26 December 2014

Diary of the War of the Pig

Diary of the War of the Pig by Adolfo Bioy Casares, translated by Gregory Woodruff and Donald A. Yates (E. P. Dutton, 1988)


"A proper doomsday spectacle," said one character in this apocalyptic novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999). He was aptly named Dante. "These crazy, abominable things going on everywhere—if they aren't a sign that the end of the world is near, then what do they mean?" Indeed, what could these heinous events mean?

In an Argentinean neighborhood—or nation (the scope of the epidemic was suddenly broadened)—old men and women were singled out and harmed. They were hunted, mauled, even killed. The war on the old people, perpetrated by the youth (who else), began without warning. They were derogatorily branded as "pigs," "real hogs," on account of the people supposedly being "greedy, selfish, materialistic, and eternally grumbling." Talk about a deep generation gap. The mania against old people went out of hand. It was as if the young people were infected by hate for the old.

From out of the confusion of noises, distinct sounds began to emerge: curses, blows, groans, the rattle of iron and sheet metal, someone panting for breath. Out of the shadows and into the ashen light surged a gang of boys, yelling at the top of their lungs, brandishing clubs and iron bars, pounding frantically at a shapeless mass lying huddled amid garbage cans and piles of refuse. Vidal caught a glimpse of the enraged faces—obviously young, drunk with arrogance. Under his breath Arévalo said, "That—on the ground—it's the newspaper vendor, don Manuel."

Don Manuel was the very first victim. Everything went awry from then on. Don Isidro Vidal, the main subject of this diary of the war, was too naive to initially detect the brutal nature of the war. He seemed to deny at first that such an inexplicable thing was possible at all. He was in denial, perhaps also smitten by a kind of mass delusion that gripped the nation and galvanized the young to weed out the old.

Originally published in Buenos Aires in 1969, the paperback's blurb did not forget to remind readers that the novel was "written almost a decade before the death squads disrupted Argentina." Bioy (or his translators) used the term "repression squad" in the novel. Diario de la guerra del cerdo certainly predated the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) of Argentina, 1974-1983, which would make Bioy a remarkable writer of prescience. Except that the age group for the novel seemed to have been the opposite. The average age group for the desaparecidos or the forcibly disappeared was between the teens and mid-thirties. Bioy could not possibly have anticipated this dirty business.

The only way to sustain this prescient, allegorical aspect of the novel was to consider the old as a metaphor, or synecdoche, for the young. The old, that is, as stand-in for the youth. The band of old men in which Don Isidro Vidal was a member often referred to themselves playfully as "boys", although the expression "did not indicate ... any complex and unconscious need to pass for young men; it is explained rather by the fact that once they were young and had then justifiably used the term with one another." Vidal was, strictly speaking, not as old as his comrades; he (and his old friends too) was called "young in heart" and "in the prime of life" by young acquaintances. And yet he really felt his age. He and his aged friends were wont to relive their younger days. And yet Vidal would reflect that "at heart every man is a boy disguised as a grownup."

The allegory—if we can use this unfortunate term for these extreme novels—was further compounded by the dream-like logic governing the strange events of the war. The mess was becoming more and more universal in scope. As one of Vidal's old friends mentioned: "We used to read in the papers about things like this happening to persons we didn't know. Now it's happening to people right in the neighborhood."

There were many reasons put forward for the liquidation of the old. They were supposedly more and more "a burden to the family." A Marxist reading of the encroachment of capitalism perhaps. (Contrast this unkind situation with the treatment of the elderly in Inoue Yasushi's memoirs of his mother.)

And then there's senicide. One character pointed out how the Eskimo and the Lapps take their old away and leave them for dead in the cold. It might be cultural, the antipathy for the old, or there might be no reason at all. People simply "have gone mad ... filled with hatred."

Whatever the reason for madness and hatred, what elevated this novel or fable—let's totally drop the unfortunate term "allegory"—was the way it gradually developed its premise and succeeding events in a realist manner. It was all too tragically feasible. Like Blindness by Senhor Saramago and La Peste by Monsieur Camus, Bioy's story was grounded in the reality of an extreme situation. He followed a logical sequence of events. He had seen his story through. Right to its painful conclusion. And that was enough for the stifling scent of doomsday to trouble us.

