31 January 2014


Our Father San Daniel by Gabriel Miró, trans. Marlon James Sales (UST Publishing House, 2011)
The Leprous Bishop by Gabriel Miró, trans. Marlon James Sales (UST Publishing House, 2012)

Think of what this world would be if all of us aspired to be great! What use will it be if Oleza knows you? Know your birthplace yourself and love her accordingly. Look at her: Oleza is like one of those women who seem beautiful even if they are not. I love her so much. Those stars seem to be hers alone, so that they could twinkle over her towers and orchards. If you observe them the same way as I do, you will be moved with contentment even without good fortune. It is a good kind of happiness, though it is sad, where a lot of things are felt even without thinking in something concrete.

Oleza was a memorable character in the double novel with her name. She was traditional and Catholic, her virtues intact and yet constantly tested by circumstances. Oleza was in transition; modernity was knocking on her doorstep. She was being courted by new values and attitudes. Her provincialism was in danger of being supplanted by dangerous ideas.

Spanish writer Gabriel Miró (1879-1930) created a haunting central character in Oleza, except that Oleza was not a person. She was the setting of the novel, patterned after the author's Spanish hometown, Orihuela. The town was celebrated in the novel through detail-rich, postcard descriptions. The writing style was married to the pomp and pageantry of the novel's Catholic rites and ceremonies. It was a costume drama (and comedy) about how tradition and religiosity could occupy a dominant place in the personal and collective lives of a small town community and about hypocrisy and self-righteousness that were always bound to pervade any such community. It was a pulsing novel of humanity, in microcosm, limited by geography and historical time of late nineteenth century, but unlimited in its generous delineation of a gallery of fascinating characters, mainly clerics and their parishioners.

Gabriel Miró was a Catholic writer and a prose stylist in the mold of modernism. That he is relatively unsung at present was a quirk of literary fate. He was also earlier ignored by the Spanish literary establishment who did not elect him into the Real Academia de la Lengua Española, apparently due to the controversy triggered by the publication of El obispo leproso (1926), the second part of Oleza. Apparently, the novel was taken as an attack against the Church hierarchy, specifically the Jesuits.

Contemporary readers have yet to catch up on Miró whose religious upbringing and close observation of a pious society provided ample material for a novel about fall from grace and redemption through compassion and forgiveness. His faith in literature allowed him to recognize the power of authorship to grant the power of self-determination to his own characters. One character in the novel, a liberal doctor, underlined this principle of self-determination.

The joy of living must possess its own character. Our character, that is. I do not read books on leisure because the people mentioned in them lack character. […] In other words, each of the characters in those books has been formed before anything happens to him. That is not creation. Man must be created bare so that he later could create himself.

Miró did not have the fanatical zeal of Flannery O'Connor (in Wise Blood) or the sly decorum of J. F. Powers (in Morte d'Urban), though he might have anticipated the devilish comic touches of the latter. The characters for Miró were not mere chess pieces. He imbued them with free agency and the capacity to choose and to will decisions. He was not judgmental of them. He did not make a mockery of the vanities, frailties, and weaknesses of his vain, frail, and weak characters. Similarly, his good characters were capable of not succumbing to judgement or censure of others. The young man Pablo, the protagonist of the second part, learned the humble lesson of empathy: "This must be what is required of a man: to see one’s own nakedness and see the nakedness of others."

He pitied himself with disdain, and yet he also felt sorry for her. This must be what is required of a man. To be moved to pity and to deprecate. To harbor feelings for and toward other people. To have a heart that echoes with humanity.

The conflict in this modernist novel (a crisis of faith) was carried out through innovative prose. It was writing laden with details, details, and more details. The sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory information were evoked with mastery. "A lot of things are felt" from the sumptuous layers of description. Plot development was slow and some characters might at first appear to be caricatures, but they were hardly a liability in a novel of gorgeous prose.

