27 February 2022

Amélie Nothomb's misrepresentations

“Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” The quote was attributed to Einstein. At least that's how The Calculus with Analytic Geometry by Louis Leithold attributed it. It stuck to me because how often do you have a maths textbook with a provoking epigraph. As if the proofs of theorems were not enough for one to get mystified by. After the literary earnestness and apocalyptic sincerity of Benjamín Labatut's When We Cease to Understand the World, I feel like reading something more heady. Less serious, more witty. What else but a slice of death of Jesus Christ. Simple, but not simpler.

Jesus Christ was the topic of Thirst, Amélie Nothomb's nth novel, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2021). The story of the events leading to Jesus's crucifixion, told in the first person by a condemned incarnate, the omniscient son of God. 

Like any other non-devout book of fiction about Jesus, it was a riot of divine possibilities and novelistic (i.e., human) intervention. Jesus could peer into the future and foretell the cult surrounding his personality and the posthumous portrayal of his mysterious existence. In a self-critical way, Jesus was speaking in parables about living a simple and happy life and, indirectly, perhaps making a commentary about a mindful present bent on mining for cryptocurrencies and digging for NFTs. 

Or not. Whatever it is Nothomb was up to, she had weaponized the power granted to novelists to reinterpret the Passion of Christ and re-imagine a more plausible scenario or a simpler explanation of what transpired there on the cross, at the peak of Golgotha. 

Luke will write that I said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That’s a misinterpretation. It was myself I had to forgive: I am more at fault than men are, and it was not from my father that I sought forgiveness. 

I’m relieved I didn’t say it: it would have been condescending towards men. Condescension is the type of scorn I loathe the most. And frankly, I’m in no position to scorn humanity. 

Nor did I say to John (who was no more present at the time than the other disciples), “Behold thy mother,” nor did I say to my mother (who showed the kindness of being absent), “Woman, behold thy son.” John, I love you very much. But that does not mean you can go around spouting nonsense.

Nothomb's Jesus was challenging the official version. God's words no less, as recorded by his disciples. While doctrine makers had religiously exhausted the search for biblical meanings, the novelist still had time to make her own discoveries sacreligiously. A correction was in order: “I [Jesus] am responsible for the greatest misinterpretation in history, which is also the most deleterious.” We were at this juncture now, having lived in such a complicated network of data and information; we must long for the most simple and plausible explanations for our follies, wars, and savageries. 

“The power of love is sometimes so difficult to differentiate from all the other ambient currents. My father sent me here out of love for his creation. Find me a more perverse act of love.” In the tradition of José Saramago's satirical gospel of Jesus Christ, Nothomb produced a Saramagian miniature, perennially quotable and quick-witted, informed by the delicate differentiation of ambient feelings of love and friendship, the fifty gradations of gray areas in human relationships and interactions.

Thank God, Jesus was here depicted as every bit as sensual and self-aware as a human being. Otherwise, he would be God. Nothomb was a freelance evangelist. Unshackled by dogma, she could clarify and contextualize events and invert their original sense if need be. 

I’m pointing out these issues because this is not what will be written in the Gospels. ... The evangelists were nowhere near me when this happened. And regardless of what people have said, they didn’t know me. I’m not angry with them, but nothing is more irritating than those people who, under the pretext that they love you, claim that they know you inside out. 

Who could dare claim to know Jesus, the body politic? Unfathomable he must be, yet the novelist had him speak of practical and pragmatic things. There were a lot of nonsense already said about him. There were a lot of mediocrities and misinterpretations already. Admonishing the weeping women of Jerusalem, only in his thought of course, Jesus was all about practical steps to a fruitful life. 

It’s just that their sobs won’t let me breathe. How can we help someone? Certainly not by crying in front of them. Simon helped me, Veronica helped me. Neither one of them was crying. Nor did they have grins on their faces: they were taking concrete steps.

In Thirst, Nothomb was taking concrete steps, purposefully deviating from the official and definitive narratives in a language that was contemporary and direct. She had Jesus weigh and question every word at every turn: a balm against self-righteousness. 

Nothomb was bored by the official interpretations and stereotypes produced by excavators of meanings in the Bible. She had to make her own version just to shake things up a bit, with not a little bit of irony: “The judgement of mankind is so predictable that I admire everyone for taking themselves so seriously.” 

It must be hard to translate the humor too, but divine inspiration must have possessed the translator. Like Peter, the novella petered out at the end. But it was obvious the evangelist novelist was having fun. Who knows at the expense of whom? 

The only Evangelist who has shown talent as a writer worthy of the name is John. That is also why his words are the least reliable. “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst”: I never said it, it would have been a misrepresentation.



