28 September 2020

Notes on The Childhood of Jesus


A writer deliberately wanted to be inscrutable on the page, and it was the fault of the reader not to see the thicket for the bush. In the beginning were words, and the words were with the novelist, and the words were inscrutable to the reader. 

The title of the book was a devil trick of the novelist. The first few chapters were not indicative of any hallowed subject. The nature of the divine did not knock on the page. It was not simply granted for the atheistic reader. But why invoke the son of God into the discourse if this was not a superhero's tale?

David, the precocious boy in the book, was a Chess whiz. He easily beat an old man in a blitz chess. The man would surrender and say, 'I'll think twice before taking you on again ... You've got a real devil in you.' Can you make it any more obvious, Sir?

There definitely was something different about the boy's disposition. He doesn't like chess even if he is very talented in it. He doesn't flinch when a physical threat of violence was made right in front of him. He doesn't like violence. There was something of a pacifist, if not divine, in his comportment. But the Coetzee school of writing still resisted the equivalence of his childhood with that of sweet Jesus.

* * *

A novel is not a vaccine that could trigger an immune response to the reader. But there are certain writers who have a way with stringing words together that could trigger mass delusion on the part of the thirsty flock. An extreme case, at the end of the spectrum, was the Coelho school of writing. This was a writing characterized by an imposition of hack ideas and quack medicine about finding alignment in the universe for the circumstances to constellate into your own Personal Legend.

Another extreme case, at the other side of the spectrum, was another instance of "placebo effect", a novel variant. This was the Coetzee school of writing. This writing was not sociable, hardly helpful, full of ludic misdirections. It was not the sub-meter accurate GPS device truth-seekers yearn for. 

'What did she mean? Do you really want to push something inside her?'

'It was only a manner of speaking. She meant that I was trying to force my ideas on her. And she was right. One should not try to force ideas upon people.'

It was quite a leap: the forcing of ideas on someone (or in a novel) was satanized as sexual assault. I may be taking the dialogue out of context. In this novel, it was quite impossible to force meaning out of words when it was the meaninglessness of life itself that seemed to emerge like a castle of sand.

On page 42, a running joke on rats to prove a point that we were not reading a gospel.

'It seems to me,' he continues, 'that a growing child needs more variety, more nourishment. One cannot live on bread alone. It is not a universal food. You don't know where I can buy meat, do you ... ?

Álvaro scratches his head. 'Not around here, not around the docklands. There are people who catch rats, I have heard tell. There is no shortage of rats. But for that you will need a trap, and I don't know offhand where you would lay your hands on a good rat trap. You would probably have to make it yourself. You could use wire, with some kind of trip mechanism.'


'Yes. Haven't you seen them? Whenever there are ships there are rats.'

'But who eats rats? Do you eat rats?'

'No, I wouldn't dream of it. But you asked where you could get meat, and that is all I can suggest.'

He stares long into Álvaro's eyes. He can see no sign that he is joking. Or if it is a joke, it is a very deep joke.'

A trap with a trip mechanism for catching rats? Why belabor the talk of rats when the suggestion was absurd in the first place? And this coming from a vegan author of The Lives of Animals

And: "One cannot leave on bread alone". We know what you're trying to do there, Mr Coetzee.

Later on, a villainous character was introduced, a new worker in the docks.

The next day a stranger makes his appearance at the docks. He is small and wiry; his skin is burned a deep walnut shade; his eyes are deep set, his nose hooked like a hawk's beak. He wears faded jeans streaked with machine oil, and scarred leather boots.

The amount of words Coetzee heaped upon the character, Señor Daga, indicated that this guy was up to no good. Here at least was a novelistic trope we could rely on.

Come pay time, all workers lined up to receive their pay. Señor Daga received money from the paymaster.

'What's this?' says Daga.

'Your pay for the days you have worked,' says Álvaro.

Daga picks up the coins and with a quick, contemptuous movement flings them back in the paymaster's face.

'What's that for?' says Álvaro.

'Rat's wage.'

'That's the rate. That's what you earned. That's what we all earn. Do you want to say we are all rats?'

Later there was fight between Señor Daga and Álvaro. Daga wounded the latter with a knife before mounting the paymaster's bicycle and skirting away.

The boy David would ask his guardian: 'Why is he called Señor Daga?'

Simón the guardian would reply: I don't know if Daga is his real name. It doesn't matter. Names don't matter. If he wants to call himself Daga, then let him.'

