September 12, 2016

Shri-Bishaya


Shri-Bishaya by Ramon Muzones, translated from Hiligaynon by Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava (New Day Publishers, 2016)


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VISAYAN KADATUAN (ROYAL) COUPLE, FROM BOXER CODEX


Shri-Bishaya by Ramon Muzones was first published as a serial novel in Hiligaynon magazine from 1969 to 1970, two years before the imposition of martial law. It borrowed its title from the ancient kingdom of Southeast Asia, the Srivijaya. It was a fictional adaptation and imaginative fusion of two famous epics from Panay Island in the Visayan region, central Philippines: the Maragtas and Hinilawod. The former was an embellished history of the origin of Visayan people who migrated from Borneo. Shri-Bishaya used the Maragtas as narrative framework of the novel, recounting how ten datus from Borneo fled to Panay Island to escape the despotic ruler Sultan Makatunaw. It described how the datus bought the island from Aetas and the challenges encountered by these new settlers to institute a free, independent government with a new set of laws and system of leadership.

Sultan Makatunaw was a transparent evil character, a composite of familiar rulers of today. He was mercurial, prone to sudden fits of violent temper. Makatunaw's rapacious greed and lust and blatant disregard for human rights reflected (and anticipated) the government under Ferdinand Marcos from late 1960s and onward until his toppling by a popular uprising and revolutionary government in 1986. In "The Maragtas Mystique", the novel's well-researched preface, translator Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava provided ample background in which to view this dictator novel as a form of resistance literature and postcolonial literature, notwithstanding the contested fictional nature of Maragtas as based on a "racist migration theory", according to historian William Henry Scott.

As a dictator novel, it described the injustices of Sultan Makatunaw in suspending due process for individuals who "live in fear and terror, because there is no telling who will be seized next from his home and will never see his family again." Just like in the time of Marcos, the sultan also forbade people from holding peaceful assemblies that might lead to the rise of resistance movements and a revolution to bring him down from power. Under Makatunaw's rule a new edict was issued wherein, based on reports by informers identifying the enemies of the state, "sans prior investigation, a person could be thrown into a river full of man-eating crocodiles, pilloried and fed to the ants, hanged on the lunok tree, buried neck-deep in hot sands, cut, quartered, and fed to wild beasts, and subjected to other forms of gruesome tortures."

Elsewhere, the sultan ordered the kidnapping of people suspected of going against him. "Many residents had been seized unawares in the middle of the night, torn from the embrace of their families, and banished without any trace of their whereabouts." This clearly anticipated the desaparecidos during the time of Marcos, and even up to the present.

As a maritime novel, a rare one in Philippine literature, the novel gave a glimpse of seafaring life at sea, albeit sometimes in magical realist fashion. Maritime wars fought at sea, encounters with cruel pirates, and fantastical sea creatures gave a mythical and adventurous flavor to the novel.

As a costumbrista novel and foundation epic recounting the building of a just and lawful society from a clean slate, it illumined some ancient Visayan character traits, customs, and laws (some already thankfully defunct) to instill disciple among the people.

"You are the oldest and the wisest among the datus I am leaving behind. In your hands I leave the management of the land and the lives of our people," Datu Puti continued.

"Do you have suggestions on what needs to be done?"

"I was thinking of several things. The land we bought is vast, there is a need for you to divide it, and give each datu his share."

"I intend to do that. I plan to give Datu Paiburong and Bangkaya their individual shares."

"That's a good start. But, there must be laws to govern the lives of our people. Have you thought about this?"

"Yes, I have thought up some laws, but there is a need to discuss these with the other datus first."

"Remember that you are starting afresh in this new land. You need to set strong foundations. What laws have you thought up?"

"It's true we are starting a new life in completely new surroundings. People have to work really hard so they will prosper. That is why I thought up a law that punishes heavily those who are lazy and do not provide for their daily needs."

"That's a good idea. What is the punishment for the lazy?"

"The lazy should be arrested and sold as a slave to an affluent family so he will learn the difficulty and value of domestic and farm work. After he learns his lesson he will be allowed to go back home. The cost of his sale will be returned to the buyer and he will no longer be considered a slave, but a timawa or free man who has been redeemed from indolence and is ready to live by the fruits of his labor. But, if it is discovered later that he has reverted back to his old ways, he will be arrested again, and banished into the jungle. He will not be allowed to mingle with other people lest he set a bad example."