19 February 2022

Upcoming translations from the Philippines


English translation of novels originally written in Philippine languages is a recent phenomenon. In the 20th century, only 6 novels from the Philippines were translated into English. In the last 15 years (2006-2021), some 29 novels were translated. Most of these were bankrolled by local university presses. Only a handful were distributed in print outside the country. These include Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo (both translated by Harold Augenbraum) and Lope K. Santos's Banaag at Sikat (Radiance and Sunrise) which was published in December in Danton Remoto's translation. All were part of the Penguin Classics selection. Only 12 (34%) were the works of women writers.

I own 30 of the 35 translated novels. I read 26 of them in original Filipino or in translation. Maybe I should draft a personal selection of which were essential reads from among these.

Anyway, when I write and post a review of several of these books, it was as if I'm writing speculative fiction about books that were part of the Invisible Library. I knew that many readers would not be able to read or access these books, let alone see a glimpse of their spines. It's like I'm creating entries for the Neglected Books Page.

Every neglected book finds its ideal translator at the right time. Every translation will find its ideal reader. Every reader of translation ought to be excited in advance.

So what to look out for in translation from this part of the world in 2022 and beyond? I'm just listing the novels.

1. The '70s (1984, complete edition 1988) by Lualhati Bautista, trans. Clarisee B. de Jesus.

This is the defining novel of the martial law period in the Philippines. From my review 10 years ago:

Lualhati Bautista gained notoriety when Dekada '70 came out in 1984, after having shared the grand prize for the Palanca Award for Best Novel one year previous. This novel about a Filipino family drastically affected by forces beyond their control was a national narrative of resistance against the Marcos dictatorship, against its repression of individual and societal rights and liberties. The story was told by Amanda Bartolome, wife to a dominating husband, mother to five sons, and – as she learned in the course of the novel – woman of her own mind. We found Amanda contemplating her role beyond her family of men, beyond a traditional patriarchy where a woman is only expected to serve a husband and rear children. This even as her world was being swept by the tides of history. [Full review]

The English translation was recently self-published by the author. Penguin is interested in reissuing it for an international audience.

2-3. Crocodile Tears (1962) and Birds of Prey (1969) by Amado V. Hernandez, trans. Danton Remoto

Two novels of resistance from Amado V. Hernandez, a literary master of Tagalog prose and poetry. I've read the first of these (Luha ng Buwaya) and included it in my year-end list in 2012 (see #5). Note that book #6 in that list--Maganda pa ang Daigdig (1956) by Lazaro Francisco--already came out in translation as The World Is Still Beautiful (trans. Mona P. Highley). Crocodile Tears and The World Is Still Beautiful were sister novels in that both shared aspirations of agrarian reform and both dramatized direct resistance against an oppressive land tenure system. 

Hernandez was also a well regarded poet and short story writer. His most famous poem "Isang Dipang Langit" is required reading in Philippine literature classes. I posted an English translation somewhere in this blog.

Both novels will be translated by Danton Remoto and will be issued by Penguin Random House South East Asia. The second of this novel, Birds of Prey, was set in World War II during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. It had an earlier English translation by Estelita Constantino-Pangilinan in 1976 (as part of her master's thesis) which was published for the first time last year. The novel was seen as a sequel to José Rizal's El Filibusterismo. Another Lazaro Francisco novel, Ilaw sa Hilaga, was also a sequel to the same Rizal novel!




4. A Brief Investigation to a Long Melancholia (1990) by Edel Garcellano, translated by Bernard Capinpin

This is a highly modernist, theory-centric short novel filled with literary allusions of the times. Subtitled "First Book in a Trilogy" (Unang Aklat sa Trilohiya), the novelist never produced the follow up novels. (The same case as in the bilingual novel The Birthing of Hannibal Valdez by Alfrredo Navarro Salanga which was conceived as a trilogy but was never completed.) Edel Garcellano's novel was written in the span of two months when the author was awarded a literary fellowship grant in Italy.

The original book--now out of print--contained the following synopsis at the back.

Ang nobela ay una sa binabalak na trilohiya tungkol sa buhay at panahon ng mga tauhang alalaom baga'y paradima ng isang rehimen. Sa anyong science fiction (isang metodolohiya na nagsasangkap sa scenario building at imahinasyong malaparabula), ang larawan ng isang kaayusan, sa pagbabalik-tingin, ay pinatindi upang dalirutin, wika nga, ang idyolohikal na tagisan ng relasyon sa pag-ibig, uri at katauhan. Ang produksyon ng aklat na ito ay bunga rin ng mga kontradiksyon sa lipunan: sapagkat ito'y sinulat sa Como, Italya, sa biyaya ng Rockefeller Foundation, isang banyagang institusyon na nagpaunlak sa awtor upang makaupo nang matagalan sa estudyo, isang matamis-mapait na paradoha sapagkat hindi maanggihan ng kalinga ng mga lokal na ahensiyang nakatalaga diumano sa creative writing. 

