22 January 2019

Rosean maxims

In a translation considered as flawed by critics and scholars, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was a very quotable book, abounding in surprising turns of phrases. The post below first appeared in a slightly different and shorter form (with lesser quotes) in A Missing Book as part of a contest to submit "anything concerning João Guimarães Rosa". I am reviving it here since the original post was taken down.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, translated by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís, was more than a story of bandit wars and loves. It was also a novel of ideas as the humble narrator philosophizes on various topics: love and friendship, good and evil, life and death. The book could even resemble a treatise on leadership, politics, and power, how to seize it, how to wield it. It was a reluctant hero's book of philosophy, filled with double-edged aphorisms. Everything was filtered through the consciousness of its protagonist, Riobaldo, who meditates on his cruel experiences like a failed student of Master Yoda.

As the novel's structure is confessional, the narration constantly verged on self-examination. The novel condensed a unique way of thinking, a worldview, a "jagunço code." Its humble insights were dispensed randomly, perfectly timed, in moments of deep reflection. The book was less like a manual on the art of fighting wars in the sertão than a guide to natural stoicism, a paradoxical take on living as "a dangerous business."

The following listed some of the aphorisms in the book. The majority of the quotes were taken mainly from the second half of the book, from page 300 onward, when I started paying attention to them. The double meanings of some of the aphorisms may have been lost as the context in which they are situated was not mentioned. Out of context, they were tweets from a world of infinite uncertainty.

The truth is not in the setting out nor in the arriving: it comes to us in the middle of the journey. (52)

In real life, things end less neatly, or don’t end at all. To strive for exactitude makes one blunder. One shouldn’t seek it. (70)

He lies little who tells the whole truth. (299)

The world is like a stage: one in the royal box, the others trained to keep quiet. (299)

Fear is something that grows inside a person, something planted there; at times it stirs and shakes, and we think it is for some reason, because of this or that, when these things are only holding a mirror up to ourselves. The purpose of life is to destroy these bitter dregs of fear. (301)

The sertão is not to be subdued by force; on the contrary, little by little, it does the subduing. All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reins for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger. (307)

We only know well that which we do not understand. (310)

Always fear a man who has no power and no money! I’ll say more: it is best never to mix with people too different from ourselves. Even when they have no avowed evil intentions, their lives are bounded by their habits, and being an outsider, you run subtle dangers. There are many places and many kinds of people. I learned about it from old-timers. The wise thing is to flee from everything to which we do not belong. Keep the good far from the bad, the healthy far from the sick, the living far from the dead, the cold far from the hot, the rich far from the poor. Don’t neglect this rule, and hold on to the reins with both hands. Put gold in one hand and silver in the other, then close them tight so no one will see. (318)

As long as there is one fearful soul in the world, or a frightened child, everyone is in danger—fear is contagious. No one has the right to instill fear in another, no one. My greatest right, the one I cherish most, is that no one is entitled to make me afraid! (322-323)

The sum total of life is a mingling of the lives of all, and life follows a pattern, with little variation. When anyone near you, for example is afraid, his fear reaches out to touch you; but if you stand firm and refuse to be afraid under any conditions, your courage amazingly doubles and redoubles. (327)

I am telling you everything, as I said. I don’t like to forget anything. To me, forgetting is almost like losing money. (332-333)

One does not hate a boa, for though a boa squeezes it has no poison. (339)

A crazy idea is one that doesn’t work. But you won’t know it’s crazy until you’ve tried it. (347)

The first thing a person who wants to rise in life must learn is to override the envy of others. (351)

There was only enough manioc and jerky left for three days? Nonsense. Every steer grazes daily as long as it lives. Common sense and beans can be replenished every day. Let there be no shortage of courage and there would be plenty of burití pulp and wild steer meat. (364-365)

If I were to get cautious, I would develop fear right at the start. Courage comes from other practices. You have to believe in the impossible—just that. (365)

Another can take our place, but we should never take the place of another: it’s not wise. (374)

