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)



  1. You read 3 more than me this year, my final total including Endo's Kiku's prayer (Finished today) is 81 from 24 nations. Have posted on my personal favourites this evening.

  2. It's all about quality not quantity, so that's a good year :)

  3. Gary, a great year for the both of us in any case. I'll go check your favorites.

    Tony, yes. It's still the most number of books I've read since I started counting in 2009.