The novel is the first in a projected trilogy about the life and times of characters who in some ways embody paradigms of a certain regime. Written in the form of science fiction (a method which combines scenario building with parable-like imagination), its illusion of order, in hindsight, was exaggerated in order to critique, so to speak, the ideological contestation between relationship and love, social class and personality. The book's production is also the end-product of contradictions in society: as this was written in Como, Italy, through the beneficence of Rockefeller Foundation, a foreign institution who indulged the author to sit for an extended period of time in a studio, a bittersweet paradox considering the author was not showered any attention by local agencies who were supposedly champions of creative writing. [my translation] 

In some ways, this novel was the author's meditation on literary theory, class struggle, and dictatorship while being sheltered abroad. It had a bit of an esoteric feel and yet propelled by a momentum of its own.

Not sure when this is coming out. Bernard Capinpin received the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for this translation project. The judges' citation made the book seem like a literary rock star.












But why stop there? Garcellano's other out-of-print cult novel, Ficcion (1978), was another unclassifiable specimen of collage writing, unapologetically Marxist and post-colonialist, a web of dialogues and anti-colonialist discourse (read: rant) interspersed with blistering stories of injustice, stitched together by quotations from a dubious mix of sources and personages, literary and otherwise: Pablo Neruda, Prince Charles, Beatles, Bob Dylan, Cesar Vallejo, Simone de Beauvoir, Kafka, Andres Bonifacio, Yeats, Newsweek articles, Bible verses, and so on. It was an assemblage of consciousness, a melange of artifacts. The genius was in the assembly. Any translator will have a headache and doubly hard time in replicating the word plays and the spirit of in-jokes. With a title that was the singular of Borges's creations, it was possibly the most formally inventive Tagalog novel.

5.  Ang Makina ni Mang Turing (The Machine of Old Turing) by Ramon Guillermo, translated by Bernard Capinpin

In many of his online translations, for example, this extract from A Brief Investigation, Capinpin was said to be currently working on a translation of Ang Makina ni Mang Turing. This was another challenging work to translate due to its acrostic nature. I look forward on how he would replicate the game at its center.

The title was a play on words. Turing was a Filipino diminutive for Arturo. Mang in Mang Turing is an address given to an older man as a form of respect. It could be translated as Old Turing but it would then lose its local specificity. The allusion was to Turing machine: more obvious if title is written in the possessive (Old Turing's Machine).

It was a detective novel slash novel of ideas, set in Europe in 1883, in the time period of Rizal, contemporaneous with the eruption of Mount Krakatau in Indonesia. The novel made use of a unique vocabulary, replicating how Filipinos must have spoken or written at the time, a sort of Tagnish, a combination of Tagalog and Spanish. With a puzzle at its center, its thematic concerns were war, war machine, war games, and games. War as prelude to colonialism; colonialism as political objective of war. It reminded me in places of The Master of Go by Kawabata Yasunari.

Here is the opening chapter, followed by my translation:

Mula sa kinatatayuan natin ngayon, kinamamanghaan natin ang kamangmangan ng mga panauhing pangkasaysayan tungkol sa kanilang sariling daigdig at panahon. Kapag nagbabasa ng mga kasaysayan ay umiiling-iling tayo habang pinagmamasdan silang lumulusob sa mga landas na nalalaman nating walang patutunguhan. Hindi natin sila mapipigilan habang sila’y tumatalon sa mga dagat na walang sukat ang kalaliman o buong tiwalang lumulusong sa malalapot na kumunoy na hindi na nila matatakasan. Natitiyak natin na ang mga experimento nila'y mabibigo kahit ilang beses pang ulit-ulitin. Paulit-ulit itong mabibigo.

Pero nakikita rin natin sa hindi mabilang na halimbawa na wala nang nilalang na mas matigas pa ang ulo kaysa sa isang taong ayaw tumanggap ng pagkatalo. Bugbog-sarado, pikit na ang isang mata, basag ang mga buto ng mga daliri, nakahandusay sa maruming canal, pero ang lagi pa ring sinasambit na parang nababaliw, “Darating din ang araw, maglalaho ang mga inaapi at nang-aapi, mababanaag ang pagkapantay-pantay ng sangkatauhan ...”

