31 January 2013

Desert (J. M. G. Le Clézio)

Desert by J. M. G. Le Clézio, translated by C. Dickson (David R. Godine, 2009)

Displacement, exile, refugee crossing, ethnic cleansing. J. M. G. Le Clézio's themes are heavy. They are the stuff of enduring human conflicts, the bane of civilization. Yet the register of his writing makes bearable the human failings and violence it seeks to redress. His prose register is poetry, but it is poetry lightened by silence and simplicity.

"There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another", says J. M. Coetzee's eponymous novelist in Elizabeth Costello; "There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination." Le Clézio's sympathetic imagination in the novel Desert is bounded only by geography (Sahara, Morocco, France) and time (20th century). His treatment of the plight of the marginalized people and their culture crosses over from place to place, from one generation to the next. It crosses over from an individual to the collective. Hence, the gaze of a young boy is also the gaze of his tribe or clan: "His face was dark, sun-scorched, but his eyes shone and the light of his gaze was almost supernatural." The young boy is Nour, and his people is being persecuted out of the African desert. In the same page, Le Clézio generalized the particular "light of his gaze":

They were the men and women of the sand, of the wind, of the light, of the night. They had appeared as if in a dream at the top of a dune, as if they were born of cloudless sky and carried the harshness of space in their limbs. They bore with them hunger, the thirst of bleeding lips, the flintlike silence of the glinting sun, the cold nights, the glow of the Milky Way, the moon; accompanying them were their huge shadows at sunset, the waves of virgin sand over which their splayed feet trod, the inaccessible horizon. More than anything, they bore the light of their gaze shining so brightly in the whites of their eyes. [2-3, my emphasis]

The poet Wislawa Szymborska expressed a similar journey across an inhospitable landscape. In her poem "Some People" (trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh), the same perilous rhythm can be detected.

Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something like all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

A second narrative thread of Desert tells the story of Lalla, a descendant of Nour. Lalla's people no longer flee, but she chooses to escape her village. She runs away with a man when she was forced to marry another. The man she eloped with, "the Hartani", is a shepherd who lives like a hermit and doesn't communicate in the usual way.

He doesn't speak. That is to say, he doesn't speak the same language as humans. But Lalla hears his voice inside her ears, and in his language he says very beautiful things that stir her body inwardly, that make her shudder. Maybe he speaks with the faint sound of the wind that comes from the depths of space, or else with the silence between each gust of wind. Maybe he speaks with the words of light, words that explode in showers of sparks on the razor-edged rocks, with the words of sand, the words of pebbles that crumble into hard powder, and also the words of scorpions and snakes that leave tiny indistinct marks in the dust. He knows how to speak with all of those words, and his gaze leaps, swift as an animal, from one rock to another, shoots all the way out to the horizon in a single move, flies straight up into the sky, soaring higher than the birds. [69, The justified placement of text distinguishes Lalla's sections of the novel from Nour's, which are left-aligned.]

Le Clézio conveys the contradiction between silence and the power of words to express feelings and ideas. The Hartani seems to be representative of an old way of life, a simple life dependent on the natural elements, far from the priorities and demands of the city. The only way of speaking with him is looking through his eyes. But it is not mere looking.

She looks at him and reads the light in his black eyes, and he looks deep into her amber eyes; he doesn't only look at her face, but really deep down into her eyes, and it's as if he understands what she wants to say to him. [82]

The novel idealizes communication beyond words, in a natural setting, as opposed to the sounds of modernity in a city. Lalla can derive from the gaze of the Hartani the "essence" of things, maybe even those beyond the capacity of words to express.

Now Lalla knows that words don't really count. It's only what you mean to say, deep down inside, like a secret, like a prayer: that's the only thing that counts. And the Hartani doesn't speak in any other way; he knows how to give and receive that kind of message. So many things are conveyed through silence. Lalla didn't know that either before meeting the Hartani. Other people expect only words, or acts, proof, but the Hartani, he looks at Lalla with his handsome metallic eyes, without saying anything, and it is through the light in his eyes that you hear what he's saying, what he's asking. [100]

The descriptive function of words is not so much challenged as rejected. This passage, obviously of well chosen words, yet offers more than evocation of words. It is in the register of invocation ("like a secret, like a prayer") of a desert life, an elegy to a vanishing culture, to a threatened indigenous way of life.

The novel as a whole offers a way of seeing beyond the surface of things, beyond the superficiality of words. As a persecuted people flee the harsh distances of the desert ("bundles rocking on their backs, like strange insects after a storm", 181-182), their pitiful silence seems both prayer and protest. Their quiet dignity and martyrdom provide a contrast to the people of a European city (the city Lalla escaped to) who are at the mercy of "immobile giants". That city, Marseilles, is worded in void.