Life is full of surprises! You start something, without knowing why, and then you lose control; life is like a stew, stirred and seasoned by everybody. (375)

The things in this world that change the quickest are the direction of the wind, the trail of the tapir in September and October, and a person’s feelings. (375)

It is only when the river is deep, or has deep holes in it, that you build a bridge across it. (376)

Ah, the advice of a friend is welcome only when it is gentle, like an afternoon breeze riffling the water. But love turns its back on all reproof. (380)

God turns His back on my prayers but He cocks an ear. (393)

Look: all that is not prayer is madness. (394)

Life is a motley confusion. Write it in your notebook, sir: seven pages. (406)

The only thing I can swear to, that I know, is that a toucan has a craw! (407)

Courage is what makes the heart beat; without it, the beat is not true. (408)

An egg is something that can be smashed. Thoroughly, too. To conquer, you must give no thought to the enemy, just do what you have to do. I was turning my back on the snake and going after its nest. (410)

Didn’t the old-timers themselves know that the day would come when you could lie in your hammock or bed, and the hoes would go out alone to chop weeds, and the scythes to reap by themselves, and the cart to fetch the harvest—that everything that is not man himself belongs to him and is subject to his will? (411)

I suffered agonies to think that one’s hand is capable of action before thought has time to intervene. (416)

A bird that flies away leaves the nest unguarded. (417)

“The sertão is neither mean nor kind, son; it takes away or gives, it pleases or embitters you, according as you treat it.” (423)

Just as in heaven there is splendor, so here there is woman’s beauty, for which we thirst. (429)

There may have been no harm in it, but to ask for advice is to have no trust in oneself; and that could be harmful. (432)

And we arrived! Where? The place you arrive at is wherever the enemy also wishes to arrive. The devil watches; what the devil wants is to see. (442)

What fights is the animal in us, not the man. (446)

The jagunços say they do not know themselves if they are afraid, but none of them thought about dying. You curse and swear but it is for the other fellow’s blood. (447)

I know: one who loves is always a slave, but he never truly obeys. (447)

To command is just that: to remain still and have greater courage. (449)

The fact is, courage is something you can always absorb more of—like air: you can take more and more of it into your lungs, no matter how full, by breathing deeper. (449)

Man exists like the tapir: he lives life. A tapir is the most stupid of animals. (452)

Hatred displaces fear, just as fear comes from hatred. (464)

Beauty—what is it? Beauty, the shape of a person’s face, a person who may be destined for another, is a matter which Fate decides. (467)

Prayer is the life of the soul. When I pray I am clean of all filth, apart from all madness. Or is it the awakening of the soul? (490)

It is the future that matters. To buy or to sell, sometimes, is almost the same thing. (492)

21 January 2019

João Guimarães Rosa's windmills

"An American reader must learn Portuguese, too, if he is to experience fully Rosa's poetic power and wit", said Barbara Shelby in her preface to her translation of Primeiras Estórias (1962) as The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories (1968). The statement was obviously meant for readers of other nationalities. It's just that Shelby's American perspective was more pronounced in her presentation of the Brazilian master, evident in her comparison of João Guimarães Rosa to American masters. If Alison Entrekin's translation (or "reconstruction") of Grande Sertão: Veredas would ever see the light of day, then that could be another glimpse at the poetic power and wit of JGR. Meanwhile, the short stories and sketches in The Third Bank of the River could also reveal flashes of linguistic genius and panache. It could possibly tide over the infinite patience of a fan waiting for three to five years for a more reckless and disruptive translation of the masterpiece.

I was only just four stories in to the collection and already I could say that Shelby tried her best to render in English JGR's supposedly pyrotechnical prose full of notorious neologisms and word plays. It had the same confidence as the more recent Englishing of JGR's stories in The Jaguar (2001) by David Treece. I counted a half dozen overlapping stories between The Jaguar and The Third Bank. Perhaps I would make a side by side reading of them; that would make for a more enriching reading. In any case, an encounter with the first four stories in this collection already validated for me JGR's abiding interest in the dark and quirky sides of men and women and how they could be represented in complex and surreal and madcap words and formulations. The epiphanies and revelations of human nature and deep feelings were as sublime as Joyce's.

