21 September 2017

Duras's closed door

The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray (Perennial Library, 1986)

Among personal tragedies, what could be more apocalyptic than the breakup of a love affair, even more so if the raw feelings never really subsided despite the distance and the years?

Years after the war, after marriages, children, divorces, books, he came to Paris with his wife. He phoned her. It's me. She recognized him at once from the voice. She said, It's me, hello. He was nervous, afraid, as before. His voice suddenly trembled. And with the trembling, suddenly, she heard again the voice of China. He knew she'd begun writing books, he's heard about it through her mother whom he'd met again in Saigon. And about her younger brother, and he'd been grieved for her. Then he didn't know what to say. And then he told her. Told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he'd love her until death.

In the intervening years from the end of the affair the woman became a novelist. Her sensuous phrases and images must be derived in part from her tumultuous, controversial affair with an older man, in part from grief caused by the death of her brother in the war. The Lover by Marguerite Duras was built from sensory images and poetic touches. It did so through repetitions and impressions waylaid by periods and commas. Memory was nudged by portrait images. Visual forms were elucidated, ekphrastic-like.

So, I'm fifteen and a half.
It's on a ferry crossing the Mekong River.
The image lasts all the way across.
I'm fifteen and a half, there are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just one season, hot, monotonous, we're in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.

Duras mobilized in her prose the power of these punitive punctuation marks to pause feelings, to pace her long drawn out grief, to startle. Within the photographic context the poetic flourishes worked; in isolation they lost their color. Her Saigon was a closed door that does not budge. 

In the books I’ve written about my childhood I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her too, or about our love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depth of my flesh, blind as a newborn child. It's the area on whose brink silence begins. What happens there is silence, the slow travail of my whole life. I'm still there, watching those possessed children, as far away from the mystery now as I was then. I've never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.

In form, the novel (or novella) was artistic enough. In substance, it was lacking from an apparent slightness of frame. Its strength was in the uncompromising voice. Since then, there had been "novels of voice" with more heft, spun to more apocalyptic effect. Toni Morrison's early novels—Sula, Beloved, Tar Baby, Jazz—came to mind. Or The Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb, which was a hyperactive, less mannered (anti-)love story. They were closed doors that admitted at the slightest provocation. As for The Lover ... it's as if I've never read, though I thought I read.

Doom is upon us—the apocalypse trifecta edition.

07 September 2017

Bernhard's demons

What would Thomas Bernhard's desert island reading be like? If his novels were any indication, his library must be heavy on philosophy and white male writers. But his memoirs would provide more definite titles and authors. The epigraphs of his five-part memoirs were selected quotations from Voltaire, Montaigne, Pascal, and Novalis. His grandfather's shelves contained: Works of Goethe (volume 4), Shakespeare's King Lear, the poems of Dauthendey, Christian Wagner, Hölderlin, Schopenhauer's Parerga and Paralipomena.

I had read Hamsun's Hunger, Dostoyevsky's Raw Youth, and Goethe's Elective Affinities, and I had made notes on what I had read, a practice my grandfather had observed throughout his life. I tried keeping a diary but immediately gave up. I could have had contacts with all kinds of people at the Vötterl, but I did not want any, being satisfied with the company of my books and with the long expeditions I made into the vast, undiscovered continents of the imagination. Hardly had I woken up and conscientiously taken my temperature in accordance with the rules, as I had done every morning for months, than I turned to my books, my closest and most intimate friends. It was in Grossgmain that I first discovered reading. This was a sudden discovery which proved decisive for my subsequent life. This discovery—that literature can at any moment provide the mathematical solution to life and one's own existence provided that it is put into gear and operated as though it were mathematics, so that in time it becomes a form of higher mathematics and ultimately the supreme mathematical art, which can be called reading only when we have mastered it completely—this discovery was one which I could not have made until my grandfather had died ... Through reading I was able to bridge the gulf which yawned beneath me even here and was thus able to rescue myself from moods which could have led only to destruction. [1]

Literature as mathematics, then as higher mathematics and supreme mathematical art, was reminiscent of Atzabacher's attributed belief in the "high art and the highest art" in Old Masters. Bernhard confessed to reading mainly European writers, mostly from the collection in his grandfather's shelves. The "principal works of Shakespeare and Stifter, of Lenau and Cervantes, though I cannot claim that I understood them in all their rich complexity". Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, Montaigne, Pascal, Péguy, and Schopenhauer. (He read a lot of poetry and philosophy, in addition to having later on a life-long daily addiction to reading newspapers.) Verlaine: check. Trakl: check. Baudelaire: check. Dostoyevsky: check.

Dostoyevsky above all else. The young Bernhard was smitten by the Russian's voluptuous specter of self-destruction, particularly in The Demons. It was a watershed for him. And it was a book to emulate. A path-breaker. It was like a medicine to his sickly body.

Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work, and at the time I had never read such a long one. It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Demons had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me. ... What I needed I had found in The Demons. I searched the sanatorium library for other such elemental works, but there were none. It would be superfluous to enumerate the authors whose books I opened and immediately shut again, repelled by their cheapness and triviality. Apart from The Demons I had no time for literature, but I felt sure that there must be other books like it. But there was no point in looking for them in the sanatorium library, which was chock-full of tastelessness and banality, of Catholicism and National Socialism. How was I to get hold of other books like The Demons? My only chance was to leave Grafenhof as soon as possible and look for my demons in freedom.

Who could blame the young, tubercular writer if the anarchic-revolutionary tendencies of the Russian novelist offered him the way out? There were many chilling scenes in Bernhard's novels, but his memoirs were scene after scene of perversity and absurdity. He unpacked them all: "the war and its aftermath, my grandfather's sickness and death, my own illness, my mother's illness, my family's despair, the depressing conditions under which they lived, the hopelessness of their existence." Intermittently, he was confined in hospitals, death ward, and sanatorium, waging personal battle against his illness in such graphic and painful ways. I still could not forget the scene wherein a doctor performed a pneumothorax on him.

The patient has to lie on the bed in the doctor's surgery while air is introduced between the diaphragm and the diseased lung by means of a thin tube; in this way the tubercular lung cavity is collapsed so that it can re-seal. I had often witnessed this procedure. It is painful only initially, after which the patient becomes accustomed to it and thinks no more about it. It becomes a routine experience, and although the patient is always afraid beforehand, by the time it is over his fear is proved to have been unfounded. However, it is not invariably unfounded, as I was soon to discover.

