28 January 2020

Resisting the aesthetics of resistance

In a survey of translated Philippine novels, I mentioned an extant translation of the 1906 novel Banaag at Sikat by Lope K. Santos, as mentioned by N.V.M. Gonzalez in one of his essays in The Novel of Justice. The translator was Mariano C. Javier who incorporated his complete English translation of the novel in an unpublished 1960 master's thesis from the University of the Philippines called A Study of the Life and Works of Lope K. Santos, with Special Reference to Banaag at Sikat.

Some eighteen years had passed since the writing of [Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal], and Tagalog intellectuals in Manila were following a newspaper serial entitled Banaag at Sikat (Glow and Sunrise). A long discursive narrative, it offered readers progressive ideas barely disguised by a contrivance of romantic events.

Its author, Lope K. Santos (1879-1963), was not a newcomer to romantic fiction in Tagalog. As a printer's son, he had worked on galley proofs and written several love stories for the trade. To Mariano C. Javier, he was to describe years later how he turned schoolteacher and newspaperman. Javier set down the story as a preface to a critical reading and a complete English translation of Banaag at Sikat, the first attempted in fifty years. To his firsthand experience in the labor movement, Lope K. Santos added the knowledge he had gained from reading some four hundred books by such authors as Vicente Blazco Ibañez [sic], Ruben Dario, Karl Marx, Victor Hugo, and Leo Tolstoi. Although Javier may be correct in saying that Banaag at Sikat is essentially a long definition of socialism, this novel remains the most ambitious single effort of its day in Tagalog prose. The work did not find readers too readily, and Santos' printers hounded the author.

The book did win a measure of recognition for its author, for it appeared when labor unions were beginning to be organized in secret and when it was nearly seditious to speak about mounting a strike.

Banaag at Sikat surprisingly did not figure in the canonical list of novels compiled by Virgilio S. Almario as recommended reading for high school students. Almario did mention that Lope K. Santos's novel was a pioneer of the so-called novel of resistance (nobela ng pagtutol). Perhaps the very monolithic structure of the novel, notorious for its ideological concerns, and despite its romantic pretext, was not easily appreciated by high school students but rather by advanced readers.

The subject matter of Banaag at Sikat (the title can also be roughly translated as "Dawn and Sunrise" or "Silhouette and Radiance") was labor unrest. Apparently a novel of ideas, the book was replete with Marxist rant and dialectics, in seemingly never-ending protest. It inspired some commentaries from novelists and literary critics, but aside from the biographical work and translation thesis by Javier, it was only recently that a book-length critical appraisal appeared: Banaag at Sikat: Metakritisismo at Antolohiya (2011) by Maria Luisa Torres Reyes.

A Manila Times book review by Elmer Ordoñez of Torres Reyes's "metacriticism" and anthology can be read here. Ordoñez considered Santos's novel as the first proletarian novel in the country. His review provided a summary of the critical reception of the novel and additional background on the book:

As editor of Muling Pagsilang, the Tagalog version of El Renacimiento, Santos published in his weekly journal excerpts of his novel Banaag at Sikat for almost two years – read by the intelligentsia and the workers involved in struggle in the first decade of American Occupation. The novel was issued in book form (1906).

Lope K. Santos took over the labor movement, together with Crisanto Evangelista, Herminigildo Cruz, and others when Isabelo de los Reyes and Dominador Gomez were arrested for leading mass actions of workers in 1902 and 1903 respectively. Both leaders of the Union Obrero Democratico de Filipinas were “balikbayan” [returning from overseas] ilustrados who brought with them books on socialism which circulated among nationalists and labor leaders. Santos peppered his novel with discursive passages – uttered by progressive characters like Delfin and Felipe and in exchanges like those between Delfin and lawyer Madlang Layon — alluding to socialist thinkers like Marx and Engels, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon and Malatesta.


