30 January 2022

Qiu Miaojin's manuals for young people


To this day, I've never understood my fear. Where does it come from? I'd been keeping my deviant sexual desires in check for most of my adolescent and college years. I reassured myself that I'd done nothing wrong. It felt like the fear was coming from inside of me. I never did anything to attract it, nor did I choose to be this way. I had no hand whatsoever in shaping the self that was crawling with fear. Yet I grew into exactly that: a carnal being stirring the cement of fear with every step toward adulthood. Since I feared my sexual desires and who I fundamentally was, fear stirred up even deeper fears. My life was reduced to that of some hideous beast. I felt as if I had to hide in a cave, lest anyone discover my true nature.

Qiu Miaojin's Notes of a Crocodile (New York Review Books: 2017), translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie, was a novel of introspection, so honest and unflinching in its confessions and self-questioning. Lazi, the female protagonist, was programmed to fear, like any other human being always put on the spot to reconcile herself with herself, with others, with society. It was a novel driven by sexual identity crises, filled with characters unable to fully function due to fears and reprisals. The right to play the game was only accorded to two kinds of players. The novel's sex problematique:

Two very different types of people, mutual attraction. And for what reason? It’s hard to believe, this thing beyond the imagination of the chess game known as the human condition. It’s based on the gender binary, which stems from the duality of yin and yang, or some unspeakable evil. But humanity says it’s a biological construct: penis vs. vagina, chest hair vs. breasts, beard vs. long hair. Penis + chest hair + beard = masculine; vagina + breasts + long hair = feminine. Male plugs into female like key into lock, and as a product of that coupling, babies get punched out. This product is the only object that can fill a square on the chessboard. All that is neither masculine nor feminine becomes sexless and is cast into the freezing-cold waters outside the line of demarcation, into an even wider demarcated zone. Man’s greatest suffering is born of mistreatment by his fellow man.

The text of the novel was spread out over eight notebook entries, numbered consecutively and which served as the novel's chapters. The texts inside the notebooks were a pastiche of journal writing, love letters and break up letters, an ongoing satire on a Crocodile and its adventures in a scandalized society who could not imagine the life of a Crocodile (the Crocodile being a stand-in for the narrator and her identity as a lesbian), references to films and novels (e.g., Norwegian Wood by Murakami Haruki, The Box Man and The Face of Another by Abe Kobo), references to music and pop culture (e.g., news about Lady Diana), flashbacks and reminiscences of friendships and doomed love affairs with both sexes. Lazi called her eight notebooks "manuals", the reading of which, rather than the writing, illustrated her "process".

Based on ten massive journals' worth of material, I wrote eight manuals that can be read as admonitions for young people. A clean transcription was made using a ballpoint pen before each notebook was stuffed into the bottom of a drawer. Whenever my memory failed me, I would take out a notebook and look at it, and go over the events that made me who I am. They illustrate the process.

The novel was marked by fluidity of gender in the interaction of its characters: "When we were together, my masculine and feminine sides reached their highest state of dialectical tension. It was the same for him, and he knew that it was his optimal state."

After two French films (see previous post), sure enough we got more references to films. Valley of the Dolls (1967): the trailer alone was oozing with sappiness; the film must be a revolutionary template for instant gratification in soap operas. Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1987): another adaptation, from a famed novella of Gabriel García Márquez, reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Lazi's synopsis brought one back to the fatalistic atmosphere of García Márquez, but it more or less refracted her view of obsessive love.

The male protagonist searches everywhere for the woman of his dreams. After "selecting" the female protagonist with only a glance, he racks his brain thinking of ways to lavish his riches on her before eventually taking her as his bride. But on their wedding night, he discovers that his bride isn't a virgin. That evening, the half-undressed, sobbing bride is "sent back". And so the bride's family takes her in, and every day, she sends him a letter. In the final scene, the male protagonist, carrying an enormous sack of letters, enters the courtyard, where the female lead awaits him. "The journey is littered with letters...."


Shui Ling didn't know it, but when I saw Chronicle of a Death Foretold and discovered that the bride wasn't a virgin, I followed in the groom's footsteps. [first ellipsis in the translation]

Lazi herself was an inveterate writer of letters to her lovers. It made the novel conversational and the revelations and confessions more intimately voiced. Lazi followed in the groom's footsteps after discovering his bride's devirginized status. Yet she also followed the obsessive patience of the bride in writing letter after letter to the groom who spurned her. (The fate of Santiago Nasar, the man who deflowered the bride and murdered in broad daylight, was not mentioned.) Qiu Miaojin's second posthumous novel, Last Words from Montmartre, was apparently more love letters churned out.

