26 September 2015

Ang Metamorposis

Ang Metamorposis by Franz Kafka, tr. Joselito D. Delos Reyes (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2015)

It was well and good that I finished reading The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels right after Franz Kafka's story of an ordinary man's transformation into a monstrous insect. A specter of class antagonism haunted the story of Gregor Samsa's unfortunate situation. That specter was mostly in the background, but it was as palpable as the powerful, omnipotent, and omnipresent reach of an absentee landlord. The tension was there from the first page, when Gregor was without warning rendered into a terrifying living thing, impotent and marginalized and hideous. His struggle against irrelevancy and uselessness in a capitalist society began.

Nang magising isang umaga mula sa isang masamâng panaginip, natuklasan ni Gregor Samsa sa kama ang sariling isa nang kahindik-hindik na insekto. Nakatihaya siya sa matigas at tíla baluting likod, at sa bahagyang pag-angat ng ulo ay natatanaw nya ang malakupula't kayumangging tiyan na nahahati sa matitigas na arkong tumutumbok sa magkabilâng gilid ng katawan; ang katawang iyon ay hindi halos matakluban ng kubrekama na sa anumang sandali, maaaring dumausdos at tuluyang malaglag. Ang kaniyang binti, na kahambal-hambal at lubhang maninipis kung ihahambing sa kabuuan ng kaniyang katawan, ay sumisikad-sikad nang walang kalaban-laban hábang pinagmamasdan niya.

[One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin. He lay on his hard, armorlike back, and when lifting his head slightly, he could view his brown, vaulted belly partitioned by arching ridges, while on top of it, the blanket, about to slide off altogether, could barely hold. His many legs, wretchedly thin compared with his overall girth, danced helplessly before his eyes.]*

I was reading the recent translation of the story into Filipino by Joselito D. Delos Reyes, part of the new Aklat ng Bayan (Book of the Nation)** series of Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. The choice and arrangement of the translated words in this paragraph alone (kahindik-hindik; malakupula; kahambal-hambal) was so chilling it was as if from the outset Gregor had no chance at all to survive this struggle. The choice of the word malakupula (like a cupola) in "malakupula't kayumangging tiyan" for "brown, vaulted belly" was a particularly grisly description.

He never heard the alarm clock. (A missed appointment to attend work, just like K. and Josef K. missed theirs every step of the way.) Let us just say that the Kafkaesque adhered to Murphy's law. Gregor emphasized that it was not a dream (Hindi iyon panaginip.). Proof of which was the presence of a magazine cutout he recently made. It was a nightmarish reality every person never dreamed of.

We never did encounter Gregor's big boss in the story, the absentee landlord, the owner of the company where he worked as a travelling salesman of textiles. But after only an hour of being late for work, he was immediately visited by the officer manager, the chief overseer of the company, to specifically remind him of the temporary nature of his tenure in the company ("tandaan mong hindi ganoong katatag ang posisyon mo sa kompanya"). That he was at the mercy of being fired with just one day of being absent without official leave. The company was bent on exploiting the labor force from the likes of Gregor to earn its profits and more capital.

Because he was sick, he was no longer (viewed as) human. Hindi iyon boses ng tao, observed the chief upon hearing Gregor who barricaded himself in the room. Even his cough was described as inhuman: maging tunog ng ubong ito ay maaaring hindi tulad ng sa tao.

Kafka's exaggerated realism was on point. As in his full-length novels, Ang Metamorposis deals with the struggle of ordinary workers ("paid wage-labourers" in The Communist Manifesto***) against the mental and physical exploitation by their insensitive and inhuman society.

At alam ninyo rin, ser, na ang ahente, na halos buong taóng hindi makikita sa opisina, ay madaling nabibiktima ng mga tsismis, kamalasan, at daing at sumbong na walang kamalay-malay. Malaláman lang niya ito kung nakabalik na siya mula sa isang nakapapagod na paglalakbay at doo'y tuwirang maghihirap mula sa nga parusa na hindi man lang niya natutukoy kung ano ang orihinal na dahilan.

[You also know very well that a traveling salesman, being away from the office most of the year, can so easily fall victim to gossip, coincidences, and unwarranted complaints, and he cannot possibly defend himself since he almost never finds out about them, except perhaps when he returns from a trip, exhausted, and personally suffers their awful consequences at home without fathoming their inscrutable causes.]

