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.


  1. EPIC!

    Rise this is another great review!
    and I think Muzon deserves to have the title as a Nat'l Artist for Literature for writing in vernacular language. Hope I could read this epico-historical fantasy novel soon!

    1. Thanks, Juan. I like the name of your blog.

  2. Amazing. Amazing the books I have never heard of. If I ever come across this, I will readit.

    1. Tom, it is relatively inaccessible outside the country, I presume.

      On another note, the translator is working on another epic by Muzones, Shri-Bishaya (1969), so there's another to look forward to.

  3. What is the theme of this book and the book Shri Bishaya?

  4. Good day! May I ask permission to use the story of Salagunting by Sir Muzones as a material in the Self-Learning Module that I am writing? The subject is Creative Writing, and I want a piece from Mindanao for contextualization purposes. Thank you so much for the positive response.

    1. Permission granted. Good luck on your class.