Lalla can feel the relentless dizziness of the void entering her, as if the wind blowing in the street was part of a long spiraling movement. Maybe the wind is going to tear the roofs off the sordid houses, smash in the doors and windows, knock down the rotten walls, heave all the cars into a pile of scrap metal. It's bound to happen, because there's too much hate, too much suffering… But the big building remains standing, stunting the men in its tall silhouette. They are the immobile giants, with bloody eyes, with cruel eyes, the giants who devour men and women. In their entrails, young women are thrown down on dirty old mattresses, and possessed in a few seconds by silent men with members as hot as pokers. Then they get dressed again and leave, and the cigarette – left burning on the edge of the table – hasn't had time to go out. Inside the devouring giants, old women lie under the weight of men who are crushing them, dirtying their yellow flesh. And so, in all of those women's wombs, the void is born, the intense and icy void that escapes from their bodies and blows like a wind along the streets and alleys, endlessly shooting out new spirals. [253-254]

The image of monstrous buildings sexually leveling people under them – 180 degrees from the idylls of desert – reinforces the cruelty and devouring of small people by powerful men. In this dank city, Lalla's adventures are told in descriptive words, not sacrificing the things that ought to be said, the things that count. They are words of suffering and degradation. That is, until her transfiguration and acquisition of a new kind of power.

Desert is an imagistic novel. From one exile to another, it recounts the never-ending quest for the equality of races and the security of a home. Beyond words, beyond aesthetic values, compassion resides in its pages.

10 January 2013

Thousand Cranes (Kawabata Yasunari)

Thousand Cranes by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (Perigee, 1981)

When Kikuji's father died it seemed he inherited not only his material properties--the house and the antique tea bowls. His father's mistresses seemed to claim their hold onto him too. At the beginning of the novel, his father's first mistress Chikako sought him out to participate in a tea ceremony. But it seemed there was more to her invitation than tea drinking. She was arranging for Kikuji to meet a young beautiful woman as a marriage prospect. Mrs. Ota, his father's second mistress, with whom his father had had a longer lasting affair, was also present in the tea ceremony, together with her daughter. Her presence turned out to be a prelude to sexual relations with her former benefactor's son, with Kikuji himself.

The novel was another slippery haiku performance from Kawabata. As with his earlier novel Snow Country, nature and culture functioned as more than backdrops to sexual encounters. They were the very settings on which human frailties and beauties were heated to bubble up to the surface like steam on a tea kettle.

Over fiery coals the tea boils to perfection. The smoke couldn't hide the hushed desires, meaningful evasions, and raging passions of the characters. The elaborate tea ceremony at the opening almost obscured the all-too-civilized catfight between two mistresses soliciting the attention of a young man.

Thousand Cranes was a work of high symbolism and lyricism. It could be seen as a novel of cultural inheritance, the transference of culture through the generations, like a valuable heirloom in a family.

Before Mrs. Ota's ashes it [Shino tea ware] had been a flower vase, and now it was back at its old work, a water jar in a tea ceremony.

A jar that had been Mrs. Ota's was now being used by Chikako. After Mrs. Ota's death, it had passed to her daughter, and from Fumiko it had come to Kikuji.

It had had a strange career. But perhaps the strangeness was natural to tea vessels.

In the three or four hundred years before it became the property of Mrs. Ota, it had passed through the hands of people with what strange careers?

"Beside the iron kettle, the Shino looks even more like a beautiful woman," Kikuji said to Fumiko. "But it's strong enough to hold its own against the iron."

The novel could also be seen as a description of "cultural niche" (cf. ecological niche), the unique functions and inherent values of products and artifacts like tea bowls, in which the essence of culture dwells since immemorial time. There was a kind of mutual agreement between tea bowls and tea drinkers: the drinkers maintain the beauty of the bowls; the drink rejuvenates its drinkers.

"It's a great waste not to use Shino [sixteenth century ware] for tea. You can't bring out the real beauty of a tea piece unless you set it off against its own kind."
In black enamel touched with green and an occasional spot of russet, thick leaves of grass encircled the waist of the bowl. Clean and healthy, the leaves were enough to dispel his morbid fancies.

The proportions of the bowl were strong and dignified.

One appraised the value of tea vessels in terms of their aesthetic qualities and utility. Beauty and function defined their place in the world. The tea bowls were a valuable inheritance and were acquired at a high price. One left one's soul in them, like the stain of a lipstick that couldn't be rubbed off a teacup's rim.

The Shino was reddish to begin with, but Mother used to say that she couldn't rub [her] lipstick from the rim, no matter how hard she tried. I sometimes look at it now that she is dead, and there does seem to be a sort of flush in one place.

