12 May 2024

Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway (Bleeding Sun)


Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway (Bleeding Sun) by Rogelio Sicat, translated by Ma. Aurora L. Sicat (Penguin Random House SEA, 2024)





The agrarian novel was a rich vein in Philippine novel writing. It pitted farmers against landlords, the powerless against the powerful. Class conflict was the canvas of the novelist where he painted stories of social injustice and human rights abuses. The imbalance of power originated from cacique democracy, which, according to Benedict Anderson, prevailed during the latter part of the Spanish occupation of the Philippines in late 19th century up to the American imperialism and beyond. Several masterful Filipino writers explored this type of dramatic conflicts, the most notable of which were produced by novelists such as Lázaro Francisco (The World Is Still Beautiful, translated by Mona P. Highley), Servando de los Angeles (The Last Timawa, translated by Soledad S. Reyes), Amado V. Hernandez (Crocodile's Tears, translated by Danton Remoto), and F. Sionil José (Dusk and Tree). An important Filipino novel which had the same thematic concern was Rogelio Sicat's novel Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway, first serialized in Liwayway magazine from September 1965 to February 1966. It was now finally translated by his daughter Ma. Aurora L. Sicat and published in English translation after almost 60 years.

Dugo means blood while bukang-liwayway is a mouthful, yet beautiful, Filipino term for daybreak or sunrise. The title of Sicat's novel could literally mean "blood (spilled) at dawn." Bleeding Sun was an inspired choice for a title; it had a poetic ring to it. And it was apt, given the agrarian struggle depicted in the novel, which was also subtitled "The Tale of a Farmer's Crushed Dreams and Hopes." The publication of this translation was of great cultural and literary significance. Hence, one could forgive the misspelled "liwaway" in the book cover and title pages. I read the Kindle version, and I'd also buy the print edition, once available, for my collection of translated Philippine novels.

There are two farmers in the novel: Tano and his son, Simon. Their story was set against the backdrop of Philippine history. The novel deliberately interspersed "journalistic" narration of historical events during and after the American colonial period. There were also scenes of Japanese occupation in the country. Through this novelistic melding of public and private histories, Sicat welds the political and historical forces with the farm labor and land economy which favors the landlords and brings them wealth. For tenant farmers working the rich landowner's farm, work was backbreaking.

His [Tano's] legs were shaking. He had patiently been planting the seedlings the whole day. Like other farmers, he was moving swiftly because they did not own the land and hence were not too eager to cultivate the best crops. Nonetheless, growing rice was their livelihood, their bread and butter, their only means of survival. Their only choice was either to work to survive, or starve to death.

Simon's mother died while giving birth to him after the landlord refused to extend help during the delicate childbirth. Tano took care of the child on his own, sent him to school, and taught him farming (the only way he knew to support their living) although Tano never wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become a slave of land. It was not only masters, however, that poor farmers like Tano had to contend with. Natural disasters, in the form of a very destructive typhoon or an extreme dry spell, were tricks of fate that befall the unfortunate tillers of land. Sicat realistically portrayed the rhythms and routine of agricultural life in the first half of the twentieth century. He imbued his struggling characters with dignity despite the bad luck and cruel and whimsical landlords that accompany their lot in life. 

The sun in the title was the constant witness to this daily grind and toil on the land. In setting and rising without fail, the sun was arbiter of time and shaper of destinies. Tano later fell sick, lost his right to farm the land due to this illness, and died. Although poverty was not a birthright or an asset, it was passed on to Simon. It was now Simon's time to struggle on his own. Because of the abuses he and his family received from the landowner Paterno Borja, Simon vowed to amass wealth and seek revenge.

06 April 2024

1762 redux


(Related post

"But are the men prepared to resist not just one but a possibility of two enemies? None of us expected things would turn out like this."

It is 2024 and history is repeating itself. It was 1972 and history was waving its smirking flag. It was 1945 and a battle was claiming lives pointlessly. It was 1899 and betrayals were the rage. It was 1896 and loyalties ran dry. It was 1872 and executions were par for the course. It was 1762 and Brexit was born. 

"We've come to this godforsaken island for business. The sooner we can get out of here, the better."