When they got home he no longer wanted to go outside. The yard held a lost nostalgia, a vague remorse; he hardly knew what. The childish thoughts in his little head were still in the hieroglyphic stage. Nevertheless he went out after supper. And saw it—the unostentatious, sweetly unexpected surprise. The turkey was there! Oh, no, it wasn't. Not the same one. It was smaller, much less turkey. It had the coral color, the sumptuous train, the ruff, and the gurgling gobble, but its painful elegance lacked the hauteur, the rotundity, the taut, globular beauty of the other. Even so, its coming and its presence were some consolation.

Everything was softened by melancholy, even the day; that is, the coming of twilight. Nightfall is sorrowful everywhere. The stillness stole out from where it was kept. The boy was soothed in a half-frightened way by his own despair; some inner force was working in him, putting down roots to strengthen his soul.

The turkey advanced to the edge of the forest. There it caught sight of—what was it? He could hardly make it out, it was getting so dark. Well, if it wasn't the other turkey's cut-off head, thrown on the trash heap! The boy felt pity and ecstasy. [from "The Thin Edge of Happiness"]

"O, there’s a . . . fib!" Imagine a child's disappointment after witnessing a live turkey and a beheaded one.

Quirkiness and innocence were the order of the day: the characters were either innocent children with exploratory or adventurous consciousness (as in "The Thin Edge of Happiness") or adults suddenly let loose or unhinged ("Tantarum, My Boss"; "Much Ado"). And there was still JGR's snappy folk dialogues and aphoristic tendencies:

All eternity, all certainty, was lost; in a breath, in the glimmer of a sigh, that which is most precious is taken from us. ["The Thin Edge of Happiness"]

* * *

I did just what he said, as there wasn't any help for it; to handle a lunatic it takes a lunatic and a half. The blue of those big eyes of his went right through me; he may have been crazy, but he knew how to give orders. His beard was pointing up in the air—that crisscross tangled beard of his without a single white hair lying straight. He waved his arms around like a windmill. He was better than a free sample. ["Tantarum, My Boss"]

Like Quixote confronting windmills, JGR's old man, Tantarum, was prone to actions hard to explain for evident madness or semi-madness. They just went up and about and did things out of logic or hard to fathom.

* * *

João Guimarães Rosa was one of the literary heroes of this blog. I first encountered his novel The Devil to Pay in the Backlands in the university library, drawn to the novel's kick-ass title. Needless to say, my life of reading was never the same again, and this after reading a supposedly flawed and unfaithful translation.

In the 10 years of this blog's existence, I have written more than 10 blog posts on him, one of which was an investigation of the supposed deletion of "The Slaughter of the Ponies" section in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (this post). After reading Gregory Rabassa's memoirs, If This Be Treason, which I acquired in 2010 via Bookmooch, I became interested in this section of Grande Sertão that Rabassa said was excluded in the translation. I had to order The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature, Volume II from a bookseller-friend in the U.S. just to verify Gregory Rabassa's claim in his memoirs.


There was a reference to this section in "'Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth': Mistranslating Grande Sertao: Veredas into Oblivion", a journal article by James Remington Krause (Chasqui, November 2015). The article could be found at this link (see footnote 9). Krause did not cite my 2010 blog post as a source of his 2015 article. Does referencing blog posts—examples of so-called "gray literature", write-ups that were not peer-reviewed—undermine the scholarship and rigor of academic articles? Book blogging is "dead", indeed.

A Goodreads reviewer, Nathan "N.R." Gaddis, also made the same serendipitous discovery in his review of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, mentioning the Borzoi Anthology, Rabassa, and "the slaughter of the ponies" section. He was even inspired to type in the whole extract from the novel, in the two English versions. Found here.

I'm tempted to cite a JGR aphorism.

My next post: João Guimarães Rosa as a master aphorist.