Throughout this part I was laughing. Names do matter, especially in the Coetzee school of writing. In Tagalog, the word daga, with the accent in the second syllable, actually means a rat. A rat's wage for a rat. Tit for tat.

* * *

So much for the first seven chapters of this first book in the Jesus trilogy. In spite of the flashes of humor, there was no reprieve for the reader. The opaqueness of its presentation, borrowing from the Kafka school of narrative, was jarring. So far, the experience (as perceived by this reader) was antithetical to the communion of reader and writer as perceived by Martin Amis.

The relationship between the writer and the reader is a mysterious one, and rather unexamined in my view. At its simplest, it’s a matter of straightforward transmission: I am telling a story. But it goes much deeper than that, until reader and writer become identical, almost indivisible. One mustn’t, of course, baby the reader, but one must be very considerate of them. The frame of this novel is a direct dialogue with the reader.

Contrary to what were emphasized above, the novelist in question (Coetzee) was very inconsiderate of the reader. To hell with the reader. And isn't it concerning that reader and writer could become one and the same, like one is being possessed by the other? That's a disenchanting thought. It's like forcing ideas on the reader.

12 September 2020

On Arlt's broken threads and mixed metaphors


The streetlamps shone feebly, their shafts of woolly light only penetrating the dark of the pavements for a couple of yards, while the rest of the suburb remained invisible. Filled with an immense sorrow, Erdosain walked on as disconsolate as a leper.

He felt as though his soul had finally become detached for ever from any human emotion. His anguish was that of a man who carries a fearful cage inside him, where prowling, blood-stained tigers yawn among a heap of fish bones, their remorseless eyes poised for their next leap.

The mixed metaphors in that passage of Roberto Arlt's were oddly cinematic. The foreboding was almost its own parody. From the walk of a leper, to the fearful cage inside Erdosain, to blood-stained, yawning tigers on a heap of fish bones, you've got to hand it to the man. The noir and hysterics combined to produce a quirky animation of a forlorn man as he walked toward the dilapidated home of the Espilas, a family of misers. 

The first time he had seen them in their new surroundings had been a great shock. The Espila family had moved into a ramshackle three-story building near Chacarita, divided up by corrugated iron sheets. From the outside the tenement looked like a huge ocean liner, with kids swarming all over it as if it were a religious commune.

The "huge ocean liner" tenement where kids swarm all over as if it was "a religious commune" – the mixed descriptions teased out the absurdity of life in the underbelly of Buenos Aires. The hint of humor, however cruel, was suppressed but it bubbled to the surface like the hiss of chemicals mixed in a beaker.

The fog blocked off the road beyond sad patches of light around the oil streetlamps. Suddenly, Luciana grasped Erdosain's arm and whispered to him:

"I care for you so much, I really do."

Erdosain shot her an ironic glance. All his anguish had turned to cruelty. He said: "I know." She went on: "I love you so much that just to please you I've studied how a blast furnace and a Bessemer converter work. D'you want me to explain what the joists are for, or how the cooling process is carried out?"

Erdosain gritted his teeth. He stumbled along the street thinking only that man's existence is absurd, and an inexplicable anger rose in him again, directed against this sweet girl who was clutching his arm.

Erdosain rejected Luciana's feelings even if she did everything – even studied the alchemy of making a copper rose – for him. He could not simply imagine a fuck up trying to woo a fuck up like himself.

In the absurd, fucked up world of The Seven Madmen, characters were mostly unemployed or down on their luck. They wallowed in the poisonous pit lake of desperation and destitution. They fired off monologues as if saying their piece of mind was enough to atone for their sins. But their unedited speeches condemned them further to a life sentence. 

"Now I've reached the end. My life is a disaster … I have to create the foulest messes for myself … to commit sin. Don't look at me. Perhaps … listen: people have forgotten the meaning of the word sin … sin is not simply a mistake … I've come to realise that sin is an act by which a man breaks the slender thread still linking him to God. It means God is denied him for ever. Even if after committing the sin that man's life were purer than the purest saint's, he could never reach God again. And I'm going to break the slender thread that connected me to divine charity. I know it. As from tomorrow, I'll be a monster on the face of this earth … just picture it, a little creature … a foetus … a foetus that was somehow living outside its mother's womb … unable to grow … covered in hair … tiny … with no fingernails … walking among men without being one itself … its fragility horrifying all those around it … and yet there's no force on earth capable of restoring it to the lost womb. That's what's going to happen to me tomorrow. I'll cut myself off from God for ever. I'll be alone on this earth. My soul and me, just the two of us. With infinity in front of us. Alone for ever. Night and day … under a yellow sun. Can you picture it? Infinity growing all the time … a yellow sun up above, and the soul which cut itself off from divine charity wandering alone and blind under that yellow sun."