From our vantage point, we wonder at the folly of history's witnesses bungling their own place and epoch. As we read narratives of history, we shake our heads as we watch them navigate the roads that lead to nowhere. We cannot stop them as they jump at unfathomable seas or as they naively brave murky quicksands that swallowed them whole. We are sure their experiments will fail no matter how many times they try. They will fail repeatedly.

Yet we know from numerous examples that no one is more stubborn than a person who does not accept defeat. Beaten to a pulp, with one eye shut, broken fingers, lying prostrate on a dirty canal, but still uttering over and over like crazy, “The time will come when slaves and masters are no more, when equality of all rises on the horizon ...”


The following novels were recipient of the Translation Subsidy Program of the National Book Development Board. The complete list of grantees were posted here. Their publications are not assured but I sure hope they see print.

6. Ang Larong Nagwakas sa Atin (The Game That Finished Us Both) (2019) by Fe Esperanza Trampe

This is marketed by the publisher as a book for teens or YA. Two high school students of opposite sex compete for chess and vie for a scholarship. Only one will emerge as a winner. 

7. ABNKKBSNPLAKo?! by Bob Ong

Not a fan of this author. This book is a popular bestseller. I watched a movie version of this book. It was awful. You can check it out in Netflix. I would have preferred if the publisher submitted Si, which is a more mature novel of this author.

8. Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw (Three Nights, Three Days) by Eros S. Atalia 

I selected this as a favorite book in 2014 (see #10 in this post). My short overview of the book made it sound like a horror story. It's actually spec fic. Or maybe an ecological fable. I'm not sure anymore. I'm also not sure if the translation will appeal to me.


I said I would only list novels. But last year saw print Love Potion and Other Stories by Alvin Yapan, translated by Randy M. Bustamante. I read Bustamante's version of the epic poem Florante at Laura. It was decent but I am still on the look out for the version of Marne Kilates.

Upcoming story collections to be translated into English and worth checking out are: 

Kulto ni Santiago: Mga usipon sa Bikol asin Filipino (Santiago's Cult: Stories in Biko and Filipino Languages) by Kristian Sendon Cordero. I read the title story in an anthology called Mondo Marcos and I still could not get it out of my mind. I have a copy of the anthology Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines (Gaudy Boy, 2021) and I saw the Cordero's title story "Santiago's Cult" translated by Capinpin. Our Lady of Imelda, Cordero's first story collection (although I saw it subtitled and described as "Two Essays"), is also being translated by Capinpin.

Is There Rush Hour in a Third World Country by Rogelio Braga, translated by Kristine Ong Muslim, is forthcoming from 87 Press (UK).   


Related posts:

Bibliography of Philippine novels in English translation, 2

A list of Philippine novels in English translation 

15 February 2022

Schrödinger's cat was a zombie


When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West (Pushkin Press, 2020) 


Amateur Reader teased the Sebaldian tendencies of Benjamín Labatut's Anthropocene novel of verdure. There was simply an overabundance of associations in the novel. The first part, for example, on the blue pigment Prussian blue, had the breathless pace of curated details on art and science chained together in journalistic fashion, laced with bitter irony, and fueled by the inexhaustible capacity of human beings (scientists, particularly) to ingeniously engineer human cruelty (in wars or otherwise) at a massive scale. The kinetic sentences moved along like unstable noble gases spreading and branching in every direction and circling around ideas the narrative will return to time and again in the remaining four parts.





A sentence could leave a trail of associations, threaded by the splendor of ironical statements about fallible mankind and his folly.

An ingredient in Dippel’s elixir would eventually produce the blue that shines not only in Van Gogh’s Starry Night and in the waters of Hokusai’s Great Wave, but also on the uniforms of the infantrymen of the Prussian army, as though something in the colour’s chemical structure invoked violence: a fault, a shadow, an existential stain passed down from those experiments in which the alchemist dismembered living animals to create it, assembling their broken bodies in dreadful chimeras he tried to reanimate with electrical charges, the very same monsters that inspired Mary Shelley to write her masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, in whose pages she warned of the risk of the blind advancement of science, to her the most dangerous of all human arts. 

Panning from one proper noun to the next, from one journalistic anecdote to another, from Prussian blue in paintings to literature, Labatut attempted to reanimate historic details in relation to another, sandwiching highly selected facts between layers of human drama and madness. Inevitably, the tone veered toward grand pronouncements about important discoveries. We knew they were important. We knew they must be couched in verdure.

He was convinced that mathematics, physics and astronomy constituted a single body of knowledge and believed that Germany was capable of exercising a civilizing force comparable to that of ancient Greece. To do so, however, its science must be raised to the heights already achieved by its philosophy and art, for “only a vision of the whole, like that of a saint, a madman or a mystic, will permit us to decipher the true organizing principles of the universe.” 

