example the opening of the novel (ellipses not mine).

From north to south ... from east to west ... in the land of the pandita ... all over the territories of Magindanaw and Sulu ... the worshippers of Mahoma gathered to answer the sultan's summons to an assembly. Scores of biniday, pangku, kumpit and binta docked on Margosatubig's shores. Seen from afar their sails of many colors and varied patterns resembled clusters of flowers fluttering in the breeze.

Readers didn't need to be told that the last four foreign words described seagoing vessels. Something essential would be lost if these words for very specific kinds of boats were replaced with a set from the English language were they don't really exist.

The translator Locsin-Nava proved her dedication to her craft through careful research work on the contexts and milieu of the language, history, and society that informed Muzone's writing of this epico-historical novel. The carefully assembled critical apparatus of the novel—a foreword on the place of Muzones in "vernacular literature" by poet, critic, and National Artist Virgilio S. Almario; a short author's note; Locsin-Nava's note on the importance of Muzones to national literature; and her indispensable translator's notes; not to mention the inflated blurbs at the end of the book that I could really do without—were designed to secure for the author the canonization as the first National Artist for Literature who wrote in a regional and vernacular language other than Tagalog, presumably to fill the gap in the canon of Filipino writers who wrote only in English and Filipino.

The book was an overt campaign to the gatekeepers of the Philippine canon to anoint Muzones in the pantheon of literary masters. Margosatubig then demonstrated how a well-intentioned translator can be a canon-maker and thus contribute to national literature. It showed how a well-made translation can effectively secure for an author the title National Artist.

This is because the historical and societal contexts of Margosatubig were not unique to its own geography. Published immediately after the second world war, Margosatubig was a reflection of the turnover of power in colonial Philippines from one occupying nation to the next. Being set in war-torn Mindanao, it also anticipated the perpetual political wrangling and search for the ever elusive peace in the region.

Salagunting was against Moro slave raids, pillaging, and piracy in Christian towns conducted by the forces of Sultan Mohamed. These events were common occurrences before and even during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. Proofs of these are the many kuta or concrete fortifications dotting the shores of many islands like Palawan. (I have visited more than half a dozen of them.)

It was not for nothing that the hero Salagunting was half Muslim-half Christian. His dream was to unite many lands by promoting justice and good governance.

"What concerns me is the banditry that is rife among the towns of the Christians. We should put a stop to this. People of the Philippines must learn to live with and understand each other. We must help each other so that we will prosper. Other countries have a bad impression of us. We must put an end to this."

Filipino historians like Ambeth R. Ocampo will contest the use of the name "Philippines" to describe the name of a group of islands prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers. Shades of nationalist imaginings like these colored the book. The name "Philippines" per se, let alone the concept of a unified country of islands, was not yet invented during early colonial times (the Spanish conquistadors first named the islands San Lazaro before calling it Felipenas, later Filipinas). But Muzones here was writing a novel after the fact; and fiction, a fantasy one at that, was a good place to shake history.

The novel had a distinctive style that merges the appeal of fast-paced and highly visual fantasy novels and the political thrillers. It felt like reading a graphic novel. In fact, it was a timely publication since at present we have a golden age (of sorts) of Philippine graphic novels steeped in native mythology. Works like Trese, Skyworld, Zsazsa Zaturnnah, The Mythology Class, Siglo, and Underpass are proof of the continued interest in visual storytelling. I think that emerging graphic storytellers could benefit from Muzones's handling of narrative suspense, his fusion of various influences and sensibilities, and his painterly depiction of magic and bloody war scenes. Think of the novel's balu fishes (swordfishes) falling upon enemy warriors "like a rain of spears".

The use of ellipsis after single word paragraphs for transition was quite like the scenes of graphic novels immediately panning from one panel to another. The spaces between ellipses heightened the sharp transitions, marking off the moment the director yelled "Cut!"

