31 October 2016

The Golden Dagger

The Golden Dagger by Antonio G. Sempio, translated from Tagalog by Soledad S. Reyes (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2016)

In her Bibliography of Filipino Novels: 1901-2000 (2010), Patricia May B. Jurilla noted that the most prolific novelist in Tagalog was Antonio G. Sempio (1891-1943) for having the most number of published novels in book form. Most novels in Tagalog/Filipino were first serialized in magazines or newspapers before being published in book form.

Between 1917 and 1942, Sempio produced 19 novels, including a translation. According to Jurilla, it was likely that most of these novels were self-published owing to the fact that Sempio was known for peddling his books as he traveled from town to town.

One such novel—Ang Punyal na Ginto (Nobelang Tagalog) (1933)—recently appeared in English translation by Soledad S. Reyes as The Golden Dagger. This novel was notable for being the basis of the first ever "talking" film in the country. In a way, this was the story which finally broke the "silence" of the silver screen.

According to Jessie B. Garcia in A Movie Album Quizbook (2005), cited by Video 48 blog (link), the exhibition of Punyal na Ginto the movie at the Lyric Theater on the Escolta "was made possible with the importation of American technicians and sound camera equipment by two American businessmen and promoters, George F. Harris and Stewart “Eddie” Tait of the Tait Shows carnival fame."


The plot of The Golden Dagger was a melodramatic and rather tragic treatment of the love between the poor girl Dalisay and the filthy rich boy Dante, with the boy's father, the despotic Don Sergio, doing everything in his power to thwart the affair. In the translator's introduction, Reyes cautioned the reader to look at the novel "against a specific sociopolitical context and an evolving literary tradition", for the reader to "retrieve the novel's original meaning on its own terms". Without the context to situate the novel in the American colonial period fraught with inequalities between the landed rich and the working poor, the novel would be easily dismissed as poverty porn.

The names of the characters were rich in meaning. Dalisay is the Tagalog word for pure and untarnished, and it was her destiny to erase the stain that marked her ill-fated association with Don Sergio and his son. Dante Villa Centeno was the only major character given a full name in the story. It was as if only the rich were the only ones entitled to a full name. Elias, Dalisay's cousin and the third corner of the love triangle, seemed to echo the noble character of Elias in Rizal's Noli Me Tangere. By the end of the book, Elias became like Simoun the jeweler in El Filibusterismo by being rich himself, and like Isagani by derailing Dalisay's plan of revenge. Elias then had the nobility of his namesake, the wealth of Simoun, and the righteousness of Isagani.

The tragic conclusion of the story was foretold in the beginning. What was left to ponder in the novel? The sentimental drama and the momentous, heart-stopping twists and turns; the Philippine sociopolitical background that informed such a story; the ingenious use of the reference code; the narrator's frequent intrusions, his ironic commentaries to the story, and his constant taunting of the reader at the end of the chapters; the verbal and psychological battle of wills between the rich boy and his father, and between the poor girl and the rich boy's father; time lapse and transformations of character. Somehow, too, the corrupt stench of patronage politics and partisanship of the 1930s pre-Commonwealth period still assaulted the nose of the present.

—Oh, no! I'm here to pay you a visit. I'd like to find out what you need and what you think. What can I do for you, friends?

Ah, if that's what you want to know, there's a whole list—Mang Bastian replied. —First of all, there is only one artesian well that the democrats built at one end of the village nearest the street where their party mates lived; this is not enough. Secondly, the number of students is growing, but since the only public school is small, the students are forced to stop schooling because the school in the town proper is inaccessible.

—But what are your mayor, representative, and senator doing? Why don't you ask them for help?

Naku! Those officials say they have the people's welfare in mind, that is, when campaigning, but the moment they are elected, they conveniently forget their promises!

—Let me handle this and I'll look into these needs and follow up on them until they reach the office of the Governor-General. We're friends, and I promise to facilitate what your elected officials fail to deliver! [...] But of course they will not dare disappoint me! Do you think the amount of money I donate to their campaigns during election is a pittance? They all entwine themselves around me! Start with Quezon, to the oldest senator, and the representatives, and you may add the secretaries of the various departments. Not one of them can afford to turn me down! They owe me a great deal, and they will not have the nerve to refuse me! Ah! Even the Governor-General has not failed me, not even once!

The proud speaker was Don Sergio, and his certainty of victory spelled the doom not only for the political trajectory of the country but for Dalisay's unwinnable love for Dante.

Don Sergio's "golden dagger" (a transparent metaphor for the unlimited power and resources available to the rich) was poised and ready to fight against Dalisay and her love for Dante. The golden dagger was designed for the systematic terrorizing and breaking down of poor folk who dare cross the path of the ruthless rich.