Lazi's notebooks compiled ultra-honest portrayals of herself and her friends as spiritually wounded people. In Notes of a Crocodile, the characters' sexuality seemed to contaminate their relationships and ability to forge and sustain love affairs. For them, the force of love was like an unstable radioactive substance they could not control however much they wanted to pin it down. So these characters underwent suffering and transformations to cope with their damaged relationships. In the end they destroy themselves and the objects of their love. 

Elsewhere: Andrey Tarkovsky's Nostalghia (1983). Then: van Gogh's The Potato Eaters. It's as if Lazi's memory filtered the art forms her senses encountered and made of them scrap materials for her readymade project. She was seeing herself in the painting, the central figure, her back turned. "How can we get to know each other?" a woman intoned (in subtitle) near the end of the trailer for Nostalghia. "By abolishing the frontiers," a man responded. Easier said than done.

Whether I was delivering a rambling speech or serving potatoes, I reeked of a degenerative disease of the spirit, the result of having been sequestered for too long. The layer of glass had grown thicker and harder to shatter. 

Like "damaged goods" as one character described himself, Lazi was spiritually broken. It came to the point that she could invoke a Kafkaesque transformation. What if you suddenly woke up one day to find that you'd turned into a crocodile, what would you do then? asked Pro-Croc, a satirical character in the parallel universe of Lazi's notebooks/manuals. The choice of a crocodile as alter-ego was inspired: a beast feared by every one, and is in turn constantly hounded/harassed/persecuted for its animal nature whenever it goes out to hunt for food. Living in fear, the Crocodile suited up itself and descended from its habitat to disturb society's binary conception of sex.

"Hey, we should found a gender-free society and monopolize all the public restrooms!" I was elated at the idea. He didn't have to explain. He too could envision the manual I was writing about my own experiences. I decided to stop pressuring myself to state those experiences explicitly. ... I would speak up when the time was right.

In Qiu Miaojin's manuals, her "admonitions for young people", a literary project was conceived: the dream of a gender-free society, whose fluid and post-gender relations of the sexes lead to trust and love and understanding contra "mistreatment" of fellow human beings. Where crocodiles were dealt with without fanfare and fear.

All of which point to Qiu Miaojin's novel as a premonitory exercise of suicide. The text, which included a short extract from Suicide Studies, a presumed extant text, was a foreboding of the end point. In the company of Enrique Vila-Matas's literary silences, the suicides occupy a point where their death terminated their message. But it was too late to reverse what already survived them. The final statement in Notebook #2 was as close to a mission statement there is: As long as I'm alive and able, I won't stop talking about humanity and all of its fears.

This cold novel had some powerful writing in it, dissecting friendships and love affairs with cold-blooded precision and a reptilian prose giving the feels. It could not instantly abolish frontiers and lead to dramatic changes in gender relations but it could pose questions and deliver unforgettable images in freeze frame. Like how Lazi "was reminded of how in Truffaut's The 400 Blows, the boy breaks out of prison and runs to the sea, and that final close-up of the expression on his face."

Truffaut's iconic last scene in The 400 Blows was addressed directly to the viewer. The novelist just happened to let her protagonist remember the cinematic shot and relive the drama behind the ambiguity.

Image from Criterion

22 January 2022

Two French films

In Notes of a Crocodile, translated by Bonnie Huie, Qiu Miaojin had her protagonist describe two films from France. The first, Mauvais Sang (1986), directed by then-26 years old Leos Carax, starred Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche and had a intriguing premise.

A sexually transmitted disease called STBO is sweeping the country; it’s spread by having sex without emotional involvement, and most of its victims are teenagers who make love out of curiosity rather than commitment. A woman hires two men to steal the serum, which has been locked away in an inaccessible government building. [from Wikipedia]

The narrator of the novel was a female writing student who developed feelings for a female classmate. Her assessment of the Carax film made me want to watch it. Spoiler alert.

Not another Godard movie. A more youthful French film. Its male protagonist is built like a lizard and clearly has traces of crocodile in his blood. All the other men are short and stout and bald. They're all ugly old men in this film, aside from this sight-for-sore-eyes of a young Adonis in the lead role. The director is a contemporary master of aesthetics.