"Salagunting," asked Maria Cristina's parents, "what kind of food do you like? We know there are certain things we Christians eat that you do not."
"Cook whatever you like. Don't you know that I am half-Christian?"
"Yes, that is what Maria Cristina told us."
And ...
Because the Legaspi family was known to be the most affluent in Rom-Rom, a big feast was held.
But ...
While everybody was celebrating, news was suddenly relayed that the horizon was darkening with the boats of invading pirates. And ... the people fled like they had seen ghosts.
But ...
Salagunting stayed rooted where he stood. Then he directed his steps toward the sea.

The infelicitous use of ellipsis was a consistent feature of the novel. It cultivated suspense and cut quick to the pace of narrative.

And ...

It made for a disorienting, sometimes frustrating reading experience.

But ...

It was also a bit charming. Because ... what a story! One immediately got used to the quirk.

Meanwhile ....

So much has been explained about the novel's apparent contribution to national literature. But what of its place in world literature?

I think Margosatubig positively fulfills Borges's dream of the epic's return even before he expressed it in a lecture in Harvard in 1967. "As the future holds many things—as the future, perhaps, holds all things—I think that the epic will come back to us", Borges prophesied. "I think that the poet shall once again be a maker." Because it was in a language he doesn't speak, Borges couldn't know that, two decades prior to his pronouncement, one such unqualified epic was already sketched out. So it appears that some epics were not really lost to us; they are with us all this time. Sometimes we get lucky when they're pulled out of the dusty archives, and someone takes the time to translate the opaque verses for us. From one singing language to another, inhabiting the same amazement, the same astonishment.

14 October 2013

Gitarista (Reev Robledo)

Gitarista by Reev Robledo (2013)

Set in 1975 Manila, when the city was under the iron rule of a dictator and curfew was the order of the day night, Gitarista tells the story of freshman music student and guitar virtuoso Alejandro Sebastian who was bent on perfecting his craft. While activists and protesters took to the streets and demanded basic freedom Alejandro was reading music sheets for his exacting maestro and rehearsing for the prestigious contest that will pit him against the most promising guitarists in the land.

There's nothing political in Reev Robledo's novel Gitarista, except maybe the politics of the heart and family ties. As if to echo the political turmoil brewing in the halls of the state university, Alejandro was undergoing an emotional crisis. His absentee father, whom his single mother will not let him know, was foremost on his mind. To add to the unresolved feelings between him and his mother and to the stress of preparations for the approaching competition, Alejandro fell in love with Dani, a plucky violinist. Could their relationship go beyond friendship and musical collaboration?

The greatest achievement of Gitarista for me is its cinematic evocation of the music scene of the era. Even for some of us who were not yet born in those tumultuous times, but who kept hearing those songs in our childhood, a feeling of nostalgia was inevitable. The narrative was even spruced up by cameo appearances of such benchmark musicians as Ryan Cayabyab and Hotdog band vocal Rene Garcia. The depiction of the artistic and cultural scene and the architecture of Manila in imeldific times was so assured one felt being transported there in spacetime.

Robledo is a talented songwriter and musical score composer, and it was not surprising to find in this book – his "love letter to Manila" and to the art and music of Spanish conquistadors – a singular playlist of classical pieces, Philippine folk songs, and signature songs of the times (70s). Alongside Isaac Albéniz's flamenco music Asturias (Leyenda) and Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring were heard Earth, Wind & Fire's September.

Music is the DNA of this novel. It boldly recreated a musical era while composing its own musical score through its acoustic effects and ear for musical prose.

The Toyota revved up its engine. The kalesa's horse snorted. The jeepney regurgitated diesel. Japan, Spain and America's quest for Philippine road supremacy was underway.


El Diablo [the jeepney] accelerated. The kalesa maintained its speed. The Toyota honked its horns. Steven Tyler screamed.


Once the dough was firm and elastic, he [the noodle maker] pulled it across his chest like an accordion then held up one end with one hand then let his other hand slice it into thin strips of noodles between his fingers.


The top string of his guitar snapped and sliced the skin of the back of his hand. He watched a stream of blood trace the lines on his palm and smear the frets.

The spotlight bounced off the guitar's maple board; reflections scattered around the theater, briefly illuminating men and women with faces aghast....

Strumming at an ungodly speed, he ignored his wounds and improvised with the remaining strings.