If symbols are any good at all, according to W. G. Sebald, then they have to have multiple meanings behind them. This statement was as much political as literary. Not to have anticipated any political events but to have avoided the obvious. This was the democracy of genius. As in Saramago's Blindness, Bioy encapsulated the nature of evil in an indirect way.

People say that a number of explanations are less convincing than a single one, but the fact is that there is more than one reason for almost everything. And it might be that there is always something to be gained by avoiding the truth.

For The 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom.

Diario de la guerra del cerdo was twice adapted into film: in 1975, directed by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, and in 2012, directed by David Maria Putortì.

23 December 2014

10 great books, in lieu of an anti-list


Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw
Our Father San Daniel
The Leprous Bishop
What Now, Ricky?
The Last Novel
Culture and History
Antipoems: New and Selected
What Passes for Answers
Diwalwal: Bundok ng Ginto

Ryan's favorite books »

1. Diwalwal: Bundok ng Ginto (Diwalwal: Mountain of Gold) by Edgardo M. Reyes

From a master novelist in Filipino, the reality based story of a people living in a mining community in Monkayo, Compostella Valley, in Mindanao. The mountain area is infamous for the "open secret" illegal mining operations tolerated by inept national and local government. Diwalwal is a place where laws are blatantly violated and where big people (politicians, military soldiers, businessmen) blatantly get the best of small people (the poor, the disabled, women, children, the aged). Almost documentary in style in some parts, this novel is a true exposé. The characters are so alive, especially the two friends, one hero and one anti-hero, whose destinies define the complexity of human struggles in a lawless society.

2. Bullfight by Inoue Yasushi, tr. Michael Emmerich

Inoue Yasushi managed to pack a lot of human observations in this elegant novella. The bull sumo was almost a side event in his exploration of the ethical aspect of human transactions; the lead up to main event was almost an excuse to investigate human profiteering and shady deals of businessmen. The novelist shrewdly introduced extreme situations to generate the responses he want from his characters. (review)

3. What Passes for Answers by Mikael de Lara Co

What passes for answers is a book of poetry, conceived in the mind of a poet, held in the mind of a reader. It is a quiet type of book, and the answers are withheld by careful writing. (review)

4. Antipoems: New and Selected by Nicanor Parra, ed. David Unger, tr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Edith Grossman, and others

This brand of poetry called antipoetry was more a worldview than a movement. On its surface, it was more like personal stuff than philosophical slash political stance. More myth than legend. If there was a guiding principle to it, then perhaps it was the anti-establishment position. A show of bravery and bravado, it knew not serious pretense nor preternatural seriousness. It was a show of freedom more than anything else. (review)

5. Culture and History by Nick Joaquín

Not every essay Nick Joaquín wrote is agreeable, but his arguments are thoughtful if not thought provoking, and the ways he phrased them are a display of skill and intelligence. He argued that the pre-Hispanic civilization in the Philippine islands are not too far advanced compared to China and India. He called it a "heritage of smallness": the Filipino works best on a small scale and by implication is unable to commit to big projects, hence, our ancestors built small boats (barangay). They also choose to work in soft, easy materials like clay, molten metal, and tree bark. According to him, our artifacts show that they did not develop to the next level, our pottery not as advanced as the Chinese porcelain. In contrast, the arrival of the Spanish brought advancements in technology that led to cultural progress. Joaquín is often accused of being a Hispanophile. He is a Hispanophile. His writings offer a reckoning of the Filipino in terms of colonial influences and the way diverse identities blended to produce the imprints of a culture and history.

6. The Last Novel by David Markson

This novel – a series of aphorisms – infuriated me at first. I wanted to hurl the book, to abandon it entirely. Until finally I began to get the hang of it, and get to feel the larger story in small installments. It was brilliant really. A very human story of a life nearing extinction.

7. What Now, Ricky? by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes 

The novel proposes electoral reforms, not bloody revolution, as a viable solution to the ills of Philippine society. The novel's epigraph said as much about how a nation's leaders were only a reflection of the greater society that elected them in the first place. The novel's backdrop was the First Quarter Storm in 1970, a period of unrest where students and laborers were violently dispersed by the police during demonstrations. (review)

8-9. Our Father San Daniel and The Leprous Bishop by Gabriel Miró, tr. Marlon James Sales 

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. (review)

10. Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw (Three Nights, Three Days) by Eros Atalia

While the true face or faces of the villain still can not reveal or unmask its legion, the dignity of the characters - the dignity of the people of Magapok - reigns as the unquestioned hero of the story. Men encroached into the rural area of Magapok and squeezed the life out of it, sucked the blood of the people in it and pillaged its natural resources. Mechanization, militarization, mineral extraction. The spooks have many faces. Just ask Pedro Paramo. Three nights and days of passion is all it takes for a disaster - man-made or simply inhuman - to strike hard.