Don Daniel sat back into the cushion and distracted himself by looking at the grass at the wayside, those which never caught his attention and his inclination to plants before. They all greeted him like neighbors would. A centaury tall with its bosoms teeming with clusters of violet flowers and ogive leaves, as well as spears of teasels that jutted out with their prickly, strawberry-colored flowers in a wreath of spiny bracts. A big thistle flower drooped pensively as bees swarmed about its membranous shrub. There were white, star-shaped chamomile florets with golden centers; daisies with ornate discs and white petals with reddish undersides; tremulous and fragile lady's mantles; wild sneezewort that boys used to insert in one sleeve and let out through the opening on their shoulders; dandelions; mallows; ears of wheat; mignonettes with yellowish spikes; brier patches that snaked though the field; the soft hues of grass ...


All of a sudden, the crag, the hermitage, the ruins and the hedges turned red as if they were put before a forge.

A scintilla of the setting sun cut through a layer of cloud and a shower of sunlight bathed the land. It came out with an ejaculation of happy soft hues, of opaque brightness. The raging waters of the gullies and the river were ignited, and so was the stagnant water from high and low, the bronze of palm leaves and cacti, the silver of the olive orchards, the torches of the cypresses, the rusty gold of the walls, the white of the barnyards, the spongy foliage, clean and fresh in recently divested blues. Summer's bosom rose. It had been held back all day by the storm. The afternoon – long, damp and fragrant – was resurrected.

Marlon James Sales, the translator, must have arrived at sterling solutions to thorny problems. The novel was said to be a "difficult" one to translate. The lyrical and rhythmic diction of the end product was a marvel. This was evident in passages which offer surprising verbal twists.

A light drizzle splashed on the bark of the trees, the sideways and the greenery of the fenced orchard of the Bishop. The fog, thin and clammy, lingered on the glass panes of the grilled windows as if asking those inside to let it in.


On the dais rested the desk of the archivist, Mossen Orduña, the sole archaeologist of the Diocese, a burly priest with smoked glasses fastened on the fleshy part of his nose. He held his head up high as if his nape had been corroded with rust, in a way that he had to move his entire body whenever he needed to look at something behind his back. His hands trembled; he usually clasped them together like a pair of obedient twins to hide his affliction. At times, however, he could not prevent himself from making his favorite move, the one he did with his palms ad altare versus, a liturgical gesture stipulated in the privilege granted to the clergy of Spain by Pius V in the bull "Ad hoc Nos Deus" on the 16th of December, 1570, a date that became an enduring source of pride for him as a Spanish cleric. He apparently kept on stammering whenever he spoke, so he talked monotonously and without pause. Moreover, his eyes were motionless and distracted, and his mouth, weak. Everything about him was sluggish and cold, with the robustness of innocence: his cassock was sloppy; his cloak, hanging carelessly from his shoulders; and in a shelf inside his cabinets lay ensconced his hat, as hairy as a fat hedgehog that it could be quite tempting to skin it. In sum, he was of an archaic presence, and oftentimes not very priestly, a man with a guise of both naughtiness and refinement, who because of his being so withdrawn from his routine and so indifferent to the world, could be robbed of all his garments and still would not pay attention.


The lady was sewing in her shop. She had placed a wicker basket full of chicks by her side. They got agitated at times and escaped toward the stave, or climbed onto her and bit on her fine mahogany-colored stockings. Doña Corazon felt then that she was the most helpless creature in this world, because she had to keep them from escaping, while trying not to crack the three eggs she was hatching inside the warmth of her bodice. Widowhood sometimes evoked an uncontrollable desire in her to be a mother, something she would fulfill with the tenderness of a mother hen.

Oleza's humor, particularly in the first novel Nuestro Padre San Daniel (1921), was of a very dry and quiet sort. It was the altar-like quiet humor of an all-knowing authorial voice, slightly intrusive but nonetheless able to conjure the ironies of existence (or a parody of that existence). It was a humor that grows on you. And oh, by the way (as the slippery narrator suddenly interjected, as if in conversation with the reader), the dry humor did not stagnate. It evolved and became wetter (less dry) and darker by the second part, El obispo leproso.