This almost revealed the mystery surrounding Gregor's metamorphosis, his disintegration into something hardly human after being over-exploited by the labor machine. The basic framework of Kafka's 'critique' of modern society was this disintegration of social and societal meaning. In Marx and Engels, "[the bourgeoisie] has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal rites that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked, self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'." Gregor's entreaties fell on deaf ears.

Gregor was the model employee; for many years never had he been absent in work for a single day. The powers that be would not take that into consideration. Gregor's life force must be squeezed out of him to feed the market economy. The common worker became an insect in the colony of capitalist economy. The queen bee needed to be served. The individual was reduced into the form of something like an animal if only to satisfy the appetite of the system.

Nang mga panahong iyon, ang tanging kagustuhan ni Gregor ay gawin ang lahat ng makakaya para matulungan ang pamilya na makalimutan, sa lalo at madaling panahon, ang kasawiang dinanas ng negosyo at maisalba silá mula sa pagkakasadlak sa kawalang pag-asa. Mula noon ay pinaigting na ni Gregor ang pagtratrabaho; mula sa pagiging isang simpleng klerk, halos gabi-gabi na siyang naging isang ahente kung saan tiyak na mas malaki ang kita. Ang mga pagpupursigi at pagsusumikap na iyon ay kagyat nasuklian ng malaking salaping kaniyang naiuuwi sa manghang-mangha at tuwang-tuwang pamilya.

[Gregor's sole concern at that time had been to do whatever he could to make the family forget as quickly as possible the business catastrophe that had plunged them all into utter despair. And so he had thrown himself into his job with tremendous fervor, working his way up, almost overnight, from minor clerk to traveling salesman, who, naturally, had an altogether different earning potential and whose professional triumphs were instantly translated, by way of commissions, into cash, which could be placed on the table at home for the astonished and delighted family.]

Gregor's family was in debt to the very manager he was slaving for. His parents were now in advance age. As a man in his prime, he took the cudgels to be the breadwinner and fend off for the family.

"In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed," Marx and Engels wrote, "in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market."

"Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State," Marx and Engels added. "They are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is."

For Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie is unfit to rule society because "it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state [e.g., the insect-like existence of the transformed Gregor], that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him." Gregor was allowed to live only as long as the ruling class requires it, as long as he increases the capital. By being destitute, weak, and unproductive, he became an outcast in the eyes of the bourgeois society where (Marx and Engels again) "the living person is dependent and has no individuality". Gregor must die because he was no longer a worker who earns (an article of commerce and instrument of labour) but a burden to society. Gregor was no longer marketable.

The family (mother, father, daughter) was forced to work as their financial status became more dire. They let go of the household help and accepted tenants to the house to augment their much reduced income due to Gregor's condition. "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation", wrote Marx and Engels. This reduction of the family relation to money matters was inevitable.

Sa labis na trabaho at pagod na pamilyang ito, sino pa ang magkakaroon ng panahon na bigyang-pansin si Gregor maliban na lang kung lubusang kailangan? Patuloy na lumiliit ang badyet ng bahay; pinaalis na ang serbidora [...] Ginampanan na nila sa abot ng makakaya ang lahat ng utos ng mundo sa mahihirap na tao; ikinukuha ng ama ng almusal ang mga maliliit na kawani ng bángko, iniuukol ng ina ang lakas sa pananahi ng mga damit panloob ng mga estranghero, at pabalik-balik sa kaha ang kapatid para sa mga utos ng mga mámimíli. Kung higit pa doon ang kailangan ay wala na siláng lakas na gumawa pa.

[Who in this overworked and exhausted family had time to look after Gregor any more than was absolutely necessary? The household was reduced further; the maid was now dismissed after all {...} Whatever the world demands of poor people, they carried out to an extreme: the father fetched breakfast for the minor bank tellers, the mother sacrificed herself to [sewing] underwear for strangers, the sister, ordered around by customers, ran back and forth behind the counter. But those were the limits of the family's strength.]

Slowly and gradually, Gregor's family suffered the same working system that reduced the son to a thing of monstrosity. His sister, Greta, who at first religiously cared for him and fed him began to change her attitudes toward him. In the end, Greta passionately and vehemently rejected her brother (Hindi ko tatawaging kapatid ang nilalang na ito, at ang masasabi ko lang: kailangan na nating alisin iyan. ["I will not pronounce my brother's name in front of this monstrosity, and so all I will say is: We must try to get rid of it."]).