"I must ascend, not descend," the protagonist declares. As he nears his final moments, the female lead embraces him from behind, and he resists. It's moving beyond words. He closes his eyes with a dramatic flutter and utters his last words: "It's hard being an honest child." After he dies, a hideous old man squeezes a single blue tear out of his closed eyes. There's essentially no way the lizard can be honest. Even as it rolls over and turns its white belly up, it must take its hidden tears for its lover to the grave. 

Her wry descriptions of the characters' physical appearances and the movie's rather preposterous yet emotive plot was already evident from the trailer alone. See it here.

Yet another inoculating experience for the narrators was Betty Blue, which also appeared in 1986 and was directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. The synopsis in Criterion was written by a master of the Blurbing Syndrome. 

When the easygoing would-be novelist Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) meets the tempestuous Betty (Béatrice Dalle, in a magnetic breakout performance) in a sunbaked French beach town, it’s the beginning of a whirlwind love affair that sees the pair turn their backs on conventional society in favor of the hedonistic pursuit of freedom, adventure, and carnal pleasure. But as the increasingly erratic Betty’s grip on reality begins to falter, Zorg finds himself willing to do things he never expected to protect both her fragile sanity and their tenuous existence together. Adapted from the hit novel 37°2 le matin by Philippe Djian, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s art-house smash—presented here in its extended director’s cut—is a sexy, crazy, careening joyride of a romance that burns with the passion and beyond-reason fervor of all-consuming love. [from Criterion; see also Betty Blue at The Modern Novel]

Given the subject matter of Notes of a Crocodile and its anti-sentimental tone and its cinematic approach to narrative (i.e., a sequence of pithy scenes with efficient images and understated yet bursting emotions), one could appreciate why these two films were singled out by the novelist. The narrator's review of the second film was a window into her soul. Second alerte spoiler.

It's relatively institutional fare. A French film made for a young mainstream audience. Just how is it made for them? There are only two colors, blue and yellow, which makes things easy to remember, and aside from the two protagonists—a man and a woman—there's no one else on earth. Time glides by in the film without so much as half a struggle or a long conversation. ...

The best thing about the entire film is when the main couple's friend, upon hearing news of his mother's death, lies in bed paralyzed, and other people have to dress him for the funeral and tie his necktie, which is adorned with naked ladies. The tears streaming down his face make you want to explode laughing. The female protagonist, Betty, says, "Life always had it in for me." She gouges out her own eyes and is sent to a mental institution, where they strap her to a bed. The male protagonist says, "No one can keep the two of us apart." He disguises himself as a woman in order to sneak into the institution, and with a pillow, smothers Betty to death. At that moment, his face, exquisitely white, radiates a ghastly feminine beauty. The director uses a crazy love to curse the hand of fate. Fair enough, though the last bit will make you gag on your popcorn and soda.


... The second film is deceptive in its approach. It tricks you into thinking that you're not on the road to nausea, until the very end, when the truth becomes clear.

The sinister undercurrent was already apparent in the trailer of the director's cut (link). I could sense—and I wanted to be proven wrong—that this novel had something deceptive too in its sleeve. "Anyone with eyes, even if they're color-blind," the narrator thought, "can sit with popcorn in one hand and soda in the other, and leisurely watch the whole thing. Fair enough." 


The watching of a film may be deliberate or a happenstance. And yet the rules of film making were already made visible. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Walter Benjamin wrote that "It is inherent in the technique of the film as well as that of sports that everybody who witnesses its accomplishments is somewhat of an expert." The democratized access to the movie theater and television—at least during pre-pandemic times—made film watching as ubiquitous as watching sports in stadiums and on TV. Benjamin's thoughts on the reproducibility of art and films were made prior to the digital age and film streaming devices—not to mention the rise and fall of blogging and the rise and rise of vlogging and content creation—and yet the ideas he propounded in his essay were all the more validated by the technological advances.

For Benjamin, every moviegoer was a film critic, but not every one of them was aware that they were. 

The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. [tr. Harry Zohn, from Illuminations]

With "popcorn in one hand and soda in the other" the watcher was assaulted by a barrage of moving images, which for Benjamin could induce a kind of vertigo and produce a violent crisis of imagination, a "shock effect" which was akin to the experience of Dadaist art in (real) time and space.

Dadaistic activities actually assured a rather vehement distraction by making works of art the center of scandal. One requirement was foremost: to outrage the public.