"Absurdity", for him, "is the only way forward. it was a way I knew, the only one that led anywhere." His recollections were a conflation of all his lifelong frustrations, all the absurd situations he found himself in.

One day, while this highly respected doctor (he was in fact a professor) was injecting me with air, he went over to the telephone, leaving me on the bed with the tube in my chest, and rang up his cook to give her instructions about his lunch. After a good deal of to-and-fro about chives and butter and whether there should be potatoes or not, the professor brought the debate to an end and deigned to return to his patient on the bed. He injected a further volume of air and then told me to step behind the X-ray screen. This was the only way to discover how the air had been distributed. Hardly had I taken the required position than I was seized with a fit of coughing and passed out. I just heard the professor say, My God, I collapsed the other lung!

Borges postulated that all literature, in the end, is autobiographical [2]. Everything literary is non-fiction, including fiction. This is probably because the reverse is also true. In Bernhard, the reenactment of his younger self's troubled life was truthful only in the sense that it was only ever an approximation: "Truth is always wrong, even if it is one hundred percent truth. Every error is pure truth." This pure dose of contradiction was his literary framework, in novels and autobiography both.

Language is inadequate when it comes to communicating the truth, and the best the writer can offer is an approximation to the truth, a desperate and hence unreliable approximation. Language can only falsify and distort whatever is authentic.

W. G. Sebald borrowed heavily from this aesthetics of falsification. Bernhard's pragmatic and practical outlook in life prepared him to adopt the stance of the skeptic. Not for him Sebald's attempt to recapture the literary equivalent of restitution and atonement. War was not a romantic concept in which to set off one's destiny. He realized that even after the war ended, he never actually escaped from it. War was his state of nature. And so he would not be troubled by any notion of being a casualty of the war, or by the imaginary burden of surviving it. The shadow of war was the shadow lurking in his lung. He considered himself well-trained in skepticism and rebellion, but these were often manifested in complaints and extreme irony. He was prepared for the worst. Armed with memories and demons (books), he happily searched out for more demons: the elemental and monstrous kind. The supreme calculus in mathematical prose. The raging demons that built his personal canon.


[1] Quoted passages were from "Breath: A Decision" (Der Atem, 1978) and "In the Cold" (Die Kälte, 1981), by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes, translated by David McLintock and Carol Brown Janeway (Vintage International, 2011). Passages in bold are my emphases.

[2] From "A Profession of Literary Faith" by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, in Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger (Penguin Books, 2000).

31 August 2017

Atxaga's colonial design

Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga, translated from Basque into Spanish by Asun Garikano and Bernardo Atxaga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Secker, 2011)

The humorless and no-nonsense Chrysostome Liège was the pivot around which Bernardo Atxaga's dark comedy about a short stop at turn-of-the-century Congo revolves. But it was not until the last few chapters, with the characters fully developed to breaking point and with the entry of the assuming journalist Lassalle to observe a duel to the death, that the pitch nature of the comedy was revealed: the novel was as black as the black mamba. For while the story was clothed in the reality of colonialism, Atxaga elected to tweak the story such that the central human rights violations appeared to be glossed over. He must be using negative capability (if that was the right phrase here) to the extreme. He had designed a seemingly ordinary tale of ordinary characters living in ordinary circumstances. Except that they weren't. Chrysostome's unbending will not to touch a woman was a throwback of sorts in a macho novel of obvious design: the desire for and conquest of women, the rape of women, as the obvious correlative of colonialism.

Was Atxaga making his obvious point all the more pointed? What was happening in the background, Africans tortured and murdered, losing their lives left and right, every little thing to do with the victim, was shunted out and were described as an aside, as "matter-of-fact".

One Sunday, when the palm wine had been flowing freely, the Lieutenant had the idea of organising a shooting match to decide who among the officers deserved the title of the William Tell of Yangambi. He would provide the cartridges, so no one need worry about that.
A few children were brought from a nearby mugini, and the competition began with more than a dozen participants prepared to shoot at the apples that were placed on each child's head. Not wanting to disappoint the Lieutenant, Lopes and the other officers did not try very hard, but Chrysostome was incapable of pretence and he played fairly and honestly, treating the second highest-ranking officer in Yangambi as if he were just another soldier. He split open five apples with five bullets, while the Lieutenant managed only two.

The unspeakable was never spoken, but the chilling effect was the same. In just a few words but with such tremendous implication, cruelty was as if normalized and made more palpable. That Schiller play was surely some kind of a marker in the story.

As it turned out in a flashback, Chrysostome's resolve was maybe another rationing of indirection on the part of the novelist. At the heart of hearts of this enigmatic central character, provincial and religious and fundamentalist attitudes resided. His uncompromising self might just be the key ingredient to start a war, any war, or an economy built on forced labor, or dabbling in all forms of perversity, in all colors of slavery. Chrysostome was equally guilty as every officer around him. When his girlfriend had died in the hands of Lieutenant Van Thiegel who tried to rape her, Chrysostome could only utter in religious terms: "The Lord's ways are strange indeed ... Who would have thought that he would seek the help of that filthy drunk [Van Thiegel] to save my purity?"

The novel's title referred to the vested interests of Lalande Biran, the highest ranking officer in Yangambi, in working in the Congo. In order to secure for his wife seven houses in France, Lalande Biran colluded with his bosom friend and fellow poetaster Duke Armand Saint-Foix ("Toisonet"), well-positioned in the retinue of King Léopold II. Friendship and exploitation went hand in hand as they embarked on the smuggling of ivory and mahogany from Congo. The opposite of Chrysostome, Lalande Biran would weekly satisfy his appetite for women and girls. Fearing syphilis, he would only take virgins as a rule. The classic conquistador. Virility as the most valued virtue of those in power.

When the second clean-up operation began in Yangambi, there was only a week to go before Christmas. A despatch from the AIA informed Lalande Biran that since the journalist Ferdinand Lassalle would be bringing the most up-to-date of cameras with him, it would be best if the older, uglier natives were removed from Yangambi and kept in an enclosure in the jungle until the visit was over.

Sure enough, the plan to hide the ugly and the old natives was executed, and the caged ones were almost forgotten in the jungle in the interim. No matter how much he lingered at the stage of those in power, what was hiding in the backstage was Atxaga's vision of humanity. There, with the stage hands and the prop men, he put up a mirror in which to examine the naked self. An intense, Western self-examination, that most Socratic of virtues, was unfolding.