The writing often reminded me of the rapt prose of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music. Even the patches of purple prose and blues may be justified in this case by coming-of-age concerns. To be young, to be innocent, to be in love. To be alive in the days when youth was pursued by experience and experience was the reward of shedding innocence. "It was every musician's desire to translate their art into something interpretable. Something the heart can digest", a character intoned in the book. Here the musician interpreted his art with verve, heart, and tenderness. It is a sentimental education and an ode to a city, to family, and to musical memory. An altogether brave performance.

Thanks to K.D. for a copy of the book.

05 October 2013

Manila Noir

Manila Noir, edited by Jessica Hagedorn (Akashic Books, 2013; Anvil, 2013)

"I like to think of Manila as a woman of mystery, the ultimate femme fatale. Sexy, complicated, and tainted by a dark and painful past, she's not to be trusted." In her introduction to Manila Noir, a collection of stories, Jessica Hagedorn found a convenient metaphor for the nation's capital. The "dark and painful past" she referred to was that of years of colonialism and foreign occupation and the attendant cultural, political, social, and economic degradation. It is easy to reject this kind of metaphors for its tendency to oversimplify history; for any one metaphor, another one can be proposed and there really is no lack of them in novels set in Manila. The stories in Manila Noir seemed to skirt around this simplification. Although an argument could be made for the existence of femme fatale characters in certain stories ("The Professor's Wife" by Jose Dalisay, "A Human Right" by Rosario Cruz-Lucero, "Desire" by Marianne Villanueva), an argument could also be made for their rejection of traditional portrayal of a cosmopolitan femme fatale. The female characters in these stories were not originally from Manila, their dark past obtaining from outside the metropolis, in the countryside, and the city was there to offer them refuge and freedom from the "narrowing" provincial confines. In some stories, the city marked the end of their journey, the consummation of erotic fantasies, sexual desires, sincere acts of murder.

There was enough material here to subvert Hagedorn's conception of Manila as femme fatale. The theoretical schools would have ample time to interpret some stories using feminist, post-colonial, and queer theories. In "Comforter of the Afflicted" by F. H. Batacan, a Jesuit priest – the same lead as in the writer's previous crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles – investigates the murder of a woman who not only had her own shadowy past but was also entangled in the lives of other women running away from the past. The deconstruction of the motive to a murder of another woman was at the center of "Darling, You Can Count on Me" by Eric Gamalinda. It was based on the actual infamous murder of Lucila Lalu in 1967, a case that gripped the imagination of the nation for the unbelievable twists and turns in the story. The story was a version of truth no less bizaare than reality but no less truthful than the poetry of its precise telling. Gamalinda is a very fine writer.

Her neck is long and white, and her laughter gurgles out warm and rippling like water, like she's choking on her own laughter. He drops the knife. He inches closer to her, closer to the source of that mysterious sound.


He slips her shoe off and takes her foot in his hand, the way the prince did with Cinderella. He tells her it feels like he's taking a rose, small and delicate, in his hand, and if he catches her with another boy again he's going to snap that foot off, like a flower.

The weight of history was not a burden but an opportunity for playful exploration of alternative histories, alternate realities, and alternating correspondences in "The Unintended" by Gina Apostol. It was a brilliant story framed by different types of translation, also featuring the characters Magsalin and Estrella Espejo, two of the feisty annotators of Apostol's heavily footnoted novel The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. The preponderance of film references provides the writer with the materials to question the authenticity of these films in the language department (how certain subtitled dialogues were conveyed in a language different from what it was supposed to be). The film as a translation medium was still part of the running theme.

The Unintended is a hypothetical unfinished movie about 1901 wartime massacre in Samar Island. It can also be a reference to "the Intended", Kurtz's mourning fiancee in the signature novel of colonialism Heart of Darkness. The movie was a companion to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, a modern adaptation of the Conrad novella about the Vietnam War which was filmed on location in Philippines. (With the presence in the story of the fictional film director's daughter, the real film-false film correspondence can be extended to the real director's real daughter Sofia Coppola directing Lost in Translation. The translation/adaptation angle was further refracted by the story's setting of Ali Mall, the site that became a commemorative place of Muhammad Ali's successful heavyweight title fight against Joe Frazier in 1975.) The investigation of history was very like a movie.