From an alluring appearance of persuasive structure of sound the work of art of the Dadaists became an instrument of ballistics. It hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality. It promoted a demand for the film, the distracting element of which is also primarily tactile, being based on changes of place and focus which periodically assail the spectator. Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of a painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested. Duhamel, who detests the film and knows nothing of its significance, though something of its structure, notes this circumstance as follows: “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind. By means of its technical structure, the film has taken the physical shock effect out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside the moral, shock effect.

The immediate visual and auditory gratifications afforded by the binge watching of scenes after scenes of life and counter-life produced an alternative vista and borrowed time for the watcher. Benjamin thus indirectly defined—or came close to—what could constitute a classic in art (literature or painting or film). The relevance or the life of the art, its longevity, its stature and resilience as a classic—these were not contingent on present readers or viewers or watchers. If it survived at all—in J. M. Coetzee's definition of a classic as a survivor—after the initial onslaught of the present, then it must have done so because it was created using the template of the future. Its concerns were, overtly or covertly, futuristic. Because (futuristic) art could aspire for future appreciation, the true audience of art are the future people who stumbled upon it at a future time. "One of the foremost tasks of art," said Benjamin, "has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later."

The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form. The extravagances and crudities of art which thus appear, particularly in the so-called decadent epochs, actually arise from the nucleus of its richest historical energies. In recent years, such barbarisms were abundant in Dadaism. It is only now that its impulse becomes discernible: Dadaism attempted to create by pictorial—and literary—means the effects which the public today seeks in the film. 

Every fundamentally new, pioneering creation of demands will carry beyond its goal. [emphasis added]

The classic was an attempt at something new; its newness was only made more apparent after a certain time has elapsed when the technical (or literary) standard, alongside hidden critical and historical forces and movements, had changed. The classic remained steadfast in emitting hidden energies long after the first outrage or shock or awe at the conflagration or war of the senses had settled or died down.

The watcher's assumption of the role of the film critic mirrored that of the author's reader. As Benjamin noted, "At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship." Truly, the Quixote can be subsumed by the pen of Pierre Menard.


What of Qiu Miaojin's literary antecedents, Dadaist or otherwise? The first paragraphs of the posthumously published novel already gave away her reading list.

July 20, 1991. Picked up my college diploma at the service window of the registrar's office. It was so big I had to carry it with both hands. I dropped it twice while walking across campus. The first time it fell in the mud by the sidewalk, and I wiped the mud off with my shirt. The second time the wind blew it away. I chased after it ruefully. The corners were bent. In my heart, I held back a pitiful laugh.

When you visit, will you bring me some presents? the Crocodile wanted to know.

Very well, I'll bring you new hand-sewn lingerie, said Osamu Dazai.

I'll give you the most beautiful picture frame on earth, would you like that? asked Yukio Mishima.

I'll plaster your bathroom walls with copies of my Waseda degree, said Haruki Murakami.

And that's how it all began. Enter cartoon music (insert Two Tigers closing theme).

Dazai, Mishima, and Murakami—all suicides except for the latter. Notes of a Crocodile was written in 1994, a year before Qiu Miaojin's suicide in Paris, where she studied and directed a short film. She was 26 years old.

Murakami's published novels before 1991 (the year in the notebook entry) were arguably his best output (i.e., before Murakami's commercial literary appeal catapulted him into literary stardom and somehow, probably, contaminated his magical realist worldview and eroded his discipline for world-building). These were my favorite works of Murakami: the world of A Wild Sheep ChaseHard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, and Dance Dance Dance. The magic in these novels was restrained and unforced; their tones were polished, at a time when the quality of his novels was unburdened by overanalyzing current events and the technical shift from typewriter/word processor to desktop computer.

The surrealist beginning of the entrada already hinted at an idiosyncratic voice and temper of the narrator, her aura of literary knowingness, the tinge of easygoing loneliness intercut with lighthearted and cinematic moments of emotional eruptions, linear and non-linear. "Nauseating is nauseating," the novelist quoted from Mauvais Sang. The tactile details of this tactile novel may prove to be a memorable watch, attuned as it is to colors blue and yellow and presumably the truth, which at this point is not yet clear, or may never be, but no one is complaining. Tactile is tactile. 

Enter: music from Two Tigers.