Erdosain's anguish before committing murder had made him philosophical and voluble. But his self-picturing of a fetus detached from its mother's womb was the summary statement of the negated status of Arlt's lost wanderers. People lost to the womb, cut off from charity and from the source of its life force. 

In Arlt, possession of life is malum prohibitum. Unlinked from God, his characters were walking dead sinners whose mere existence was itself a crime, or a sin. In the bleak, rank world of Arlt's novel, how does one create beauty from the savagery of existence? Remove the last traces of humor and the paradox is suffocating.


04 September 2020

Stefan Zweig's shame

The quest for spices began it. From the days when the Romans, in their journeys and their wars, first acquired a taste for the hot or aromatic, the pungent or intoxicating dietetic adjuvants of the East, the Western World found it impossible to get on without a supply of Indian spices in cellar and storeroom. Lacking spices, the food of Northern Europe was unspeakably monotonous and insipid, and thus it remained far into the Middle Ages. Centuries were to elapse before the fruits, the tubers, and the other products which now seem commonplaces were to be used or acclimatized in Europe. Potatoes, tomatoes, and corn were unknown. There were no lemons to prepare acid drinks, there was no sugar for sweetening, the cheering tea and coffee were still lacking; even at the tables of the rich and the powerful, there was naught to relieve the sameness of perpetual gluttony – until, wonderful to relate, it was found that a touch of spice from the Orient, a dash of pepper, a minute addition of ground nutmeg, the mingling of a little ginger or cinnamon with the coarsest of dishes, would give an unwonted and wholesome stimulus to the jaded palate. Precious culinary overtones were interspersed between the crude treble and bass of sour and sweet, or sapid and vapid; and the still barbaric medieval gustatory nerves speedily found it impossible to dispense with these exotic flavourings. More and more of them was demanded. A dish was not properly prepared unless it had been pricked up with so gross an excess of pepper that it bit the eater's tongue immoderately. Even beer was strongly seasoned with ginger, and mulled wine was so laden with spices that it tasted like liquid fire.

Stefan Zweig's opening salvo to his biography Magellan: Conqueror of the Seas (translated from the German by Eden and Cedar Paul) set the spicy pretext for his conqueror's travel from Portugal to the Philippines in the 16th century. In search of spice in the Eastern world, a flotilla of five ships started on a circumnavigation of the Earth that ended fatefully. Zweig was in owe of his subject's audacious exploits, extolling the navigator's Conradian suffering and sacrifices at sea. The teller's motivation for writing his tale was explained in the book's introduction.

It would be well for every author to analyse what urge, what desire for personal gratification, has led him to commit his thoughts to paper. For my part I have no doubt as to the internal causes that led me to pen the present work. I did so under stress of a comparatively unusual but very powerful sentiment – that of shame.

How come shame? Apparently, Zweig felt guilt at the modern comforts afforded by his slick travels in calm seas that he could not imagine his present luck compared to the struggles of ancient voyages and sailor battling the harsh elements and dire conditions of the sea. Thus, he felt shame at his enjoyment of the amenities of the modern ship he was on.

Compare your present experiences with those of the valiant navigators who were there first to cross this ocean, and to make the world known to us. Are you not ashamed of yourself when you think of them? Try to picture how they set forth, on ships little larger than fishing-smacks, to explore the unknown, to sail they knew not whither, lost in the infinite, ceaselessly in peril, exposed to all the vicissitudes of storm, to every kind of privation.

I could almost imagine the hapless and pathetic situation of our novelist. So moved was he by the romantic idea of sailors battling the winds and tides and having to endure bad food, cramped quarters, and unbearable loneliness. There was a sigh in these pages that cried for those star-crossed spice boys marooned in their fates, "alone in the unending desert of waters". Clearly, Zweig identified with the romantic notion of danger as men ventured into the unknown "to make the world known to us". This was the very European, very Western perspective of frontier mentality. And what was in store for Zweig's civilized sailors but doom as they entered the lair of the barbarians?