There was renewed interest in the 30s when Teodoro Agoncillo commented that the novel was a “socialist tract” implying it was propaganda and not “literary.” The ‘formal’’ weaknesses (e.g. the didacticism) of the novel were echoed in Juan C. Laya’s review in 1947, and those of Romeo Virtusio and Vedasto Suarez in the 60s, and Rogelio G. Mangahas in 1970. Epifanio San Juan, Jr. using the Marxist approach wrote that contrary to what critics had said about the long speeches, the latter were integral to the thrust of the socialist novel. [emphases added]

A new translation of Banaag at Sikat was recently commissioned by Penguin Random House as part of its curated Penguin Classics edition. This will only be the sixth Filipino book to grace the imprint, after the Harold Augenbraum retranslations of José Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, José Garcia Villa's Doveglion: Collected Poems, reissue of Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart, and Nick Joaquín's The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic.


Danton Remoto will translate the novel. His translation work includes the Filipino version of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. In two articles in his column in Philstar.com, he shared the challenges expected from translating this novel and his approach to translation, describing the old debate on foreignizing versus domesticating approaches to translation. In the first article, Remoto quoted at length from Bayani Santos Jr.'s essay (which prefaced an English translation of the first chapter of the novel). The full text of the essay and translation can be found here (pdf). Bayani Santos Jr. was the grandson of Lope K. Santos.

I disagree with Bayani Santos Jr's conjectures (quoted by Remoto) that "Western authors and critics of recent contemporary leanings are against long essayistic remarks of characters that tend to reflect the position of the author with the arguments presented and represented by the characters. The translator is faced with the choice of adhering to the original text and intent of the author, or resorting to the simplification or corruption of the text, with the expurgation of long dialogues" [emphases mine]. The first statement is a hasty generalization, the second is a poor practice of translation.

I also have reservations on the path Remoto wanted to take in his translation:

I will have to follow the route taken by the late ambassador and writer, Leon Maria Guerrero, when he translated Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo “for a contemporary audience.” His translations were published by Longman Publishers in the UK during his tenure as our ambassador to the Court of Saint James. To ensure the smooth flow of the narrative for the modern reader, Ambassador Guerrero edited the prolix scenes with long dialogues that sound like speeches and essays. Since the translation I will be doing is for the modern readers, challenged as they are with limited attention spans and an aversion to slow scenes, I will go for a faster pacing by pruning sentences that do not move the story forward. [my emphasis]

As a modern reader, I am sometimes challenged with short attention span and oftentimes averse to long-drawn-out scenes. But I would not mind reading a slow-paced work.

Remoto's model in León María Guerrero may be misplaced. In an essay from The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World, Benedict Anderson handed down a harsh assessment of Guerrero's translation of Rizal's novels.

Translations of Noli Me Tangere into most of the major languages of the Philippines were bound to fail, not merely because of the absurdity of the many Spanish characters "speaking" in Tagalog, Cebuano or Ilocano, but because the enemigo readers automatically disappear, and the satirical descriptions of mestizos and indios speaking bad Spanish, and Spanish colonials slipping into bad Tagalog, become untranslatable. The most important American translation, done by the alcoholic anti-American diplomat León María Guerrero in the 1960s—still the prescribed text for high schools and universities—is no less fatally flawed by systematic bowdlerization in the name of official nationalism. Sex, anticlericalism and any perceived relevance to the contemporary nation are all relentlessly excised, with the aim of turning Rizal into a boring, long-dead national saint.

Anderson's full essay, "The First Filipino", first appeared in London Review of Books. His more detailed criticism of Guerrero's translation approach could be found in "Hard to Imagine", another essay from The Spectre of Comparisons

In the second article, Remoto reiterated his general approach to the novel to cater to "21st-century readers":

Written in long and florid Tagalog in 1904, the novel skewers the capitalist system introduced by the Americans, and advocates a strain of socialism to level the playing field in the land. The executive editor of Penguin said that they have asked around and my name kept cropping up as a translator “whose works sell,” that is why they are offering me the job. I answered that my last translation work was “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the gut-wrenching novel about a teacher and his student and, yes, my translation did well in the box office, I mean, the book stores. But it’s no guarantee that the next one will also fare as well.