15 January 2022

Hoshino Tomoyuki, performance artist of the Quixote


The visible imprints made to date by Hoshino Tomoyuki, at least in English language translation, could be easily summarized. This Japanese novelist, born in 1965, began publishing stories and novels after a half-decade sojourn in South America in the first half of 1990s. He had been fairly prolific in publishing Japanese novels and newspaper commentaries. 

Unpardonable therefore was the short list of 11 works in Goodreads, which of course skirted around some anthologized stories in journals and magazines, but I had no recourse to a definitive bibliography of his primary works. In the Internet age, everyone who had access to digital paraphernalia was a bibliographer. The incompleteness of this listing exercise is obvious, but I had established that his English presence, circa 2021, consisted of the following:

     a. Lonely Hearts Killer, tr. Adrienne Carey Hurley (PM Press, 2009, original in 2004) - with an introduction by the translator and a brief preface by Hoshino. It also had a Q & A between novelist and translator at the end of the novel.

     b. We, the Children of Cats, tr. Brian Bergstrom and Lucy Fraser (PM Press, 2012) - five stories and three novellas published in the original between 1998 and 2006. My edition (Kindle) listed the sources from which the pieces first appeared in Japanese and English. The story "The No Fathers Club", for example, was included in Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Stories from Japan (Cheng & Tsui Company, 2011). It also contained a preface by Hoshino and an extended afterword by translator Bergstrom.

     c. ME, tr. Charles De Wolf (Akashic Books, 2017, original in 2010) - with an afterword by Ōe Kenzaburō entitled "A Model for the Power of Literary Thought" and a note from the translator. An audiobook of this novel was also released.

This list had to be updated once other books/novels, some of which won awards in Japan - like The Last Gasp (1997), The Mermaid Sings Wake Up, Fantasista, The Nights Never End, and Spell - get to be picked up for translation.

     d. "Pink", translated by Bergstrom is collected in Granta 127 issue (2014). It is readable here. This was also collected in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories under the section "Disasters, Natural and Man-Made".

     e. I should end there, but I was told Hoshino was a journalist who wrote kaisetsu or newspaper and book commentaries. There was a kaisetsu of his which appeared at the end of the Japanese paperback reissue of Tsushima Yukō's Woman Running in the Mountains. The latter novel (and the Hoshino kaisetsu) was translated by Geraldine Harcourt and will be reissued next month by NYRB.

My introduction to Hoshino, the performance artist of the Quixote, was Harcourt's translation of his commentary on Tsushima's novel. In his kaisetsu, Hoshino imagined the future life of characters in Woman Running in the Mountains. After more or less 26 years (Tsushima's novel appeared in Japan in 1980; the paperback reissue was in 2006), how would those characters - a woman and her baby boy - appear now and how would they behave given Japan's changed social outlook and mindset. (How about we take it further since the novel will be reissued next month? The baby would now be around 42, himself a father of at least one kid and the woman is now a senior citizen and a grandmother! How would they live in contemporary Japan in the age of pandemic?).

I should now single out that one story, the inimitable, the concise, the stupendous construction - the opening salvo in We, the Children of Cats called "Paper Woman" - the short story that announced a surprise attack on how to approach novel reading.

It’s been two years now since I became a novelist, and I’ve found myself thinking more and more about just who it is who reads the things I write. This may be simply due to the relatively poor sales of my own books, of course, but it may also be due in no small part to my recent pondering of what larger meaning a novel’s existence might bear. After all, statistically speaking, the number of people reading novels is decreasing, part of a general decrease in the sales of literature, but I think the real problem may be that fewer and fewer people really read any more, really consume literature as if printing the words on the interiors of their bodies.

Our novelist, Hoshino Tomoyuki, was contemplating the self-reflexive art of novel writing and the self-awareness that comes in novel reading. The reader might be writing the novel as he reads, but he was also inhabiting ("deciphering") the writer's psyche. This new material perception of reading was due in part to technology and the rise of professional amateurs. "On the Internet, within fanboy culture, anyone can pose as anything." He might also be referring to self-proclaimed bibliographers. And he might also be referring to "content creators" or "content writers" (but what does one write if not contents to be itemized in a table of contents?).

Fortuitously, in the midst of his novel-mongering, our novelist met the Paper Woman, an aspiring novelist who "wrote a fantastical tale about a woman who could eat only paper and eventually became entirely composed of the stuff". The Paper Woman did not want to compose another Quixote, which is easy as (eating) pie. She created a paper-eating character (papervore?) who would embody the Quixote printed on paper: the Quixote made of paper. The Paper Woman's method was simple: write about a papervore who would transform into the paper she consumed. But this was a commentary on a commentary. And her encounter with Hoshino was less than palatable to say the least.