It takes a special kind of writer to internalize the endemic problems plaguing his society and use them as materials to an allegory or parable or plain horror story that provokes, mystifies, and sows fear and 100% terror. It takes plenty of gumption to collectivize the ills of neglected countryside, then structure a broad fictional framework out of them. Hang together all seemingly loose elements in a fragmented story. Let the reader's imagination range freely in a created context of terrifying evil. Misunderstandings and puzzlement reign, comprehension and meanings are devoured, if meanings are still redeemable in purgatory, in case we are not yet immersed in hell.

21 December 2014

Titles read: August to December 2014

Works in English or English translation

Solar by Ian McEwan

Ang Diablo sa Filipinas ayon sa nasasabi sa mga casulatan luma sa Kastila (The Devil in the Philippines according to ancient Spanish documents) by Isabelo de los Reyes, tr. Benedict Anderson, Carlos Sardiña Galache, and Ramon Guillermo [post 1, post 2]

The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W. G. Sebald, ed. Lynne Sharon Schwartz [post 1, post 2]

Words and Battlefields: A Theoria on the Poem by Cirilo F. Bautista [review]

Château d'Argol by Julien Gracq, tr. Louise Varèse

Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (4th ed.) by René Descartes, tr. Donald A. Cress

Bullfight by Inoue Yasushi, tr. Michael Emmerich [review]

Dwellers by Eliza Victoria [review]

Eros Pinoy: An Anthology of Contemporary Erotica in Philippine Art and Poetry, eds. Virgilio Aviado, Ben Cabrera, and Alfred A. Yuson [review]

Conversations by César Aira, tr. Katherine Silver [review]

Shantytown by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews [review]

What Passes for Answers [poetry] by Mikael de Lara Co [review]

Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes, tr. Daniel Hahn and Sean O'Brien [review]

Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great by Nicanor Parra, antitranslation by Liz Werner

Antipoems: New and Selected by Nicanor Parra, ed. David Unger, tr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Edith Grossman, et al. [review]

The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus [epic poetry] by Cirilo F. Bautista [review]

Culture and History by Nick Joaquín, illus. Beaulah Pedregosa Taguiwalo

The Last Novel by David Markson

Works in Filipino or Filipino translation

Tabi Po: Isyu 2 by Mervin Malonzo  

Diwalwal: Bundok ng Ginto [Diwalwal: Mountain of Gold] by Edgardo M. Reyes

Julio Cesar by William Shakespeare, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera

Kasal sa Dugo [Bodas de sangre / Blood Wedding] by Federico García Lorca, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera [review]

Silent comics

14 by Manix Abrera

See also:

Titles read: January to July 2014

A list of Philippine novels in English translation

Reading stats (January to December 2014)

61 books read: 32 (52%) fiction; 11 (18%) nonfiction; 10 (16%) poetry; 4 (7%) drama; 4 (7%) graphic
50 (82%) books by male writers; 11 (18%) by female writers
35 (57%) in original language; 26 (43%) in translation

07 December 2014

On the natural history of the Devil

How exactly did the devils appear in the Philippines in the the 15th and 16th centuries, as compiled by Isabelo de los Reyes from old Spanish missionary documents and published as El Diablo en Filipinas (Ang Diablo sa Filipinas)? In a variety of expected ways it turned out. In August and September 1595, Fr. Aduarte reported that in the City of Nueva Segaovia, there was "spotted a mastiff of unheard-of size making several turns around the Church and adjoining houses." Fr. Aduarte conjectured that "there can be no doubt who the mastiff really was."

It was notable how, according to the documents, a local demon even predicted the coming of the new faith brought by men "dressed in long robes." And then there was the demon who made "painful pranks" to a solitary man in a forest. "The evil spirit would bring him a number of beings resembling girls. Then, either by deceitful words or force, the man would be put in the midst of some thick shrubs, where the girls would toss him into the air as if they were playing with a pelota ball. Finally, they would leave the man there half dead...."