In a way, Labatut was after that singular holistic vision. But what of his organizing principle in this fictional creation? What structure behind the scientific revolutions did he want to build? 

One could talk about its form. There was innovation there enough. The novelist admitted in the afterword about the nonfictional elements and situations becoming more and more relaxed by the end of the narrative. Real facts and events were losing their foothold: the "motifs" fully revealed and taking over at the end and synthesizing the whole invention. 

Here may be a unique specimen of fiction. Here we encountered a form of literary criticism of science, or criticism applied to scientific ideas generated by mad geniuses of the day, giving rise to philosophical and historical and dare I say artistic consequences.

The novelist happened to assemble his elements--his artful method to madness and precise craziness--around these motifs, which were the "stitch" made to hold the found materials. The novelist happened to assemble dark and Important Historical Motifs such as death by gas in the first and second world wars; a glimpse into the fundamental nature of matter; excess nutrients giving rise to a speculative apocalyptic event in the future where a terrible vegetation will colonize the world and dominate the food chain; the abyss (black hole) engulfing everything; the uncertainty principle and what it implies about the unpredictability of quantum objects.

Let's not talk about form: five separate yet interconnected tales. The organizing principle was discrete "motifs". Sometimes, powerful connections were unleashed, but with the insistence on falling back to a predetermined set of motifs. The recurrence of thematic concepts/images came to be expected and "only connect" became a predictable pastime for the reader. 

About his method, the novelist shared in an interview that "What I did was combine things that are true by themselves but not true as a whole." With only connect as the animating principle to create the fictional whole, this may or may not be an approximation of the aesthetics of Labatut's prominent literary model. In an interview, W. G. Sebald shared his aesthetics of falsification in his prose fiction.

The truth value of the story does not depend on its actual truth content. The truth value depends on how it is framed and phrased. If a story is aesthetically right, then it is probably also morally right. You cannot really translate one to one from reality. If you try to do that, in order to get at a truth value through writing, you have to falsify and lie. And that is one of the moral quandaries of the whole business. [emphasis added]

Sebald demarcated the lines not between truth and fiction but between "truth content" and "truth value" in fiction and acknowledged that fiction writing using actual truth contents as the material ballast of the writing was always about making moral choices and moral judgements. Right or wrong was not based on actual truth content of the writing but depended on the gut feel of what is aesthetically right, the framing and phrasing (read: stitching) possibly giving indications of the writing's truth value. It's all questionable, Sebald admitted. 

The differentiation between what is powerfully true and what is blatantly false in writing could come down to whether the aesthetics felt right. This could justify the whole business of falsification. In a narrative of nested associations, did the connections seem organically connected to each other or did they seem forced or foisted on the reader? The moment one made an association, there was already an appeal to recognize the artificial connection. At the simplest level, a metaphor linking two ideas could be considered as original or novel if it burst the bubble of familiarity. A trap for novels discussing physics, especially the quantum world, and also mathematics, lay in the way they aspire to profundity in laymanizing science and equations so as not to disappear into the abyss of abstractions. The writer had to carefully work out practical metaphors and apply them to the ungraspable concepts of fundamental particles.

But Heisenberg knew they were all wrong. Electrons were neither waves nor particles. The subatomic world was unlike anything they had ever known. Of this he was utterly certain, his conviction running so deep that he was incapable of putting it into words. Because something had been revealed to him. Something that defied all explanation. Heisenberg had glimpsed a dark nucleus at the heart of things. And if that vision was not true, had all his suffering been in vain? [emphasis supplied]

Parts of When We Cease to Understand the World were precious writing, in both good and bad ways. We could observe see how metaphors break down when discussing scientific insights or the rigors of knowledge and madness, how it could only ever recycle clichés about certain paradoxes behind the equations, repeat the same astonishments that greeted the shock of discovery and recognition, resurrect the stereotypical behaviors of obsessed, erratic, intelligent, mad scientists. Science has the capacity to advance ways of life and at the same time undo it. Similarly, metaphors could certainly advance the interest of the novel and at the same time efficiently undo it. 

Labatut was always re-formulating his ideas, offering elegant variations of the same concepts through contrived re-echoes. From "fistful of equations" to "handful of equations", he would map out the genius's propensity for acquiring knowledge and building upon the works of others and somehow, tragically, describe how circumstances would fail the genius, ceasing to understand the world or what being human meant or failing to identify with other human beings, allowing the deaths of unimaginable number of innocent civilians in wars. During the most critical moments, the best scientists who were granted free agency, the will to decide, to select the most appropriate course action, almost always fucked up.

