16 December 2015

The Seven Madmen

The Seven Madmen (1929) by Roberto Arlt, translated by Nick Caistor, afterwords by Nick Caistor and Roberto Bolaño (Serpent's Tail, 2015)

I didn't think I shall ever finish The Seven Madmen, Roberto Arlt's infamous novel, in time for the end of the world. I tried to pace myself, reading a few pages at a time, but the virus of desolation spread rapidly to contaminate my buoyant spirit. I'm far from the finish line on this one. I'm hardly halfway through the novel. Definitely not your average picker-upper read.

Remo Erdosain, the protagonist, might as well be frolicking in purgatory. At the start of the novel we found him down and hard on his luck, having been accused of stealing money from his company and being given an ultimatum to settle the money he stole. As he walked the streets of Buenos Aires, trying to find a way out of his sticky situation, he encountered a gallery of characters, in various states of derangement. How bleak the outlook for Erdosain. The very air he breathed seemed saturated with depression and desperation. Erdosain was fucked. The novel was packed with an emotional wallop.

Let us say, for the sole purpose of comparison, that Erdosain is a citizen under the regime of Kim Jong-un. In this case, of course, Buenos Aires is Pyongyang, and Argentina is North Korea. That was an unoriginal approach. But you get the drift.

What's being paraded were hollow, cartoon characters, defined only by their anguish and revulsion. Characters wallowing in monotony and boredom. Even their flashes of paranoia and distrust were predictable. Wretchedness piled on top of wretchedness. What's worse than a damned soul?

He felt as though blood was pouring from every cranny of his soul – as if it was being torn by a drill. With his powers of reasoning numbed, stunned with anguish, he set out on a wild search for a brothel. It was then he experienced the horror of empty nothingness, that luminous horror like the dazzling brilliance of the sun as it bounces off the curved surface of a salt-flat.

The novel was full of these brilliant metaphors of light and darkness. The same light that blinded Meursault in Camus's L'Étranger or Tajomaru in Akutagawa's "In a Grove". In fact the novel was swimming in perverse metaphors.

Here's another example: "It seemed to Erdosain that each worry was an owl that flitted from one branch of his suffering to the next." That was the formulation of translator Nick Caistor who said he tried to avoid straightening the repetitions, lack of grammatical accuracy, and wayward logic of Arlt.

Los sietes locos was in fact translated twice in English, the first one in 1984 by Naomi Lindstrom, published by Godine. She translated the same sentence snappily as: "He felt each spasm of grief hopping like an owl from branch to branch in his misery." That sounded more wayward to me.

Another sentence comparison:

Like a horse with its guts torn out by a bull, mucking around in its own viscera, every step he took drained his lungs of their lifeblood.

Just as horses who have had their guts ripped out by a bull slither about in their own intestines, so every step that Erdosain took left him with a little less lifeblood in his lungs.

The violence in that sentence was palpable and exact and scientific. At the level of a sentence, Arlt conjured the devil in the details. One's life was at stake in each Arlt sentence. A bullet fired into the chest, close to the heart, gave a life or death sentence: "His life was saved only due to the fact that this organ contracted at the precise moment the bullet whizzed by." Whew!

What Erdosain was longing for was redemption for his soul, but we were almost sure he would not get it in this life.

"What am I doing with my life?" he would ask himself, trying with that question to shed light on the origins of this anxiety which led him to long for an existence where the next day would not be merely time measured out in a repetition of today, but something different and totally unexpected, like in the plots of North American films, where yesterdays tramp suddenly becomes today's secret society boss, and the gold-digging secretary turns out to be multimillionairess in disguise.

Let us say, it was a fictional fulfillment of desire. Erdosain was longing for fiction, for something unpredictable, "something different and totally unexpected". Wasn't that an existentialist objective?

Arlt's world was a beehive of lowlifes in the entrails of Buenos Aires. Whores and gangsters and tormented souls rubbed shoulders with pseudo-anarchists and terrorists. There's a fuzzy destabilization plot to rid the world of the bourgeois army. Society was a sewer connected to the latrines of emo individuals. Still, the perplexity and the questioning mode of Erdosain made for a novel of pathetic grandeur.

Lindstrom (81):
“I’m nothing in everyone’s eyes. But still, if tomorrow I throw a bomb or murder Barsut, suddenly I’m everything, the man who exists, the man for whom generations of criminologists have prepared punishments, jails, and theories… That’s really weird! And yet, only crime can affirm my existence, just as evil is all that affirms the presence of man on earth.. Really, this is all so weird. Still, despite everything, there is darkness and mankind’s soul is sad. Infinitely sad. But that can’t be how life is. If tomorrow I figured out why that can’t be how life is, I’d pinch myself and disinflate like a balloon spewing out all these lies I’m filled with.”