"That is very good, Sumakwel. What else have you thought up?"

"Punish heavily the light-fingered. The fingers of a thief should be chopped off."

Datu Puti nodded his head.

Sumakwel continued to explain: "Only men who can support a family or families can marry more than one wife, and will be allowed to have children. The poor should not bear more than two children because it is hard to support or rear them. Children who cannot be supported, should be thrown into the river."

"Isn't it unfair to punish the innocent children for the crime of their parents?"

"This is a warning to those who would like to start a family but cannot afford to do so. The punishment is harsh, but there is a need for a man to learn at the outset his obligations to society and to the state. If he wants to start a family, he should work hard to support his dependents."

"Continue."

"If a man has gotten a woman with child and he abandons her because he has no intention of marrying her, the child should be killed because it is hard for a woman without a husband to support a child. Since the woman has brought shame to her family she cannot inherit anything. The man should be hunted down by the leaders of his district, and when he is caught but continues to refuse to marry the woman he has wronged, he and his child should be buried alive."

"Are you concerned about the honor of the family?"

"Yes, because I want the people to live righteous lives."

"Do you have other laws in mind?"

"I have, but they will have to wait until we will have held a meeting."

"I will not meddle with your affairs; I just want to remind you that we left Bornay because of the rapacity and brutality of the sultan. Let us not stain this new land with blood. This is not just a request, it is a bond because I am entrusting everything here to you."

"I will bear that in mind."

Datu Sumakwel, the leader and lawmaker entrusted by Datu Puti to lead the people prior to the latter's return to Bornay to assuage the anger of Sultan Makatunaw, was here outlining the rigid laws he would institute as leader. By contemporary standards, the laws were unsound and barbaric. And even the resolve of Datu Sumakwel to strictly implement these laws was ultimately tested when he found his own wife Kapinangan was having an affair with his own servant.

A terrible curse afflicted the life of Sumakwel, the wise datu whom everybody looked up to as the epitome of righteous living and good governance. Sumakwel could always be depended upon to implement the will of the people no matter what. But this crisis in his life was not a simple case of a wife's betrayal of her husband. It had other implications. If Kapinangan had committed the crime in Bornay, this would be no problem for Sumakwel but the trickery and treachery was committed in this new land, and there has, as yet, been no precedent regarding this.

The unfaithfulness of Kapinangan was a major plot element that tested the true character of the leader. Can the righteous and just Datu Sumakwel who wanted to set a good example to his people ever forgive the shameful crime committed against him? The novel was a forgiving medium to offer an unusual love story.


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VISAYAN KADATUAN (ROYAL) COUPLE, FROM BOXER CODEX


As an adventure story, the novel was replete with magical elements and supernatural powers. When Datu Sumakwel and his babaylan Bangotbanwa climbed a mountain believed to be the home of their comet god, Lord Bulolakaw, they encountered amurukpok, an evil spirit dwelling in the jungle and exercising power over other evil spirits.

Bangotbanwa believed that they had simply disturbed the tranquillity of the denizens of the jungle who sent them the hideous creature. While Sumakwel had the highest regard for the babaylan, in his heart he believed that the world really harbors many evil elements that disturb human relations and hinder prosperity in life. There are malevolent spirits that are out to test man's capacity to take care of his own self.

The evil creatures they encountered, as well as the ones haunting the sea voyage of Datu Labawdungon and Datu Paibare, two main characters in a parallel story, came in various forms, but often in the form of a bakunawa or giant snake. The snake motif and imagery in the novel was like a premonition or prefiguration of the character of Sultan Makatunaw, who manifested such snake-like rapacity that his elimination became the central conundrum of the novel.

Sometimes they heard a screeching sound in front of them, sometimes beside them, and sometimes behind them akin to the hoot of a huge, unseen bird. At times, they would stop dead on their tracks because they would hear a pitiful, ear-splitting, sonorous cry as though someone was being tortured. However, they could not trace the origin of the sound. Their attention was also attracted by the boisterous roar of rushing waters but when they rushed to what they believed was its source, it would suddenly stop, and an eerie silence would suddenly descend on the jungle. They would also hear the grisly cackle of the muwa or the terrible roar of the bawa. But Sumakwel and Bangotbanwa were both busalians endowed with unusual physical prowess and superior kinaadman, fortified with the most potent talismans, curative himag, and tigadlom charm. They had penetrated many a jungle and tested their manhood matching wits with embattled kiwigs, and other wily and supernatural and preternatural creatures.