“Do you sometimes dribble soy sauce onto sheets of paper and wrap them like seaweed around your rice?” I asked, and she replied with a touch of contempt. “I’m not a literal bookworm, I don’t actually eat paper. Besides, no matter how much paper a bookworm eats, it’s still just a worm in the end, no? Wanting to become paper and eating paper are two different things.” 

“Good point. If eating paper turned you into paper, all a little kid who wanted to be a soccer player would have to do was eat other soccer players to succeed.” 

“Have you eaten many authors, Mr. Hoshino?” 

“No, no, I’ve never spent any time wanting to become an author. Become a novel, maybe.” 

“If you’re still saying things like ‘I want to become a novel,’ you’ve got a long way to go, I’d say.”

It was no longer a word-to-word correspondence between the Quixote and his reader. It was the performative act of the reading life itself, or the life-to-word correspondence. Writing the Quixote in the early 17th century was a feasible, perhaps a necessary task; in the early 21st, the task would simply be cliché. The blank paper would virtually self-detonate. All great works are - or remain - unfinished, suggested Borges, not in his literary criticism but in one of his stories. The Quixote could no longer be read, rewritten, or translated. Nowadays, it could only be performed

The novelist Hoshino eventually married the novelist Paper Woman. They were so compatible that they resembled each other. Insecure about their relationship, Hoshino "made every effort to treat Paper" like a blank paper. He wrote on her skin using fine-tipped pens and brushes and this gave them both sexual pleasure. They would engage in a role-playing game in which Hoshino would erase the writing on Paper by washing her body clean and start over again.

As if with perfect memory, Paper could remember the characters Hoshino inscribed on her. Paper would dictate it to Hoshino and the latter would type it into his word processor. That became his method of writing. For a time this routine suited them both. Until Paper became pregnant and gave birth to a boy.

Their marriage started to fall apart once Paper became a mother. Hoshino's habit of writing on Paper became less and less frequent and Paper eventually became depressed and unstable and withered. The novelist husband hatched another plan to resuscitate Paper's health.

It was around that time that I started to seriously consider tattooing Paper. I thought that if the words on her skin were fixed and meaningful, she’d stop getting so caught up in the chaos of the characters’ formation, and her mind would grow more ordered as well. I decided to write out a translation of Don Quixote, a book we both esteemed above all others, in as fine a print as I could manage, then find a good tattoo artist to complete my plan. 

The reader may ask, Why the Quixote? That choice, made by a Japanese novelist, was obvious given his familiarity with the literary landscape of Latin America where he stayed and must have traveled far and wide before embarking on his literary career. Fermat ran out of space to publish his proof but the skin of a paper could be an infinite stage of calligraphy if one resorted to the finest of fine print.

Hoshino's microscript Quixote is more subtle than Cervantes'. Since the Quixote masqueraded itself as a pseudo-translation, the Japanese novelist's technique was odder and crueler than Pierre Menard's original text in Spanish. Since Paper would be the repository of the characters (presumably in Japanese), the performative act of the tattoo artist was now the opposite of anthropomorphism. The opposite of anthropomorphism is dehumanization which eliminates the human-like traits of beings and relegates or views them in non-human terms. The wife Paper was no longer paper-like but had became an actual paper. 

The skin-deep absorption of literature, the unhealthy consumption of letters and belles-lettres, could lead to an innovative, yet somehow tragic, commentary on performance art. In Kafka's In the Penal Colony, the young judge, in order to uphold his blind sense of justice through the use of a torture machine, opted to subject himself to the depravity of suffering under the same machine. The reading experience was empiricized not through simple reading but the experience of pain as the needle was etched on skin.

It is a blast to compare the Don Quixote of Hoshino Tomoyuki with that of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for instance, wrote this (Part I, Chapter IX):

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.

This short list of platitudes about truth, written in the 17th century, by a "crazy amateur" Miguel de Cervantes, is desperate for a heart emoji. Hoshino, on the other hand, wrote:

Paper wanted her whole body covered, but I decided to leave her face blank, telling her she could always fill it in later. The words Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha ran down her backbone. “Let’s compare spines!” exhorted Paper, so we lined her up with the new Don Quixote translation that had just come out from Iwanami Press and took a picture.