Who would have thought that a 262-year old war still had so many things to say about contemporary foolishness, war trophies, warmongering and revolt, the conquered mindset, the conquistador mindset, myopic political decisions? A cryptic war, the 1762 British occupation of Manila. Buried in time, in the dustbin of history, but here resurrected with a stylistic flourish and imaginative brilliance by Vin dela Serna Lopez, a debutant novelist. Costume drama, period film, historical fantasy. It all unearthed the intrigues and hysterics of an overcast day.

They entered the walled city now sweltering in filth and wet weather. The clouds had always hung low over the Plaza Mayor since the arrival of the British, and in contrast to the pastel days of peacetime, its streets now assumed a grayish visual palette, as though they were always looking forward to the passage of some funeral.

The very atmosphere and mood of the period was captured in a prose wearing the patina of colonialism and the varnish of deathly expectation. The novel 1762 was a depiction of wartime situations in Manila in the latter part of that year when British forces, during the final year of the Seven Years' War, invaded Filipinas, which was then under Spanish rule for almost two centuries. 

An omnipresent narrator was giving his assessment of history, connecting the dots across time and place, taking brief moments to announce his presence to the readers. The narrator was not that too intrusive; he just tore the fabric of time. (See, for example, pages 245, 282, and 285). And what a story it was. A reflection about wars fueled by human avarice and Putinic delusions of power. It was not a dry recounting of well-researched events but one full of emotions, arresting imagery, and descriptive flair.

Pre-British, it started with the founding of a Filipino revolutionary group called Brotherhood of the Molave, a template for all movements doomed to fail because of a lack of cohesion and telltale signs of crab mentality. Because groupthink. Because leadership squabbles. Just because. The very same becauses and flaws that plagued the Katipunan and allowed national heroes to succumb to other (so-called) national heroes. The disruptive Chapter 4 of the novel, a rend in the fabric of time, was the master key of the novel, the break that allowed the creatures in Pandora's box to reveal their true natures and revel in the world created by the novel's fiction. The problematic Chapter 4 turned out to be the novel's problématique.

"Why is it," he said, "the we all share a single vision, but no one knows how to get there?"

"How can we know," she replied. "We do not even have an idea who we are."

The sentiment was of course shared many times over by many other Filipino novelists and cultural commentators in their own times seeking to unmask an identity straddling many different facets, diagnosed in 1987 by James Fallows as "a damaged culture" in an essay of the same name, an essay as provocative as it was obsolescent, whose words still ring true for obvious reasons and no longer ring true for not so obvious reasons.

Reading 1762 in 2024 and thinking about how its lessons reverberate (or fail to reverberate) through time felt like a quixotic preoccupation. The quixoticism was lifted by the richness of ironic ideas, revealing the rubble of history that perpetually invites materialism and the war economy to swoop down and profiteer and cannibalize on what was left. A scene immediately after the post-British cannonade:

He organized a private reception for Draper and his officers, and on that occasion obtained the contract for assessing and repairing the damage along the walls. Rafael, to whom Don Diego assigned the surveying of the fortifications without the aid of engineers, found the southern curtains all but nonexistent, the Bastion of San Andres itself crushed beyond recognition, its red adobe arsenal beaten into a pulp, its grassy courtyard converted into a grave. Puerta Real, with its thick wooden doors smashed down the middle by pickaxes and its arch and ramparts hewed and hammered by howitzer balls, stood like a proud and mighty son of a bitch in spite of its dozens of flesh wounds. The Bastion of San Diego suffered so much from the left orillon eastward, which the interlopers climbed and scaled, its tower of cut stone bared like a bone out of a blasted leg. Earth had given way and had slid out of the breach, protruding like clotted blood where the moat once flowed into.

It was in that Joaquínesque prose register that the novel gained much of its heft. The writing in the first few long chapters, prior to the British arrival up to the brutal war scenes, displayed well-thought out choreography of events and a panoramic sense of unfolding apocalypse. By the time the Spanish capitulated and political wranglings on the fate of Filipinas commenced and the exorbitant war ransom to be paid to the British was being negotiated, the chapters became shorter in length and the narratives splintered into many characters, diluting the sense of the epic while pursuing a myriad of human motivations converging on a single outcome. We were no longer in open combat but in a period of calm before a new storm, ushering the chaos of war inside the negotiating chambers of the Spanish clergy and British military men. The long drawn out negotiations of war ransom was punctuated by an exchange of nascent ideas on nationalism and old ideas about colonialism.

Draper ... instead quizzed the governor on his decisions to put the archbishop in charge of civilian affairs.