The charismatic power of the datus, derived from their kinaadman, was the same mythical magic and power possessed by the characters in the earlier translated Muzones novel Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting. Shri-Bishaya was the next logical novel to be translated after Margosatubig, its companion novel. The two shared the author's thematic elements and predilection for magic, monsters, power plays, game of thrones, nation-building, and full-scale war.

Makatunaw had developed an expansionist design over many lands, and he harbored deep desire to punish the ten datus who fled from his kingdom. This novel abounds with political insights of the times. One could detect the current spate of untenable extrajudicial killings on this highly prescient novel.

"Don't believe we are without enemies. Put inside your head that we have secret enemies who are just lying in wait for the right opportunity. Therefore, spread out and disseminate the information that the kingdom is strong and ready to take on any comers. If you catch anybody doing something wrong against the kingdom, I give you the authority to exact the right punishment. You are fully aware that I know how to reward those who are loyal to me," stressed the sultan.

And ...

They celebrated their gathering with abundant food and wine. When the datus went back to their respective districts, life changed. They now enjoyed tremendous power, because they were given by the sultan the authority to exact punishment on any enemy of the kingdom. So, they abused their power. They showed everyone who was who inside the kingdom. [emphases supplied]

The long drawn out final showdown in the novel, between the soldiers of Sultan Makatunaw and the freedom fighters of Datu Labawdungon and Datu Paibare, was meticulous in its plotting. The sultan was fully aware of the brewing war in his kingdom and the people's increasing discontent at his brutality.

Labawdungon and his cohort Paibare were already set on living in another place, in Madyaas, the land where the Bornean datus escaped to. They came back to Bornay, the sultan's seat of power, ostensibly to unseat the sultan in order to satisfy the wishes of their prospective wives, and yet their connection to their former land was bound by kinship and loyalty to its people.

It was finally a race between him and the two datus to manufacture a "deadly weapon that can kill wholesale". The seemingly endless volley of stratagems and art of war tactics from both sides demonstrated how difficult it was to resist tyranny such that rebels and revolutionaries must offer everything just to secure an attractive future for their country.

"I know what you are thinking," said Labawdungon. "We all hold life dear, but more precious is freedom for which we should offer our lives. More important than ourselves is Bornay's future. If we want a peaceful and just rule, we must pay for it, no matter the price."

This statement was almost a tired template for nationalism – dying for one's country, exactly following Benedict Anderson's definition of a nation in his Imagined Communities (1983): "[A nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings."

Dying for the country was dying for a loved one. This equation was not inappropriate given that Labawdungon's motivation for declaring war on the Sultan was not only to free the people of Bornay from the sultan's tyrannical rule, but actually to secure the hand of a woman in marriage who only consented to become his wife if he could bring "the skull of Sultan Makatunaw" as bride price.

This remarkably prescient epico-historical novel did not sacrifice plausibility and authenticity for a diverting narrative of love and war. Dr. Locsin-Nava's translation overall captured the fantastical elements of evil and magic, its dialectical nature, and the aphorisms, hints of sarcasm, irony, and humor of the story. The dialogues often combined proverbs and a mix of idiomatic expressions. Here is a sample pile of idioms from its rich treasury of proverbs.

"It's impossible that nobody will bite if the bait is tasty," Sultan Makatunaw told his two trusted associates, Datu Hatib and Datu Garol. "I'm quite aware that there are people who even if you feed them with your hand will swallow your elbow," the sultan added. "These people are close to me, they help me, follow my every wish, and praise me to my face – that is, for as long as I have something to feed them and I am in power."

"Beloved Sultan," Datu Garol became anxious, "that has never entered my mind. Even if you subject me to a test, I will put my life on the line for the good of the kingdom."

"I'm not referring to the two of you," assured the sultan, "but to those who, while I am in power, praise me to my face but the moment I fall off my perch will devour me. Those people are with us while something is cooking in the pot but not if the food is gone."

"You are right, Beloved Sultan," Datu Garol agreed. "In this world there are bats and butterflies who will only alight when there is honey to suck. I'm sure you know that when a boat begins to list, rats spill over because they do not want to sink with the vessel."

"Because of this," the sultan continued, "we must extend and strengthen the reach of the kingdom so that people have something to suck on. For as long as their stomachs are full people will not entertain destructive thoughts. It is when the stomach growls because it is empty that we put ourselves in danger. We must guard our vessel well so that our enemies will not bore holes in our ship of state."