Nevertheless, I read through Banaag at Sikat again, this tome of more than 600 pages, and decided that I will write a translation for the 21st-century reader. Thus, I will telescope the characters’ long debates and speeches into short bursts of digestible prose, with the point and the sharpness intact. [emphasis mine]

Not to give a preemptive strike on the process and the product, but the strategy sounds like just the recipe for a watered down version of the novel, less difficult, less demanding, less stylish, less powerful.

While I am not expecting a novel in the same vein as The Aesthetics of Resistance, volume 1, by Peter Weiss, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, I am at least expecting a faithful rendition of the dialectical forces that shape the novel's form. Maybe Remoto might reconsider his translation strategy and consult Joachim Neugroschel's labor of translation, so uncompromising and yet so rewarding.

I have a copy of Banaag at Sikat in the Tagalog original, a recent reprint, all of 600 pages. I will at least try to read this slow-paced, sentimentally romantic, difficult, and boring novel. Given the approach Remoto was contemplating for the translator's task, I may already have given up on the translation. The fault is in the stars.

16 January 2020

In verbo tuo

Gera (War) by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles (Isang Balangay Media Productions, 2016)

The title Gera was abbreviated from Gerilya, the 2008 novel of Norman Wilwayco. The poet Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles prepared his black highlighter pen and attacked Wilwayco's novel. Like what he did in Pesoa (2014), derived from Rene O. Villanueva's childhood memoirs Personal, he crafted yet another constellation of erasure poetry, redacting to his heart's content, assiduously leaving out extraneous  material, contracting blocks of narrative into floating words. He ruthlessly deconstructed Wilwayco's novel and murdered the past. He declared war against semantics to construct a new monster.

Arguelles made gera with all but one part of speech. The leftovers were highly selected verbs. He verbed the novel into submission. He prosed the lines into annular eclipse-like concealment. He warred against the notion of novel(ty) to produce poetry. And then, after doing the deed, as with Pesoa, he then set out to print a book where verbs appeared on white pages, with the original black redactions now dissolving into the white spaces. He hid the telling evidence of his heinous crime. White stone on a black stone. A humument to humeri. Readers who have no copy of Gerilya at their disposal would have no way of ascertaining the veracity of erasure. They would just have to take the poet's word for it.

Write with nouns and verbs, exhorted Strunk and White. The poet Arguelles took it to another level. He fixated on verbs, verbatim from Wilwayco's transgressive novel. Whether verbal abuse or verbal ruse, the unpaged verbs were clothed in a continuity of variegated tenses – past, present, future, past perfect. The process was bared without map or compass. I would have to take the invisible on faith.

In poetry, context was useful. But here context was a mere pretext. It was not the end-all. Experimentalism was the subtext. The violence of erasures left yawning gaps of white spaces that buried the subjects and predicates. The seemingly random placements of verbs evoked the feeling of dislocation. All words may be verbed, said Stan Carey. But I must tell you the experience of reading an all-verb book was quite an un-verbing feeling.

Below is an excerpt from a random page. I could not say what exact page since, as mentioned, the book was not paginated. The word locations are only approximate.









I suppose I do not need to translate the specific page of Gerilya book to translate the above passage from Gera. No matter how I see it, replicating the process of erasure – this time on the translated page – would not produce a good approximation since the exact placement of the above verbs in the original would never correspond to spatial orientation of the verbs in translation. Talk about the impossibility of spatial alignment in translation, no less than the impossibility of perfect translation, the impossibility of Walter Benjamin's dream. (The poem's preface quoted Walter Benjamin: All language communicates itself.) The complete translation would breed another warlike species of monster. Anyway, a translation of the above would read: conferring ... commencing ... comes ... drinking ... weighing ... tell ... discuss ... Suppressing ... gnashing ... watered ... savaged ... sat. Yet another page can be translated – without reproducing the jumbled positions – as: waiting ... covered ... Palpitating ... boiling ... chose ... sided ... robbed ... lighted up ... rising ... starting. It was obvious to me that the original verbs were more forceful and thrilling than their translation.      