And so Zweig was "thoroughly ashamed of [his] impatience" while recalling the travels of his "nameless" conquistador heroes. So he studied them in libraries to learn more of their destinies, leading him to the one person that epitomized his dream. "Was not this the most glorious Odyssey in the history of mankind, the departure of two hundred and sixty-five resolute men of whom only eighteen got back to Spain on a crumbling vessel, but with the flag of triumph flying at the masthead?" There was something fanatical and obsessive about this perspective of Zweig's. Almost pitifully, shamelessly – in spite of his initial shame – he stanned Magellan.

In recounting this Odyssey as faithfully as I could after the examination of all the documents available, I have been animated throughout by the strange feeling that I must be painting a fanciful picture, must be relating one of the great wish-dreams, one of the hallowed fairy tales of mankind. Yet what can be better than a truth which seems utterly improbable? There is always something inconceivable about man's supreme deeds, for the simple reason that they greatly transcend average human powers; but it is by performing the incredible that man regains faith in his own self.

The downside to all these fanciful picture was Zweig's deliberately Western and colonialist privileging of the white man's burden. Zweig's misplaced shame in 1937 could only be called out by asserting the point of view of the "savage". While European historians and novelists waited for the barbarians, no one really understood the barbarian within.

The historical clash between Magellan's forces and Lapulapu's warriors in 1521 provided the flashpoint in which to understand and misunderstand each other and the 'Other'. In his critical introduction to Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Magellan by Vicente Gullas (a novel translated by Erlinda K. Alburo), the critic Resil B. Mojares called into question the Western colonialist appropriation of modern history and denigration of the pre-colonial subjects.

Magellan biographer F.H.H. Guillemard (1890) saw the battle in anti-heroic terms, "a miserable skirmish with savages." Stefan Zweig (1938) wrote that the great Magellan was "felled by a ludicrous human insect named Silapulapu," who was "one of the most insignificant of the princes," and referred to the Mactanons [people of Mactan] as "a horde of naked islanders." Playing with sarcasm, Zweig write of Lapulapu's refusal to give up Magellan's body:

He valued the trophy he had won, for now the news was spreading through the islands that Silapulapu the Great had destroyed the white lord of thunder and lightning as easily as he would have destroyed a fish or a bird. [Mojares quoted from the 1938 edition of Zweig's novel titled Conqueror of the Seas: The Story of Magellan].

Mojares considered modern historians' one-sided histories, including Zweig's, as embellishments of "the bare bones of fact". The acts of imagination could be blinded or blindsided by one's limited experience or deliberate limitation of feelings. One could not blame Zweig for his spicy narrative and (racist?) narrative. After all, the "ludicrous human insect" that defeated Magellan in battle was not Gregor Samsa's transformed body but an insect beyond the horizon of shame that the novelist saw in his binoculars as he looked back to re-imagine history.

I do not have anything to say about Zweig's fictional version of history – sapid or vapid – for I have not read it except for Introduction and a few pages of the first chapter called "Navigare Necesse Est". Of Vicente Gullas's 1938 novel – to which Mojares provided his lengthy introduction – which apparently mythologizes Lapulapu on the other hand, I have nothing to say either. Mojares's honest assessment of the book was trying to convince me not to read it further.

As a novel, [Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Magellan] has few literary merits. Its plot is loose, repetitive, and episodic (in the manner of popular, serial fiction at the time) and its characters flat and sentimentalized. ... Transposing early twentieth-century realities to sixteenth century Cebu, the novel is filled with anachronisms, incongruities, and contradictions. Freely drawing from history and oral lore, Lapulapu is an excessively fictional invention.

Later Mojares would describe Gullas's novel as peddling "a mendicant form of nationalism that claims that what the West has brought has been ours all along".

Soaring free of the ground of empirical facts, he distorts the historical Lapulapu beyond recognition.

A work of fiction, Gullas' Lapulapu is the most extreme example of the reinvention of the hero.

Was Gullas "re-inventing a hero"? Was his reinvention of Lapulapu a form of "veneration without understanding"? Was the legacy of Lapulapu distorted or misunderstood, tainted enough for him to be included in Nick Joaquín's gallery of flawed heroes in A Question of Heroes.

Two unfinished books, one seemingly racist, one obviously over-fictionalized. These imagined heroisms, these hagiographies. Just what is the limit for (historical) fiction to be excessive?