"It is easy to catch the enemy from the outside but difficult to flush out the enemy from within. It is like squeezing grain from unhulled rice," Datu Hatib added.

"That is what we need to focus on right now so that termites will not eat up the foundation of our house. People with full stomachs are no threat, what we should guard against are hungry people because a hungry man is an angry man," warned the sultan.

Would that this relentless, dynamic, and "proverbial" epic novel will have its epic share of readers.



Related post: http://booktrek.blogspot.com/2016/09/nick-joaquins-small-rowboat.html


September 10, 2016

Nick Joaquín's small rowboat




"Society for the Filipino is a small rowboat: the barangay," wrote Nick Joaquín in the beginning of "A Heritage of Smallness," one of the essays in Culture and History (1988). This provocative essay made the argument that the Filipinos' tendency to act on the small scale was detrimental to the development of their society and culture. This includes the Filipino writers' apparent preference for writing short stories. The lack of novels in the country was proof of the Filipino writers fearing the daring and bold enterprise. This habit of "thinking small" was, for Joaquín, a recipe for poverty and pettiness. The Philippine national heritage, according to him, was nothing but "a heritage of smallness."

However far we go back in our history it's the small we find – the nipa hut, the barangay, the petty kingship, the slight tillage, the tingi [retail] trade. All our artifacts are miniatures, and so is our folk literature, which is mostly proverbs, or dogmas in miniature. About the one big labor we can point to in our remote past is the [Banaue] rice terraces – and even that grandeur shrinks, on scrutiny, into numberless little separate plots, into a series of layers added to previous ones, all this being the accumulation of ages of small routine efforts (like a colony of anthills) rather than one grand labor following one grand design. ... May little efforts, however perfect each in itself, still cannot equal one single epic creation. ... [Y]ou could stack up all the best short stories you can think of and still not have enough to outweigh a mountain like War and Peace.

The depressing fact in Philippine history is what seems to be our native aversion to the large venture, the big risk, the bold extensive enterprise. The pattern may have been set by the migrations. We try to equate the odyssey of the migrating barangays with that of the Pilgrim Fathers of America, but a glance at the map suffices to show the difference between the two ventures. One was a voyage across an ocean into an unknown world; the other was a going to and fro among neighboring islands. One was a blind leap into space; the other seems, in comparison, a mere crossing of rivers. The nature of the one required organization, a sustained effort, special skills, special tools, the building of large ships. The nature of the other is revealed by its vehicle, the barangay, which is a small rowboat, not a seafaring vessel designed for long distances or the avenues of the ocean.

Like his predecessor José Rizal before him who lamented the "indolence of the Filipinos", Joaquín was here lamenting the lack of imagination of his compatriots. The barangays he talked about referred to the smallest political unit in the country, roughly the same as barrios or villages. The word had its origin from balangay which was the sailing vessel the ancient inhabitants of the islands used as transport within the archipelago and neighboring regions.

Philippine society, as though fearing bigness, ever tends to revert to the condition of the barangay: of the small enclosed society. We don’t grow like a seed, we split like an amoeba. The moment a town grows big it become two towns. The moment a province becomes populous it disintegrates into two or three smaller provinces. The excuse offered for divisions is always the alleged difficulty of administering so huge an entity. ... What we're admitting is that, on the big scale, we can’t be efficient; we are capable only of the small. The decentralization and barrio-autonomy movement expresses our craving to return to the one unit of society we feel adequate to: the barangay, with its 30 to a hundred families. Anything larger intimidates. We would deliberately limit ourselves to the small performance.

The exhortation of Joaquín was premised on his study of Philippine artifacts that constitute the national cultural heritage. Specifically he observed three things about them: (i) the Filipinos worked best on small things ("tiny figurines, small pots, filigree work in gold or silver, decorative arabesques"); (ii) they worked in soft and easy materials like "clay, molten metal, tree bark and vine pulp, and the softer woods and stones"; and (iii) they tended to rut in his mastered skill ("material, craft or product") and did not move on to a higher level. For these assertions, he offered examples in pottery, agriculture, and wooden sculpture.

In contrast to this, the writer offered Christian statuary and architecture as indicating a semblance of a "heritage of greatness." He added three critical phases in the Spanish colonial period: the defense of the land against two centuries of attempt of Dutch and British invaders to conquer the islands; the Propaganda Movement; and the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain.