Sometimes the chronicles also reinforced the folk beliefs and chalked them up to the devil's manipulative designs. An example was the demon jumping on top of a sick man and shutting his mouth, a phenomenon known locally as bang̃ung̃ut (nightmare). Elsewhere, the narrator and Gatmaitan read of the exploits of the demon possessing or tormenting the 'Indios' and being fought off by priests and defeated only after an extended "pitched battle."

These and many other awesome occurrences characterized the various demonic manifestations in the archipelago. Many other horrifying episodes were recounted in the book. One involved the summit of Taal Volcano sinking into the crater and accompanied by hair-raising roars, fearful voices, groans, thunderclaps, and lamentations. The devils often favored the forms of an animal: "deformed and monstrous dog," "fierce, black, and terrifying cat," and "ferocious man-eating caiman." Yet sometimes they appeared with such beautiful face and could even impersonate the figure of Christ! The devil was, then and now, so multi-talented, so spectacular.

* * *

The idea of the devil in relation to natural environment, as recorded by the friars, was particularly interesting for the insights it gave on sustainability issues and ecological implications. Behind native beliefs in animism, concepts of natural disaster risks, extreme weather events, and ecosystems connectivity were apparent. This could be seen in one passage read aloud by Gatmaitan.

"[...] On the same page you will find something else. Don Luys Pérez Dasmariñas ... spent a night on the slope of a small hill dedicated to the demon (in Cagayan). ... No native would dare to cut down trees to make poles or anything else, except in service to this demon. If these rules are violated, then the ocean will get very rough, and the wind leap high, destroying houses... That very night the most violent of wind-storms blew high and stirred the ocean to surge over the shoreline and reach as far inland as the military billets, usually thought to be very safe under dangerous conditions. The storm obliged the soldiers and even Don Luys to flee, the latter losing a lot of his assets because he had cut down so much on 'his' hill (branches and sugar cane)." [emphases added]

Trees (mangroves or otherwise) had always been seen as a shield against typhoons. Divine, or rather devil's, retribution after violating the rules came in the form of natural disasters like storm, storm surge, and flash flood. To cut down trees was seen as an affront to the demon who dwells in a hill in Cagayan. This environmentalist folk belief, alongside its metaphysical color, was fascinating for sustaining a strategy to conserve the natural environment and prevent loss of human lives and properties.

Another instance of environmentalism in native beliefs which were perversely twisted by the friars was taken from the chronicle of Father Gaspar de S. Agustin, as read by Gatmaitan:

'In the township of Dumalag (in Panay) ... there was a gigantic tree on which uncountable numbers of small birds used to meet. They never stopped making a tremendous noise with the chirping they created, and this was a notable inconvenience for all the people of the township. But the Indios had such superstitious reverence for the tree that they would not approach it even from a considerable distance. They also refused to cut the nearby grass which they likewise regarded as sacred. They explained this custom by saying that the tree was inhabited by Divatas, deities of the forests and mountains, whom they venerated from ancient times.... Father Hernando de Morales came to the tree and carved a cross on its trunk, whereupon all the birds departed forever; even if a few people moved in, they soon fled too, because these birds were demons or [the souls of] Indios of the township, who had meetings with the demon on just that spot.' [emphases added]

The great reverence for the natural components of the ecosystem (sacred tree, sacred grass, hill, birds) was consistent to the beliefs of several indigenous groups in the Philippines. The Molbog tribe in Balabac, for example, also believes in sacred trees. The preservation of these trees—specifically lu-jan and manggis [1]—are important for the survival of their tribe. Another belief of the Molbog is for sacred sea turtles. They are particularly wary of the Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), a critically threatened species, which they described as having ‘scales’ on the back. They believe that this turtle is the ‘king of the turtles’ and that capturing such turtle will bring bad omen.

A similar concept of taboo (bad omen) could be seen in the indigenous beliefs on "mataw fishing" of the Ivatan in Batanes [2]. The indigenous peoples still retained some of these beliefs even at present times due to their relative isolation and insulation from the mainstream society and colonialism.