There was coevolution between cultural artifacts and people. As with The Old Capital, Kawabata was concerned with how cultures and traditions are transferred like genetic traits, like birthmarks. The imprint of culture was consistent to the way a birthmark was imprinted on a person. In the novel, Chikako had a birthmark on her breast. This mark, one character had noted, could leave a lasting impression on a child suckling on it.

From the day it was born it would drink there; and from the day it began to see, it would see that ugly mark on its mother's breast. Its first impression of the world, its first impression of its mother, would be that ugly birthmark, and there the impression would be, through the child's whole life.

As for the figure of the "thousand cranes", it was the striking pattern on a young woman's kerchief. It had so affected Kikuji's perception of her (the Inamura girl, the marriage prospect) that she came to embody it, becoming for him the "girl of the thousand cranes". The pattern could symbolize the vitality of youth, or the exhilarating freedom in flying. In the flight of the thousand cranes, flapping wings bring bird blood into the bristles of every feather. She probably inherited this piece of cloth from someone.

Read for Tony's January in Japan.

03 January 2013

A partial 2013 reading list

What to read, what to read. The good news is that my TBR is down to 120 books or so. If I can maintain last year's reading pace (84 books), the shelf will last me until mid-2014. The bad news, which isn't really bad news, is that I'll be buying more books. Here's to a vicious, delicious cycle.

Below is a partial list of what I plan to read for the year. Some are for group reads or thematic reading in my online reading groups and anticipated online reading challenges. I expect to read a lot of fiction in translation, as well as works by Filipino writers in English and Filipino/Tagalog.

1. The Appointment by Herta Müller
2. The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai - already halfway through this
3. Gun Dealers' Daughter by Gina Apostol
4. Culture and History by Nick Joaquín - partly read
5-7. My Brother, My Executioner; The Pretenders; and Mass by F. Sionil José - the last three books in the five-volume Rosales saga
8. Mangyan Treasures by Antoon Postma
9. State of War by Ninotchka Rosca - partly read
10. The Builder by Edith L. Tiempo
11. Walong Diwata ng Pagkahulog (Eight Muses of the Fall) by Edgar Calabia Samar - partly read
12. Wandering Star by J. M. G. Le Clézio
13. The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira
14. The Eagle's Throne by Carlos Fuentes - partially read, although this early I could say it's a stinker
15. Sagarana by João Guimarães Rosa
16. Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson - wish-listed for some time; it's about time I buy this
17. Mga Agos sa Disyerto (Streams in the Desert) by Efren R. Abueg, Dominador B. Mirasol, Rogelio L. Ordoñez, Edgardo M. Reyes, and Rogelio R. Sikat - actually already done with the stories in this anthology; will just have to go through the critical essays in the longish appendix
18. Mga Ibong Mandaragit (Vultures) by Amado V. Hernandez - just started this one
19. The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings by Hugo von Hofmannsthal - been waiting for my copy since September
20. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
21. A Place in the Country by W. G. Sebald
22. Forensic Psychology: A Very Short Introduction by David Canter
23. The Setting Sun by Dazai Osamu
24. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Mishima Yukio
25. Dublinesque and/or Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas
26. 100 Kislap (100 Flashes) by Abdon M. Balde Jr. - received this for Christmas, but I suggested the title to the giver
27. Daluyong (Gathering Storm) by Lazaro Francisco
28. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
29. The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry - reading this intermittently during the past year
30. Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard
31. A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard - aka the first of six parts of My Struggle
32. The Golden Days by Cao Xueqin - Book One of The Story of the Stone, one of China's "four great classical novels"
33. Bulaklak sa Tubig / Flowers in Water by Joi Barrios, translated by Mark Pangilinan - poems; bilingual edition
34. The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquín - reread; I'm looking for a copy, I don't have my old one anymore
35. Ang Maikling Kuwento sa Filipinas: 1896-1949 (The Short Story in Filipinas: 1896-1949) by Virgilio S. Almario
36. The Face of Another by Abé Kobo
37. The Second Curtain by Roy Fuller
38. The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
39. Timawa (Wretched) by A. C. Fabian
40. Laro sa Baga (Play With Embers) by Edgardo M. Reyes
41. The Jupiter Effect by Katrina Tuvera
42. Under the Storm: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry
43. As Though She Were Sleeping by Elias Khoury - I'm supposed to receive an advance copy from Archipelago Books. I won one from LibraryThing on May 2012, and the book still has not arrived. So this will probably fall through. What's up with Archipelago Books? They seemed to have not sent copies of their books to several members of LibraryThing.