The Filipino word for verb is pandiwa. Diwa means spirit. As constituent elements, the verbs were the vital life force that gave rise to the book of poetry. The book's epigraph, borrowed from Anne Carson, announced that Verbs are savage. But the aftermath of savagery is what? Beauty? Redemption? Regret?

Imagine pages and pages of this silent verbosity. The violence was staggering. I planned on taking pictures of a few pages but I have no camera on hand. You will have to take my word for it.

In verbo tuo.

15 January 2020

Canal de la Reina

Canal de la Reina by Liwayway Arceo, translated from Filipino by Soledad S. Reyes (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2019)

As with most Filipino novels that saw print in the Philippines in the 20th century, the novels of Liwayway Arceo (1924-1999) were serialized in a magazine of weekly circulation. Readers patiently waited for weekly chapter installments of novels in vernacular language, which at that time still commanded huge following from avid readers, when "popular culture" still had not been colonized by audio-visual media.

Published in 1972 after the Martial Law declaration, Canal de la Reina had the usual marker of Arceo's writing: narratives of family relationships and the intertwining of domestic and societal issues. The novel centered on an act of dispossession and a prayer for justice.

Caridad de los Angeles was visiting the property bequeathed to her by her parents. She was accompanied by her son, daughter, and husband. The house and lot was situated right beside a river canal. Unfortunately, Caridad found out that the property was illegally acquired and occupied by the 60-year old Nyora Tentay, a notorious usurer and opportunist in the area, who would not budge from the place. Osyong, the caretaker hired by Caridad's family to look over the house, illegally sold the property under his care. It was a battle of wills and character.

Caridad did not see the humor. The terrifying image of Nyora Tentay clung to her mind, and she could hear the harsh words spewed by the old woman. Salvador met them and he helped [Caridad] step down. "So?"

"Someone is occupying the land ... she [Nyora Tentay] claims she is the owner." Caridad was on the verge of breaking down. And she recounted what happened. "It's pointless to argue!" She complained. "Osyong made fools of us!"

"What now, Ma?" Leni asked as Caridad settled in the front seat. "Has Mang Osyong sold the property to the fake claimant?"

"That's how it looks, Leni," she was barely audible.

"Oh, she's a tough cookie," Junior joined in. "You'd imagine she's a tiger! She was full of hot air ... as if she's immune to bullets ... she looks the part of a villain through and through!"

Caridad the rightful owner versus Nyora Tentay, a foul-mouthed force to reckon with, the singular matriarch, the unwavering queen of the canal. The senyora was the dragon breathing fire into the novel's cauldron of conflicts.

From this first encounter, the novel unfolded into legal wrangling and morality play. For her part, Nyora Tentay firmly believed in the justness of her occupation of the land. Even if she used illicit means to acquire the property, her cause was valid and justified because she paid for the land.

Strange gurgling sounds were coming from the old woman's throat. She was either gathering phlegm to spit it out or about to cough. "Well ... well ... she'd [Caridad] better be careful! I worked hard to have this land. I spent so much in bribes. Anywhere I looked, I saw lots of people asking for something ... goodness! To spare myself all the paper work, I did what everybody else was doing, cut corners for a fee. So, it's not right for me to let go of this land!"

The justification for land-grabbing here was that she took the trouble of bribing people to get what she wanted. Everyone was doing it. In fighting for Caridad's right to the land, Salvador, her husband used the same method and justification as Nyora Tentay's when he resorted to the same illegal means in bribing someone.

"It's a matter of who moves first, dear ..." and he pulled her towards him. [...] He was gently squeezing here fingers. "Our lawyer explained. That is the system in this country; it has sunk to this level. It's enough to make your stomach churn, but with the way things are, we have no choice."

Salvador's moral justification for expediting the case was no less grave than Nyora's. The whole system was corrupt. Patronage was the only recourse to get what one wants. There is no other choice.