As to detecting the truth value behind something already designed with the ends (motifs) in mind, the novelist could only rely on the readers' shallow powers of association to: (1) recognize the obvious paradoxes and ethical dilemmas of science, and (2) unravel an artificial synthesis of scientific breakthroughs in the dark ages. The paradox of scientific progress was, of course, the fact that for every forward step toward securing knowledge to better the conditions of humanity, we take two steps backward.

The sudden realization that it was mathematics—not nuclear weapons, computers, biological warfare or our climate Armageddon—which was changing our world to the point where, in a couple of decades at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant. Not that we ever did, he said, but things are getting worse. We can pull atoms apart, peer back at the first light and predict the end of the universe with just a handful of equations, squiggly lines and arcane symbols that normal people cannot fathom, even though they hold sway over their lives.

With regard to the overall synthesizing effect, the whole novel was afflicted with a kind of eco-anxiety or ecological paranoia. Destructive overabundance (the "terrible verdure") was the novelist's choice of alarmist death knell. Frankly, I would have preferred he tackled the more urgent biodiversity loss or "climate Armageddon", but the hardly cinematic, "invisible" greenhouse gases or vanishing wildlife might not be as colorful or as painterly as the pigments of blue or carbonized black. 

So he stuck to the nutrient overload, product of excess nitrogen fixated in plants, producing man-made imbalance after breaching the limits to growth. The verdure was our apparent doom, a feasible destiny awaiting mankind at civilization's end. But it was not purely anthropogenic it turned out.

What was marvellous but at the same time horrible about the process, the girl said, was that these offspring [of a female aphid] would in turn produce offspring of their own after just a few hours of life; these new creatures were themselves gestating while still inside their mother. Three generations were nestled one inside the other, in a sort of dreadful Russian doll, a super-organism that embodied nature’s tendency to overabundance, which elsewhere compelled certain birds to produce more chicks than they could feed, so that the dominant fledgling would murder its siblings, pushing them from the nest. In some species, such as the shark, it was even worse, Miss Herwig explained, as the eggs hatched inside the mother’s womb, with teeth sufficiently developed to devour the young that came after them; this fratricidal predation gave them the necessary nourishment to survive during the first weeks of life when they were vulnerable enough to be preyed on by the same fish they themselves would feed on as adults. 

Not the most graphic description in the book, but the violence was striking in the evolutionary behavior of aphids, birds, and sharks. Overabundance was also apparently a freak of nature. 

Labatut offered an amusing refresher on maths and physics, with a verdure twist. In combining individual true things to produce a fictional whole, the writer was reanimating a Frankenstein cat: a pastiche cat made of discrete body parts and forming a weird whole. The whole book must resemble a thought experiment gone haywire. In Schrödinger's bloodless experiment, referenced near the end of the title story of the English translation, a paradox was evinced when a cat was considered to be both alive and dead at the same time. One obvious interpretation was that the cat was a zombie. Labatut was reanimating a zombie cat. 

10 February 2022

The giant lie in The Buried Giant


I was thinking how The Buried Giant was an elegant variation on Kazuo Ishiguro's (KI's) themes: memory, forgetting, historical wrongs. However, he had pulled the rug from under the feet of his characters. Instead of unreliable narrators recalling their past, he enshrouded his ancient English world with a literal mist where anyone under it was under the spell of forgetting. Unreliable through and through, and the small chinks of memory creeping in were as precious as madeleines.

In the current post-truth world order, of course, that mist was already enveloping our consciousness. The racists and xenophobes in us would hardly flinch at the vocabulary of hate permeating the stratosphere. Some of us gullible enough would stand behind leaders and dictators (and dictators' sons) and preach the gospel of unity and unification and empty platitudes. Even Sir Gawain to the end held steadfast to his loyalty to King Arthur's reign despite the stain of colonialism and genocide that marked all conquests and wars.



A passage from the novel:

Edwin appeared to comprehend the soldier’s wishes, if not his actual words, for he left the mare and came to join Wistan. As he did so, the soldier [Gawain] adjusted slightly the position of his horse. Axl, noticing this, understood immediately that the soldier was maintaining a particular angle and distance between himself and his charges that would give him the greatest advantage in the event of sudden conflict. Before, with Wistan standing where he was, the head and neck of the soldier’s own horse would momentarily have obstructed his first swing of the sword, giving Wistan vital time either to unsettle the horse, or run to its blind side, where the sword’s reach was diminished in scope and power by having to be brought across the body. But now the small adjusting of the horse had made it practically suicidal for an unarmed man, as Wistan was, to storm the rider. The soldier’s new position seemed also to have taken expert account of Wistan’s mare, loose some distance behind the soldier’s back. Wistan was now unable to run for his horse without describing a wide curve to avoid the sword side of the rider, making it a near-certainty he would be run through from behind before reaching his destination. 