Additions (as of January 23):

43. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa - a readalong with Richard of Caravana de recuerdos and Scott of seraillon. Everyone is invited to read with us this watershed novel of Brazil. Stay tuned for details of the schedule.
44. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy - end of August; for Richard's 2013 Russian Reading.


PseudoAbsurdoKapritsoUlo by Ronaldo Vivo Jr., Danell Arquero, Erwin Dayrit, Ronnel Vivo, and Christian De Jesus (UNGAZPress Issue 1, November 2012)

The five authors of PseudoAbsurdoKapritsoUlo would have us believe that what we are about to read are stories of the rawest form, like sashimi. That what we have in our hands are stories almost as good as plotless, or half-baked, being far from "overcooked" tales with "overkill" plot. The preface was entitled "Babala: Bakit Hindi Mo Dapat Basahin ang Dyornal na Ito" (Warning: Why You Shouldn't Read This Journal), parts of which were reproduced at the back of the book. It didn't mince any words.

Ang lahat na kuwento rito ay siguradong pag-bali sa mga utos ng hari, pang-dura sa mukha ng pyudal mong erpats, pang-sampal sa nagmamarunong mong guro at lahat ng ito ay istorya ng mga anak ng diyos sa labas. Wala kang mga bida o super characters na aantabayanan dito dahil ang mga kuwento mismo ang siyang bida at lahat ng tauhan ay mapang-antag.
At sa mga kritiko ng tradisyunal na literatura, 'wag nyo nang basahin 'to dahil di n'yo naman kailangan pa. Para sa'n pa? e estilo at paraan lang naman ng pagkukuwento ang alam niyong birahin. At 'wag mo na ring itanong kung sino ang impluwensya namin dahil wala naman, di namin kailangan nun. Di require sa'min na magbasa muna ng maraming akda bago sumulat. Sapat na 'yung munti naming karanasan at mga nakikita sa daan at tabi-tabi, doon naman talaga nahahagilap ang lahat ng shit. Ika nga, praktika muna bago teorya. 'wag mong babasahin ito kung hindi ka isang ungas!

(All stories here surely disobey the king's wishes, spit on the face of your feudal pops, slap your pretentious teacher, and all are the stories of children of god out of wedlock. You will not root for any protagonist or super characters here because the stories themselves are the protagonists and all characters are full of angst.
And to the critics of traditional literature, don't try reading this because you don't need to. What for? eh, the only ones you know how to slam are the style and manner of telling stories. We are not required to read a lot of books before we could write. Our short experience, as well as what we see in the roads and waysides, is enough. Indeed that's where you could find all shit. As what they say, practice first before theory. so don't you dare read this shit if you're not a complete nitwit!)

Forewarned is forearmed. That acrimonious tone was already set by the book's cover showing a fetus sucking its left thumb and displaying a dirty finger on its right. The back cover showed two dogs having sex. And the title was deliberately worded to spell PAK U in contraction. As if these weren't enough, there's a blurb by one Jack Alvarez and an introduction by the activist poet Mark Angeles. Their very tones will offend any wide-eyed Bible reader.

The "Ungaz boys" would have us believe then that what we have is something like a swearword, something obscene, taboo, a transgressive work. Something that pushed the boundaries of fiction to something the devil (and god) may care. In short, something that went against the grain of traditional Filipino literature because its very source materials were the things hidden from the civilized smiles of political correctness. 

I couldn't help but dig the attitude. The deep-seated antagonism. But did the Ungaz boys actually deliver the goods on Third World deep shit?

Well, yes and no. It turned out the authors are one hell of a bunch of tricksters and jesters. They were most unreliable, inconsistent, and in total deep (literary) shit. For one, they really could write strings of sentences and end them with punctuation marks. Some stories were so good I wonder if all that marketing and packaging were necessary. What we have are stories premised on shock value but nonetheless are stories that do respect the dignity of a person, that captures the seedy reality of existence. That's reality with a lowercase "r" for they were mostly the lives of lowlifes, drug addicts, frustrated individuals, drunks, and sentimental lovers. All that the escapism of science fiction and urban fantasy wanted to escape from. The sorrows of young Werthers, Oedipus complexes, and portraits of the hunger artists as young men.

The stories in PAK U were conceptualized as works that upend existing modes of expression set by the canons and high priests of Filipino literature. They posed themselves as anti-establishment. And for the most part they were. Some stories were riddled by typos and misspellings one wouldn't dare contest the fact that they are of the rawest sushi form. In fact, the typos were like honorable badges gained after a long night of fighting the demons in the head. The visible scratches and wounds of frustrated writing. Some proper names were not capitalized, as if their lowercase status grant them the right to look the reader in the eye and say, I defy you. I am not sic (sic).