By focusing on the daily lives and travails of the officers in the Congo, Atxaga had made Congo the true state of the world. Life in the Congo was also life outside it. People would behave in the same manner (corrupt, greedy, lecherous) wherever they are. Lalande Biran pursued his writing of poetry even in the Congo. His muse had not left him in dark times of the dark age. Who ever said that there's no poetry after the Holocaust?

The Roi du Congo was progressing so slowly that it was easy to forget that you were travelling down the River Congo. He [Lassalle] had to make a conscious effort to think this in order to remind himself where he was: in the heart of Africa, not in Europe. This, however, was a physical truth, not a spiritual one. His spirit was still in Europe, and his greatest joy was knowing that his stay in Africa was coming to an end.

What was a Basque writer doing in Congo? A writer's imagination was untethered, in free reign. This Basque novel was really a novel of Basque. At the same time it was a novel of Africa. And it was a Western novel. The geography mattered less than the spiritual component. By normalizing cruelty, he had only reinforced the blindness of the perpetrators to their crime. The Zola anecdote recounted by the journalist was on point.

When visiting a very deep mine, the writer asked the miners how they managed to get the Percheron horses they used for transportation out of the mine, given that the animals were so large and the entrance to the galleries so narrow. One of the miners told him: 'Oh, we don't take them out. They're brought down here when they're only a few months old and then they stay here for good.' According to him, there was no reason to pity the poor beasts. The horses knew nothing else and had adapted to the world they inhabited.

The tragic thing about the world we lived in was that we had become inured to injustices and inhumanities that they just became news stories and headlines for us. Just another one of those wars, another bombing, another refugee drowning. The only way for evil to prosper was for people to become adapted to their comfortable lifeways and to condone or falsely believe in the system. The novel had to end in a duel when everything else was a mockery.

There were no rebels or freedom fighters in this story. Resistance and revolt were mere whispers in the shadows. The only clear instance of rebellion was one slave planting black mambas into the officers' quarters. The focus on Western, colonial perspective and its pursuit of African exoticism at every opportunity was a form of deliberate "discrimination" of novelistic detail. Atxaga knowingly privileged the white man's burden (and voice). But this was a risky novel design to begin with. There's no more need to highlight the discrepancy between the obvious and the not-so, between right and wrong. The attack of the rebels was imminent, as one officer lamented at the novel's end. While infinitely waiting for the barbarians, the savages had already drunk themselves to death on the table.

A late submission to the Spanish Literature Month(s) co-organized by Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de recuerdos.

29 March 2017


Preparing for a few days journey by ship. Books to bring.

A shipwreck! Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed made me reconsider my priority reading list drafted a lifetime ago (on the first year of this blog). What my desert reading looks like I leave to a combination of fortuitous circumstances.

Inter Ice Age 4 – Kobo Abé
The Writing on the Wall – Miklós Bánffy 
Frost – Thomas Bernhard
Selected Non-Fictions – Jorge Luis Borges
Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus – Sir Thomas Browne
Sakhalin Island – Anton Chekhov
Scenes from Provincial Life – J. M. Coetzee
The Last Samurai – Helen DeWitt
The Lover – Marguerite Duras
The Maias – Eça de Queirós
Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck
The Siege of Krishnapur – J. G. Farrell
Mysteries – Knut Hamsun
Amerika – Franz Kafka
A Time for Everything – Karl O. Knausgaard
Satantango – László Krasznahorkai
Nada – Carmen Laforet
Women in Love – D. H. Lawrence
Payback – Gert Ledig
Joseph and His Brothers – Thomas Mann
Wittgenstein's Mistress – David Markson
Oleza – Gabriel Miró
The Sea of Fertility – Yukio Mishima
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
The Man Without Qualities – Robert Musil
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – Álvaro Mutis
But for the Lovers – Wilfrido S. Nolledo
Hygiene and the Assassin – Amélie Nothomb
At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O'Brien
The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa 
The Gray Notebook – Josep Pla
The History of the Siege of Lisbon – José Saramago  
Silent Catastrophes – W. G. Sebald
The Case of Comrade Tulayev – Victor Serge
And Then – Natsume Sōseki
Indian Summer – Adalbert Stifter
Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories – Kōno Taeko
Petals of Blood – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Territory of Light – Yūko Tsushima
Poemas Humanos – César Vallejo
The Aesthetics of Resistance, vol. 1 – Peter Weiss
The Vivisector – Patrick White
The Waves – Virginia Woolf

25 February 2017

Joaquín's navels and tales

My wing is ready to fly
I would rather turn back
For had I stayed mortal time
I would have had little luck.
– Gerhard Scholem, “Angelic Greetings”

The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic. Quite a mouthful title for an anthology. I am happy to finally see Filipino novelist Nick Joaquín being made available to a wider audience via the Penguin Classics edition. Coming in April are some of his "tropical gothic" narratives in his famous tropical baroque prose. Apparently, the selections include his several stories and a play from 1940 to 1965. At 480 pages the edition is bound to be a fulsome, moveable feast. In stories like “Three Generations” (1940), “The Summer Solstice” (1947), and “May Day Eve” (1947), Joaquín made a name for himself as a preeminent postwar Filipino writer who displayed a unique approach to storytelling. He fused elements of magic, horror, folk-lore, myth-making, and history into a blend that was entirely unique and alive. I included The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1952) in a reading list of the best Philippine novels in the English language of the past century. The novel is an expanded version of a story of the same title. I do hope that the version included in the Penguin edition was the full novel instead of the origin story so that one would get the full shock value of its mannered telling.

Joaquín dabbled in various genre of writing: drama, novel, short prose, the essay, historical writing, politics and journalism, children's stories, news writing, literary criticism, translation of poems and newspaper columns from Spanish, cultural commentary, biography. In each genre, he used a cosmopolitan approach to writing, balancing wit with drama and sprinkling his prose with some ornate details, some whimsies and whimsical revelations, some occult and mysticism, as in his second novel Cave and Shadows (1983). The inclusion of his famous play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1966) in the Penguin anthology was an inspired decision. The three-act "elegy", which the playwright also labeled as "a novel in the form of a play", was a distillation of his romantic ideas on Spanish Filipino culture, its struggle against modernity and war, symbolized by the protagonists—two spinster sisters—and their tenacious hold on a highly symbolic picture painted by their disillusioned father and inspired by Greek mythology. A Portrait was the writer's statement about art and its role in restoring ceremonial traditions, art and its fragility against the savage wars of peace. The writer was much concerned about the inability of culture (Spanish Filipino customs and ceremonies) to adapt to encroaching lawlessness and to reconcile the history of the past with the chaos of the present. Much like Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History" in On the Concept of History (Thesis IX), after Paul Klee's Angelus Novus (1920), Joaquín's elegiac source spring was looking back at the past with the foreknowledge that the future storm would bring ruin to memory. The play was adapted into a classic 1965 black-and-white film and a modern Filipino musical. In commemoration of the writer's centenary of birth this year, a new musical adaptation will be shown in theaters in the country.