I think we are stuck in someone's movie, and the director is still laying out his scraps of script, trying to figure out his ending. He does not have an ending. Everything around him has the possibility of becoming part of his mystery plot—his lost love for his wife, that fly over there licking the sugar on the bun, the clown in the corner playing with a knife, a moment in a mirror store in New York when he sees himself replicated through his camera lens in all the mirrors except he cannot see his eyes, the unanswered questions about a writer's death, the unanswered questions about a country's war, that schoolboy carefully folding a white shirt and tucking it neatly into a paper bag, a heart attack he has in 1977 when his movie is still not done, when it has a beginning and an ending but no idea, and twelve hundred feet of unedited stock, with takes, retakes, and other duplications. That is what we are: twelve hundred feet of unedited stock, doing things over and over, and we are waiting for the cut. But who is the director? What is our wait for? I would like to make a movie in which the spectator understands that she is in a work of someone else's construction and yet as she watches she is devising her own translations for the movie in which she in fact exists.

Apostol is a Borgesian writer. Her ideas about the Argentine writer's politics of postcolonialism and postnationalism are evident in this intertextual and metafictional story.

Perhaps a throwback to Hagedorn's femme fatale idea was the prominence of queer figures in stories such as R. Zamora Linmark's "Cariño Brutal", Jessica Hagedorn's "Old Money", Eric Gamalinda's "Darling, You Can Count on Me", and Jonas Vitman's "Norma from Norman". In the first and last of these stories, the homosexuals dealt with violence inflicted against their humanity. They resisted and, in Vitman's story, even went so far as to fight back, with a thorough and calculated vengeance.
Manila Noir was a collection meant to explore the untold mystery and criminal side of Manila while showcasing the best contemporary Philippine writing. Not all stories succeed. Lysley Tenorio's "Aviary" was an unconvincing adventure of street children fighting against the discriminatory attitude of an elite shopping mall. The story, told in a collective first person "we", had the children speak in a sophisticated language not fit to their age and status. Lourd de Veyra's "Satan Has Already Bought U" was an amusing take on a drug transaction gone wrong, reminiscent of the dialogues-only exposition in Hemingway's "The Killers", but was ultimately just that – amusing. Even the graphic installment of Trese by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo felt a bit stale in the storytelling department although some panels by Kajo were really so freaky, in a cool way. 

Surrealist imagery and language were the strength of stories like "Broken Glass" by Sabina Murray, a tension-filled story about an unlikely death committed in the grounds of a rich household, and "After Midnight" by Angelo R. Lacuesta, about a simple accident told in a distinctive language. (I liked the latter so much I went to buy Lacuesta's story collection, White Elephants.) Language-driven stories like these, like the stories by Apostol, Zamora Linmark, and Gamalinda, were thankfully not immersed in the ghostwritten words of the past. The best stories had moved on, wearing the fresh language and idioms of the present. They unfolded, as in Gamalinda's words, in a transparent dream.

She closes her eyes and imagines it. Through this maze of dilapidated alleys and dead ends, there's nothing but long stretches of desolate highways, cities teeming with anonymous faces, restrooms that stink like a sewer, motels full of bugs where the walls still throb with love's sticky whispers, and always a lot of stations where people come and go. She wonders if he can see it too. Of course he can. Everything is transparent in a dream.

27 September 2013

Cacique novels of F. Sionil José

He who owns the land holds power. That, in a nutshell, is the basic principle of caciquism. In the countryside, the ruling class is usually made up of landowners and land grabbers. The political economy of the Philippines is closely tied to land acquisition and the transfer of properties, from one colonial master to the next, from the hacendero to the heirs of the hacendero. Land is the very stage of lifeways and cultures. It is also, ultimately, the modern space of class conflict. Finite and limited, the parcels of vacant land are running out. Those enterprising individuals who invested in land are the prime movers of that space. They maneuver in their hands the social, political, and economic spaces of the nation.