The second part of Oleza commenced with the construction of a modern train that will link Oleza to the rest of Spain, and hence the world. The train construction elicited a lot of criticism from the religious as it was seen to herald the entry of liberal ideas. It at least became the platform for a sequence of events, functioning not only as physical (technological) contribution to the progress of Oleza but catalyzing the spiritual and moral climate of the place. The train could be seen as a harbinger of another (modern) revolution, opening up the town to the possibilities of human understanding, tolerance, and happiness.

The rare intrusions, and parenthetical insertions, of the narrator were significant for breaking the third person epistemological certainty. He appeared as either singular (I) or plural (we).

It is difficult to avoid success on some occasions. If it does not come through the usual paths, it takes the byroads. If we walk slowly, we will find it there sitting on a rock, waiting for our arrival. However, it is likewise possible to outpace it if we are running too fast, and since we cannot bring ourselves to a halt, success will never reach us.

This passage was later emphasized in an aside ("It is difficult to elude success. But success also slips away from everybody’s hands. It is a bucket that goes up full and goes down empty."), as if to own the fabrication of the narrative.

The dry humor of the first novel gave way to the dark comedy of the second.

“There is an old saying …,” the priest quipped, “… that says if the triangles were to interpret God, they would imagine Him as having three sides. Luckily for the blessed ones, even if there are men who go to great pains in invoking a god that best suits them – and among them, Don Álvaro –, God is always far better than all of us.”

“Far better?” Jimena cringed while making the Sign of the Cross. “Don Álvaro’s god is purer and harsher than Don Álvaro himself!? Ay, Don Magín, what a terrible god it must be! May God deliver us from that god!”


"If you get bored, I will lend you a book."

He chose a volume from the Actas de Mártieres, and quipped, "Here you have cyphonism. Take a look."

He took a chair, knelt on it and bent to look. His eyes were wide-open. Padre Bellod pointed to the book with his middle finger, and began explaining some entries to the boy as if reciting the recipe of a preserve:

"The martyr is taken and placed in a pillory or skiff. You know what skiffs are? And pillories ... ? Well, two wooden boards nailed together tightly, but bored with holes for the legs and the arms. Like a reversed tortoise. There is a trapdoor that opens on top of the mouth, into which milk and honey are forcibly poured. The martyr is then left to bake in the sun. Afterwards, he is given more milk and honey, and then placed under the sun. More milk and honey, and then to the sun. Flies and wasps sting the person. More milk and honey, and then to the sun. The martyr is eaten away but is made to suffer for a long time. He feels the seething in his flesh, which by then would be reduced to a pulp. It is said that cyphonism is derived from the scaphism of the Persians, a very ingenuous [sic] lot."

Like a reversed tortoise! What a sobering image. And note the possibly deliberate selection of the word ingenuous, the obsolete of ingenious.

English translation of Miró previously appeared during his time. Figures of the Passion of Our Lord (1924) was translated by C. J. Hogarth. An earlier translation of Our Father San Daniel: Scenes of Clerical Life (1930) was made by Charlotte Remfry-Kidd. (This translation had an introduction by Arthur Machen, one of the writers admired by John Gawsworth, the early King of Redonda.) The second part of Oleza was also translated recently as The Leper Bishop (2008) by Walter Borenstein.

The present translations of the Oleza novels appeared as part of the University of Santo Tomas's 400 Years, 400 Books project, a monumental publication undertaking in celebration of the university's quadricentennial foundation as the oldest university in Asia. The publication of the two novels was supported by Instituto Cervantes and other institutions in Spain. It is to be hoped that the novels will be distributed to a wider audience outside the Philippines. They offer a glimpse of the verbal riches of a unique writer and the consistency and continuity of his holistic vision of a compassionate world.

Read for the yearlong Spanish reading festival, the 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong.

19 January 2014

The Master of Go, 2

Art, war, and Go

The clouds of the Second World War cast its shadows on Kawabata Yasunari's writing of The Master of Go. The novelist himself acknowledged that the game was "a contest and a show of strength". His news reports appeared in the papers prior to the war, but the narrative was collected and revised during and in the aftermath of the war.