21 February 2017

Bernhard's cause

"An Indication of the Cause" (Die Ursache, 1975) by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, translated by David McLintock, collected in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes (Vintage, 2011)

I found the city increasingly intolerable as a result of hundreds of sad, squalid, appalling, and mortifying experiences, and essentially it has remained intolerable to this day. To pretend otherwise would be untrue, hypocritical, and dishonest, and it is imperative that I should set down this record now and not later—I must set it down now, while I am still capable of fully recreating my experience as a child and an adolescent in Salzburg, of recreating it with all the factualness and scrupulous regard for truth which are necessary if I am to give a true indication of what it was like to be a schoolboy there. I have to seize this moment when it is still possible for me to say what has to be said, to indicate what has to be indicated, and so vindicate, if only partially, the truth as it was then, the true facts and the true reality. For all too soon the time may come when everything that was unpleasant will be unwarrantably mitigated and appear in a pleasanter light; and whatever Salzburg was to me as a schoolboy, it was never a pleasant or tolerable place, and I should not wish to spare it now by falsifying the true picture.

Thomas Bernhard's motive for his autobiography was clear. When his mental faculties were still clear, and his health still permitted it, he wanted to produce an account of his childhood and schooldays in the blighted city of Salzburg. And so, between the years 1975 and 1982, Bernhard produced the five parts of his memoir. His novels, too, are practically the same hate mail to his city of childhood, with its "mindless blend of National Socialism and Catholicism." W. G. Sebald attributed Bernhard's "factualness and scrupulous regard for truth" to the impending knock on the door, as he mentioned in an interview in December 2001, eight days before he himself received the knock.

Thomas Bernhard was in quite a different league because he occupied a position which was absolute. Which had to do with the fact that he was mortally ill since late adolescence and knew that any day the knock could come at the door. And so he took the liberty which other writers shied away from taking. And what he achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others.

Much more so in Gathering Evidence, the novelist was openly testifying using his own voice, or voices—the voice of his childhood and the retrospective voice of the writer—the horrific experiences he endured firsthand before, during, and after the war. While remembering-slash-writing, his current self was trying to recapture the wounded feelings of his former, thirteen-year old self. Yet he would like to differentiate his description of "how I felt at the time" with "the way I think now". The bursting energy of his tale was derived in part from layers of memory soaked in varying densities of perception. He would shift pronouns from "I" to "he" on page 79, then go back to "I" on page 83. David McLintock also noted his use of shifting perspective in the translator's preface: sometimes he views his youth from the standpoint of the present, at others from another intermediate point.

His appeal to "the true facts and the true reality", however, remained guarded. He knew his story was not distorted because they were based on factual evidence, but he could only give an indication of what he remembers.

The facts are always frightening, and in all of us fear of the facts is constantly at work, constantly being fuelled; but this morbid fear must not lead us to conceal the facts and so to falsify the whole of human history—which is of course part of natural history—and pass it on in falsified form just because it is customary to do so, when we know that all history is falsified and always transmitted in falsified form.

From which we can gather that the writer had divested himself of all illusions of an accurate account of history. And from which we sense that his only protection from falsification was to perceive and create a version of history to the best of his memory and to the best of his ability. He simply had to make the attempt. Here we read about his recollection of multiple suicides of school boys his age and the air attacks skirted by Sebald in his lecture in On the Natural History of Destruction. Bernhard's descriptions of the air raids and their aftermath were some of the most brilliant writing he wrote. They could surpass the supreme irony in Heinrich Böll's accounts of air bombing destruction in The Silent Angel.

Bernhard's aesthetics of falsification was similar to Sebald's own, but only to an extent. Sebald was concerned with the truth (moral rightness) embedded in aesthetic form and feeling. The rightness and truthfulness of a narrative could be gleaned from its aesthetic and literary design. Bernhard, for his part, was concerned with the content and the desire (i.e., personal indications) to communicate the truth of that content. Both confessed to subjectivity. Bernhard acknowledged the impossibility of depicting the absolute reality of the past and, hence, its truth. But in refusing to give up and stand aside, in continuing to write what he knew and remember in order to set the record straight according to his own personal convictions, he was after the truth or an indicative version of it.

What is described here is the truth, and yet at the same time it is not the truth, because it cannot be. In all the years we have spent reading, we have never encountered a single truth, even if again and again what we have read has been factual. Again and again it was lies in the form of truth and truth in the form of lies, etc. What matters is whether we want to lie or to tell and write the truth, even though it never can be the truth and never is the truth. Throughout my life I have always wanted to tell the truth, even though I now know that it was all a lie. In the end all that matters is the truth-content of the lie. For a long time reason has forbidden me to tell and write the truth, because that only means telling and writing a lie; but writing is a vital necessity for me, and this is the reason why I write, even if everything I write is bound to be nothing but lies which are conveyed through me as truth. Of course we may demand truth, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that there is no such thing as truth. What is described here is the truth, and at the same time it is not, for the simple reason that truth is only a pious wish on our part. [from "The Cellar: An Escape", italics in the original, bold emphasis mine]

The immediacy and the urgency of Bernhard's account of the war must be set off against what Sebald diagnosed as a collective repression of wartime narratives and against the self-censorship by leading writers of the time who could not summon their energies to give witness. "Time makes its witnesses forget", Bernhard concluded when nobody remembered what happened on a site of destruction after he questioned them years after the bombing of a building on the same site which killed many employees working in it: "rows of bodies covered by sheets, their bare feet visible on the dusty grass behind the iron railings of the so-called Co-op, and ... trucks arriving ... with enormous consignments of coffins ..." Sebald's thesis on forgetting certainly was indebted to Bernhard's anguish against people who deliberately wanted to forget. Whenever Bernhard talked to people and asked them about what they went through during the war, he was met with "extreme annoyance, ignorance, and forgetfulness." He found this offensive to the spirit, this concerted determination to forget. His desire to remember was his "pious wish" to settle his personal account of history.