In Nyora's case, another variant of the morality of her action was predicated on her economic dependence on usury and land-grabbing for her livelihood. It was the reason she continued to fight Caridad and desperately clung to the land despite the probabibility of losing in court.

"Ah ... uhm ..." and the old woman swallowed hard. Her forehead automatically knitted. She was bright enough to see how serious her problem was. "Well ... about ... about our case," she claimed. "Are we going to lose everything now? Our wealth came from this, Vic!" She could feel the nagging fear dousing her. "I won't ever let everything disapper like a bubble!"

In Moral Politics in the Philippines: Inequality, Democracy and the Urban Poor (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2019), Professor Kusaka Wataru argued that right and wrong is a fluid concept from the perspective of the urban poor whose struggles in society were ever contextualized by marginalization and defeat.

In the mass sphere, livelihood and dignity are regarded as values that transcend the law. In other words, squatting and street vending are essential to one's livelihood, and hence morally justified, even if they are illegal.

Kusaka's analysis was applied in the contemporary times and the immediate past, and also with regard to the plight of the urban poor. However, the fictional plight of Nyora Tentay the usurer and land-grabber in 1970s Manila was already a novelistic symptom of Kusaka's "moral politics" that prevailed in the city as a result of moral fissures created by social inequalities. The survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog culture subverts our traditional conception of rights and justice. Kusaka's argument was of course more nuanced and subtle than Arceo's black and white depiction of right and wrong.

That Caridad's land was now adjacent to a festering canal was a very obvious symbol of moral degradation and despoiling of values in a society wracked by poverty and inequities, the society that gave rise to Martial Law, its discontents, and its abuses. This symbolism was reminiscent of a similar estero in Rosario de Guzman Lingat's story. Tentay's villainy in turn was reminiscent of the opaque evilness of the mother in Austregelina Espina-Moore's novella Mila's Mother.
While Caridad sought redress for wrongdoing through legal means, the novelist intervened and decided to let Nature have her say. Arceo's default application of natural justice, of an act of God, to right the wrong, might feel like an evasion. The raging storm and flood that swept Nyora's house and devastate the whole community might as well be the dose of harsh reality to awaken the numb moral fiber of a society sleeping in the midst of human rights abuses during the Marcos dictatorship.

But the choice is the novelist's and her choice might be construed as inspired given the context of the need to cleanse the world of evildoing, to punish with the might of heaven. This was a not-so-subtle reminder that novelists could dispense justice and dramatize redemption transparently, sacrificing complex characterization in favor of didactic denouement.


09 January 2020

With every flow of the currents

Which novels written in Tagalog language deserve to be translated?  This was not easy to answer if, like me, one's reading of Tagalog novels was limited.

We could turn to prominent critics and translators like Soledad S. Reyes and Virgilio S. Almario whose literary criticism on the subject was extensive and authoritative. However, I have not yet encountered an essay from these two critics which discusses which Tagalog novels are most worthy of being translated and shared to a global audience.

An indirect answer to the question, however, could be find in an essay by Almario in Unang Siglo ng Nobela sa Filpinas (One Hundred Years of the Novel in the Philippines), published ten years ago. He came up with a "suggested reading list of novels for high school students" (mga nobelang kailangang ipabása sa mataas na paaralan).

In the tradition of The Modern Novel and (the now retired) The Untranslated, I submit the list of books made by Almario. These are the 15 novels translators should be considering for their translation project, readers should waste their time with, and publishers should be commissioning.