The two sides had an equal opportunity of winning and strategies had to be devised along the way. Much had been made about the differing methods of the two players, and the "violence" with which they made their moves. Like in any combat or board game, rules of engagement ("its conscience and its ethics") had to be followed. But as with an actual battle, "the unforeseeable occurs and fates are sealed in an instant". "This is what war must be like", commented one observer when one of the players made a decisive move that assured his win and his opponent's defeat.
The way he described the tension-filled game, the unnerving moves and counter-moves of both sides, the singular purpose and obsession possessing both players, the destructive nature of the game itself, the way it could harm a player physically and psychologically. All these were indications that the sport was a dangerous arena, with sufficient space reserved for madness, cruelty, and perversion.
A notable incident in the book was when the writer played a match of Go with an amateur foreigner – an American and Go enthusiast. While playing, he contrasted his own temperament with that of the stranger's.

He had the forms down well enough, but he had a way of playing thoughtlessly, without really putting himself into the game. Losing did not seem to bother him in the least. He went happily through game after game, as if to say that it was really silly to take a mere game seriously. He lined his forces up after patterns he had been taught, and his opening plays were excellent; but he had no will to fight. If I pushed him back a little or made a surprise move, he quietly collapsed. It was as if I were throwing a large but badly balanced opponent in a wrestling match. Indeed this quickness to lose left me wondering uncomfortably if I might not have something innately evil concealed within me. Quite aside from matters of skill, I sensed no response, no resistance. There was no muscular tone in his play. One always found a competitive urge in a Japanese, however inept he might be at the game. One never encountered a stance as uncertain as this. The spirit of Go was missing. I thought it all very strange, and I was conscious of being confronted with utter foreignness. 

The key words in this passage are evil, competitiveness, and foreignness. Concepts that could be associated with the rise of militarism in Japan during the first half of twentieth century.

The writer went on to conclude that as opposed to Oriental Go which had "gone beyond game and test of strength and become a way of art" and which "has about it a certain Oriental mystery and nobility", "Western Go is wanting in spirit". And then he went on to discuss how Japanese Go had been derived from China, how it had been "elevated and deepened by the Japanese".

The 1938 Go match itself was contemporaneous with the Second Sino-Japanese War. The metaphor was not lost on Kawabata.

There was gunfire. Troops of student reserves were in training. More than a score of acquaintances in the literary world had gone off with the army and navy to observe the attack on Hankow [Hankou, China]. I was not selected for the party. Left behind, I wrote in my Nichinichi reports of how popular Go had always been in time of war, of how frequently one heard stories of games in battle encampments, of how closely the Way of the Warrior resembled a way of art, there being an element of the religious in both.

Perhaps there lay in the perversion of the beautiful game of Go the seeds of fascism, the excessive romanticization of nationalism and cultural supremacy, the way distorted ideology and religiosity could harmfully invade the Japanese psyche and give rise to fascism and militarism.

Kawabata's elegy may not only be directed to the vanishing code of an imperial culture, represented by the board game. He may also be grieving for the defeat of Japan in the war. Interestingly, his chronicle of a famous game of Go provided a window into Japanese perception of their own national culture; how, depending on one's perspective (and actions), it can be perceived (and played) as beautiful art or ugly war.

Again for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and January in Japan. An earlier post here.

18 January 2014

The Master of Go

The Master of Go by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (Perigee Books, 1981)

"A sad, elegant piece of reportage" was how the translator Edward G. Seidensticker described The Master of Go in the introduction. It was about an actual 1938 match that Kawabata Yasunari reported in the newspapers. The novelist reworked his narrative during the war and it was finally published as a book ten years after, in 1954. It was obvious from his treatment of the particular game of Go that the story was not merely a straightforward narrative of a battle between two diametrically opposite positions. It was also a meditation on the art of fiction and on cultural tradition, and, less obvious, a glimpse into the psyche of a nation at war.

As with the tea ceremony in Thousand Cranes and the weaving of obi in The Old Capital, the game of Go was here portrayed as "a way of life and art". And like the other two novels, this "chronicle-novel" was suffused with respect for cultural products and artifacts. The Go board and stones were evoked with particular care. The dedication of the players to the craft was but a reflection of the perfectionist builders of Go board.