The cat in the box was simultaneously dead and alive. But someone, the novelist, had to dare to be the first one to open the box. All that matters is the truth-content of the lie.

18 February 2017

Bernhard's escape

"The Cellar: An Escape" (Der Keller, 1976) by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, translated by David McLintock, collected in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes (Vintage, 2011)

[The work of a commercial apprentice] does not consist solely of the orderly routine of a grocery store like the cellar-shop in the Scherzhauserfeld Project: first of all unlocking and pushing back the concertina grille, then unlocking the shop door and letting the boss, the employees, and the customers into the shop, in which everything had been made spotless and all the containers topped up the previous evening, often by dint of hours of work put in after closing time—all of it involving the meticulous performance of numerous small tasks requiring conscientious devotion and a methodical, mathematically inclined memory. These jobs and hundreds of others equally important have to be carried out daily. In my day there was in addition the enormous task of dealing with the ration coupons, which required great precision and attention to detail; these had to be cut out whenever a purchase was made and stuck onto a sheet of wrapping paper every evening after the shop closed. Quite apart from continually lugging bags around and filling bottles and grading potatoes and sorting fruit and vegetables and making up bags of coffee and tea and slicing butter and cheese; quite apart from the feats of skill required to pour vinegar and oil and every other possible liquid such as rum and wine and fruit juice into every possible kind of bottle, all with impossibly narrow necks; quite apart from having to be constantly on the look-out for mould and decay, for vermin, for excessive cold and excessive warmth; quite apart from perpetually unloading all kinds of deliveries, sometimes making hundreds of journeys a day from the shop to the storeroom and back, cutting bread and making breadcrumbs, keeping the ham fresh and the eggs cool; quite apart from dusting the shelves daily and rushing to and fro between the refrigerator and the counter, between the potato boxes and the counter and between each of the shelves and the counter; apart from continually washing and drying one's hands and using knives that have to be sharpened every day and forks and spoons that have to be cleaned every day and jars that have to be washed out every day; and apart from cleaning the windows and mopping the floor and waging a continual war against flies and gnats and horseflies and wasps and cobwebs on the walls—quite apart from all this, the most vital requirement was never to slacken in one's attentiveness to the customers, always to be polite and friendly and obliging and to engage them in conversation, constantly keeping oneself in practice, in a word to satisfy them all the time and never, not even for a moment, to let up in one's eagerness to help: on the one hand to meet the wishes of the customers and at the same time never for a moment to neglect the interests of the business. Tidiness and cleanliness were imperative.

When he was 16 years old, Thomas Bernhard applied for a shopkeeper apprenticeship in Scherzhauserfeld Project, a notorious neighborhood of the poor and criminals, to cater to the needs of the "dregs of humanity". It was an about-face from his being a grammar school student. Fed up with the abuse of his schoolteachers and the "deadly institution" that was the educational system of Austria during the Nazi period—a system to blame for the suicide of many sensitive young students in boarding houses, fed up with the "educational trauma" he suffered from his schoolteachers, the teenage Bernhard just up and decided to become a grocer's assistant in one of the bleakest neighborhoods imaginable. But for Bernhard, this was all for the best. He felt he had graduated from "the school of philosophy" introduced to him at a very young age by his grandfather and had now entered "the school of absolute reality" wherein Herr Podlaha, the grocer, was his master and mentor on the practical aspects of life and "the art of human relations". In the cellar store, dealing every day with the demands of the common people, he had become adept at his work as an apprentice, and he had discovered that he had the capacity to become a people person. To his own surprise, he never realized he could adjust well to his job and even go through work with such infectious cheerfulness (cheerful Bernhard?!) and friendliness to customers (in a "most refreshingly extrovert fashion"!). Freedom, independence, and the exercise of free will—these were the things he most valued and the things he had acquired from his experiences in the cellar. His escape from the grammar school, his daily escape from his own impoverished and cramped household, his escape from the larger Salzburg society, from the immediate post-war malaise, an age he characterized as "inimical to the mind and the imagination." He made a dash for it, in a completely "opposite direction" from his school, and he felt exhilarated by this sudden decision. His stay in the cellar was such a formative phase in his life he had devoted a volume (the third of five chronological volumes in translation, the second in terms of publication in original German) of his collected memoirs recounting his work and trials in the cellar-shop. For his apprentice work he still had to attend a technical college once a week. This time he appreciated the instruction given by teachers who were actually local businessmen. As opposed to teachers in grammar school, the new teachers had "total concern with the present" and familiar "with what went on around them in the real world." These people of trade, having fought on the economic front, taught only what was practical, stuff of "immediate utility", in a straightforward, if rough, tone. As evident from the excerpt above, his recollection of the details of his apprenticeship showed how he loved and took pride in his work. This was a great period of learning for him. It was an apprenticeship on life. He had found something to do—a purpose—during the post-war years, "the bitterest time [his family] ever knew". Daily he looked forward to work in the store (limbo). Daily he left the depravity of his poor home (hell). The gaps in his school and home education were being filled by the practical education in the store dealing with the chaotic mass of poor and difficult customers exchanging their ration coupons for merchandise and goods. From his home to the cellar, his salvation was renewed each day he serve the lowly people of Scherzhauserfeld Project, the blot and the stigma of the Salzburg landscape. He did not find it degrading. He belonged to these people of low standing. In their daily transactions, he kept his dignity intact and his customers kept theirs intact. From limbo to hell and back, it was a privilege to find oneself with a purpose, productive, and gaining in self-confidence. To be able to read people and interact with them daily, I do not think there were more valuable lessons from an on-the-job training. He confessed that he owed a life lesson from his exacting boss, Herr Podlaha: "an insight into human possibilities I had never dreamt of, the alternative human possibilities." These alternative possibilities would play in many combinations in his fictional set pieces, would contextualize and foreground his works. Behind the despair, suicide, moroseness, self-destruction, and moping that characterize his literary work, the other possibilities—the will to live, to endure—exists. This singular motive drove him, Bernhard's "will to survive" against the social, economic, and cultural forces of the time. Against fascism and "the rules of the bourgeois social apparatus ... designed to destroy human beings." Bernhard, like his protagonists, was a survivor of war or some grave catastrophe. They found themselves in a story yet to unfold, ripe for more calamities—a story where the epidemic was not yet over, festering in cities overran by zombies. In their apocalyptic flavor, Bernhard's novels are zombie flicks (I can't help myself. I like zombie movies). His characters were plagued by artistic, philosophical, psychological, and medical difficulties, rooted from or symptoms of a defect in human nature: individual cruelty or a collective disregard for feelings and reason. They had to depend on their survival instinct. To ensure his own survival, Bernhard had become a fine observer of people and a lifelong learner of art, commerce, sales, musicology, and singing. Unlike his grandfather, Bernhard was able to expose the whole farce, "smashing all the props and ... annihilating the prop men and all the actors." To ensure his own sanity he created his brand of literature of doom and survival.