There were a lot of things to quibble about Joaquín's essay. His assessment was too harsh. Yet one could not easily dismiss him as having a "colonized mind" for extolling the Spanish virtues and contribution to Philippine culture. The essay was presented as a challenge for present readers not too "blame our inability to sustain the big effort on" colonialism. This was a sore point, for "colonial mentality" was a legacy that calcified in the country after one colonial regime was replaced by another (by Americans), then further replaced by the Marcos dictatorship, and after a series of "people power" revolutions – the recent ones becoming more and more dubious through time – we have the current specter of postcolonial or neocolonial capitalism.

The archeological and anthropological evidence Joaquín marshalled in writing his 1988 essay was based on the available data set at the time of his writing. The small balangay sailboats he referred to pertained to small excavated remains of boats in 1970s in Butuan, Philippines.

In 2012, almost a quarter of a century after Joaquín published his essay, a suspected much larger balangay "mother boat" was unearthed that could disprove the things he mentioned about lack of organization, effort, skills, and tools of ancient Filipino seafarers. The discovery of the large balangay – measuring 25 meters in length compared to previously excavated balangays that measured 15 meters – could disprove his argument on the lack of maritime skills, boldness, and daring of the early island people.

According to [National Museum archeologist Dr. Mary Jane Louise A. Bolunia], this new discovery suggests that these [the eight small vessels previously excavated] may just have been support vessels for a much larger main boat, where trade goods and other supplies were likely to have been held for safekeeping.

The discovery also suggests that seafaring Filipinos were much more organized and centralized than previously thought. [Source: http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/321334/scitech/science/massive-balangay-mother-boat-unearthed-in-butuan]

The interpretations Joaquín supplied for his thesis were based on artifacts available at the time that might be an incomplete data set in the light of recent discoveries. The latest information could bring in new perspectives that could weaken some of his impassioned opinions. It seemed like, for our essayist and seasoned cultural commentator, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

All of which was but a long prelude to a review post I was planning to write on the novel Shri-Bishaya by Ramon Muzones, which came out this year from New Day Publishers in a translation by Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava. This was a maritime novel, in fact Muzones's second to be translated. The first was Margosatubig which like Shri-Bishaya was an "epico-historical" novel partly set in the waters of Sulu and Philippine Seas.

Somehow the translation and publication of these two novels disproved the assertion of the writer Jose Dalisay, in an article or interview that I can no longer locate in the blogosphere, that there's a lack of novels in this part of the world that deals with the sea, which for an island nation was a bit puzzling. Well, here we have Muzones narrating in dynamic fashion the story of seafaring people gallivanting across seas, from Bornay to Paragwa (Palawan) to Aninipay/Madyaas (Panay) to Bruni (Brunei?).


September 3, 2016

Juanita Cruz


Juanita Cruz by Magdalena Gonzaga Jalandoni, tr. Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni (The University of the Philippines Press, 2006)



With my reading of Juanita Cruz by Magdalena G. Jalandoni (1891-1978), I have completed (save for one other out of print Jalandoni book) my reading list of Filipino women novelists in translation. It was a refreshing experience, particularly since Juanita Cruz was as entertaining as it was rewarding in its old-fashioned milieu and barely melodramatic storytelling.

This was only the second novel translated from Hiligaynon language that I read. From what I gather there were only four of them translated so far, a pair of novels each by Ramon Muzones (1913-1992) and Jalandoni, the two leading novelists in the Hiligaynon language and the two most heavily debated in terms of which writer from Hiligaynon better deserve the title "National Artist for Literature".

The National Artist award is, of course, the highest and most coveted prize given to Filipino artists, including writers, alive or dead, in recognition for their body of work. Like any other literary prize on the face of the earth that was decided by fallible human beings, the National Artist in the Philippines was a political exercise and was not exempted from ugly controversies and abuse of authority. The controversy in 2009 was even elevated to the Supreme Court which found (decision here) that "the former President committed grave abuse of discretion" in choosing several individuals as National Artists.

Jalandoni and Muzones were two hapless Hiligaynon novelists pitted against each other for the National Artist award. No writers writing in languages other than in English and Filipino had been awarded so far.

According to translator Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava, in her prefatory essay to Shri-Bishaya, the second novel of Muzones that she translated, Muzones is "the most awarded Hiligaynon Writer of the Century ... and its most likely candidate for National Artist." She considered Muzones a better writer than Jalandoni and the more deserving of literary awards such as the Republic Cultural Heritage Award conferred to Jalandoni in 1969.