This passage came after the old man Axl denied knowing anything about soldiery to the warrior Wistan. Wistan questioned him three times, I think, and the old man refused to acknowledge his military past at every time, like Peter denying Jesus thrice over. Yet from the passage alone it was all too evident to the reader that Axl was in his prime a full pledged soldier. 

The third person point of view shifted its subject from one person (Edwin) to another (Gawain) before alighting to Axl. It was apparent from Axl's perception of slight shifts and nuances in the fighters' postures that he knew swordsmanship and had battle experience. The carefully calibrated phrases, the efficient way of anticipating a fatal curve, and the way the position of the horse was considered: it was a well choreographed blocking of characters amid a tense situation.

Axl was silent throughout his observation of the military posture of both the soldier Gawain and the warrior Wistan. Yet the free indirect thought (not speech, because silent), made him a liar. Did he deny his past unknowingly (because of the mist) or knowingly (because of voluntary forgetfulness). KI's mist was a convenient shroud to cover up the faint stirrings of memory so that uncomfortable things that happened in the past remain hidden. So we were still in the territory of unreliability after all. The mist just intensified what Axl was trying his best not to remember. Clearly there was guilt behind his conviction to deny his past and happily forget. Early on, the reader might be flagged that this is a tale told by liars inside a mist and by soldiers with shady pasts but the reader was not sure anymore if the forgetfulness was due to the mist or a forced deception of the self. The construct of the mist was obscuring everything and it's hard to differentiate what was forgotten, half-remembered, imagined, or knowingly denied.

The dragon held the key to banishing the mist, and the cast of characters (the old couple Axl and Beatrice, Wistan the warrior, Edwin the warrior-in-the-making, and Gawain the knight) ventured off and journeyed to the dragon's lair. KI wanted to imbue each character with a redemption arc so he supplied a back story for each and described their conflicting motivations even as their selfish/personal interests collided. Along the way, then novelist opened up debates about self-imposed forgetfulness and the uses and manipulations of memory. 

What is the true cost of remembering? Was it okay to just forgive and forget past atrocities (or offenses) so everyone can just move on with their lives? Just how grave must the atrocities (and offenses) be so that bygones could not be bygones? What combination of wrongs and circumstances can make it justified to be silent about the past?

Imagine a character in a novel with a perfect memory (read: Aira), one who never forgets up to a certain timestamp (read: Handke). Fickle memory had no place in its world. Dementia was but a memory(!) Such a world fails through and through since one could not escape the full auditing of life and history. The mechanism of perfect and imperfect memories was a promising subject to pin down in novels, fantasy or otherwise. The characters in these novels almost always failed to prosper beyond the reckoning of the past. The novelists either forgot the perfect ending or were quite content to an open-ended and unfinished resolution.

KI's insertion of fantastical beasts into his novel was not a trick of sorts. It was the great big lie: a telling metaphor. He was the spin doctor of reality. He opened up an uncomfortable inquiry into domestic and historical iniquities and infamies. Must a dragon be slain first for memory to return and a nation to wake up from the totalitarian deep shit of self-deception? Why is it we could not see beyond the big lie in front of us and keep deluding ourselves when it comes to the historical, well documented atrocities committed by a dictator and his family? #NeverAgain #NeverForget 


03 February 2022

Notes on The Buried Giant


Why is it when I read Kazuo Ishiguro I could laser-focus on what he's saying in the text before me? Was it a product of leisurely pacing of his prose? The slightly off yet so careful turns of phrase which intensified the act of reading. There were no overt modernist hijinks and purple pyrotechnics where readers multitask their mind to absorb the stream of images and weirdness. Ishiguro's modernism was hidden under the surface, buried like an egg or an iceberg. The readerly sensors in me could not help but observe the niceties and subtleties and embroideries of fantasy. He did display a tendency for the outlier in the dream logic (or illogic) of The Unconsoled. What he put on the page were all surface mannerisms. Behind the mise-en-scène lurked a fog of feelings, meanings, and epiphanies.

A strange spell befell the lands in what must be medieval times backdrop of The Buried Giant. Like a persistent (read: permanent) hangover, a mist of forgetfulness hung in the air. A physical and figurative fog dimmed the memories, both individual and collective, of inhabitants, Saxons and Britons both. If, indeed, collective memories existed. (Susan Sontag would like to qualify the concept). What caused this shady state of unremembered affairs? Ishiguro would bring us on a journey to discover the hidden mechanism of his forgotten world. 