Had I not actually been through everything which makes up my present existence, I should probably have invented it all for myself and ended up with the same result.

The Cellar won for Bernhard the Literary Prize of the Federal Chamber of Commerce, apparently for "a totally new form of autobiography" but obviously for the prize-giving body's connection to the subject matter. He wrote a short essay on the prize ceremony which was translated in My Prizes: An Accounting. This slim book of essays and speeches was appended to his five-part memoir in the latest Vintage edition. The last two volumes of Gathering Evidence—"Breath: A Decision" and "In the Cold"—were further demonstrations of the novelist's survival skills. They were among his darkest and life-affirming prose works.

15 February 2017

Linmark's spectral nationalism

Leche by R. Zamora Linmark (Coffee House Press, 2011)

    "No, thank you," Vince says, looking past her at the mourners, who've turned a somber occasion into a fiesta with nonstop eating, drinking, socializing, and praying the novena, which is held for nine days, starting from the day the person expired. Another mass is said on the fortieth day, when the soul of the deceased leaves the earth for the afterlife. Throughout the novena, sweeping is forbidden because it's thought to chase away good luck.
    The yard, lined with potted bougainvilleas, has been converted to a gambling den for mahjong and pusoy—thirteen-card poker. At the end of the night, a percentage of the proceeds goes to the family of the deceased.

The "somber occasion"-slash-fiesta was a wake where Vince, the gay protagonist of Leche, accidentally finds himself while looking for the seedy Leche bar—sex club by night, museum by day. It was an opportunity for Vince to share some beliefs, superstitions, and customs in the Philippines.  Like a culture-shocked tour guide, Vince dished out all manner of things strange or odd about the country. The novel was flooded with facts and factoids, Filipino mannerisms, and all manner of Filipino stereotypes. (And here I insert my own touristic usage guide: Philippines (with an "s") is the country; Filipino is the citizen; Philippine (without an "s") and Filipino and Pinoy are descriptors/adjectives (e.g., Filipino food, Philippine president, Pinoy balut); no such thing as Philippino.)

I chose to highlight here the short scene of the wake because it reminded me of the nine-day custom of pasiám (or pasiyam) that was the narrative structure of Nínay by Pedro Paterno. Nínay was the first Filipino novel, published in 1885. Between Nínay and Leche was one and a quarter century—126 years—of novel writing in/about the Philippines. I called the former a "cultural guidebook or tourist brochure". In Leche, R. Zamora Linmark also offered a "tourist [guidebook] and brochure" [p. 165] prepared by his confused protagonist. Filipino-born, American-raised, Vince was a quintessential Filipino novel character in that his identity crisis while visiting his "home country" was palpable. Whereas Paterno reveled in and celebrated the Spanish cultural influences in Nínay, Linmark could not get past the Spanish and American confluences in Filipino culture. But like Paterno, Linmark could not get past the didactic tradition of the Filipino novel. Didactic as opposed to, say, the revolutionary tradition of José Rizal's landmark novels or the novels by Wilfrido D. Nolledo and Carlos Bulosan.

In Leche, the narrative was interleaved with postcard letters and "Tourist Tips". What Vince saw from the frontlines of Manila, he reported back to his siblings, mother, and friend in Hawaii: the quirks of the people and the quirks of "Philippine English" that for him was English language that still needed English subtitles (e.g., "restrooms" are called "comfort rooms" in the Philippines). His confusion and cultural disorientation were boundless. Vince's default register was rant, rage, endless complaints, and extended lectures. Subtlety and restraint were thrown out. Satire and exaggeration were his literary tools. The "Tourist Tips", for instance, reinforced many stereotypes and generalizations about Manila and its people.

Red light means "Gas it!"
    One way equals four-way.
    Motorcycles speeding on sidewalks.
    People living off garbage.
    People living in garbage.
    Komiks vendor gives birth to mudfish.
    Brownout is blackout.
    Diarrhea is an acronym.
    Where are all these metropolitan hyperrealities exploding from? Where else, but in the Metro Malignant mind of Vince; Vicente; Vincere. El Conquistador. Constantino to the nation's First Daughter. First-class passenger to the city of contrasts and blackouts. The capital of collapsing metaphors and memories.

Vince could not reconcile his childhood memories of the country with the current chaos and disorientation he experiences as a visiting adult. Linmark was so steeped in Pinoy pop culture circa 1991, he could easily deploy satire to defamiliarize current events, celebrities, and political personalities. He was an astute observer of Filipino tics. Fancy channeling all of Kris Aquino's complex antics. He made 1991 a flashpoint in Philippine history: the death of film auteur Lino Brocka, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the rise of Pinoy massacre films, the expiration of the Visiting Forces Agreement between US and the Philippines.

In Paterno's Nínay, the ghost of Nínay haunted the Ilustrado-ish narrator as he listens to her story told by the second narrator over the course of the nine-day vigil at her wake. In Leche, Vince was haunted by his memories of living in the country with his grandfather before moving out overseas. In "The Spirit of Nínay", Eugenio Matibag, a professor and scholar of nineteenth century Filipino nationalism, considered Paterno's novel as a kind of "spectral allegory", where flashes of nationalism and nation-formation are implicit in the costumbrismo (local color) storytelling of the "outsider" or returning-from-abroad commentator. Leche's costrumbismo was of a hybrid kind. While oftentimes informative, Vince's commentaries on Philippine life and (pop) culture were often infuriating and patronizing. What gave poignancy to his satire, or what served as its foil, was his unacknowledged longing for family roots and the recollection (haunting) of his dead grandfather.