"It makes sense when you consider our lack of object for the people to assiduously venerate," Drake explained. "I had to concede some appointments to the enemy to placate the troublesome elements."


"You have to know these kinds of people. They cannot civilize themselves, don't know what their values are, what they exactly aspire for. They are always in need of people to look up to—their heroes, without which they willingly resort to tyrants and gods."

It was after all a colonial work of fiction in sometimes modernist, post-colonial garb. But still, a predictable analysis of imperialism, that. Veneration without understanding was the default mindset of the conquered noble savage from the point of view of the conqueror and their sympathizers. Does not really explain why in so-called civilized societies during this "enlightened" era people willingly resort to a Donald or a Vladimir. 

By 1762, the implant of Spanish Catholic faith has so rooted the Indio on the spot that his subservience to a god divine and existing in the triple guises of a holy trinity could no longer be easily swayed by the British import of brutishness. 

"By failing to raise the first million dollars demanded of you according to our terms, you, Your Excellency, have neglected the people."


"Strip me naked. All you can see is but the body of Christ."

Drake laughed. "Spare me your sophistries. You had the chance to surrender the Filipino but I'm afraid greed has gotten in the way of your theology."

"The Filipino is lost. For all we know she is already sunken, burnt, or captured by pirates! You've got the Santisima Trinidad, what more do you want?"

Henry Brooke, the well-bearded County Kildare native, raised an index finger from where he sat at the far corner. "The Saint Sima Trinda is a spoil of war. We captured it ourselves so it should not be counted part of the first installation [ransom installment?]."

The conversation between British military Drake and Spanish Archbishop Rojo was about galleon ships Filipino and Santisima Trinidad as war spoils. But the italics was a feint. Straighten the letters, replace "Santisima Trinidad" with "God", and we're talking business. The Filipino is lost. She was already captured by British pirates who would bleed her dry. Where before the Spanish was bleeding the country dry. God (or religion) is a spoil of war.

Our well-behaved narrator is a student of history, reconstructing momentous events, giving voice to characters of historical import, retracing their steps and motivations for destruction (of self-destruction). A few references to the pandemic (lockdown of Intramuros, the new normal), a few quixotic turns later (mention of a book being considered to be translated into Arabic, an origin story about a character called Rosinante [sic]), the reader arrives at the climactic section of the novel where Divina Paula, a young woman and seer, had been hallucinating images. In one scene, a montage of images flashed before her, some recognizable moments in history but which, in the world of 1762, was future.

A recapitulation of a hundred years of weariness which once again Divina Paula had to suffer in the recurrence of painful apparitions trapped in her memories from the future. She saw some more of those visions before his body dissolved into the wall's abysmal shadow: the end of the terrible epochs of galleons and gibbets, the midnight descent of torches from the mountains, the departure of hereditary lords and the rise of sugar barons, the transition to a long century through an orgy of blood and water, the rape of women at the ruins of bombed-out churches and universities, new empires waking up on the heels of an endless procession of widows, the blue heat in the fiery age of machines, the static quietude of a white noise known to us as the new millennium.

After seeing these fragments of the future,  she "was about to submit herself to the hopelessness present in those who had witnessed history's moral collapse." Like Walter Benjamin's angel of history, she "sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage." She had a peek into history's hysterical unfolding. Unlike her, we who never learned our lessons perceive not a single unified calamity but "a chain of events." That may be why we could not adapt to historical disruptions and the natural histories of destruction, We always came unprepared, like people perennially caught off guard by The Big One.

We did not make the connections from a sequence of past tragedies. We react too little too late. We who were drawn to the same mistakes, doomed to repeat our folly like a young moth circling a burning candle, inevitably drawn to the flame. We were toast.

30 January 2024

Almost an interpretation


Pasalubong (Presents) by Maria Rilkë Arguelles (Philippine High School for the Arts and Grana-PH Book Publishing, 2022)


"Real art has the capacity to make us nervous," said Susan Sontag in her essay "Against Interpretation," where she expressed her displeasure at interpreting (or taming) works of art to conform to how one apprehends this world. "As if there were any other", she scoffed. Sontag viewed interpretation as an impoverishment of the soul, a depletion of the world by establishing a shadow world of "meanings". For her, interpretation is a trapdoor. It makes art manageable and comfortable. Some writers (Sontag called them "overcooperative" authors) would "be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work itself ... the clear and explicit interpretation of it." 