After Gregor's demise the family collectively heaved a sigh of relief. They no longer had to care for a useless invalid, an inutile member of the family. They were ready to move on, with hope in their hearts because they were at present fortunate to be "employed".

Hábang maginhawang nakasandal sa kanilang upuan, pinag-usapan nila ang kanilang plano para sa hinaharap, at lumabas, sa málapitáng pagsisiyasat, na hindi na rin iyon masamâ, dahil sa trabahong mayroon silá na bagama't ngayon ay hindi pa nila napag-uusapan, tiyak namang magdadala ng magandang búkas para sa pamilya.

[Leaning back comfortably in their seats, they discussed their future prospects and concluded that, upon closer perusal, these were anything but bad; for while they had never actually asked one another for any details, their jobs were all exceedingly advantageous and also promising.]

This reinforced the mentality of a colonized family within the bourgeois society, by viewing future happiness in terms of the fruits of labor employment. This ironic resolution was heightened in the end when the parents looked at Greta, now in her physical prime, as an article of commerce and instrument of labor, i.e., in terms of her potential contribution to the family coffers through marriage to a good prospective husband and by being paid as wage laborer, in complete opposition to her brother's damaged body.

At, bilang animo'y isang pagpapatibay sa kanila bagong pangarap at matalinong balakin, nang marating ang destinasyon, tumayo ang anak at ipinakita ang magandang hubog ng batang katawan.

[And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions that at the end of their ride the daughter was the first to get up, stretching her young body.]

Gregor was bound to fail in this class struggle. As Marx and Engels pointed out: "The first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own end, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, these attempts necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation."

At Kafka's bidding, in his juncture of history when the proletariat has not yet organized itself and acquired political supremacy and constituted itself as the nation, Gregor was a casualty because of the as yet undeveloped state of the struggle, if he even made any attempt to fight back. If he even could be considered heroic in any sense of that word. The Gregor Samsas of the world had yet to reach their saturation points and fight back. But the economic conditions for the emancipation of slaves are now turning. The frameworks for radical and progressive movements have now been tested. The time is now ripe. GREGOR SAMSAS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

Read in anticipation of German Literature Month V.

* The English passages quoted are by Joachim Neugroschel, from The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories (Scribner), first published in 1993.

**The Aklat ng Bayan series aims to publish works in Filipino or translations into Filipino of noteworthy texts, including translations of great foreign works of literature.

*** The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, translated by Samuel Moore (Penguin Classics, 2015). Translation first published in 1888.

25 September 2015

But for the Lovers

But for the Lovers (1970) by Wilfrido D. Nolledo (Dalkey Archive Press, 1994)

The postcolonial is perverse*, according to the Filipino critic J. Neil C. Garcia. But why stop there? The postcolonial is grotesque, is disgusting, is radical, is transgressive. The postcolonial is a product of colonial wars, of wars inglorious. It is blasphemous; it is bestial.

Just like But for the Lovers, the only full length novel published by Wilfrido D. Nolledo (1933-2004) in his lifetime. This novel blatantly wears the sleeve of postcoloniality and postmodernity. It is a (diffi)cult book. In Philippine novel writing, it is a milestone, deserving of the top spot in a list of the best Philippine novels in English published in the last hundred years.

He was beginning to eat flowers and the crescent moon was in his eyes when he awoke again. One night long ago when they had intercepted a code from the enemy on the shortwave and had not needed him anymore, they pulled out their tents, mantled him with leaves, and left him. They left him a rifle, a buri basket and a book of psalms, for the Major had decreed in defense of this murder: Let the little legionnaire lie here and die; it is written, it shall be read. But the boy went on sleeping and did not die and when he awakened it was to see (it was to find himself alone) a bird, a whitewinged maya dart in from the west, perhaps headed for the monsoon. Steadying the Springfield , he cocked the hammer with a quivering thumb, and waited. It flew away, whatever it was, and now he squinted up and remembered that it was the first time in a long spell he had seen the sky,and he thought: It is longer, lonelier and lovelier than any of my prayers. He sighted the nimbus—an eagle in captivity—and fired.

It is great because of its language, its unabashed poetic touches, network of allusions and alliterations, puns with punitive effects, and foreign words galore. In various linguistic registers and movements—mo (modernism) or po-mo or po-po (postmodern poetry, in prose)—it is in a league with the illustrious set of Ulyssi. Within a quota of one for every culture, hands down the Philippine Ulysses goes to But for the Lovers.