12 January 2019

Bibliography of Philippine novels in English translation, 2

I once made a list of Philippine novels that have been translated into English in 2014 (see this post). I have updated this list. The complete list (as of December 2018) could be viewed in this spreadsheet in Google Docs. Further additions will be reflected in the same spreadsheet.

Several things could be observed from this list.

1. The translation of Philippine novels into English is a recent phenomenon.

Out of 25 novels in English translation, only six were published in the previous century. These six novels were written in either Spanish or Hiligaynon languages. The remaining 19 appeared in the 21st century (2006-2018). To date, the translations were produced from four source languages: Tagalog or Filipino (10), Spanish (6), Cebuano (5), and Hiligaynon (4). Vernacular Philippine languages with strong novelistic tradition still have to be represented.

2. Filipino male novelists were translated more than female novelists.

No surprise there. There were 16 translated novels by male writers (64%) while there were only 9 by women writers (36%).

3. The translated books are relatively hard to access, even for those living in the Philippines.

All novels in the list, except for the first three Spanish novels, were originally published in the Philippines. José Rizal's novels were originally published in Berlin and Ghent while Pedro Paterno's Nínay was published in Madrid.

More than half (13) were mainly published by academic publishers. This means that they were not stocked in mainstream bookstores. I had a hard time seucring a copy of the two 2018 translated titles. The two university publishers (Ateneo de Naga University Press and University of San Carlos Press) do not have an online bookstore from which to order books. They do have Facebook pages where I can send a direct message, wait for a relatively long time for the reply, give my order, pay in a bank or a cash transfer service, and wait for the book sent through courier.

As to availability as ebooks or hard copy, I think only Rizal's novels (the recent Penguin editions) were prominently available.

4. Filipino novels serialized in weekly magazines in the last century were a goldmine of possible materials for translation.

At most 10 novels in the list were first published in weekly serials in Philippine magazines in the 20th century. These were mainly the works of Ramon L Muzones and Magdalena Jalandoni in Hiligaynon, Austregelina Espina-Moore in Cebuano, and Macario Pineda and Rosario de Guzman Lingat in Tagalog. Lazaro Francisco's Ilaw sa Hilaga (Light in the North), whose translation is set to appear soon, was first serialized in 1931-32.

Patricia May B. Jurilla, in Bibliography of Filipino Novels: 1901-2000 (The University of the Philippines Press, 2010), listed a total of 365 titles of novels in Tagalog/Filipino. This was a gross underestimation because she included only those that came out in book form.

Soledad S. Reyes, in Narratives of Note: Studies of Popular Forms in the Twentieth Century (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2012), made an estimate of the total novels in Filipino that appeared in magazine installments and in book form.

In the twentieth century, more than a thousand of novels in Filipino came out, some in book form, many as serialized novels [in weekly magazines and komiks]. The number of novels in English which came out mostly in book form was much smaller.

At present there is no comprehensive bibliography of all the published novels in Filipino. But it is safe to assume that serialized novels published weekly in several magazines—Liwayway (from 1922), Sampagita, Ilang Ilang, Hiwaga, Bulaklak, Aliwan, Tagumpay—and those that came out in book form, especially in the first four decades of the twentieth century, would reach more than a thousand. Liwayway alone would have published a total of 800 novels between 1922 and 1980, at ten novels per year. [emphases added]

Those novels awaiting translation were a veritable goldmine for would-be translators.

5. The list can be longer.

Strictly speaking, the two entries for Isabelo de los Reyes [El Folk-Lore Filipino (vol. 1) and Ang Diablo sa Filipinas ayon sa nasasabi sa mga casulatan luma sa Kastila) could hardly be called novels. The first is a hybrid compendium of folk-lore and other texts while the second is a mere short story. But I included them precisely to question the notion of a novel.

Even if we remove the two from the list, however, there may be others that could take their place. I know for a fact that one or more romance novels, published by the prolific imprint of Precious Hearts Romances (PHR), could qualify. I was hunting for a translated title in the PHR site that I "bookmarked" online but I lost the link.