Among novel writers in the Philippines, F. Sionil José is one of those who closely documented in his fiction the historical conflicts and interplay between the landed and the landless. As a journalist, his reportage on the post-war national agrarian problem are influential in the crafting of land reform policies. His famous novels – the widely translated five-part epic called the "Rosales novels" (1962-1984) and Ermita (1988) – coincided closely with the rise of the cacique in Philippine society.

Origins of cacique

The political theorist Benedict Anderson charted in his country study "Cacique Democracy in the Philippines" [1] the emergence and ascendance of cacique/landlords from late 19th century colonial Philippines to the immediate aftermath of 1986 People Power Revolution. This is the same period which Sionil José sporadically mapped in his novels dealing with relations between the landlord and the common mass. His fiction was colored by nationalist calls for social justice, equity, and rights-based governance.

Anderson traced the origins of the cacique to "Chinese mestizos who bloomed economically under the Spanish colonial regime and consolidated their wealth with political power under the Americans". The "-co" suffix in the surnames (Cojuangco, Cuenco, Tanjuatco, etc.) of prominent Filipino-Chinese oligarchs at present was apparently derived "from the Hokkienese k'o, a term of respect for older males". The Manila galleon trade (1564-1815) was an opportunity for long-term economic exchange with Chinese merchants. The Church's indoctrination of Christian faith would eventually target these merchants (sangleys). The Chinese would sire "Chinese mestizos" [2], and the Church will be successful in converting them. When the sangleys were expelled from the Philippines after they aided the British in occupying Manila in 1762, the mestizos took over and later came to dominate local trade and even acquired lands.

The expulsion of the Chinese was lifted in 1834 when Manila was once again opened to international trade after the final galleon sailed in 1811. The Chinese, through their hard work and legendary work ethic [3], once again captured the market. The mestizos were driven to the countryside where they were able to capitalize on fertile lands for cultivation. They became hacendados. In the course of the Spanish rule, the religious orders were also able to parcel out vast tracts of land among themselves, what became known as "friar lands".

The filthy rich mestizos, now "provincial caciques", were able to send their children abroad for education. In 1880s these students came to be known as ilustrados, an anticlerical intelligentsia who started to acquire nationalist sentiments and, by the end of 19th century, to call themselves "Filipino", a term originally designated for Spanish creoles. The intermarriage within this emerging class consolidated power and property among themselves. The ilustrados and mestizos would play significant (ideological) roles in the outbreak of Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896 and in the ensuing Philippine-American War. At the turn of the 20th century, the new colonial masters, the Americans, would eventually seize the friar lands and award them to some Chinese mestizos.

Po-on (1984), or Dusk, was the first chronological volume of Sionil José's Rosales saga. It was also the last to be written to close his five-novel cycle. The focus is on the extended Salvador family who was displaced from their ancestral lands by the Spanish authorities after Ba-ac, the maimed patriarch of the Salvador clan, killed a Spanish priest after the priest – the same one who ordered the torture that led to Ba-ac's disability – ridiculed and hit him. The hardships and persecution encountered by the family as they fled the Spanish guards was almost biblical in tone. They came face to face not only with the cruelty of the authorities but with cruel forces of nature. By the second half of the novel, the Salvador family (who later changed their name to Samson to avoid detection) finally came to the large plains of Rosales which were owned by several mestizos. It was a place where they can finally settle in after a very long journey.

It was one of those new towns carved out of cogonal wastes and forests by settlers like them. Like most of the new towns that lined the road to the Valley, its leading citizens were mestizos [4] who were the favorites of the friars. Some took advantage of the recent opening of the colleges in Manila for Indios and went to the University of Santo Tomas to study law and medicine, and be infected, too, with the ideas of liberalism, that deadly contagion which the friars detested and ranted against. Large tracts of land toward the east, all the way to that prosperous village of Balungaw to the very foothills of Mount Balungaw, were claimed by the first Spanish settler in this part of the country, but there was also equally large areas titled to the principalia—the educated men like Don Jacinto.

The locals advised the Samsons, now led by Istak, to seek the help of the wealthy landowner Don Jacinto, a cacique positively depicted here as a good Samaritan. Don Jacinto is presented as a typical ilustrado class whose progressive, anti-colonial leanings are evident when he gave refuge to Apolinario Mabini, a historical figure and crippled intellectual and known as "Brains of the Revolution". He also secretly treasured the two subversive novels of José Rizal. (The richest of the landowners in the area were the Asperris, the focus of the next two volumes of the novel.)