The four sections "Pseudo", "Absurdo", "Kapritso" (Caprice), and "Ulo" (Head) were each introduced by an epigraph and tattoo-like drawing. The very epigraphs belied the fact that the writers were not big readers or were not influenced by some philosopher (Freud! Nietzsche!) or rock band (Pink Floyd).

Stories ranged from flash fiction fillers to send-ups of social realist stories in the mold of Mga Agos sa Disyerto (Streams of the Desert), the 1960s counter-movement in Tagalog writing which sought to oppose the perceived desertification of the local literary landscape. The pieces were rife with wordplays and puns, not to mention the rich vocabulary of a pottymouth, and often punctuated with a punchline so strong it knocked the hell out of the counterpuncher (as in Ronaldo Vivo Jr.'s "Catcher" which caught me off guard I wanted to howl through the long night in utter despair).

The Ungaz boys were right. The stories were the main characters. They attracted attention to themselves. As with the very first story "Iglesia ng Red Horse ng mga Disipulo ng Emperador: Ang gabi ng pagsamba ni Kristal Magdalena" (Iglesia of Red Horse of the Disciples of Emperador: The night of worship of Kristal Magdalena) wherein the holy mass was taken as a template for something like an all night drinking session. Or perhaps a creative writing workshop over the holy spirit of bottles. One thing was sure. There was something close to a consecration (or desecration) to this congress of the faithful.

My favorite writer in the anthology is Ronaldo Vivo Jr. who displayed a mature handling of narrative structure, as in the anticlimactic yet still moving ending of "Room Six-O-Three". The narrator of this story reminded me of Murakami Ryū's in Sixty-Nine. In fact, I was also reminded of "the Other Murakami" in the unadulterated thrill and the sick atmosphere of most stories here. But the most obvious literary model had to be Norman Wilwayco, the leading Filipino writer of transgression.

Perhaps what made PAK U an exciting collection was its satirical bite and versatility. We have, for example, "A Complex E[soterik]rotik Reality", about well, that complex unnameable and titillating reality, reminiscent of the transgressive movies of a master filmmaker like Peque Gallaga. We also have, for example, the commentaries of Manong Google (Big Brother Google) in Christian De Jesus' story "Hin-Dot Com" (a play on the word hindot, which is slang for fucking). Big Brother Google was the ubiquitous author of the artificial happiness in the ICT age.

*Manong Google: Pilit na hinahanap ng mga tao ang mga alternatibo ng araw-araw na pamumuhay sa espasyong walang tiyak na lalim, lawak, agwat at taas, na kung tawagin nila ay cyber space at internet. Nakalikha na sila ng birtwal na mundo na sila rin ang mga diyus-diyosan. At ngayong nagtagumpay sila sa pag-gawa ng mga artipisyal na rekurso ay pinipilit naman nilang magmukhang totoo at tunay ang mga nasa loob nito (3D). Ang mga tao, pilit na itinakwil ang tunay na mundo at natural na mga gawi, gumawa ng kunwa-kunwarian at artipisyal na mundo at mga tao, ngunit pilit namang pagmumukhaing totoong mundo at tunay na mga tao ang mga ito. Ginagawang kumplikado ang lahat. Mga Ungas!

(*Big Brother Google: People search hard for substitutes to their daily lives in a space of indefinite depth, width, distance and height, in what they call cyberspace and internet. They have created a virtual world where they themselves are demigods. And now that they succeeded in creating an artificial recourse, they did their best to make real and true its interior walls (3D). The people, trying their best to shun the real world and their natural ways, crafted an earth and people of imitation and artificial make, but they also tried hard to fashion out of these a real world and a breathing people. They complicated everything. The dimwits!)

Oh hail, zeitgest! The story was simply about a boy who was addicted to the pleasures of the Internet. I'm not going to romanticize the concept but here we have the cyberspace in the age of make-believe, the age of borrowed or second-hand reality. Cyberspace artificiality bred the addictive zombie state of attention deficit, the infinitesimal attention span of a mouse click exploding in the face of our Copy-Paste Generation. For me, the story typified PAK U's intended or unintended effect as a balm and antithesis to all the garbage wrought by shit-noise and shit-talk all around the hyperspace.

It was a science fiction world we live in, and PAK U was here to revive readers after waking up from this beautiful nightmare. Poverty and drug addition and teen angst were here depicted in all their loud realities.

Any publicity is still publicity and so I could appreciate how the PR machinery behind PAK U tried to project notoriety, if not infamy. The journal functioned as its own marketing device to test the reader's incredulity.