How would he make the young woman [Dalisay] withdraw her promise? How, ah, how? What if he offered untold riches? He was willing to pay her off since Dante's money was the sole motive driving both mother and daughter [Dalisay and her mother]. He would offer thousands of pesos, or however much it would take, to free his son's ensnared heart. Once she agreed, then there was no more need to talk. Just allow Dalisay to name her price, and he would pay her with alacrity, with a smug smile on his face. But if Dalisay remained firm despite her gentle pleading, he would unleash the terror—he would berate her, threaten her, and put the fear of the Lord in her. If she did not succumb to his entreaties, then he would resort to violence. Nobody who defied him was spared his deadly revenge. This scheme, this one plot was the only alternative that would probably lead to satisfactory results!

The rich were results-oriented, once they put into motion their best-laid plans. Using Plans A to C and other cruel contingencies, their quarry would not be able to escape.

After another round of furious exchange, the police van finally arrived. How could they afford to ignore the master's order? The chief of police was a friend of Don Sergio's, and sending a van over with alacrity was the least he could do.

With the whole political establishment at his side—the so-called "duty-bearers": legislators, judges and lawyers, the police force, the Governor-General!—it was no wonder that Don Sergio would not have the least trouble perpetrating his evil design on Dalisay. The "rights-holder"—the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised—would be easily robbed of their rights and freedoms. For her part, Dalisay—even before Miss Saigon—would be forced to perform the ultimate sacrifice. And even if it killed her trying, she would have her revenge, one way or another.

The Golden Dagger was one of the last publications of the De La Salle University (DLSU) Publishing House. According to a major online local bookseller I talked to, the press was no longer in operation. This was a tragedy, not least because the DLSU university press was one of a handful of progressive publishers of translated novels in the Philippines. In 2013, the press released, also in translation by Soledad S. Reyes, two remarkable novels by Rosario de Guzman Lingat.

I am not sure if the movie adaptation is still extant. If it is, I hope I will have the chance to watch this first ever Tagalog movie recorded with sound.

Notes on Bibliography of Filipino Novels: 1901-2000

Bibliography of Filipino Novels: 1901-2000 by Patricia May B. Jurilla (The University of the Philippines Press, 2010)

Patricia May B. Jurilla does a great service to readers and students of Philippine novel in her well researched Bibliography of Filipino Novels: 1901-2000, published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2010. She collated a century's worth of Philippine novel writing and production in three separate lists: (i) English language novels, (ii) Tagalog (Filipino) language novels, and (iii) translations of foreign novels into Tagalog (Filipino) language.

She excluded novels written during the Spanish period (pre-20th century novels) and books with less than 49 pages, the UNESCO standard definition of a book. According to her, she omitted "quite a number of early Tagalog novels" because of this page constraint, with these books "looking more like booklets, chapbooks, or pamphlets really—almost resembling novenas." The page constraint was not followed strictly though as I noticed a book with 48 pages included in the list.

The 1910s was considered the Golden Age of the Tagalog novel, the decade that produced a total of 93 Tagalog titles. Her introduction to the bibliography discussed significant trends and factors that contributed to the production of novels in the Philippines.

After the Americans introduced English language in the country in 1900, it took 21 years before a first novel in the language appeared: A Child of Sorrow by Zoilo M. Galang, which he self-published and later translated into Tagalog as Anak ng Dalita (1960). Self-publication was a common practice during the first half of the century.

According to Jurilla, novels in English generally did not cater to popular taste. Compared to Tagalog novel reading, the Philippine novel in English appealed only to a small readership: those in the upper-middle and upper classes who had command of the English language and who had access to education.

The most prolific Filipino novelist in English was F. Sionil José (10 titles during the period covered), followed by Linda Ty-Casper (9 titles). The most common words included in the titles of novels in Filipino and in Filipino translation were: pag-ibig (love), buhay (life), puso (heart), luha (tears), and bulaklak (flower).

Unfortunately, translations of novels from a Philippine language into English were excluded from the list. Based on my limited search, only two titles appeared in English translation in the period covered by the bibliography—(i) The Lady in the Market by Magdalena G. Jalandoni in 1976; and (ii) Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting by Ramon L. Muzones in 1979. Both titles were translated by Edward D. Defensor from Hiligaynon language, and both were published by University of the Philippines in the Visayas (Iloilo).

The two books of Don Quixote appeared in Tagalog translation by four translators in 1940. However, according to Virgilio S. Almario, in "Sulyap sa Kasaysayan ng Pagsasalin sa Filipinas" (A Glimpse into the History of Translation in Filipinas), one of the essays in Introduksiyon sa Pagsasalin: Mga Panimulang Babásahín Hinggil sa Teorya at Praktika ng Pagsasalin (Introduction to Translation: Introductory Readings on the Theory and Practice of Translation) (2015), these books were translated based on the English translation.