The natural history of the Devil in the Philippines showed that colonialism and environmental degradation went hand in hand. The superstitious friars targeted the old belief systems, spun stories over and around them, and encoded a new belief system. Theirs was a most efficient and effective way to propagate the new faith. Anything that appeared strange to them they labeled as originating from the "devil" even when the concept of the "sacred" was associated to divine origin. Devil or not, the spirits guarding the natural environment were evicted and the country's natural resources began to be utilized and extracted in unsustainable manner. After the disruption of spiritual balance, the overturn of ecological balance.


[1] Beyond cultural beliefs, there are actually ecological and economic reasons for the preservation of the Molbog "sacred trees." According to a field guide on plants by Madulid (2002), the manggis (Koompassia excelsa) is recorded only in Palawan. It is a habitat of threatened birds such as the Philippine cockatoo, the talking mynah, and blue-naped parrot. It is also a place for beehives. Some Molbog believe this tree is sacred because it stands tall over the forest canopy, and so serves as protection against typhoons, although its branches are not that strong.

Lu-jan, another sacred tree, is most probably one of the two species of wild durian (Durio testudinarum and Durio zibethinus). Both fruits are edible. D. testudinarum or Dugyan is a rare species while D. zibethinus, known as Durian or Luad, is indigenous in the Western Malayan archipelago and is cultivated in southern Philippines. The fruit of the first species serves as food for wild pigs, anteaters, and squirrels. The second species has a more palatable fruit; its edible seeds are boiled and roasted and have medicinal properties (Madulid 2002). Lu-jan, which is either or both of these trees, is probably considered sacred because it serves as food for the Molbog especially in times of hunger and days of poverty. There are few other sources of food coming from the forest except for this important tree.

[2] The Ivatan believed in añitu (invisible beings) who have the power and capricious nature to inflict misfortune on people. They believed in dagen (taboo) which prescribes etiquette and protocol and reveals an ethnic respect toward one’s fish catch. For instance, the ‘placing of dirt’ on fishing gear and boat and even on the hands and body of the fisherman renders him unable to catch fish. In catching dorado (dolphinfish), the fisher must be coaxing and not arrogant. The fisherman must remove the hook from the dorado’s mouth while at sea, and the dorado should be faced toward the land and their tails toward the sea when laying them on the shore. While eating lataven (kilawin), one must not spit out the bones but take them carefully from one’s mouth. There are supernatural consequences for violating dagen or not performing an important ritual. This includes the inability to catch fish or misfortune (sickness, accident, death). Breach of dagen may also affect the catches of an entire fishing group. The dagen also prescribes strategies to conserve or regulate the fishery resource use such as seasonal use rights and regulation of gear entry and individual catch quotas. [See Mangahas (1993), "Traditional Fishermen’s Associations, Indigenous Belief System, and Laws," in Indigenous Coastal Resource Management: The Case of Mataw Fishing in Batanes (Quezon City: UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies). For a historical and legal perspective on the plight of indigenous peoples, see Molintas (2004), "The Philippine Indigenous People’s Struggle for Land and Life: Challenging Legal Texts," Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law 21(1): 269-306.]

06 December 2014

Ang Diablo sa Filipinas

Ang Diablo sa Filipinas ayon sa nasasabi sa mga casulatan luma sa Kastila (The Devil in the Philippines according to ancient Spanish documents) [bilingual, in Tagalog and English] by Isabelo de los Reyes, tr. Benedict Anderson, Carlos Sardiña Galache, and Ramon Guillermo (Anvil, 2014)

In 1886, when Isabelo de los Reyes was 23 years old, he published a story in Spanish in La Oceania Española, a Manila newspaper. In 1889 it was serialized in four parts in the bilingual La España Oriental, appearing in Spanish and in Tagalog translation. El Diablo en Filipinas is a horror story dealing with supernatural occurrences of a legion of devils in the Philippine islands. It also happens to be a comedy. In fact, this is a horror story of colonialism, based on 15th and 16th century documents produced by four members of the Spanish clergy based on their stay in the country: Diego Aduarte (1566-1636), Francisco Colín, SJ (c. 1625-60), Gaspar de San Agustin (1650-1724), and Juan Francisco de San Antonio (1682-1744).