The sally into unknown territories was led by Axl and Beatrice, the old couple who kept half-remembering or half-forgetting some possibly earth-shaking super-spreader events in the past. They would travel some distance to visit the dwellings of their son, whom they somehow half-forgotten, half-remembered. Along the way they would band together with a brave warrior looking after a dragon and a child cursed and expelled by his community. The setup was intriguing. Time would tell if all the elements would hang in a logical framework or the half-baked mist would simply evaporate and bring out the pot of gold in the light of day.

The narrator was partly to blame for his all-knowing asides and patronizing attitude to the reader. His writerly tone was rather irksome, but that was just me. He knew more than he would let know. 

In one such area on the edge of a vast bog, in the shadow of some jagged hills, lived an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice. Perhaps these were not their exact or full names, but for ease, this is how we will refer to them. I would say this couple lived an isolated life, but in those days few were “isolated” in any sense we would understand.

Thankfully, after a couple of chapters, the point of view would shift so that reader would no longer be at mercy of this narrator who would constantly check himself lest he spill the big secret and not-so-small mystery. Why, for instance, would the community of Axl and Beatrice take away their candles? 

Why, in the first place, would anyone forget but not forgive? As Beatrice quipped, “It’s queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.” The pandemic of amnesia held sway over the land, and there seemed to be no remedy or inoculation in sight. 

All this forgetfulness: it's obvious people often lacked a sense of history. We kept on forgetting not because historical truth was inconvenient. We forgot because truth hurts. And people always loved to be hurt and to commit mass suicide. #NeverAgain #DisqualifyMarcos #MarcosDuwag

“But there’s one place we need to be cautious. Axl, are you listening to me? It’s when the path goes over where the giant is buried. To one who doesn’t know it, it’s an ordinary hill, but I’ll signal to you and when you see me you’re to follow off the path and round the edge of the hill till we meet the same path on its way down. It’ll do us no good treading over such a grave, high noon or not. Are you fully understanding me, Axl?” [emphasis supplied]

Like a giant buried hastily under the mound of a hill, shared history was a painful malaise, an irremediable malady, and hence must not be definitive. Historical truth, which had a ring of truth about it, was usually a product of unspeakable violence, so traumatic one must not excavate let alone speak of it lest the leviathan wakes. To remember in the world of Axl and Beatrice was taboo. One must not contaminate history because the offspring of history is truth, Cervantes admonished. Or was it Menard?

“How can it be they forget even this, and so soon after watching the warrior leave with two of their own cousins to do what none of them had the courage for? Is it shame makes their memories so weak or simply fear?” 

Shame and fear. It must be both. It had to be. Fiction is the father of historical revisionism, the sibling of post-truth, favorite cousin of fake news. Trolls were manufacturers of shame and fear. It must be shameful to remember. It must be fearsome. So we create our own comfortable false fictions in our minds and cast out true fiction. Because true fictions (i.e., ficciones) are a powerful set of tools to excavate the buried giants in our midst. I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, the narrator spoke in the first person, but sometimes boldly addressed his story to "you" and yet he often qualified his observations with "perhaps" as if to distance himself from accountability. Then he would seem to disappear in the fog of free indirect style. By Chapter Four, the narrator yielded the point of view to another character, the boy Edwin, newly outcast from his Saxon community for being bitten by a monster. His community and kin were too superstitious and cowardly to let go of the fresh bite marks on the boy and the terrific image they project.

By Chapter Five (the end of the novel's first of four parts), the point of view seemed to shift to an omniscient one, the "learned" narrator who couldn't help himself to be encyclopedic and bubbly, becoming muted or perhaps he was already bored. Ishiguro's dialogues often veer into wooden exchanges. The sparks of wit and humor (as in the labyrinths of unrelenting confusion in The Unconsoled or the brute force reckoning of The Remains of the Day) were somehow dampened. 

To compensate for his dull dialogues, the novelist relied on wayward, expressive gestures. He particularly loved describing his characters at an angle. I mean, peering at something at a bent posture, making a pronounced angle from a vertical stance, as if to heighten the intensity and fire inside his characters.

His [Edwin's] eyes were fixed on the warrior’s back just in front of him, though intermittently he would angle his head to one side, as though trying to peer around the warrior’s legs at the thing on the ground. 

He [Ivor] was quite elderly, and though his back was relatively straight, his neck and head protruded from his shoulders at a grotesque angle. Nonetheless all present appeared to yield to his authority—the dog too ceased barking and vanished into the shadows. 

He [Wistan] seemed suddenly to see something in Axl’s own features and, for a small moment, to forget what he had been saying. He gazed intently at Axl, angling his head.

The angle shots in these three separate passages about three separate characters made the reader lean heavily on one side and appreciate the keen concentration of the characters.