Caistor (88-89):
I'm nothing to anyone. And yet, if tomorrow I throw a bomb or kill Barsut, then I become everything, a man who exists, a man who generations of legal experts have prepared punishments, gaols, and theories for. ... That's so strange! And yet it is only thanks to crime that I can affirm my existence, just as it is only evil which affirms man's presence on earth. ... All this is very strange. And yet despite everything, darkness does exist, and man's soul is full of sorrow. Infinite sorrow. But that cannot be all there is to life. Something inside me tells me life cannot be like that. If I could only discover the precise reason why life cannot be that way, I could stick a pin in myself, and all this hot air of lies would be deflated like a balloon.

Roberto Bolaño (the poor Chilean) supplied a back cover blurb and afterword to the 2015 UK edition. The latter was the infamous essay, or speech, from Between Parentheses where Bolaño described three strains of doom-virus infecting the Argentinean literary canon. The essay was hardly a flattering portrait of Arlt's novelistic enterprise. Read properly (i.e., literally), Bolaño was saying Arlt could not be a basis for an Argentinean literary school or movement because of his pure fatalism. For him, Arlt's art was infected. He compared Arlt to Onetti. Both "[opted] for the parched and silent abyss." Arlt's writing represented a desertification of literature that guaranteed the destruction of literature. That may or may not be exactly a damning judgement, but it was an ambivalent assessment of Arlt's fiction. And yet he considered Arlt one of the "exceptional writers and literary giants" in Argentina. It was a love-hate judgement.

I think Bolaño was more irked by Ricardo Piglia's championing of Arlt's flavor of fiction than by Arlt himself, whom he called blameless. In fact, he was wary of (false) prophets or literary apostles or disciples. He could not bear César Aira trumpeting Osvaldo Lamborghini's legacy. The literature of doom as represented by the two Osvaldos (Soriano and Lamborghini) and Arlt (to some extent) is a self-destructive enterprise. The language of novels in this mold devours itself.

Bolaño delivered the speech "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom" in December 2002 in Barcelona at the Kósmopolis International Festival of Literature. He prefaced his reading as follows:

Argentine literature is so rich, so powerful, that in the end it seemed more fitting to focus [my piece] exclusively on it; on Argentine fiction basically. ... The piece is ... limited to the drift of Argentine literature since Borges's death, basically. Sadly, this gangster literature, or literature of doom is the most vital, the richest. Personally, it doesn't excite me much, mostly because I'm sick of the literature of doom, but there's no doubt it's the most vital, and that it has the most influence on the rest of Latin American literature. The literature of doom, as I've said, is a kin of sub-world or infra-world outside the law.

The self-contradictions in those opening statements were glaring. Who needs a self-help book if one is sick of the literature of doom?

P.S. Mad covers of English translations

1. The 1984 Lindstrom translation. Talk about literalism in depicting seven mad persons. Almost cool, if only for the rapacious swimmers in the background.

2. The first edition from UK publisher Serpent's Tail. The glum look.

3. The 2015 edition of Serpent's Tail. Nothing remarkable here.

4. The US edition from NYRB (2015). The cover is more apt for Melville's Moby-Dick.

Passages from Naomi Lindstrom's translation of The Seven Madmen quoted above are taken from Never Stop Reading. All Bolaño quotes are from Between Parentheses, translated by Natasha Wimmer.

Caravana de recuerdos hosts The 2015 Argentinean (& Algerian) Literature(s) of Doom until the end of the month.

11 December 2015

Favorite books 2015

My reading choices lately had been pretty much insular. For various reasons, I became interested in local (Philippine) literature in English and Tagalog. There's a very practical reason for this. The books were simply what's readily available and accessible to me in bookshops. Also, the postcolonial and postwar orientation of the books I've sampled was of great interest to me. I managed to make good headway on my two reading lists: the best Philippine novels of the last century and Filipino novels in English translation.

A subjective and flawed exercise, this singling out of books. Yet the obligatory post is quite enjoyable to write, if only to relive each specific reading experience, the beautiful flaws and obvious artifice of a well-made fiction. I selected eight novels as favorites this year. My only complaint about them is their ugly covers.

I probably have not read a finer Philippine novel in English in But for the Lovers by Wilfrido D. Nolledo. First published in 1970, it became extinct until miraculously resurrected in 1994 by Dalkey Archive Press. It is a fountainhead of creativity [not in any Ayn Rand sense, God forbid]. Surreal and savage scenes are interspersed with scenes of great hilarity and profundity. The large, multi-national cast of characters floats in a state of dreaming, half-waking, or in-between. The wartime set-pieces unravel in magical fashion. It's a powerful work of postcolonial perversity. Hyperbole does not give it justice.

After attending a party in a garden among socialites, the executive assistant of Imelda Marcos visited her estranged father. They argued about politics and the hot issues of the day. The father is a fervent critic of Marcos, the daughter does not care. In the end, both will be implicated in the New Society.