And of course, the journal did not live up to all the hype proclaimed by its marketing apparatus. Plotless? Half-baked stories? Uninfluenced writers? Who are we kidding? The journal (apparatus) knew it could never anticipate the reader's or critic's reaction. The apparatus was there to distract the reader from the complex esoteric/erotic reality, to jolt the literary critics of tradition out of their pastoral literary reverie, to inject dark comedy to light comedy. We've been had.

The medium is not the message. The work behind the medium is the essence, as what "Obrang Maestra" (Master Work) by Christian De Jesus (almost too good a name to be a pseudonym) would say:

"Ang pag-aaral na sinasabi niyo ay siyang nagtuturo sa akin upang makisakay sa masalimuot na kultura ng pag-angat sa antas ng buhay. Tinuturuan akong maging makasarili at bulag sa totoong kulay ng lipunan. Wala along natututunan pagka't ninakaw ang aking emansipasiyon sa pagtalakay ng bagay-bagay. Nay, huhulagpos ako at iguguhit ang sarili kong kapalaran. Makulay, matingkad, malaya. Isang obra na walang sinuman ang makabubura. Ang sining ng buhay ang siyang pinkamabisang guro sa mundong ito. Ang obra ang siyang maestra."

("The schooling that you prescribe is the one teaching me to ride on the complicated culture of a well-off life. I am taught to be selfish and blind to the true color of society. I learn nothing because I am prevented from freely discussing ideas. Mom, I shall break free and draw my own destiny. Colorful, bright, free. A piece of work no one could erase. The art of living is the most efective teacher in this world. The obra is the maestra.")

So sincere, epigrammatic, word-playful. I dig the frivolous, offensive, and sincere wordplays in this book. They make the language richer and lustier. (The best wordplayer in PAK U was probably Erwin Dayrit. I mean, the crass words these guys came up with! Playing with words like Gollum playing with his precious thing.)

I will end with blurb-ready statements. (I've heard the UNGAZPress is collecting them as a marketing device for its "ikalawang putok"--second explosion, second issue.)

PAK U is a brave new collection for a braver new world, a visceral and scintillating cosplay of blood, semen, sweat, and gore, worthy of real conversation over hard drinking sessions and wasted nights. This debut offering of UNGAZPress is transgressive fiction at its fucked up best.

Five out of five dirty fingers.

Thanks to K.D. and to UNGAZPress for the copy of PAK U.

02 January 2013

The year's books (2012)

I managed to read nine more books in December. That's after posting my reading for the second half of 2012. To officially wrap up the previous year's edition of in lieu of a field guide, here's the year's updated statistics and short descriptions of December titles.

84 books read in 2012 -- 68 (80%) fiction (45 novels, 14 graphic, 9 short story collections), 8 poetry, 7 nonfiction, 1 mixed
70 (83%) books by male writers, 14 (17%) by female writers
44 (52%) translations (including bilingual editions) -- 21 from Japanese, 11 from Spanish, 6 from German, 3 from Tagalog, 2 from French, 1 from Swedish
40 (48%) in original language -- 19 Tagalog, 18 English, 2 mixed, 1 no language (silent graphic)

76. "Esquire Fiction 2012", ed. Luis Katigbak, in Esquire Philippines, November 2012 (The Fiction Issue)

Collected in the very first Fiction Issue of Esquire Philippines magazine were eighteen stories from 18 new and established Filipino writers. Actually, only five stories could be properly called short stories; the rest are flash fiction. Only one was written in Filipino language: "Dialektika: Mga Diyurnal ni H" (Dialectic: Journals of H) by the independent film director Lav Diaz. The story, about a newlywed couple on their honeymoon, was a surprising one. The man's mother-in-law was not happy with her daughter's chosen husband; she's the type who will do anything to destroy the couple's relationship. There was an undercurrent of horror to the story's ending.

The other four stories in English were all written by seasoned Filipino contemporary fiction writers: Jose Y. Dalisay Jr., Charlson Ong, Angelo R. Lacuesta, and Dean Francis Alfar. The best stories for me are "Aurora" (by Alfar), followed by "Moroy" (by Lacuesta). Alfar's style was sui generis. His piece was excerpted from his upcoming novel A Field Guide to the Streets of Manila. The streets in the story could talk! They were alive! And the prose was also alive with noirish mastery. I was left dissatisfied by the stories of Dalisay and Ong. The stories were told in run-of-the-mill fashion and though could be considered "standalone", the plot also came from novels in progress. And the self-contained quality of their stories was itself in question due to the ordinariness of the telling. In fact, this is my major problem with the magazine's fiction issue. Each of the five short stories are not original short stories. They were all excerpts from novels. Why were no space given to stories conceptualized and written as short stories and not salvaged as parts of novels? In the case of Diaz, Alfar, and Lacuesta, this is not really a problem since the excerpts chosen were strong and distinctive in terms of language and content.

77. Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb, trans. Adriana Hunter

Nothomb was in my sights ever since I read her autobiographical novel Loving Sabotage. Here's another true to life fiction concerning the adventures of a female employee named Amélie in a male-dominated Japanese company. Her work consisted of going through the fires and tribulations of each of the seven circles of hell. Full of fear and temblor, but it sometimes managed to be funny as hell.

I read it for Tony's January in Japan. The author writes in French but is born in Japan; the novel itself is set in Japan. I may put up a longer post on this novella.

78. Mga Biyahe, Mga Estasyon/Journeys, Junctions by Rio Alma, trans. Marne L. Kilates

This is the second poetry collection I've read of Rio Alma, perhaps the foremost Filipino poet in Tagalog language. Like the other one (Dust Devils), this collection was a bilingual edition and selected from the poet's previous books. The unifying subject was the poet's travels and peregrinations through the landscape of art, memory, history. The poems are highly aware of injustices brought about by class distinctions and the human capacity for barbarity. I particularly liked the long poems like "First Ascent at the Great Wall" and "Spoliarium". Here's an excerpt from the first poem.


If these ramparts could speak:
They will point to the corpses of slaves,
Rice rations and whips, and the harsh
Memory of drought in the fields.
If stone and moss could speak:
They will reveal the soldier's loneliness
While being blinded by dust storms
While waiting for the barbarians.
Long ago, these walls have asked the breeze
Why there are towering walls like these,
Why the candle gutters in the cold,
And why books were ordered burned.

79. Meaning and History: The Rizal Lectures by Ambeth R. Ocampo

The national hero of the Philippines is José Rizal and his most popular historian is Ambeth R. Ocampo. In these lectures, Ocampo uses the sense of history (kasaysayan in Tagalog) as salaysay (narrative) and saysay (meaning) to guide his readers and listeners through the important facets of Rizal, as revolutionary, scientist, dreamer (of literal night dreams), and historian. His conclusion: Rizal is a reflection of the Filipinos' continuing search for a national identity. This is an imposed argument because it involves seeing Rizal through the framework of nationalism, itself an imagined concept. (I always have a problem with how Filipino historians and novelists, and their critics as well, dwell on identity crisis and nationalism as if these are what perennially defines a citizen of the country.) For his part, Ocampo's theses are grounded on first rate scholarship using primary information. His interpretations are at least as full of provocations and wit as to be challenging and fun to read. The last lecture, on Rizal's attempt to write Philippine history, is for me a very fine piece of argumentation, differentiating as it did between "objective scholarship" and "committed scholarship" and laying down more fertile grounds for historical inquiry.

Ocampo (paraphrasing Robert Frost) also would have us think that history is what is lost in translation. A contention that he himself debunked with his strong sense of history and translation/interpretation. Translation itself is an opportunity to correct history. The historian explains his methods well--reading, digesting, stitching facts together, synthesizing, making a cogent argument--and proves himself a generous historian able to shed light into the philosophical and literary enigmas of Rizal. History is never objective nor impartial, but it is the duty of historians to strive to be so. Ocampo is one of those who are fair minded enough to see many sides to a history.

80. Three Novellas by Thomas Bernhard, trans. Peter Jansen and Kenneth J. Northcott

Why is Thomas Bernhard so funny? Three Novellas could hint at an answer. His subjects are un-funny as can be: committing suicide, becoming mad, walking and thinking, thinking and walking. His characters can be pitiful and pathetic. His worldview can be tragic. His voice is vitriol. The commas, as well as the ellipses, are just so damn plentiful. They usher in a collapse of thinking, of thought. "Every existence is a mitigating circumstance, dear sir. Before every court, before every self-judgment." Mere existence is a burden.

The three novellas are called "Amras", "Playing Watten", and "Walking". Each is a journey into the interior, into the heart mind of darkness, the thought processes and sense impressions of a hypersensitive man. Each is an intricate mental adventure that can be maddening and infuriating. The prose style is at least infuriating. By the time I reached the third novella, I felt like a helpless victim of a Kafkaesque story. I was ready to admit myself into a mental institution. I just felt incapable. The awareness of mortality is etched in every word.

I am walking into the bell jar of our sensations ... pointless attempt at a swift escape from hopelessness ... with my head schooled in darkness, welded to darkness, from one extreme to the other ... conflicts ... forever into the depth through depth, guided by the power of imagination ... In that thought I pursued my self for a while ... To avoid suffocation, I suddenly turned back in that thought ... as if for dear life I had run back into myself in that thought ... [from "Amras", ellipses and italics not mine]

This collection of novellas shows that there is a method to madness in Bernhard's constructions. His use of repetition must be a form of political resistance. His use of nested narrative attributions ("the landlord said to the traveler, the truck driver said") must be a form of fictional resistance.