Also, there are other extant translations that I need to get a copy of first (though this might be impossible) before I add them. I'm not sure if they were published in the first place or they contain complete translations or just extracts. They were:

a. Translations of novels of Lazaro Francisco by the scholar Mona P. Highley. They were probably just drafts. [Soledad S. Reyes mentioned about it in her introduction to Halina sa Ating Bukas (Welcome to Our Tomorrow) by Macario Pineda.]

b. Translation of the Tagalog novel Banaag at Sikat (Dawn and Sunrise) by Lope K. Santos (1879-1963). According to N.V.M. Gonzalez [in The Novel of Justice], Mariano C. Javier wrote a critical reading and a complete English translation of this novel in A Study of the Life and Works of Lope K. Santos, with Special Reference to Banaag at Sikat (Unpublished Master's Thesis; University of the Philippines, 1960).

c. Translation of Jovito S. Abellana's novel in archaic Cebuano language, Aginid: Bayok sa Atong Tawarik (Aginid: Ode to Our History) (1952). According to Resil B. Mojares [in his critical introduction to the translation of Vicente Gullas's Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Mangellan], Aginid is a hybrid text consisting of a poem (bayok) written in baybayin (ancient alphabet), with interlinear translation into Romanized Cebuano. Its Pale Fire-ish quality makes me curious. Mojares's extended analysis of Abellana's work and critique of the text's provenance made me want to get a copy of the translation by Romola O. Savellon, A Translation and Critical Analysis of the Dance-Epic "Aginid Bayok sa Atong Tawarik" by Jovito Abellana (Cebu City: Cebu Normal University, 2010), Cultural Heritage Monograph Series on Indigenous Culture. Despite being packaged as a historical artifact, Mojares says that "Aginid should not be read as a folk document or historical chronicle but a piece of imaginative literature, an admirable, artistic fiction which should be justly recognized as such in studies of Cebuano literature.

I own 23 of the 25 titles and read 20 from the list so far. The two titles I lack (Jalandoni's The Lady in the Market and Gangcuangco's Orosa-Nakpil, Malate) were out of print.


Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Magellan
The Star of Panghulo
The Golden Dagger
Typewriter Altar
Ang Diablo sa Filipinas ayon sa nasasabi sa mga casulatan luma sa Kastila
Driftwood on Dry Land
Eight Muses of the Fall
What Now, Ricky?
The Death of Summer
The Cloak of God
House of Cards
La Oveja de Nathan / Nathan's Sheep
The Gold in Makiling: A Translation of Ang Ginto sa Makiling
Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting
Diin May Punoan sa Arbol
Orosa-Nakpil, Malate
Ang Inahan ni Mila
Juanita Cruz: A Novel

08 January 2019

5 wounds, ca. 2018

"Where are Asia's Nobel Prize-winners?", asked the Filipino novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez in 1985. A prelude to his thoughts on "what literary prizes are for".

To Robert Frost the test of time is irrelevant. There is, in Frost's view, an "immortal wound" that is inflicted upon us by a good poem. He must have had the novel also in mind. Frost said this much, in a single-minded stand against being carried away by much-publicised literary trends.

Given the right circumstances, Gonzalez believed that prize-giving can be reminders that we might become "some writer's right kind of reader, soon to be 'hurt', to be 'immortally wounded – and ever grateful". But he eventually discarded his idea about prize-giving since "the Nobel committee misses the mark on occasion" because "to begin with, it doesn't, or can't, for some reason or other, collectively get 'wounded'".

Surely, the problem of accessing the novels in a language the gatekeepers understand is a key consideration for being considered for the prize.

The keepers of the garden gate would perhaps do well to remember that it would be unfair to quibble over whether certain credentials of entry, if in their original, are available in agreeable translations. Something truly substantial should be the basis for consideration [for the Nobel Prize].

Whatever that "something truly substantial" is, it could not be discovered unless one understands the letters on the page. Consider Kawabata Yasunari:

Kawabata appeared on the list of candidates for the first time in 1961.