The horror story arose from the methodical ways with which the four friars collectively inventoried various demonic encounters and their interpretations of them according to the Catholic doctrine. The devilish manifestations in the Spanish chronicles were recounted through the conversation between the first person narrator and his bookish friend Gatmaitan. Like spin doctors, the priests appropriated or retold the native stories of the "devil" and supplanted them with stories consistent to their own dogmatic faith of good and evil, God and Satan (Diablo). The real horror story appeared to be the systematic erasure or recasting of native beliefs, the "exorcism" of folk stories and their replacement by new Spanish versions.

The story takes place in Bulacan where the narrator and Gatmaitan, upon learning of the death of a directorcillo, visited the house of the dead man's widow. They were ushered into the dead man's library where they found copies of the friars' chronicles mentioning stories about the Devil, local seers, sorcerers, and witches. The bulk of the narrative was the exchange between the two friends, with the narrator playing the part of the skeptic and Gatmaitan the impressionable believer. By the end of the story, they were so steeped with the fearsome contents of the books that when a rat crossed the library floor Gatmaitan was so frightened he thought it was the devil ghost of the departed official. As he ran out of the room, he banged his head on the door. When the narrator hastily tried to help him, the latter tripped over and crashed on top of him.

The comedy was apparent from the credulous reactions of the characters to the passages they were reading. The lengthy quotations and paraphrases from extant documents lent a historic and deadpan air into the conversation. It was surreal fiction when the source stories were documentary sources and there were historical contexts expanded in the copious annotations by the translators. Certainly there was a touch of (evil) fun to be derived in this diabolic treatise of the Devil in the Philippines.

According to Anderson, Isabelo de los Reyes wrote this comedy to show how the "medievally superstitious friars were still wailing about the paganism, animism, and supersitions of the 'natives.'"

The Spaniards brought with them Catholic fantasies, which gradually entered into local languages—e.g. demonio (demonito too), Diablo, Duende, Sirena, Kapre and so on. Thus Satan arrived with the colonial conquest. But more importantly Isabelo wanted to put Catholic conceptions under the microscope of secular science, especially Folk-lore Studies. Legends and myths are well worth studying from the outside as mere passing cultural phenomena. Filipinos should learn to see Catholicism's imaginary in the same category as paganism's—pure Folklore.

Satan arrived with the colonial conquest. Even if the friars considered themselves the 'savior' of a 'heathen' people, Satan himself, it could be argued, is the colonial master, the one who supplanted old superstitions with new ones. Take for example a passage from Historia (1640)  by the Dominican Friar Diego de Aduarte:

The chronicler added that in this manner the witches, with the help of the Devil [el Diablo], made themselves owners 'of the haciendas, food and personages among all the Indios.' It looks like these wicked women are quite unlike the mangcuculam [sorcerers], and these old ladies say that they know how to get revenge in any way they wish.'

Seeing that I looked at him with great admiration, Gatmaitan added: "Yes, that's right. You should believe in the Devil [Diablo]. After all, he presented himself to many of the Saints and even Jesus Christ. And since you have done justice to the reputation of Señor Aduarte, and since we have encountered his ghost in this library, let us amuse ourselves by reading what he had to say about the craziness of demons in the Philippines. What we find on page 70 is curious. There Aduarte notes that a group of Pangasinenses, wandering about in their homeland—before the arrival of the Dominicans, i.e before 1587—heard a powerful and frightening voice. It was the voice of Apolaqui, their God of War, who said to them: I weep to see the completion of what I expected for many years, namely that you would welcome some foreigners with white teeth and hooded heads, who would implant amidst your houses crossed poles (crosses) to torment me all the more. I am leaving you to seek people who will follow me, for you have abandoned me, your ancient lord, for foreigners.

The abandonment of old gods (or devils) was indeed the triumph of colonialism. The chroniclers reinforced the stories of the anguish of the old devils who tried all they could, fancy that, to dispel the new god. To prevent the baptism and conversion of the people into a new faith.

01 December 2014

Sebald's art of restitution

The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W. G. Sebald, ed. Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Seven Stories Press, 2010)

"So what is literature good for?" asked Sebald in an essay which appeared in his posthumous collection Campo Santo. He quoted Hölderlin at length before giving a direct answer.

