December 8, 2016
A handful of books
If I would recommend my favorite reads of the year, I would go for the ones that grow in stature in my mind. Out of the forty-odd books from various genre I read this year, I choose to highlight novels that I feel I have never actually finished reading because they linger still in my memory. Some of these novels I did not instantly "like" or "love" that much during the time I read them, "like" and "love" I find to be terms that are transcended by only a handful of novels. These books challenged my perspective of the world and disrupted my thought processes. In hindsight, I look at my "favorite" reads as resisting the likeability factor. César Aira talks of "retrospective comprehension" as the advantage of literature over other artistic forms. Novels allow readers to form mental pictures from words, and these words had the potential to turn upside down our deeply held assumptions at the start of book because of a carefully withheld detail or fact, the revelation of which at the last page could bring a new level of understanding to what has previously transpired.
Here then are five novels that made my year. They are translated from four languages: Italian, Filipino, Cebuano, and Hiligaynon. The four books translated from Philippine languages are not readily available outside the country – in fact, some of them are even hard to find in my country; one needs to search them out! – so it's like I am offering a reading list of possibilities or potentialities. It's like a list of fictional books from the Invisible Library, nonexistent in many parts of the world and could only live in the imagination of some readers. So here they are: their obscurity could not dim their greatness.
1. Contempt by Alberto Moravia, translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson
My contempt for the main character and his funky first person narration could not dampen my admiration for its brilliant take on the superficiality of modern life weighed down by materialism and political correctness. The unreliable narration was perhaps rivaled only by The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. (review)
2. Ang Inahan ni Mila (Mila's Mother) by Austregelina Espina-Moore, translated from Cebuano by Hope Sabanpan-Yu
Of the four novels by Espina-Moore that I've read, this one stands out for the comedy and the roundness of its titular character, a domineering mother and wife and a villainous force to reckon with. Mila's mother is a quirky woman whose lot in life may be determined by her past struggles and class prejudices. As the novel progresses, one discovers much else about her character that made her an altogether sympathetic figure. (review)
3. Juanita Cruz by Magdalena Gonzaga Jalandoni, translated from Hiligaynon by Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni
Another first person novel told in a perfectly calibrated voice of its eponymous narrator, Juanita Cruz is an immersive and transportive novel of adventure of a rich girl escaping her upper class upbringing to become a fully empowered woman.
In my review I take note that Jalandoni, along with Ramon Muzones and many other deserving novelists, was several times bypassed or not even considered for the award of National Artist of Literature. The sad thing is, from a dozen or so already included in the roster of Philippine National Artists, a couple of writers does not have an outstanding body of work to speak of. It is shocking to see how the cultural arbiters failed to honor deserving novelists from other regions and simply could not distinguish the difference between cultural workers and true artists. I wonder what future is in store for the literature of a country whose best writers were not even accorded the full respect and honor due to them. (Pardon the rant, my review post is in here.)
4. Shri-Bishaya by Ramon Muzones, translated from Hiligaynon by Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava
My review of this book does not really give full justice to its epic grandeur. I mean, in addition to the foundation myth and love story, I have not even described the superlatively dramatized fight scenes in the book. There is the competition between two warring factions on who would be the first to produce the powerful weapon of lantakas and kirabon. There are supernatural encounters with giant snakes and monsters, well-choreographed maritime battles, and guerrilla warfare on the ground.
This is simply a well-written action fantasy. Its political ramifications, however, are still as relevant as today's news. When the book described repeatedly – too many times for one's comfort – that "sans prior investigation, a person could be thrown into a river full of man-eating crocodiles, pilloried and fed to the ants, hanged on the lunok tree, buried neck-deep in hot sands, cut, quartered, and fed to wild beasts, and subjected to other forms of gruesome tortures", one could be forgiven for glossing over the exaggerations present in a fictional narrative. But once confronted in real life by gruesome allegations involving crocodiles, quartering, dumping, etc., then the reader can only surmise that between allegations in life and in fiction, one or both versions must be true.
If only someone is bold enough to adapt this into a mini-series. Enough of the second-rate, trashy imitation fantasies that are celebrated in TV today. (review)
5. Typewriter Altar by Luna Sicat Cleto, translated from Filipino by Marne L. Kilates
In Typewriter Altar, a middle-aged would-be writer looks back on her childhood and adult life full of domestic baggage and angst. She is also full of unexplained guilt and grief whose magnitudes seemed to exceed those of the fanatic carriers of original sin. The writer's problematic relationship with her father is the central pivot of the story. The episodic story revealed the interior life of a writer struggling with her craft, with demons and ghosts, and with the poetic allure of melancholic existence. (review)