But at that time, the translation of his works into foreign languages was limited to “Thousand Cranes,” which was released in serial form from 1949, and “Snow Country,” the novel that was published in serials between 1935 and 1947 and cemented his status as a leading author in the Japanese literary world.

The academy did not award the prize to Kawabata [from 1961 to 1967] as it deemed that it “cannot accurately evaluate his accomplishments due to a paucity of available translations of his novels.” [from: The Asahi Shimbum, via the complete review]

All of which brings me to the exemplary books I read during the previous year. All Asian works (from the Philippines and Japan), written by mostly dead (except for one) novelists.

They are fictional works that have impacted me by "wounding" me, the way Frost would never get over a good poem, and perhaps akin to how Kafka was stabbed and wounded, in his oft-quoted violent axing of the inner frozen sea.

The Locked Door and Other Stories
Territory of Light
Halina sa Ating Bukas
Driftwood on Dry Land
The Cry and the Dedication
Ilaw sa Hilaga

1. The Locked Door and Other Stories (2017) by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, translated from Tagalog by Soledad S. Reyes (review)

Like her novels, Lingat's short stories were products of a discerning imagination. In this collection, her female protagonists navigate a social, economic, and cultural landscape inhospitable to women's desires and ambitions. But they resisted and persisted. These narratives were conflict-ridden, oftentimes reflecting the social unrest simmering in the background. They contained motifs and images that stirred the already troubled atmosphere. 

2. Territory of Light (2018) by Yūko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt (review)

Tsushima would have been a very worthy Nobel laureate from Japan. In Territory of Light, the play of light and shadows was palpable, providing succor to a female character faced with domestic and societal pressures. The well-controlled mood, the nuance of feelings,

3. Driftwood on Dry Land (2013) by T.S. Sungkit Jr., translated from Cebuano by T.S. Sungkit Jr. (review)

This epic novel, influenced a lot by the oral tradition, straddles between two kinds of time: mythic time and historical time. But its ingenuity is in relying much on the former, making it similar to the style and content of folk tales like "the epic and the bayok". According to Resil Mojares, these narratives "are constructed out of a repetitive, limited set of verbal formulas and units of action, which is what allows the poem to be spontaneously composed, extemporized, as it is performed. In the epic Mindanao bayok, the language is highly figurative, elliptical, and improvisatory. Typically the action take place in mythic (rather than historical) time and construes place, person, and action differently from modern narratives". By his creative combination of both mythic and historical times, Sungkit provided density (history) to an otherwise light (mythic) narrative and produced a hybrid text characterized by its close attention to the dispossessed people, and hence the celebration of a marginal, off-center literary-historical tradition.

4. The Cry and the Dedication (1995) by Carlos Bulosan

If we go by hurt and feels, then this posthumously published (unfinished) novel was certainly wounding. Flawed, sometimes erratically written, it conjured character personas for the author who could be considered spiritually exiled in America. It was not something I enjoyed reading but something I couldn't get out of my mind. Its Dantesque approach (going to the underground and experiencing various circles of hell) might be sloppy and contrived but the "hurtful" ideas it generates on nationalism, revolution, and the aesthetics of resistance are worth pondering.

5. Ilaw sa Hilaga (Northern Light) (1997) by Lázaro Francisco (review

A unique form of socioeconomic novel, if there was one, complete with analysis (in microcosm) of competition, trade, and foreign investment and its impact on local (rural) development. The specter of collective suicidal tendencies was satirized here, one wherein the elite of society ran headlong toward its self-demise due to being seduced by colonial mentality of Filipinos during the early decades of American occupation. A translation of the novel is underway.

Note: Quotations from N.V.M. Gonzalez were from “Among the Wounded”, in The Novel of Justice: Selected Essays 1968-1994 (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 1996). Words of Resil Mojares were from “In Search of Lapulapu: A Critical Introduction”, in Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Magellan, a novel by Vicente Gullas, translated by Erlinda K. Alburo (University of San Carlos Press, 2018).