Am I, Hölderlin asked himself, to fare like the thousands who in their springtime days lived in both foreboding and love but were seized by the avenging Parcae on a drunken day, secretly and silently betrayed, to do penance in the dark of an all too sober realm where wild confusion prevails in the treacherous light, where they count slow time in frost and drought, and man still praises immortality in sighs alone? The synoptic view across the barrier of death presented by the poet in these lines is both overshadowed and illuminated, however, by the memory of those to whom the greatest injustice was done.

The answer came at the penultimate sentence of the essay. "There are many forms of writing," he noted; "only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship."

For Sebald, restitution was a delicate function of literature that must be pursued creatively, actively, and at all costs. The object of such restitution was memory ("the memory of those to whom the greatest injustice was done"). As Ruth Franklin wrote in "Rings of Smoke," the penultimate essay in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W. G. Sebald: "Art is the preserver of memory, but it is also the destroyer of memory."

This is the final tug-of-war in Sebald's work and the most fundamental one. As he searches for patterns in the constellation of grief that his books record, he runs the risk that the patterns themselves, by virtue of their very beauty, will extinguish the grief that they seek to contain. Sebald's peculiar alchemy of aestheticism and sorrow unwittingly underscores its own insubstantiality. Even as he investigates the roots of memory, Sebald, like the weavers whom he finds so emblematic, continually unravels his own creations.

Unraveling was the fate of Sebald's narrators in their life and in their work, whether artistic or occupational work. This was the "destructive" working method of the painter Max Ferber in The Emigrants. "When memory is lacking, art will suffice," Franklin observed in the tendency of Sebald's narrators to use artworks (paintings) as surrogate or representation of their anguish. "Sebald aestheticizes history, but he never mistakes history for art."

Franklin's inquiry led her to question Sebald's "shocking" "ahistorical" treatment of air war in his controversial lectures about the carpet bombing of Germany in World War II. Sebald did not give a political or moral context to his taking to task the German writers for failing to write about their experiences in the imaginative sphere of fiction.

Sebald's patterning amounts to an aestheticizing of catastrophe, and thus it annihilates causality. We appreciate the beauty of the image that the writer discerns, but it adds nothing to our understanding of why things happened as they did. And this is the great problem with a "natural history" of the bombings [in his "Air War and Literature" lectures]. The air war over Hitler's Germany was not a natural disaster, like the eclipse of 1502. It was not random in its causes or its effects; and so, morally speaking, it was worse than a natural disaster. The bombings may have the physical impact of an earthquake, but they cannot be understood in the same way, because to do so is to ignore the fact that this catastrophe was man-made, a human action, and thus more complicated and more terrible than another inevitable repetition of nature's rich but meaningless pattern of disaster.

Franklin here assumed that the lack of historical context in Sebald's lectures and narratives about man-made catastrophes "adds nothing" to the comprehension of these tragic events. Sebald's use of the "natural history" framework was problematic, according to her, because of the apparent gloss over the moral (human) transactions that accompany wartime disasters. Franklin's literal interpretation of "natural" in natural history excluded human nature which was still part of the "ecosystem approach" to history.

Sebald's ecological philosophy was in fact more complex than she gave him credit for. Franklin's focus on the agency of decision making in man-made disasters failed to recognize how, throughout history, violence was a natural state of humans. Sebald's depiction of environmental disasters, whether natural or man-made (e.g., the declining population of the herring and the powerful hurricane that leveled millions of trees in The Rings of Saturn), was not much explored in criticism about him.

In Sebaldian poetics, environmental collapse was closely aligned with the collapse or breakdown of morals. As he said in an interview, "We're living exactly on the borderline between the natural world from which we are being driven out, or we're driving ourselves out of it, and that other world which is generated by our brain cells."

Moreover, the metaphoric use of natural disasters for man-made disasters was closely related with how cruelty and violence were hardwired in humans. The mess produced by wars had the same or comparable destructive impact or effect as, say, extreme weather events. (Even our capacity for self-destruction was more and more evident with the way we influence the climate system to give rise to anthropogenic climate change.) Sebald's "natural history" should in fact be read in terms of his "ecopoetics." Critics have yet to give emphasis, let alone explore, the ecological aspect of his writings.

Franklin went on to question Sebald's tendency to equate gap in literature with gaps in memory. "Sebald looks to art to fill gaps in memory, and the air war is his own biggest gap," she noted, and later she went on, "But gaps in memory are experience that is forever lost; and art cannot take its place."