The only book that appeared in bilingual translation was The Birthing of Hannibal Valdez (1984), originally in English by Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, with an accompanying "Pilipino" translation by Romulo A. Sandoval. I read this book—the author calls it a "novella"—earlier this year.

Needless to say, the bibliography needs to be updated to cover new novels published in the new century. It also needs to be expanded to cover novel output from other vernacular languages with novel tradition such as Hiligaynon, Cebuano, Kapampangan, etc. Several Tagalog (Filipino) titles in the list already appeared in English translation only in the last decade. Annotations on reprinted books need to be updated (e.g., Surveyors of the Liguasan Marsh (1991) by Antonio Enriquez was published under a new title, Green Sanctuary, in 2003; Eric Gamalinda's Empire of Memory (1992) recently appeared in a new edition).

Certain lacunae in the entries needed to be filled (e.g., Carlos Bulosan's novel America Is in the Heart: A Personal Journey was undated. Jurilla made a conjecture that this was likely published in the country in the 1970s. According to Bienvenido Lumbera, in a foreword to Bulosan: An Introduction With Selections, edited by E. San Juan Jr., the Philippine edition was published in 1980.) Perhaps an "online edition" of the lists can serve to validate or update the bibliographical entries.

Although the bibliographer did not mention it, war, disasters, and tragedies were not kind to the preservation of Philippine books and manuscripts. The destruction and looting of libraries during the Battle of Manila in 1945 consigned a lot of the collections to the dustbin.

Jurilla's book is quite handy for anybody interested in reading Filipino novels or, for that matter, investigating novel production and output in colonial, post-war, and post-colonial settings, and pre- and post-martial law regime.

From the list, I only read a measly 7 out of the 365 titles in Tagalog (Filipino), none from the titles in Tagalog (Filipino) translation, and 20 out of 177 novels in English.

This bibliography has already given me an idea on which novels to read next.

      A Lion in the House

      I don't like to write in books with ink. Books heavily underlined and annotated scandalize me. The blank pages and margins of books are not meant to be defaced like a temple. Yet I like to mark them myself with occasional notes. For that I use a pencil, which I like to think makes for a lesser violence, a temporary violation an eraser will set right. So I write on books very lightly. I do not stretch out the books and open them fully flat when I read. I open them at an angle so as not to break the spine of the book. I always read acutely, at an angle less than ninety degrees. If it is a new book I bought I would never settle down for more than the right angle. I dare not open books at an obtuse angle. That is an obtuse thing to do. It is depressing to look at books with heavily curved or broken spines. Or any book with physical flaws for that matter.

      I was flipping the pages of A Lion in the House, a novel by Lina Espina-Moore about adultery. Published in 1980, it feels outdated now. Outdated not for being a period novel set in 1980 but for its heavy use of colloquial language of Manila of its time. It has its moments, like the scene of the wife rushing to get his husband from the apartment of his mistress, an apartment the husband was renting out. This section of the novel was recently included in Querida: An Anthology (2013). But overall the novel sounds false to me in 2016. The dialogues do not crackle. It relies too much on the slang, colloquialisms, and high society details of its period. Novels must be felt as if it is new. Its language must sound fresh for all time.

      When I started the book I already flipped through its pages and saw the last page and I was vexed at an offending drawing, in ink. I never minded the musty smell and the browning, crispy pages of the old book. I never minded that the book was apparently read by someone else before it was sent to me. But that someone had the luxury of time to make doodles and lettering of a character's name. I was mad at the publisher (I ordered the book from the publisher, from their old stocks) for allowing this to happen and for sending me this vandalized book. I was mad at the vandal-reader for the indiscretion. However ambivalent I felt about the book, I did not like that it was tampered.

      But I would not let this affect my reading. I continued reading and soldiered on to the last pages. The final, epistolary chapter was titled "Q.E.D." I finished the book. Then I discovered the "flaw" was not a flaw at all but part of the "text." But of course. This literary device was not new. I was amused.

      Then everything fell into place. The philandering husband, Mr. Alberto de Leon, the "lion in the house", wrote in doodles. Of course. The stoic character whose thoughts were not always accessible in the book. A paper with nonsensical writing in it, from his "desk" illuminated something about his character. A thought balloon appeared, a thought bubble burst. The drawing expressed it all. His inflated ego, his narcissism, his vanity. Therein lay all his psychological complexity. Or his utter simplicity. Flawed as a person, as a lion, as a character. The book and its flaws. Quod erat demonstrandum.