Linda Ty-Casper is perhaps the best living novelist from the Philippines, the one most deserving of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. (F. Sionil José -- the supposedly best bet of this country -- simply does not cut it for me.) She had a rather cruel vision of failed history in A Small Party in a Garden (1988). In this short novel, the intersection of domestic personal conflicts with fractured official histories is narrated with uncompromising irony. In one unpleasant episode in the novel, historical forces, military and male, simply shatter and belittle any human effort for decency. A political novel that slaps the face of anyone who kept silent (i.e., almost everyone) during the Marcos regime.

The Hand of the Enemy (1962), the only novel written by Kerima Polotan, is a postwar novel of social corruption that anticipated the political stagnation during the years of dictatorship under Marcos. Herself a Marcos crony, Polotan is redeemed not by the probity of her characters but by their failings. There is an almost metaphysical representation of chance fate as the enemy, whose iron hand is a specter not to be trifled with. And yet the shadow of a false prophet leading his followers to perdition haunts these pages, like the would-be dictator. And like Linda Ty-Casper, the ardent anti-Marcos, Polotan the Marcos sympathizer makes palpable a very human, and evil, design in the institution of marriage and in the political structure of government.

The Cloak of God (1975) is the best of the three novels by Rosario de Guzman Lingat finally brought into English in recent years by her indefatigable translator and champion Soledad S. Reyes. Like The Hand of the Enemy, it analyzes corruption and degradation of spirit through its duplicitous main character, Felino Paras, a theater actor who accidentally became a religious leader. It has a parable-like quality in its treatment of religion as a source of salvation for the gullible masses, easily manipulated by the perfect performance of an actor who secretly lived in sinfulness and depravity. Maestro Felino perpetrated a massive fraud by brilliantly playing a double life, by naturally acting out the role of a religious leader. It is a role the artist is born to play. Wearing the cloak of God is the character's, as well as the novel's, performative act. And in the second act of the play, she will again subvert her own performance by switching roles and switching genres.

I couldn't readily decide which of the two novels by Tsushima Yūko I read this year to include in this list. Woman Running in the Mountains (1980) almost edged out Child of Fortune (1978) in terms of which mystified me the more. But the two are sister novels, both majestically translated by Geraldine Harcourt. There's a continuity in their themes and preoccupations. Both are portraits of an unwed, expecting woman in Japan, circa 1970s. The delicate progression of scenes in these novels reveals a portrait of an immediate family and a society almost unfit for bringing up children. Through challenges in their work stations and family relations, Tsushima's protagonists discovered small personal triumphs against personal doubts and insecurities. Her almost realist narratives are deepened by tensions arising from a wayward metaphor or a stray scene, a simple recollection or a brutal dream. Tsushima is a fixture in this blog and for good reasons.

All the Conspirators (1998) is Carlos Bulosan's posthumous detective novel, published 42 years after the author's death after being discovered among his papers. It exposes the deplorable actions of persons who collaborated with the Japanese enemy during the war and who betrayed their country and fellowmen in exchange for wealth and comfort during the Japanese occupation. This entertaining novel is accessible, full of action, and a fast read. But on the serious side, it provides a damning portrait of traitorous characters who sold out their souls by informing on freedom fighters. They are always waiting in the wings, these frigging collaborators.

And then there's this infamous 1915 Kafka story of magical transformation, Ang Metamorposis, in a recent Filipino translation. This is magical transformation in a cruel, terrifying way. The pathetic and noble struggle of Gregor Samsa against unjust power structures at work and in society is a reflection of the continuing class struggles of wage workers. A Marxist interpretation of the Kafkaesque may be inevitable, especially as it dramatizes how capitalism reduces the nuclear family to financial relations.

That's it for the year round up. Been a great year for badass reading.

04 December 2015

All books 2015

Life happened, hence the lesser frequency of book writing on this space. Life meant work and its attendant time trappings. So demanding I had to take a break from part-time night teaching in a local university. My apologies for my lack of interaction with friends and acquaintances in the blogosphere. I do continue to read posts from blogs I follow, sometimes days after bookmarking them. I manage to read every fascinating book review and posting even if I can't bring myself to comment. Unmitigated, I still manage to go into book buying sprees at stores and online. Constants, bookish habits, that endure.

I keep on reading whenever I can. Blog reviews, books, print and digital. Fifty-two books this year, and that is enough. A blessed year of distraction all in all. Considering that life meant also fatherhood for me for the first time. A baby daughter, now a couple of months old, is finding her way into the world. She reads the air with her inquisitive eyes. She wakes up into a household of books. Soon she will open picture books, first chapters, and early chapters. And then young adult books the father was often not fond of. He will find himself browsing through shelves, catalogs, and collections not his usual fare. Some years and he will find The Tartar Steppe being interspersed with The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily. Mann's Joseph tetralogy broken by the volumes of Moomin.