Paper's metamorphosis was complete. Loudly, she exulted, "I am paper!"

Pierre Menard left no traces of his invisible work. He would carry his notebooks and make cheery bonfires. The ending of "Paper Woman" was also a bonfire which consummated the words on human paper. Performative reading was a form - the worst form maybe - of suicide. One could read an open book but, as Hoshino showed, "the prospect of never truly being able to understand another person's feelings completely" was a tragedy of Cervantesque proportions.

05 January 2022

May be a review of text-image

Pesoa by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, translated from Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim (Balangay Productions, 2021)


1. Borges’s company

“I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others’,” so said Borges in the prose poem “Borges and I”, from Collected Fictions (Penguin Books, 1998), translated by Andrew Hurley. The poet’s hostile relationship with his doppelgänger—himself, in a fugue-like state—was explored rather gloomily, with a backward glance at a legacy of letters and a sigh. “Years ago I tried to free myself from him ... So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away—and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.” The speaker was sure the legacy will outlast the man, so he lived, allowed himself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, which is the speaker's sole justification. He was yielding his private persona to the public identity of Borges. He learned he could not escape from the edifice of words which now belonged not to himself—may be not even to Borges—but to language or literary tradition.

2. The original and the erasure

A similar identity crisis as Borges’s hounded Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles in Pesoa, a book of erasure poetry translated by Kristine Ong Muslim. Given the violent nature of production of the book—erasure, a kind of parasitic technique, like a vampire feeding off the blood of its victim—the literary hostility was there. Hostile, too, like “Borges and I” because it could not be a paean to its source text, certainly not a homage. The choice of a book—Personal by Rene O. Villanueva—was personal but the deliberate erasures must have been a serendipitous combination of chance, accident, and murder. Arguelles at first channeled his erasures to speak to his doppelgänger. It was the ambivalent struggle of the erasure with its original (erased) identity. Eventually, Arguelles’s doppelgänger multipied, splitting into personalities he could not tame or control. After some walking and self-questioning of Arguelles by Arguelles, other heteronyms joined the fray like the specters of Fernando Pessoas (plural), giving rise to more self-questioning. ‘Arguelles and I’ branched out to ‘Arguelles & Co.’

3. The erasure and the translation

Seven years ago, in writing a few words about Pesoa in its original language, I posed a question: Is not the translation of erasures another set of erasures? Little did I know that one of my favorite poets would undertake the task of translating one of my favorite poets. And that the attempt to answer that question—the appearance of Muslim's English Pesoa last month—would never really fully answer it, would only point to an indication of an answer, and would propound more unsettling questions about the production of poetry, its value, and its reception. How dare the poet hide the process and just bring out the end-product for all to read. How dare the translator translate the product and not the process. Translation excerpts are found here.

It turned out that translating and reading erasure poetry was as straightforward as translating and reading non-erasures. You just have to translate and read them straight through, like how they appear on the page. The process might be hidden, invisible, but the end-product, the crime, was exposed in the light of day to be scrutinized and re-erased.

How then to account for the process in the background, the nagging sense that we are an accomplice (twice over) to Arguelles’s crime of erasure by reading the erased poetry, first in the original and then in the accompanying translation? We were conscious of the crime and hence were complicit to it. Why then do we, I, reader, not feel any guilt? Probably because erasing something was, in the first place, a liberating experience. And to read something that was effaced was equally liberating. The redacted words blended into the surrounding white and the words were compacted to achieve the syntax of what may be poetry: what may be an image of text, as the cover of the translated book—the design was credited to Arguelles himself—proudly displays. Pesoa is an image of a text erased. Text-image (read: erasure) culled from violence sans blood and bruise.

Muslim’s translation intensified the text-image by expounding on simple, short sentences of the original. This is translation through explication and it tended to enhance or emphasize the effect of dislocation from the original. This is translation through elaboration—or belaboring—of the fugue state by creating, for example, double negative. Where in “Ilan” (Count), the first prose poem of the original, it simply said, “Malayo sa buhay ko” (literally: Far removed from my life), the translator opted for redundancy to heighten Arguelles’s—the speaker’s, not the poet’s, but who can be sure anymore—longing for the lives of his literary precursors. The precursors—Fernando Pessoa, Nick Joaquin, Virgilio S. Almario—paved the way for the appearance of (how many? 40? 20?) heteronyms. The translation of the simple sentence was highlighted below.