Leoncio P. Deriada, in an introduction to Shri-Bishaya, categorically crowned Muzones as "the greatest Hiligaynon writer":

Certainly, there is a good number of detractors – all women – who think it is Magdalena G. Jalandoni who deserves this honor. These detractors have read a lot of Jalandoni, but sadly, I doubt if they have read enough of Muzones.

What makes [for] good literature anyway? Among other things, literature must be enjoyable reading. Reading Jalandoni's prose is a torture. If we are looking for greatness, we will find it in her poetry, not in her prose.

The problem with the Philippine literary landscape was that it was a very small field. Writers rubbed shoulders against each other or rubbed other writers the wrong way. Even dead writers were not exempt from posthumous postmortem.

According to Virgilio S. Almario—himself a National Artist—in a foreword to Locsin-Nava's translation of Margosatubig which appeared in 2012, Locsin-Nava's critique of Jalandoni made her a kontrabida in the eyes of Jalandoni's supporters.

After reading the translation of Margosatubig, I myself have started to wonder why the Jalandonistas would prefer her to Muzones. Because she is a woman writer and he is a male chauvinist? Because she remained detached from hometown politics while he indulged in it and was a politician until his old age? Or more nonchalantly kuno [so to speak], because she is rich and he is poor?

He offered a challenge to the Jalandonistas, his term for the followers of Jalandoni.

I wonder now what literary qualities the Jalandonistas saw in the ga-bundok [mountain-high] output of Jalandoni. Well, this is my challenge to them: Unless they come out with a greater study and translation of their favorite's works, Cecile's [Locsin-Nava's] books have earned my support for Muzones as a National Artist.

Perhaps unbeknown to Almario, there were already two published translations of Jalandoni's novels: Juanita Cruz (translated by her niece Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni and published in 2006 by The UP Press) and The Lady in the Market (translated in 1976 by Edward D. Defensor who was also the first to translate Margosatubig in 1979). Lucila V. Hosillos, who wrote the foreword and introductory essay to Juanita Cruz, herself wrote a study of the writer in Interactive Vernacular, National Literature: Magdalena G. Jalandoni's Juanita Cruz as Constituent of Filipino National Literature. To my mind, Hosillos made a convincing case for Jalandoni in her essay which highlighted the novelist's aesthetic sensibility and style; her treatment of Philippine life and society as compared to José Rizal, N.V.M. Gonzalez, and Nick Joaquín; and her perception of the writer's singular brand of feminism that is distinct from Western feminism and that is closely integrated to her deep nationalism.

The characteristics that Almario was looking for in literary criticism of regional literatures were present, I think, in Hosillo's appreciation of the novel Juanita Cruz. This was a form of criticism that incorporates cultural and literary context and background to the discussion of the art of the regional novel.

The first big problem, I think, is the need for thorough and knowledgeable literary criticism of our regional literatures. It is true that all Philippine literatures share a common history and thus some mainstream characteristics. But there are particulars—details, deviations, innovations—which are found in one regional literature and not in others. These particulars can only be articulated through a criticism which is intimately familiar with each and every nuance of a regional literature. This kind of criticism will contribute to a delineation of every regional literature's history, and ultimately, to the fashioning of a truly national literary history. What we need is the emergence of good critics who are dedicated to the regional literatures of the country. Such a good critic must be well-informed about the region's culture and the literary traditions available in the region, as well as the national literary situation, and, most importantly has a Taste (as Kant would define it) for the genius of the region.

The "second big problem" for Almario is the lack of translations of regional literature in the country. Only through translations can many readers adjudge for themselves the virtue of one writer over the other. Non-Hiligaynon readers would not be able to confirm or verify the competing claims of the two camps without the aid of competent translators like Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava and Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni. A sense of greatness of the two novelists in question could only be detected once a good selection from their prodigious outputs were 'bridged' in translation. Only then can the literary arbiters of award giving bodies—majority of whom does not speak the regional language in question—would be able to render a wise decision.

As can be seen in the footnotes in the Supreme Court decision, Jalandoni's name was included up to the third round of nomination before losing out to Lazaro Francisco. The Muzonistas and Jalandonistas had to work overtime in their advocacy.