Life. And he can't wait.

1. Kung Baga sa Bigas: Mga PilingTula (Just Like Rice Grains: Selected Poems) by Jose F. Lacaba

2. Light by Rob Cham

3. A Field Guide to the Roads of Manila and Other Stories by Dean Francis Alfar

4. Alinsunurang Awit (Attributed Songs) by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles

5. Gagambeks at mga Kuwentong Waratpad (Gagambeks and Waratpad Stories) by Mark Angeles

6. Si Janus Sílang at ang Labanáng Manananggal-Mambabarang (Janus Sílang and the Manananggal-Mambabarang Showdown) by Edgar Calabia Samar

7. Climate Change: Evidence and Causes by The Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences

8. Guillermo Tell = Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich von Schiller, tr. José Rizal

9. Pitong Kuwento (Seven Stories) by Anton Chekhov, tr. Fidel Rillo

10. Ang Kuwintas at Iba Pang mga Kuwento (The Necklance and Other Stories) by Guy de Maupassant, tr. Allan N. Derain

11. Niyebe ng Kilimanjaro at Iba Pang Kuwento (The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories) by Ernest Hemingway, tr. Alvin C. Ursua

12. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

13. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, tr. Samuel Moore

14. Ang Metamorposis by Franz Kafka, tr. Joselito D. Delos Reyes

15. Remember, Body... by C. P. Cavafy, tr. Avi Sharon

16. Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw (A Midsummer Night's Dream) by William Shakespeare, tr. Rolando S. Tinio

17. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

18. Ang Trahedya nina Romeo at Julieta by William Shakespeare, tr. Rolando S. Tinio

19. Reportage on Lovers by Quijano de Manila

20. But for the Lovers by Wilfrido D. Nolledo

21. The Global Warming Reader: A Century of Writing About Climate Change, ed. Bill McKibben

22. The Hand of the Enemy by Kerima Polotan

23. All the Conspirators by Carlos Bulosan

24. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke, tr. Ralph Manheim

25. Poems of Rolando S. Tinio, Jose F. Lacaba & Rio Alma, tr. Robert Nery

26. Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard, tr. Ewald Osers

27. Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, tr. Rosalind Harvey

28. The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín

29. Commend Contend/Beyond, Extensions by Edith L. Tiempo

30. A Small Party in a Garden by Linda Ty-Casper

31. Understanding Human Ecology: A Systems Approach to Sustainability by Robert Dyball and Barry Newell

32. The Deleted World by Tomas Tranströmer, tr. Robin Robertson

33. Translations by Brian Friel

34. The Cloak of God by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes

35. Tres by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Laura Healy

36. Campo Santo by W. G. Sebald, tr. Anthea Bell

37. The Death of Summer by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes

38. Woman Running in the Mountains by Tsushima Yūko, tr. Geraldine Harcourt

39. Sa Kasunod ng 909 (Next to 909) by Edgar Calabia Samar

40. Trip to Tagaytay by Arnold Arre

41. The Bamboo Dancers by N.V.M. Gonzalez

42. Green Sanctuary by Antonio Enriquez

43. Ang Kapangyarihang Higit sa Ating Lahat (The Power Greater Than All of Us) by Ronaldo Soledad Vivo Jr.

44. Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn

45. Ang Mundong Ito ay Lupa (This World Is of the Earth) by Edgardo M. Reyes

46. Child of Fortune by Tsushima Yūko, tr. Geraldine Harcourt

47. Bullets and Roses: The Poetry of Amado V. Hernandez: A Bilingual Edition, tr. Cirilo F. Bautista

48. Pesoa by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles

49. Trese: High Tide at Midnight by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo

50. Retrato ng Artista Bilang Filipino (A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino) by Nick Joaquín, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera

51. Kaaway (Enemies) by Maxim Gorky, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera

52. Diary of the War of the Pig by Adolfo Bioy Casares, tr. Gregory Woodruff and Donald A. Yates


Kung Baga sa Bigas: Mga Piling Tula
A Field Guide to the Roads of Manila and Other Stories
Alinsunurang Awit
Gagambeks at mga Kuwentong Waratpad
Si Janus Sílang at ang Labanáng Manananggal-Mambabarang
Climate Change: Evidence and Causes
Guillermo Tell = Wilhelm Tell
Pitong Kuwento
Ang Kuwintas at Iba Pang mga Kuwento
Niyebe ng Kilimanjaro at Iba Pang Mga Kuwento
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
The Communist Manifesto
Ang Metamorposis
Remember, Body...
Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw
Go Set a Watchman
Ang Trahedya nina Romeo at Julieta
Reportage on Lovers: A Medley of Factual Romances, Happy or Tragical, Most of Which Made News
But for the Lovers