I don't remember when it was, but I once saw a Go board of lacquer. It wasn't just lacquer-coated, it was dry lacquer to the core. A lacquer man in Aomori made it for his own amusement. He took twenty-five years to do it, he said. I imagine it would take that long, waiting for the lacquer to dry and then putting on a new coat. The bowls and boxes were solid lacquer too.

It would not be a spoiler to mention that this was a portrait of the magnanimous defeat of the Master at the hands of his challenger Otaké. The elegiac tone of the narrative seemed to extol the passage of an era and old traditions – represented by the Master – and to herald the entry of new, fresh blood who would take over the reins of the new era – represented by Otaké. The rivalry between tradition and modernity was a constant in Japanese literary novelists. The old inevitably paving the way for the new was there in the works of Sōseki, Akutagawa, Tanizaki, and Mishima. Kawabata's version of this conflict was through his characteristic elegant elegy for the "dying" art of the game and the traditional culture and values associated with it.

It may be said that the Master was plagued in his last match by modern rationalism, to which fussy rules were everything, from which all the grace and elegance of Go as art had disappeared, which quite dispensed with respect for elders and attached no importance to mutual respect as human beings. From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system. One conducted the battle only to win, and there was no margin for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of Go as an art. The modern way was to insist upon doing battle under conditions of abstract justice, even when challenging the Master himself. ... Perhaps what had happened was natural, Go being a contest and a show of strength.

The novel described the extreme discipline and dedication of the two players to their craft. Several times, Kawabata referred to the game as "art" or to the Master as an "artist". The game, which was fought in several sessions at specified intervals and which lasted for half a year, was almost elevated to a life and death situation. The players, especially the Master, were constantly plagued by health problems and psychological stress.

Although based on facts, the novelist's presentation of the story often courted the apocryphal. The account of the events felt more like an annotation of a written piece, with some details added in to embellish the story. There were details that were deliberately falsified either because Kawabata wanted to distance himself from his story or because he was trying to achieve a dramatic effect. (The translator's introduction and detailed notes at the end of the novel were particularly useful in determining which parts of the narrative are factually incorrect. Here the translator also played the role of fact-checker.) In any case, it was refreshing to see the novelistic side of Kawabata prevailing over journalism, how he treated reality as bendable, how he practiced creative nonfiction wherein objective reality was falsified, misused, and betrayed imaginatively. – "Since I was reporting on a match sponsored by a newspaper, I had to arouse interest. A certain amount of embroidering was necessary."

Being largely a "mental" game where a single move of a stone was inscrutable, where the meaning of that move was never fully revealed but only hinted at, Go was a perfect representation of Kawabata's literary medium. In the mysterious exchange of moves in Go lay his art of the novel – the art of uncertainty and vagueness.

It would seem that the mistake [in the game] resulted from more than an outburst of the anger the Master had felt all morning. Yet one cannot be sure. The Master himself could not have measured the tides of destiny within him, or the mischief from those passing wraiths.

Kawabata often interjected a lot of things from the gestures and comportment of the two players. But in every case, he was almost reduced to conjectures and assumptions, to make an uncertain ("one cannot be sure") interpretation of the proceedings of the game. He often acknowledged this uncertainty; he always put "perhaps" in his commentary on the game. "Vagueness" was Kawabata's fictional aesthetic.

"It seems strange that I've come as far as I have. I'm not much of a thinker, and I don't have what you might call beliefs. People talk about my responsibility to the game, but that hasn't been enough to bring me this far. And they can call it physical strength if they like—but that really isn't it either." He spoke slowly, his head slightly bowed. "Maybe I have no nerves. A vague, absent sort—maybe the vagueness has been good for me. The word means two different things in Tokyo and Osaka, you know. In Tokyo it means stupidity, but in Osaka they talk about vagueness in a painting and in a game of Go. That sort of thing." The Master seemed to savor the word as he spoke, and I savored it as I listened.

In this piece of nonfiction, Kawabata was surprisingly not a mystical observer of inexpressible actions but a mediator of an exciting game. However vague and humble he could be, he was truly invested in the game, watching it with a sense of immediacy and profound interest.

Read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and January in Japan.