Pinaglahuan (Vanishing Point) (1909) by Faustino Aguilar
Isa Pang Bayani (Another Hero) (1915) by Juan Arsciwals
Sampagitang Walang Bango (A Sampaguita Flower Without Fragrance) (1918) by Iñigo Ed. Regalado
Ang Bulaklak ng Kabaret (Cabaret Flower) (1920) by Ruperto Cristobal
Ilaw sa Hilaga (Northern Lights) (1932) by Lazaro Francisco* [review]
Ang Huling Timawa (The Last Free Man) (1936) by Servando de los Angeles
Ang Ginto sa Makiling (Gold in Makiling) (1947) by Macario Pineda*
Timawa (Wretched) (1953) by A.C. Fabian
Ang Tundo Man May Langit Din (Even Tondo Harbors a Heaven) (1959) by Andres Cristobal Cruz
Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway (Blood at Dawn) (1965) by Rogelio Sikat
Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (In the Clutches of Light) (1967) by Edgardo M. Reyes*
Kung Wala Na ang Tag-araw (The End of Summer) (1969) by Rosario de Guzman Lingat*
Canal de la Reina (1972) by Liwayway Arceo*
Panakip-Butas (Poor Substitute) (1972) by Benjamin Pascual
Ginto ang Kayumangging Lupa (Gold Is the Hue of Brown Earth) (1975) by Dominador Mirasol
[translation of titles are mine]

Almario readily admitted that this is just a "starting list" and it is “incomplete”. He further stated that novelists such as Francisco, Pineda, Reyes, Lingat, and Arceo – those marked with asterisks above – "have to be represented by their other brilliant works so that they could be better appreciated as the leading Tagalog novelists of the 20th century" (nangangailangan ng iba pa niláng nobela upang higit na maipakilála ang kanilang talino bílang mga pangunahing nobelista ng ika-20 siglo). He then considered adding to the list Edgardo M. Reyes's other notable novels:

Sa Kagubatan ng Lungsod (In the Urban Jungle) (1964)
Laro sa Baga (Play With Fire) (1921)
Ang Mundong Ito Ay Lupa (This World Is of the Earth) (2005)

Almario, however, deemed his original list "sufficient enough" for readers to trace the development of the Tagalog novel in its first hundred years of existence.

Kabílang sa listahan ang pangunahing mga nobela sa bawat pitlag ng mga daloy nitó at maaring ipagparangalan sa lipunan ng mga dakilang nobela sa daigdig. Mapapansin ding naghinto ang aking listahan sa panahon ng Batas Militar. Kung itutuloy ang pagtugaygay, mahalagang isaalang-alang ang ambag nina Lualhati Bautista, Jun Cruz Reyes, Jose Rey Munsayac, Abdon M. Balde Jr, Luna Sicat, at Alvin Yapan.

(The list contains novels deemed excellent with every flow of their currents and that can stand alongside the great novels of the world. One may note that my reading list ends with the Martial Law period. If the investigation of the novel must continue beyond this, it is important to note the significant contributions of Lualhati Bautista, Jun Cruz Reyes, Jose Rey Munsayac, Abdon M. Balde Jr, Luna Sicat [Cleto], and Alvin Yapan.)

Half a dozen novels from the list were already available or forthcoming in English translation.

Light in the North (1932) by Lazaro Francisco, translated by Marne Kilates (forthcoming)
The Last Timawa (1936) by Servando de los Angeles, translated by Soledad S. Reyes (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2019)
The Gold in Makiling (1947) by Macario Pineda, translated by Soledad S. Reyes (Anvil Publishing, 2012) [review]
Timawa (1953) by A.C. Fabian, translated by Soledad S. Reyes (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2019)
The Death of Summer (1969) by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, translated by Soledad S. Reyes (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2013)
Canal de la Reina (1972) by Liwayway Arceo, translated by Soledad S. Reyes (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2019)

Note that three of these novels appeared in translation in the previous year – The Last Timawa, Timawa, and Canal de la Reina. I have read these three in either original Tagalog or translation. All were rendered in English by the same translator and brought out by the same publisher.

Another novel by Lazaro Francisco – The World Is Still Beautiful (1932) – also came out last year from the same university press. It is likely I will post reviews of these four in this blog.

Note that, in an assumed historical or linguistic context, "Tagalog" language and "Filipino" language may be interchangeable. Any error about this assumption was entirely mine. A recent essay by Almario (lengthy PDF) gave scholarly insight on this.