The basic story revolves around three spectral figures, all inhabitants of room 13 of Ojo Verdes boardinghouse. There is Hidalgo de Anuncio, the Spanish vaudeville/clown artist whose time is almost up, whose very name evoked the master of chivalry. There is Molave Amoran, the feral, resourceful youngster, a sturdy streetkid whose survival instincts come in handy in time of chaos. And there is the unnamed girl whose very silence bespeaks her being a symbol in a war that was fought on symbols.

The setting is Manila during the last interminable months of Japanese invasion right up to the immediate aftermath of the country's liberation. People are desperate, impatiently waiting for the return of the Americans to liberate the country and alleviate their suffering from hunger and destitution. P-38s are hovering above, bombing the city. Throughout the air raids and the looting, the beautiful girl sleeps. And during her waking hours, she is like a somnambulist. The war-torn reality has become a huge launch pad for her dreams, for Hidalgo's pining for the Spanish days of yore, and for Amoran's nocturnal adventures to fend food for the three of them. The three exist to wait for Rapture or whatever. In an apocalypsed landscape of ruins, some like Hidalgo cling to the former colonial past and Hispanic culture, knowing full well that their time is ticking out.

[Hidalgo] was the last flamboyant castilla de entresuelo. Today his sole anchorage was that sprawling colonial-style building across the street from Carmelo and Bauman's. Older than anything else in la ciudad, it'd preserved its ancient appurtenances: an azotea, shell windows, carved rejas, even its original embankment. Here resided the Del Rosario sisters, who had suffered the encroaching commercialization of their beloved street yet had steadfastly refused to bend to the cooings of merchants. Huge profit forecasts and storm warnings could not induce the Del Rosario sisters to consider leases and alterations. The hermetic pair invited no one inside their domains save a few "blood friends." For decades outsiders were curious about what the interior of the house was like. The original draftsman's plans of this relic had either been lost, burned, or, some believed, locked in the Del Rosario vaults for future perusal. Those who revered the lavish historicity of the house only from nostalgia did not know (or had forgotten with the passing of time) that inside were some twenty-four bedrooms, eroding furniture and life-size images of saints. Nor would strangers recollect that the Del Rosario sisters were the last of their line; they had no heirs but, according to popular legend again, had adopted some children. (And wasn't one of them a negrito?) The years had gravely altered the street, the city, the neighbors around them ... que va, the Del Rosario sisters remained unchanged with their house. Their withered palm branches at the eternally shut windows turned green again in honor of the seasons.

Hidalgo is nostalgic. He seeks refuge in old colonial mansion with two spinster sisters reminiscent of the Marasigan sisters in Nick Joaquín's famous play. The Hispanist is eulogizing the passage of an era, when the definitive break from Spanish as former colonials is almost assured, whatever the outcome of the war.

In addition to the triumvirate, the rich cast of characters include Vanoye, one-armed Portuguese POW and demagogue who was tortured by the Japanese in Fort Santiago and was one of the internees in the University of Santo Tomas; Tira Colombo, the thrice widowed matriarch and landlady of the apartment in Ojos Verdes, whose inhabitants provide the manifold strands to the story; three Japanese soldiers—the samurai Sergeant Yato, the poet Corporal Ito, and the weird old Major Shigura who stalked the girl at all times; Captain Jonas Winters, an American pilot who survived the crash of his air bomber plane; Tomasa Pompeyo (aka Tomodachi Toni) who owns a nightclub and whose husband was missing; and a bunch of other minor character studies whose colorful anecdotes provide a good dose of laughter amid the harsh perversity of the times.

As postcolonial novels go, this one is replete with questions and ideas about identity and cultural hybridity. The novel's hybridity in fact already oversells the idea. Hidalgo himself, the old peninsular at home in Manila, whose pan-identity ["an unleavened pan like him"] haunts him, is feeling his almost-anachronistic presence in a country colonized by American Hollywood.

But what finally opens up to the reader is the mosaic of guffaw-inducing set-pieces and a glimpse at the Manila second world war subculture. It is a period of waiting, waiting, and more waiting for Liberation (capital L). A time of torture and marriages (since life goes on), of mendicancy and endemic thievery. But most of all, a time of waiting, waiting, more waiting. The waiting took several forevers. Although there are some, like Tira Colombo, who never give a damn about the whole debacle. Pragmatism saves her from the boredom of waiting.