Fernando, Joaquin, Virgilio, and others. These people from the past, their world and history grew inside me. They lived completely different lives that were far removed from mine. Whenever I read them, I could not help but covet what they had and did not have. There is no such thing as self: only a world of questions. How much and how many should be counted. A lot, and it is never enough. 40, maybe in excess of 40, more than 40, I think twenty is not enough. A person is made up of dissociated identities. I did try to become a stranger to mankind. No, really, I have been untethered from myself for far too long. Only one of them is among the ones present here.   

The maximalist translation approach in lieu of the minimalist original was in itself a form of erasure, splitting the concise chemical compound into its constituent atomic elements. The translator said so in her note to the translation as she made a case for a fit-for-purpose poetics of translation.

As a translator, I am very much into clarity of purpose and uncovering ‘ulterior’ motives. I intervene, holding a portable light source to illuminate the passageways and figure out what lurks in the narrator’s peripheral vision. ... My translation becomes an act of filling in the gaps because it is my contention that the narrator is not being intentionally evasive. His hold on reality is simply too shaky.


Pesoa is translated this way—with a broad stroke, its coded message presented partly decoded in English but just enough so as not to spoil it for the reader.

So she opted for clarity over ambiguity/vagueness. Yes, I dig it. I would rather have a somewhat clear text-image than unintelligible rhetoric. Which should be the task of the translator, according to Walter Benjamin whose credo of translation is a form of illumination of the original, facilitating the view of the original through transparent lenses. 

The significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic complementation. A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade. [translated by Harry Zohn, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt]

Literalness, in Benjamin’s reckoning—“a literal rendering of the syntax”—was not being too literal but being literary or having the creative license to draw or invent the arcade’s text-image. In Pesoa, the arcade of self was crossed by Arguelles and Arguelles. The definitive break or split of selves into more than two—40? but 20 may be enough!—personalities was apparent on page 19.

Marami ang ako o hindi ako. At kulang ang sarili. Pero ako, ako! Siyempre hindi ako lang ako. Maya-maya, ipagpapatuloy ko ang paghakbang, tatawirin ang labirinto, maglalakad.

I, as well as the selves that are not me, comprise a multitude. And the self is never enough. But the me inside of me is me! Of course, I am not the only one in me. Later, I will continue to walk, to cross the labyrinth, to trespass. 

And the translation would really sound staid if done literally. My literal attempt seven years ago proved this. I noticed, though, that the first edition of the poems in 2014 were not prose poems but poems set off properly in broken lines. This second bilingual edition removed the line breaks and connected the sentences. This new prosing of the poetic text-image was, I could not help but say, a second erasure of the original text! The original was re-erased, done over again, re-rendered.

Erasure (and re-erasure) was a perfect method of thievery because the evidence was non-existent: it was erased. It may even be a perfect murder because no blood is spilled in its wake. Muslim’s way of translating the text-image was reading between the texts, between the interstices of invisible ink and the premeditated violence of disappearing the words.

“The self is a concoction”, the poet wrote. So was the text-image in original and in translation. If meanings were a concoction of our imagination, then the discovery of meaning, the discovery of the self, was also a concoction. Ad infinitum.

4. The crime of the eraser

The awareness of the process of re-rendering kept me wide awake as I read. This made me tense as I read. I may have overtly romanticized the idea of erasure to the point that I considered it a crime of theft or murder.

I should just say instead that Pesoa is guilty of the crime of obsession, of stalking. The author stalking for meaning someone's text to produce a poetic text-image. Then re-rendering that text-image into prose poetry format. The translator stalking the poems to produce her own text-image where a poet stalked himself to generate other selves.

I discovered that there was a me who could be a multitude. There goes the banality of self. I figured there had to be a me in order for others to be themselves.

The assertion of self was always a way to engage with the world. How much more the assertion of a company of others who hid behind the banal existence of the self and the self: the eraser and the erased: the text-image and the text it is derived from. 

5. Arguelles & Co.

In “Borges and I”, the eponymous poet wrote: 

I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page.

In Pesoa, Arguelles wrote: 

I have been untethered from myself for far too long. Only one of them is among the ones present here. 

Something wrote the page. Someone who was present. But still one could not be sure who among the poet’s company was the one present in there, in the book of poetry. I propose it is the reader of the text-image. The reader is ever present in the reading. He is a faithful heteronym of the eraser Arguelles, author of the Pesoa.

Enter: Pierre Menard.