To date, I only read one book each by Muzones and Jalandoni and certainly was not qualified to make sweeping judgements like Prof. Deriada. I am not even sure if Deriada has read Juanita Cruz. In that novel, I believe Deriada's claim about Jalandoni's writing—that reading her prose is a torture—fails to convince. In his piece, Deriada would later backtrack in his damning assessment and say, "aside from Cebuano Resil Mojares, only Muzones and Jalandoni deserve to be national artists." And then he reiterated, "if it is between Muzones and Jalandoni, I will always vote for Muzones" as national artist.

But why should there be room for only one National Artist for a novelist writing in Hiligaynon? Why do the Muzonistas keep insisting on gender politics over the anointment of Jalandoni by her supporters? Why are the critics not engaging with these writers beyond personal biases?

* * *

Juanita Cruz revolved around the life of its eponymous heroine, who was a delicate and extremely beautiful woman from an aristocratic, landowning family in Iloilo City in central Philippines. It was easy to see why certain readers might be put off by what appears at the surface to be a melodramatic story of a love affair between a beautiful woman of means (Juanita/Nita/Inday) and a poor handsome seminarian with a beautiful singing voice (Ely/Elias Navarro). Nita's materialist family was against the poor guy so their love was kept a secret. The period of the novel was the latter part of the nineteenth century, squarely in the Spanish era in the Philippines, at a time when women from aristocratic families were not given free rein to choose their husband. Arranged marriages were the norm, and Nita's family was bent on having her marry the wealthy and influential Spanish governor's son. Nita rebelled against her parents and brothers. She was persecuted and physically hurt by her father for her impertinence, practically made an outcast by her own family when she was accused of losing her virginity to her lover Ely, and consequently disinherited, divested of all of her family's wealth and possessions. Thence she ran away.

What was apparent was that this was a very humanist novel in that it concerned itself with the yearning for freedom and self-determination. The story traced a woman's nascent feminism and nationalism coming into full force through her liberation from her family's dogmatic materialism and patriarchal orientation. Her coming into a strong sense of self and self-worth was delineated through careful pacing and slow expository style that nonetheless exhibited its own tension and suspense.

For me, there were two aspects of the novel that made it ultimately a modern one: its repetitiveness and the small inconsistencies in the details of same stories retold by others. Different characters narrated versions of the same stories to Nita or to other people, and either there were redundancies in the stories being told (several times by different people) or there were small details that were in conflict to what was previously narrated. At first the clunky repetitiveness of the story made it ... well, clunky. But one realized that the repetitive stories from various perspectives slowly filled the gaps, for Nita's (and the reader's) benefit, of what went on in her home after she left it. Jalandoni may or may not be mimicking the mechanism of fickle memory. Her writing style, as described by Hosillo, certainly testified to this tendency. 

In Jalandoni's case, most of the intervals between novels were a matter of months, for even before she finished a story another one obsessed her. Inventiveness she ascribed to her fertile and boundless handurawan (imagination). It is obvious in her unpublished autobiography, Ang Matam-is Ko nga Kahapon (My Sweet Yesteryears), written in 1966, that she was not only precocious but also prodigious. As the stories sprouted out of her imagination and cascaded through her pen to her notebook, she did not look back to her just finished text to edit it. A new story gnawed at her until she had lived through its artistic process, which she would finish hurriedly to embark on another artistic journey. It was all she could do to capture and imprison through pen, ink, and paper the characters, dialogues, subjects, situations, and other elements that overwhelmed her. This is characteristic of writers with so much to write about and who are carried away by the narrative after they had given life to their characters in their fictional world. There was no time to edit and rewrite, to compress and stylize. Let the critics complain, the readers were waiting and the writer had more journeys of the imagination to take.

Perhaps this "speed writing" mode was what gave her slowly unfolding plot its internal forward steam and momentum. Moreover, as Hosillo noted, "the time of the narrative instance in relation to the story" of Nita's life was "in the past, and the narration is in the past tense. Yet Jalandoni's artistry creates the duration of the narrative as if the narrativized act is instantaneous with the story, so that this narrativization is in the present tense." This instantaneous realism, if one may call it like that, sustained the reader's interest in a novel of domestic life and relationships. The effect was not unlike Muzones's in his epic stories full of magic and action.

The tricky handling of memory was justified early on in the novel's "Prologue."

I would like to ask my dear readers to bear with me for not being exact with the events and my corresponding age in this my narrative. I can no longer remember the exact days, months, and years of my experiences for in my old age my memory can no longer ascertain the glimmering past of the decades.