All that brouhaha around her did not bother Mrs. Colombo. To her, the Liberation [1945] meant not much more than an extra chupa of rice, perhaps some fresh eggs. Politics, government, religion—they were big, fat gobs of one rotten yolk to her. She would benefit not a single kusing from a change of venue; she would not profit from a shift in ideology. Acculturation was for those who did not have or did not cherish what they most privately had, which was identity. The landlady, even with half an ear cocked, with but bat eyes in the daylight, had long reached the conclusion that after Bienvenido Elan, her first husband, there could never be any new idea. History would pass (as indeed it had) over Mrs. Colombo like a tractor, and she would not notice, would not care. What she truly, incessantly lamented was the depletion of man, in whatever form or substance. To her way of thinking, war had been cruel only insofar as it had cauterized the vaginal life source, in its unabating diminution of the male. That cities were razed to the ground, the mothers were ravished in dark rooms, that babies perished for lack of milk only signified (to her) that men were killing each other senselessly, selfishly. No sect could be so sublime, no philosophy so enlightening, no administration so just that could ever again remedy the loss of essence. After the demise of Architect Elan (oh, Bienvenido!), her one last link to any branch of formal constructiveness, Mrs. Colombo just retired from ideas.

The novel gains its suspense from being in medias res. The language play and inventiveness save even the disgusting scenes of torture. The diversity of wartime voices provide a counterpoint to the wartime stupor. But for the lovers (but which lovers?), this would have been a mawkish drama of excess about a set of people forever chewing on the rumors of Liberation that as time goes by remains more and more like that, a remote possibility.

Nolledo's prose is a melting pot of variegated styles. The comedy and grotesquerie are of a piece. In prose "pulsing and polychromatic", in scenes that lapse into the territory of nightmares and dreams and trauma.

They resumed the journey with a melange of guavas and baked lizards. A python had coiled at their feet in an arbor and Quasimoto killed it with a single swipe of the bolo. Twice Alma boggled at a minaret swinging like a pendulum. They diverted her from wheezing showers, whooshing reeds, mildewed clotheslines with withering scarecrows, preening skulls and Halloween papayas. From a grotto, they espied a balloon in the clouds and below it was another boat, and they all knew that her suitors were not far behind. Invoking the prophets at that critical juncture and calling to the patron saint of navigation, Quasimoto steered away and the boat accosted a rainbow and they went loafing-loving-longing on the crest. They outwitted a flood to ransack an empty farmhouse where posters embossed in magenta proclaimed: "THE JAPANESE ARE COMING!" They also unearthed New Year hats, buntings, billfolds and tinfoil from a hope chest. Aron flung the Springfield away, drowned the toy forever in a well. Alma idled behind charred sugar cane and spidery stalks as the boy began to tell her she was beautiful. By sunup, they were blue and bold and blighted: they all had insomnia. They made a palatable salad but dared not eat it lest the sound of loud lettuce unleash the hounds of war. They bound their boat to the bougainvillea vines. When the boy sneezed, they lost it.

Quasimoto, Aron, and Alma are three figures within the dreamlike scene at novel's confused (confusing) prologue. They correspond to other (actual) characters inside (in) the novel. The shifting identities of the characters, of the "lovers" of the title, make for a dynamic deconstruction of purpose and meaning.

"The Spanish Novel in the Philippines will be commemorated in English. Everything else is posthumous", Hidalgo de Anuncio announces like a literary psychic. Nolledo's own may be that Spanish Novel in English. The fate of his three other (maybe more) complete novels was posthumous. Sangria Tomorrow; Vaya con Virgo (aka 21 de agosto); and Cassandra Pickett in the Wings. These apparently experimental novels from a neglected master of the perverse are waiting, waiting, and waiting.

* In the preface to his two-volume The Postcolonial Perverse: Critiques of Contemporary Philippine Culture, Garcia wrote: 'What is postcolonial is necessarily perverse, since perversion is the frustration of teleology and its requisite purity, the undermining of the normative and the narrative, the transitivity that troubles the supposedly pristine, eternal, and abiding. These are precisely what postcolonialism must imply, being that it is, among other things, the historically situated labor of arriving at a critical awareness of colonialism's fractured and translated (and therefore eminently appropriable) "nature."'