08 January 2020

Notes on Summertime

Summertime: Scenes from Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee (Harvill Secker, 2009)

Cover page: This is the 8th novel by Coetzee that I've read. It completes the trilogy of memoir-like anti-novels that started with Boyhood and Youth.

p. 20: According to one resource person interviewed about Coetzee the persona or character in the book, the notebook entries that bookended (sandwiched) the novel are written by Coetzee "himself".

Coetzee wrote them himself. They are memos to himself, written in 1999 or 2000, when he was thinking of adapting those particular entries for a book. [original in italics]

The fragmentary nature of the entire book, made up of diary entries and interviews, was at least indirectly acknowledged.

p. 13: The notebook entries continue:

If Jesus had stooped to play politics he might have become a key man in Roman Judaea, a big operator. It was because he was indifferent to politics, and made his indifference clear, that he was liquidated. How to live one's life outside politics, and one's death too: that was the example he set for his followers.

Odd to find himself contemplating Jesus as a guide. But where should he search for a better one?

Caution: Avoid pushing his interest in Jesus too far and turning this into a conversion narrative. [original in italics]

This prompts me on what cycle of Coetzee novels to read next. In fact, I placed an order for The Childhood of Jesus, along with Chekhov's Sakhalin Island, in April 2019. A book claims notice from the post office arrived at J's apartment for her to claim and pick up the parcel. She lost the notice.

(Rant: About government post office policy sending notices for books instead of directly delivering to the address. Government requires book receivers to pay further tax money before handing over the parcel. Government is taxing literature and knowledge. Hence, it taxes the future.)

How live one's life and death outside politics? It appears as if Coetzee's project for the Coetzee character/persona was set up early on. However much he (the persona) avoided the politics of South Africa, it haunts him and finds him. It is in the air one breathes. He (the actual novelist) manages to escape to another continent.

pp. 33-34: An attempt at dry comedy. The interviews (the sandwiched portions) are laced with comedy so dry they make the paper crisp.

As for the experience itself – I mean the experience of infidelity, which is what the experience was, predominantly, for me – it was stranger that I expected, and then over before I could get accustomed to the strangeness. Yet it was exciting, no doubt about that, from start to finish. My heart did not stop hammering. Not something I will forget, ever. Going back to Henry James, there are plenty of betrayals in James, but I recall nothing about the sense of excitement, of heightened self-awareness, during the act itself – the act of betrayal, I mean. Which suggests to me that, though James liked to present himself as a great betrayer, he had never actually done the deed itself, bodily.

From start to finish, even the literary allusions sizzle and crackle with asexual analysis.

 p. 42: At opportune times, the prose swerves toward language matters, weighing words in abrupt asides.

His English – the father's – was perfectly passable, as I said, but it was clearly not his mother tongue. When he brought out an idiom, like No doubt about that, he did so with a little flourish, as if expecting to be applauded.

I asked him what he did. (Did: such an inane word; but he knew what I meant.) He told me he was a bookkeeper ...

Reminds me of somebody who keeps saying as far as ... is concerned. Always with a flick of a hand.

As if every problem and misunderstanding and miscommunication in the world, every war, conflict, terror plot, diplomatic protest, can be attributed to poor use of language.

Later (p. 96): "In the afterworld there are no language problems. It's like Eden all over again."

p. 44: Storytelling, the interviewee insists, is "nothing more than a matter of perspective". Unoriginal. Rashomon showed the way. What was original was how the fragments encompass various prose forms or artifacts to produce scenes from the life of a single (i.e., unmarried) white man in South Africa during turbulent times.