The narratives hover between a broken record and a crazy monologue. It is freewheeling poetry, definitely not for the faint of prose. Bernhard must be so funny because otherwise he is so unremittingly bleak, so unrelentingly despairing, and deadly poisonous. In his fiction, one recognizes that the world is nothing more than an insane asylum. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy?

The truck driver says: if you go and play watten again, doctor, I will tell the others you are going to play the watten again. You can hear everything more clearly in the dark, I say, you see nothing, you hear everything more clearly. In desperation, no matter where you are, no matter where you have to stay in this world, I say, you can, from one moment to the next, out of desperation, exit the tragedy (you are in) and enter the comedy (you are in), or vice versa, at any moment exit the comedy (you are in) and enter the tragedy (you are in). [from "Playing Watten"]

81. Thousand Cranes by Kawabata Yasunari, trans. Edward G. Seidensticker

Quintessential Kawabata. An all-too-civilized catfight between two mistresses in the middle of a tea ceremony. The man between them is the son of their former benefactor. The hushed atmosphere, meaningful evasions, and raging passions are manipulated by fiery coals over which the tea boils to perfection. Even the tea utensils have a role to play in the drama.

Again for January in Japan.

82. Po-on by F. Sionil José

Po-on (also published as Dusk) is the first chronological part of F. Sionil José's epic story consisting of five volumes and collectively known as the Rosales saga. It is a historical and political novel set in Luzon Island during the last days of Spanish rule in the Philippines in late 19th century up to the entry of American imperialists. It traces the southward journey of an extended family evicted from their homes by Spanish authorities. The Salvador family's journey is marked by indescribable hardship. It also depicts the enduring character of small peoples and their continuing struggle against colonial powers (Spanish and American) and greedy landowners.

The novel is written in very spare, very transparent, and direct prose, devoid of any flourishes yet lyrical nonetheless. F. Sionil José is persistently spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. That he hasn't won yet may be explained by the fact that he is not what one would usually consider a prose stylist and that his novels are sometimes weighed down by their political themes. Among Filipino novelists in the English language, the late Nick Joaquín and N. V. M. Gonzalez are arguably better writers than him. Even so, his (Marxist) engagement with questions of national identity and social justice makes him a novelist worth reading. His aesthetic can be summed up by the words of one of this novel's pivotal characters:

"Remember, Eustaquio, these are curtains to a window. And the words are themselves the window. First, the writing must be neat but not ornate for if I wanted beautiful letters, then I would have nothing but a page of the alphabet in ornate lettering. The Chinese consider calligraphy as an art form and it could be beautiful, but attention, as tradition demands, is drawn to the shape of the characters themselves. Great calligraphers are, therefore, great poets, too. But you are not Chinese. Words should not hinder the expression of thought unless one is expressing poetry. I am not writing poetry; I am writing to convince people of the validity of our struggle, its righteousness, and the utter fallacy and hypocrisy of the Americans in saying we are not capable of self-government."

83. Tree by F. Sionil José

The second part of the Rosales novels is a surprising departure in tone from the previous. In Tree, F. Sionil José allows the voice of a young first person narrator to do the telling. It is a narrative strategy that pays off with its intimate look at the early 20th century rural middle class life in the Philippines under American rule. The narrator, an heir to a powerful landowner, reminisces about his childhood and his relations with the characters (his family's servants, laborers, and farm workers, all below his class standing) that left indelible memories to his young mind.

As the character portraits begin to accumulate, we come 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 conflict between the landlord and the landless is set against the backdrop of colonial history and yet the the weight of history and politics is balanced by the moving personal stories of the working class characters. And what I am beginning to like about this series is the ethical dimension and the crisis of faith it assiduously portrays.

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. If this be the case, then we could very well do away with the church, with all those institutions that pretend to hammer into the human being attributes that would make him inherit God's vestments if not His kingdom.

84. PseudoAbsurdoKapritsoUlo by Ronaldo Vivo Jr., Danell Arquero, Erwin Dayrit, Ronnel Vivo, and Christian De Jesus

While on a drinking session (I'm imagining this), five friends decided that they are literary gods incarnate. They assembled their writings and came up with this. I never thought I would end the year with the perfect book. (Thanks to K.D. for sending it on the last week of December.) PseudoAbsurdoKapritsoUlo is PAK U for short, and it's the very first offering of independent publisher UNGAZPress. It is a balm to all serious shit I've been prone to lately. Transgressive fiction at its fucked up best. Stay tuned, maybe I'll post a longer scintillating review.

Related posts:
The year's best

Reading the second half of 2012

Reading list (first half of 2012)