    Manila. The sprawling metropolis that, after being back in it for only four days, is becoming more and more the capital city of Vince's frustrations, daydreams, nightmares, reflections, and wonderment. It overloads his senses, wakes up tastebuds he thought he never had, or had lost, guides him from one darkness to the next, from one window of sadness to the next, from one reverie to the next. It shocks hims with what was once familiar. It assaults him with memories that pull him, break him. It floods him with dreams, his grandfather appearing in all of them, first as apparition then as cameo, with face, body, voice.

Vince's spectral nationalism was rooted in his identification as a Filipino (as he confessed in a riotous TV talk show scene with Kris Aquino) even if he does not speak the language, has spent most of his life abroad, and noticed a lot of negative things around him. He felt offended when people around him do not consider him Filipino. His otherness, his prejudices, his endless tirades against the way of life in Manila—the traffic, the air pollution, the language barrier—these were not a façade. He had a love-hate relationship for a nation and a people he barely knew and yet strove to discover and report back to his relatives in Hawaii. There were some three dozen postcard letters Vince sent from Manila to Honolulu. Each was a spontaneous response to his immediate surroundings, and perhaps spectral instances of his mourning, intimations of mortality, and desire for life.


12 February 2017

Hemingway's prayer

Ang Matanda at ang Dagat (The Old Man and the Sea) by Ernest Hemingway, translated by Jesus Manuel Santiago (Sentro ng Wikang Filipino, 1999)

Niyebe ng Kilimanjaro at Iba Pang Kuwento (The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories) by Ernest Hemingway, translated by Alvin C. Ursua (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2015)

The seafaring old man in The Old Man and the Sea was Santiago. He was down on his luck and he was called salao, "which is the worst form of unlucky". The Filipino translator, Jesus Manuel Santiago, rendered the phrase as pinakamalas sa lahat ng malas (the unluckiest of all the unlucky). The repetition captured the sense of Santiago's defeat. His furled flag was like "the flag of permanent defeat" (bandera ng ganap na pagkagapi). It was a good translation. It was clear from the way there was a ready counterpart name given for the many kinds of sea creatures (fish, bird, shark, seaweed) in the novel.

The simple, fable-like story was supposed to highlight the humility of man in the face of nature, his dignity intact after a long struggle. It was significant that the character was presented as a subaltern: someone who was old and poor and who belongs to the working mass of small fishers. Santiago was doing his honest work. We could not begrudge the artisanal fisher his livelihood and thrill of adventure.

His most recent sally into the the Gulf Stream was almost like a suicide mission. He was alone, and he would go into the farther reaches of the sea, far from anyone's reach. He was mostly unprepared; he even forgot the salt that would help him spice up fish that would serve as his food. That the old man will leave empty-handed and be defeated by the forces of nature and circumstances was almost assured. The reader was meant to admire the character's tenacity and big heart. And the sometimes stilted prose that was nevertheless described by the 1954 Nobel Prize Committee as a prime example of the novelist's "mastery of the art of narrative."

The reader would be subjected to the thick of the adventure, man versus fish, then man versus sharks. Sometimes we were privy to the existential questions and ruminations besetting the old man during moments of great hardship. We were told of his dreams of his youth in Africa and the lions on a beach, almost indicating that he was trying to recapture his lost youth. In one very telling moment, Santiago was even likened to the Christ being nailed on the cross.

The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway's ode to martyrdom and a form of machismo. It was the distillation of his ennobling of figures of men without women, those who were never cowed in facing great tests of human strength and endurance. They went through the motions of defeat, vilified, and cast aside. And they remained steadfast on their mission, however suicidal.

They might not be religious, yet they lived on simple prayers:

"Aba Ginoong Maria, napupuno ka ng grasya, ang Panginoong Diyos ay sumasaiyo. Bukod kang pinagpala sa babaeng lahat at pinagpala ka naman ng iyong anak na si Hesus. Santa Maria, Ina ng Diyos, ipanalangin mo kaming makasalanan ngayon at sa oras ng aming kamatayan. Amen." Pagkaraa'y idinugtong nya, "Pinagpalang Birhen, [ipanalangin] mo ang kamatayan ng isdang ito. Kahanga-hanga man siya."

This was a more sincere, less satirized prayer than that infamous nada-prayer of the defeated figure in "Sa Dákong Maliwanag, Dalisay" (A Clean, Well-Lighted Place), from the collection Niyebe ng Kilimanjaro at Iba Pang Kuwento (pdf), translated by Alvin C. Ursua.

Kawalan namin, nawawala ka, kawalan ang ngalan mo. Kawalan ang kaharian mo. Nawala ang loob mo dito sa kawalan para nang kawalan. Bigyan mo kami ng kawalan ng aming kawalan sa araw-araw; at pakawalan mo kami sa aming mga kawalan, para nang pagpapakawala namin sa wala sa amin; at kawalan mo kaming ipahintulot sa kawalan, at pakawalan mo kami sa kawalan ng wala. Aba, kawalan, napupuno ka ng kawalan, ang kawalan ay sumasaiyo.

The adventure was also an opportunity for extolling manhood and masculinity. The conquistador reveled in sport fishing. 

"Pero papatayin ko pa rin siya," sabi niya. "Kahit gaano siya kadakila at karilag."

Bagamat hindi iyon makatarungan, naisip niya. Pero ipakikita ko sa kaniya kung ano ang kayang gawin ng isang tao at hanggang kailan siya makapagtitiis.

"Sinabi ko sa bata na ibang klase akong matanda," sabi niya. "Ngayon ko iyon dapat patunayan."

Ilang libong beses na niyang napatunayan iyon pero wala ring silbi. Ngayo'y pinatunayan niya iyong muli. Bawat pagkakataon ay isang bagong pagkakataon at hindi niya kailanman inisip ang nakalipas habang ginagawa niya iyon.

That perhaps encapsulated the pathetic worldview of the conquistador. To be discontented with what he had and what he had proven so far. Every day was a test. In every situation, he had to master himself and conquer the quarry: the big fish, the mad bull, the boxing opponent. The peacock strutted his stuff, displaying the full extremity of his beautiful desire to kill for sport even if the prize was not meant to be won. The sharks were not an accident. It must be quintessentially the White Man's burden, this unfettered desire for colonization and domination even if it was recognized to be unjust. And this lack of regard for the counsel of the past.