Istak accepted the landlord's offer for them to cultivate the land for him in exchange for seed rice and a place to stay. So began the Samson family's new life as farm workers under a landlord.

Being essentially about the emergence of national identity as offshoot of colonialism exacted by the Spanish and Americans, Po-on was not what can be properly called a "cacique novel" since caciquism was only slightly touched upon in the end and served only to bridge it with the rest of the novels in the saga. Its concerns were nonetheless significant in re-imagining the shared identity of a community, consistent to the template on nationalism given by Anderson.

It was interesting how in the second Rosales novel, Tree (1978), the narrative voice was entirely given over to the young son of an overseer (encargador) of land for the absentee landlord Don Vicente Asperri. The overseer appeared to be a descendant of Don Jacinto. We know this only from the big, old balete tree in front of Don Jacinto's house – the titular tree that was a marker and also symbol for time who was the enduring witness to all the blood and tears of the tenant farmers working for Don Vicente. How the overseer came to work for the Spanish Don Asperri was categorically explained.

Father took the job because Don Vicente trusted him and, more than that, it gave Father a sense of power such as he would never have known if he tended no more than the land and properties under his name. Once, I heard him say to a tenant, “Don’t you know that I can drive you all away from your homes today, right now, if I wanted to? Where will you live? Don Vicente’s word is law and I am that law!”

Don Vicente now wielded such naked power because his landholdings were more expansive than ever – "It’s common knowledge [Don Vicente] grabbed these lands because the farmers didn’t know anything about cadastral surveys and Torrens titles." It's possible he came to acquire some of the lands of Don Jacinto. (One can surmise that the Americans confiscated some of Don Jacinto's lands for his involvement in the Philippine Revolution and awarded the same to his neighboring rival.)

The reliable voice of the unnamed young narrator of Tree provided an intimate look at rural life in the Philippines during the first half of the 20th century from American rule up to the 1935 Commonwealth period and the Japanese invasion in the second world war. An heir to an upper middle class landowner, the boy reminisced about his childhood and his relations with the characters (his family's servants, laborers, and farm workers, all below his class standing) [5] that left indelible memories to his young mind. As various character portraits began to accumulate, we came to know more and more not only about the narrator but about the life of his father as a broker for the landlord Don Vicente. The local conflict between the landlord and the landless was set against the larger backdrop of colonial history and yet the weight of history and politics was balanced by the moving personal stories of the working class characters. It also proposed a "personal form of ethics"

I continue, for instance, to hope that there is reward in virtue, that those who pursue it should do so because it pleases them. This then becomes a very personal form of ethics, or belief, premised on pleasure. It would require no high sounding motivation, no philosophical explanation for the self, and its desires are animal, basic—the desire for food, for fornication.

This ethical vision will not be realized until the appearance of Pepe Samson, the protagonist in the final Rosales novel whose independent, individualistic spirit contrasted with the fatalistic attitudes of his forebears.

Political entrenchment

Anderson explained how the cacique consolidated power during the American occupation of the Philippines. The political and economic systems introduced by the new colonizers were conducive to the hacendados. In the first place, the lands expropriated from the Spanish religious orders were auctioned off to affluent mestizos. The "Congress-style bicameral legislature" introduced by the Americans wherein elective positions were contested in insulated bailiwicks were also favorable to them. Political power was easily attained by the influential few. This, Anderson noted, expanded the role of caciques from local landlords to elite members of the national oligarchy. This, in effect, also contributed to the rise of political dynasties in the country.

But Congress, which thus offered them guaranteed access to national-level political power, also brought them together in the capital on a regular basis. There more than at any previous time, they got to know one another well in a civilized "ring" sternly refereed by the Americans. They might dislike one another, but they went to the same receptions, attended the same churches, lived in the same residential areas, shopped in the same fashionable streets, had affairs with each other's wives, and arranged marriages between each other's children. They were for the first time forming a self-conscious ruling class.