Art surely cannot replace memory but it can build or (re)imagine one. If it is successful in doing so then it can bring something tangible or intangible to its readers. It could offer consolation or engender sympathy. Or it could convey simple understanding or suggest hints of recognition. Sebald's essays and stories were in fact an attempt at restitution through the recreation or preservation of memories. So that the individual stories would not simply vanish in smoke.

Conversations with Sebald

The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W. G. Sebald, ed. Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Seven Stories Press, 2010)


I had a good reading plan for German Literature Month—including writing something about one volume from Thomas Bernhard's masterful memoirs, a play by Peter Weiss, a journal issue dedicated to Robert Walser, and a novel by Elfriede Jelinek. But alas, the month was over and I only managed to cover a book of interviews with and essays about W. G. Sebald. It was not even strictly a German book although it offered critical readings of Sebald's works in German or in translation and candid conversations with him about his themes, his influences, and his writing methods.

The pieces in The Emergence of Memory reveal important aspects of Sebald's spectral writings and personality which added to an appreciation of his literary enterprise. That project was centered on elusive, illusory memory and truth and their recovery and representations in art and literature. The greatest essays in this book were those that attempt to describe the nuances of his project, its totality, and its vision. An essay by Tim Parks, for example, tried to define the core of Sebald's vision as "engagement in the present inevitably ... devouring the past." (However, I disagree with Parks's characterization of his prose style as "much lighter" and "more flexible" than Thomas Bernhard's.)

In interviews Sebald made frequent mentions of the "conspiracy of silence" about German war crimes and war experiences in his household, community, and university. This seemed to be the main thing that his writings were trying to respond to. His temperament was often seen as melancholic, his disposition as pessimist. And yet these views were grounded in a playful mental landscape. His powers of association were an instance of a wandering imagination; his solitary walks and constant agitations were not symptoms of a decadent spirit. He was a loner engaged in the natural state of his natural world. Destruction and ruins and madness were the ashes from which he found words of staggering beauty. Nothing could be more paradoxical than Sebald's finding beauty in destruction.

It is a characteristic of our species, in evolutionary terms, that we are a species in despair, for a number of reasons. Because we have created an environment for us which isn't what it should be. And we're out of our depth all the time. We're living exactly on the borderline between the natural world from which we are being driven out, or we're driving ourselves out of it, and that other world which is generated by our brain cells. And so clearly that fault line runs right through our physical and emotional makeup. And probably where these tectonic plates rub against each other is where the sources of pain are. Memory is one of those phenomena. It's what qualifies us as emotional creatures, psychozootica or however one might describe them.

Deadpan as always. The border between comedy and tragedy in Sebald could hardly matter at all. Tragedy could be uplifting? It could offer consolation? It was a matter of perspective.

There is of course a degree of self-deception at work when you're looking at the past, even if you redesign it in terms of tragedy, because tragedy is still a pattern of order and an attempt to give meaning to something, to a life or to a series of lives. It's still, as it were, a positive way of looking at things. Whereas, in fact, it might just have been one damn thing after another with no sense to it at all.

In writing about horrific subjects, the necessity for restraint was not only a literary requirement. Restraint had to be the only way to get to the core of cruelty and violence. A reinforcement, if not a variation, of Adorno's dictum.

I've always felt that it was necessary above all to write about the history of persecution, of vilification of minorities, the attempt, well-nigh achieved, to eradicate a whole people. And I was, in pursuing these ideas, at the same time conscious that it's practically impossible to do this; to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible. So you need to find ways of convincing the reader that this is something on your mind but that you do not necessarily roll out, you know, on every other page. The reader needs to be prompted that the narrator has a conscience, that he is and has been perhaps for a long time engaged with these questions. And this is why the main scenes of horror are never directly addressed. I think it is sufficient to remind people, because we've all seen images, but these images militate against our capacity for discursive thinking, for reflecting upon these things. And also paralyze, as it were, our moral capacity. So the only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by direct confrontation.

Two other fascinating essays in the book were contributed by Michael Hofmann and Ruth Franklin. Hofmann was critical of Sebald. His short review essay was puzzled (bitter) at Sebald's success, while Franklin's essay was incisive yet possibly misdirected. I will try to post something on them later.

The November German Lit Month is hosted by Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy's Literary Life).