21 January 2017

Children of the Ash-Covered Loam

Pitóng Gulod pa ang Layo at Iba pang Kuwento (Seven Hills Away) by N.V.M. Gonzalez, translated by Ed Maranan (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2016)

Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories by N.V.M. Gonzalez (Bookmark, 1992)

At the age of 25, Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez (1915-1999) produced his first novel. The Winds of April was given honorable mention, next to Juan C. Laya's winning novel His Native Soil, in the 1940 Commonwealth Literary Contest. Ostensibly an autobiographical novel, it was a portrait of an artist as a child in a rural island province and his induction into literary life in the city. I had been looking for a copy of this for some time but never managed to do so.

Recently I read the stories of N.V.M. Gonzalez—the name he would sign his books with—from his first two collections. The 12 stories in Seven Hills Away (1947) and the seven in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and Other Stories (1954) could certainly be considered "period pieces" now. The setting of these stories was exclusively the countryside. The novelist's subjects were the common people—the "children of the ash-covered loam"—leading their simple lives in the farming and coastal communities of rural Philippines. They either lived in abject poverty or they barely subsisted in hand-to-mouth existence. They were stories of their time, in the immediate post-war or the years prior to the war—in the early decades of the last century during the American occupation.

With their simple rituals and lifestyle and avid display of folk belief and superstitions, the people in Gonzalez's stories existed in a milieu far from the pace and worldly concerns of contemporary life. However, contrary to the author's assessment that "these stories could easily strike the reader as belonging to a place removed from the space and time he is familiar with", his stories still speak to the present readers about the same qualities of challenges and dangers inherent in life, the same eruptions of human passions and feeling from grave circumstances, the same whimsicality of life and nature. The details in his stories are the timeless, universal, and scintillating details of human fragility and vulnerability against the forces of nature and human conflict.

The two collections showed an evolution in complexity but not in style or temperament. From the sketch-like quality of the brief, miniature stories in Seven Hills Away, it was as if Gonzalez deliberately broadened his canvas to produce larger portraits in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam. Between the two collections, he navigated from simple situations to proper stories. But the register in both was exemplified by an understated elegance in the craft of writing. The stories were discrete artworks, like finely woven mats whose exquisite design gives rise to subtle and tactile textures. It was the same design felt by the sleeper on his back in "Ang Malayòng Abot-tanaw" (Far Horizons) from the first collection, translated by Ed Maranan.

Nang gabing iyon, ipinaglatag siya ng banig na marikit ang pagkakahabi. Ramdam niya sa kaniyang likod ang mga pinong disenyo ng makukulay na buling ginamit sa paggawa nitó. Gaano kayâ katagal hinabi ang banig na ito, tanong niya sa sarili, hanggang sa tuluyan na siyang maidlip.

I dared not translate back into English the above passage. I was sure the original was just as exquisitely stated as the translation and my effort would destroy the simple yet fine weaving of the prose. His metaphors were not wasted. The words were used efficiently. An example of a poetical touch: "The afternoon sun made the bark of the trees glisten like the bolo blade itself." Or, during a storm: "The walls of the hut shook—like a man in the throes of malarial chills."

The very first story in the second collection was the title story which, together with the masterful second story "Lupo and the River", was a fixture in classes in Philippine literature in English. What seemed like ordinary scenes of country life gave rise to a larger unifying theme of the celebration of honest work. Despite their material poverty, the characters went through life with quiet dignity to earn what they can keep, so to speak. "Should I not first of all earn my supper, no?" one character asked another for a service she volunteered to offer.

The stories were hardly open-ended; they were purposive in the sense that they imparted a concrete idea or theme that was only seemingly glossed over but actually purposefully arrived at. The stories in the second collection particularly demonstrated the power of retrospective telling in which the surprise twist at the end of the story could only be logically explained after a careful analysis of the dialogues and details that came before. The delay in relaying the crucial, telling detail near the end of the story added to the effectiveness of the entire design. The structure was almost invisible and hardly penetrable; the story was almost constructed like a puzzle. One must tread carefully through the non-random sequence of events, the mounting details, and the speech and action of the characters.

If I could name a common thread running in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam, specifically in the last five of its seven stories, I would say that they all dealt with the loneliness of women. In "A Warm Hand", an illiterate servant woman was contrasted with her carefree mistress. In "The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms", a young female substitute teacher in an out of the way barrio decided to remain in her teaching post—contrary to what was indicated in the surface of the story—despite the many difficulties she was encountering in the barrio as she readily confessed to her supervisor and despite the opportunity offered to her by her supervisor to transfer to the capital. Her sudden decision could only be explained by reviewing her conversation with her superior. In "The Morning Star", a strong and independent servant impregnated by an American soldier now confronted her pregnancy head on even as she prepared to give birth with the help of an old man.

In "Where's My Baby Now" a housewife was undergoing a sort of mid-life crisis as she began to question her role as a wife to an accountant husband who was obsessed with observing children's games. Her actions strongly indicated her unhappiness at a wife's traditional role and subservient attitude toward her husband.

It can't now be said that although a mere housewife she isn't progressive—this fact she feels has become the essence of her life—to be forever interested in the significant and new to be always in search of facts to investigate and evaluate that other beautiful world and not to sit there watching children all day long at some old game [like what her husband does] but rather to cut the heart open and probe into its secrets— [emphases supplied]

Lately, she was getting a glimpse of "that other beautiful world" outside her home, in her frequent various civic organization meetings. The story ended in mid-sentence—with a long dash. The secrets of lonely women could only be revealed if the heart was cut open and probed.

The first, titular story "Children of the Ash-Covered Loam" may have hinted at the overall concern for the marginalized and poor rural folks—children who kept on tilling their soil against all odds in order to survive one day at a time. The final story, however, encapsulates the concern for women as a more distinct set of disenfranchised individuals. In "The Sea Beyond", a dying cargardor was attended by his young wife who "already ... wore the sadness of her widowhood" aboard a ship that will supposedly deliver the dying man to the doctor. As Gonzalez zoomed in on women in the last of these stories, he summarized the plight of his female characters with a sardonic and wry touch.

The wife assured her calmly that the telegram had been sent. "So what harm could it have done to have spoken to the captain, to have reminded him, since he would be riding into town anyway?" the mother said; and to this the daughter's reply was the kind of serenity ... that can come only from knowledge: "All men know is to take advantage of us [women], Mother," she said.

In a kind of serenity akin to wisdom and knowledge, the novelist's main concern for women in his stories could not be imputed to feminism per se—it's such a loaded, value-laden word nowadays. His concern for women was only a symptom of his larger compassion for people and their struggle for the basic right to live well.