Perhaps a true novelist will never be able to write an unqualified (non-fictional) autobiography, only an autobiographical novel, or a semi-autobiographical one, let alone a memoir. Autofiction is his default register. This ungraspable life, so to speak, can only be dealt with indirectly, experience by experience. Fiction is the closest thing to an autobiography. Was it Borges who said that?

pp. 61-62: About the enduring value of books, the novelist hides behind his philosophical dialogues, tongue in cheek mode. The Coetzee persona had the temerity to proclaim, "A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us. What else should it be?" Unattributed.

pp. 87-89, p. 91: The seams are showing. Is it all an exercise to demonstrate the editing process of novel-writing? That the writer's manner of editing the prose dictates how a text takes form, and how
he responds to the form reveals the form itself. Is this fragmentary novel an ode to found text or gradual self-immolation? It appears to be a well-curated edifice of discrete instants, moments in the life of an artist type.

p. 145, 151: More direct proclamations about the race problem but always coming out of nowhere, sudden gestures, sudden asides. "Out of place in the loud, angry place this country has become." He can't help himself from zooming in and out, from specific and local, to broad and national.

p. 160: Again, too much about the asexuality of the Coetzee character:

So Manuel brough Mr Coetzee to our flat, and I could see at once he was no god. He was in his early thirties, I estimated, badly dressed, with badly cut hair and a bear when he shouldn't have worn a beard, his beard was too thin. Also he struck me as once, I can't say why, as célibataire. I mean not just unmarried but also not suited to marriage, like a man who has spent his life in the priesthood and lost his manhood and become incompetent with women. Also his comportment was not good (I am telling you my first impression). He seemed ill at ease, itching to get away. He had not learned to hide his feelings, which is the first step toward civilized manners.

The novelist takes great pains in developing an almost-neuter, subhuman, sub-sexual organism. The loss of fecundity, the state of infertility. The existence of this full-bodied animal in an arid and drab landscape – unable to escape from the dreary tentacles of politics and history – is almost a double-edged political commentary itself in the age of apartheid.

p. 163: Imagine the character Coetzee's response to a mother of his young impressionable female student when the mother asks about his teaching philosophy.

'What I call my philosophy of teaching is in fact a philosophy of learning. It comes out of Plato, modified. Before true learning can occur, I believe, there must be in the student's heart a certain yearning for the truth, a certain fire. The true student burns to know. In the teacher she recognizes, or apprehends, the one who has come closer than herself to the truth. So much does she desire the truth embodied in the teacher that she is prepared to burn her old self up to attain it. For his part, the teacher recognizes and encourages the fire in the student, and responds to it by burning with an intenser light. Thus together the two of them rise to a higher realm. So to speak.' 

Obviously, the mother was unimpressed. Her assessment of the teacher's philosophy was comic fire.

Summertime is ostensibly a novel about one John Coetzee and the characters he interacted with during his adulthood. His, and their, misadventures. But J.M. Coetzee is too subtle for surfaces and depths. It is a slice of life of a country, John Coetzee's country, which unfortunately happens to be not fictional.

The novel was creative in juxtaposing various excerpts, dealing with apartheid both centrally and obliquely. But it was evident that the approach becomes more tentative and self-conscious as the interviews drag on. It keeps on saying how Coetzee's subject matter and themes in his novels need to be distanced from the real instances of his own life.

p. 215: "It would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life."

We get it. True life was different from fictional treatment.

The novelist, moreover, never lets up the chance for some of his characters to pillory the character of Coetzee the character/persona. I should say, both the character and the written works of the Coetzee persona. Consider the final words of the last interviewee, a literary critic

In general I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writing deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion. That's all.

Coetzee makes it easy to quibble about the harsh judgement of the critic interviewed here. The sweeping, all-knowing assessment. The generic tirade and overstatement. The critic was as unoriginal as the Coetzee persona in the book. Saying unsaid things may not be the only yardstick of great writing. In this novel, the novelist may not have said unsaid things; in fact it said a lot of already said things – the frozen sea inside us, hello. But the medium was as deformed and deconstructed as it could be. This made the already said things as if unsaid, or as if said for the first time.

As to Coetzee's apparent hostility to his own created self, the solution Borges provided killed the irony:

It would be an exaggeration to affirm that our relationship is hostile; I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can plot his literature and that literature justifies me.