And here I come to write about a book of poetry that made me nervous. Here was a collection that resisted interpretation, that was always on the verge of interpreting itself but did not succumb to reviewer-friendly posturing which exposes hidden truths and hidden secrets and desires.

Poetry books like Pasalubong by Maria Rilkë Arguelles are what tempt me to make a deep dive into Philippine poetry. Maybe a reading challenge of reading Filipino poets for a year. Pasalubong did not fall prey to easy categorization and self-interpretation. It did not relieve the reader of his itch to explain things away. The poems stood their ground; the poet was adamant. The poems might have tried to delineate a self or an identity, zooming out time and again to the collective, the masses waiting in the train stations of urbanscape. However much the lines try to unclothe meanings, the puzzle remained unsolved, the mystery unresolved:

Ganito mo sya hinuhubaran:
paisa-isang salita,
paisa-isang linya.

[This is how you strip her:
one word at a time,
one verse at a time.]

The compactness of ideas, the fleetingness of frozen images kept the vitality of emotions vulnerable yet intact. Seesawing images were the units of discovery behind the words and verses. One image at a time: that was how the feelings unfold in the pages of the collection. Arguelles's short, crisp poems accommodated a pile of images colliding against each other. The puzzle pieces were at the brink of being fitted on the board, only for the reader to discover mismatches in the metaphors.

To be sure the poet doled out images like bread crumbs but did not make them a subject of intelligibility or palatability. Cards on a table, the poems were transparently laid out on the page. But each one appeared to be unfinished moments in the history of a young artist, the mystery at the center revealed only by tentative interpretations.

Sa aninag sa salamin ng nakakuwadradong larawan, iba na ang inuusisang hitsura. Hindi ko lubusang masabi na ako ang nasa litrato.

[In the mirror's reflection of the framed picture, the image being examined has changed. I can no longer be certain that I am the person in the picture.]

Like any search for a final identity or a final consciousness, the self remained unfinished and a work in progress. Narratives were better left unfinished because selves were never definitive, always incomplete. Life goes on long after the wisdom teeth broke out to the surface.

As in the poet's namesake Rainer Maria Rilke in the Duino elegies, we could detect in Arguelles's lines a questioning of the burden of interpretation.

Matapos ang biyahe, matapos maglapag
ng samotsaring danas at lumbay

sa pahina: magpatangay
sa hangin, hayaang mailibing ng pagkakataon.
Damhin, sa lupa, ang sigaw ng sinukob at sabayan

ang pag-angat ng alimuom na unti-unting
kukumot sa kilala nating mundo.

After the journey, after setting down
the wilderness of pain and sadness

on the page: let the wind
convey you; let chance bury you under ground.
Feel, in the earth, the clamor of the world and join

the rising petrichor slowly enveloping
this interpreted world.]

Because interpreted, the world was all too familiar, and yet it was being blanketed by the haze of petrichor, the after-scent of rain. The familiar was becoming unfamiliar; the uninterpreted world became an interpreted one, the source of Rilke's anxiety in the first Duino elegy: Not Angels, not humans, / and the sly animals see at once / how little at home we are / in the interpreted world.

Is Pasalubong representative of Philippine poetry collections? No, definitely not. 

Is it representative of the best works in Philippine poetry? Yes.  

Can it stand alongside international poetry? Yes. So then let it be tested. "Let it be translated," as Roberto Bolaño exhorted, plagiarizing or paraphrasing Borges. A creative (non-literal) translation that did not presuppose mere literary interpretation.

In Arguelles's debut collection, a pragmatic and observant voice laid down her thoughts about everyday stuff. A breakthrough poet was starting to notice more deeply, however much she tried to suppress the metaphor from spreading fully its wings, however much she muted the colors of perception. The collection already had the cavalier attitude of a seasoned poet, the discipline to sustain a singular voice and be restrained, despite some unexplained, undefinable source of pain or loneliness. 

"What matters in [the film Last Year in Marienbad]," said Sontag, is not its suggestiveness but "the pure, untranslateable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images." The arresting imagery in and compact form of Pasalubong protected it from what Sontag called "the arrogance of interpretation" and contributed to the recovery of the senses.

The collection was co-published by Grana Books. In its Facebook page, Grana Books called itself "a small press devoted to publishing exciting and challenging contemporary works that expand the possibilities for creation." This vision was already realized in this book.