In the third Rosales novel My Brother, My Executioner, the charismatic figure of Don Vicente Asperri, the missing and yet omniscient landlord in Tree, finally appeared and fulfilled the role of the cruel hacendado. The novel introduced a philosophical conflict between two brothers: the poet and journalist Luis (Don Vicente's son) and his half-brother Victor who joined the Hukbalahap rebels. As with Tree, Sionil José privileged the voice of the privileged. It was a self-critical voice, aware of the chameleon-like character of the cacique in times of war and peace.

Look around you and whom do you see? It's the scum who are getting the largest part of the cake—the thieves, the grafters—and we know it. The traitors, those who collaborated with the Japanese—and it's only five years after the war—it is they who are now in power and they even call themselves patriots.

Luis was a character study in inconsistency, flawed character for a flawed human being. He was heir to Don Vicente's huge fortune yet he identified with his mother and with Victor because he grew up poor with them before his father claimed him and brought him to the Asperri mansion.

The story was filled with emotional conflict and dramatic action (there was a mass killing scene that was as relevant as yesterday's news). However, My Brother, My Executioner failed in terms of plot and style. The narrative this time felt contrived and didactic and, by relying too much on Luis's emotive reflections and less on Victor's fiery views, overtly sentimental and precious.

In contrast, the "cacique novels" in the vernacular language covering the same postwar period—Lazaro Francisco's Maganda pa ang Daigdig and its sequel Daluyong, and Amado V. Hernandez's Luha ng Buwaya—contained more than a powerful exposition of land tenure system as a deadly disease of society. The tenants in these fine novels took center stage as they actively resisted the caciques and fought their way out of their predicament, whereas Sionil José here, though he provided some emotional contexts about the tenancy problem, complicated the plot too much.

The bottom line, however, was similar to these novels. Luis, in his unsent letter to his brother, recognized that the activist is the true artist, the architect of revolution, shaper of destinies—"It is you then, my fearsome executioner, who is the artist, the rebel and creator, for it is you who will make beauty out of the ugliness which pervades our lives, out of the dungheap that surrounds us". Rebels and revolutionaries are the "ultimate modernizers", for they will execute the cacique figures in society. The true poet has literal blood in his hands. Sionil José was pointing to the method of ridding the country of evil, the same method Pepe Samson espoused in Mass.


[1] Anderson, B. 2004. The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (Ateneo de Manila University Press), pp. 192–226, originally published by Verso in 1998. The essay first appeared in New Left Review, 169 (May–June 1988).

[2] The term "mestizos", Anderson noted, came to mean the children of Chinese and local women, and not of Spaniards and "natives".

[3] For a description of the nature of Chinese merchants as incomparably enterprising individuals in 16th century Philippines, see "Taipan Origins in 1590" by Ambeth Ocampo in his Looking Back 6: Chulalongkorn's Elephants: The Philippines in Asian History (Anvil, 2011), pp. 48–51.

[4] Sionil José's usage of "mestizo" refer to the offspring of Spaniards and local women. Ambeth R. Ocampo explains the term mestizo as a half-breed, in "1896 Philippines: Racial context of the revolution", Bones of Contention: The Andres Bonifacio Lectures (Anvil, 2001), pp. 103–104:

The term "mestizo" (from the Latin mixticius) meant the children of parents of different races, particularly a mix of indio and foreign blood. More often than not, however, mestizo meant Chinese half-breedsmestizos de sangleyes or mestizos chinos—of either Spanish-Chinese or Chinese-indio mixtures. The equally prominent, but numerically small Spanish mestizos posed a bit of a problem: in the first centuries of the Spanish period, officially, a Spanish[-indio] mestizo could not exist.

[5] Chapter 13 of Tree contained a portrait of the narrator's uncle Tio Doro, a man devoted to politics and at odds with the Chinese rice merchant Mon Luk whom he detested for controlling the retail trade and to whom many people owed money. Mon Luk suffered during the Japanese occupation and became a pauper overnight when his rice mill was razed to the ground. Later, Mon Luk became friends with Tio Doro and even "borrowed a little capital from [Tio Doro] to start business anew." Another Chinese entrepreneur, Chan Hai, also seemed to recover his business after the war.