This disclaimer was, if I'm not mistaken, the only instance in which the author made a direct address to the reader, an intrusion that, as Hosillo wrote, was practically absent in the entire narrative.

Although there is a narrator, a first-person one at that, who is a participant in the story, the narrator is so distant from the author that she could not be identified with the author. It is precisely the "I-ness" of the narrator that distances the story from the author. Had Nita been a witness-narrator or observer, it would be easier to identify her with the author. Such distance imbues the protagonist-narrator with a perspective entirely her own, free and independent of the author. And nowhere does the author intrude to make herself heard, felt, or noticed.

That non-intrusion was what made Juanita entirely believable and sympathetic. Even if she admired her own beauty in the mirror, adorned by expensive clothes and blinding jewelries of "diamond solitaires", her pride was true and without a touch of narcissism and conceit. Even the dialogues between the two lovers were surprisingly not as syrupy and pa-tweetums as the ones heard in current local drama serials shown in TV.

From her secret love for a man to her "secret love" for country, Juanita Cruz was an essay on the emergence of feminist and nationalist consciousness in an individual who asserted her right and freedom to love as she pleases.

* * *

The National Artist award is one of the biggest jokes in Philippine literary history. Every expert had an opinion and everyone had a candidate but the true and deserving winners were not (yet) selected, and may be not even considered in the first place. Wilfrido S. Nolledo, the best modern Filipino novelist in English, was not a National Artist. Linda Ty-Casper was not a National Artist. Edgardo M. Reyes was passed on. The innovative novelist Rosario de Guzman Lingat was not included. The confirmation of the excellent actress Nora Aunor as National Artist for Film was rejected. The Jalandonistas and Muzonistas are still fighting it out for a place for their writer of choice.

As long as the same "national" tastemakers who were quick to blame gender politics were given the right to nominate and vote in this political and politicized exercise, the in-breeding of stale literary ideas and ideologies will continue to prosper in our "nationalist" literature and will continue to marginalize the genius of our regional and vernacular letters. As long as important works remain untranslated, unpublished, undistributed, out of print, the important readership and the very important powers-that-be will remain imprisoned by their limited perception of greatness.

August 30, 2016

Typewriter Altar


Typewriter Altar by Luna Sicat Cleto, tr. Marne L. Kilates (The University of the Philippines Press, 2016)





No matter how one approaches Luna Sicat Cleto's first novel, Makinilyang Altar (2002), the default reading of it as biographical and autobiographical would certainly be the one to generate a lot of meanings and ideas. Its writing was a form of confessional and, at times, even of exorcism. Rogelio Sicat (1940-1997), Cleto's father, author of the novel Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway (Blood Spilled at Dawn) among many other writings, was the driver of the novel. In her preface to Marne L. Kilates's translation from the Filipino edition, the novelist admitted that "witnessing my father's passion to write was a painful experience, and writing about that pain was a mirroring exercise that could literally wound you with shards of broken glass." A wounding reading experience this novel certainly was, but it was almost a religious form of wounding, where the muse of creativity and inspiration was ever sought like a bashful deity to be worshiped at the altar of literature.

The novel began self-reflexively, with a lyrical dream and with writer's block.

I am about to pick up the book on the windowsill when I notice a flock of long-tailed sparrows fluttering down the branches of the tamarind tree in the yard. Briefly, I listen to their chirping, then wonder why there are no letters, no words, or no text on the pages of the book in my hand. The sparrows then fly from the tree as a flapping, fluttering flock, and with it the pages of the book fluttering to a close.

Here was Laya Dimasupil, a writer tentatively testing the waters of literary creation, clearing the blank pages for whatever forms of expression would manifest themselves into words, sentences, passages, and chapters. She resolved to tell her journey into literature and "sing the elegy of the altar of the typewriter."

The typewriter generation of Laya's father was now anachronistic. Sometimes I think of those writers as the last literary craftsmen, the ones who first carefully weighed the words, completed their thoughts in their minds, before typing their sweat and blood. No delete and backspace for them. No tentative steps but an already instantaneous finality marking the words on paper. Laya's father, Deo Dimasupil, was a domineering father and writer to reckon with. He could not stand the noise of his children that would perforce stand in the way of his writing his masterpieces. A former activist, Deo was the quintessential revolutionary writer and professor in a state university, always combative and opinionated. The materials of his principled art were the proletarian struggle for equity and equality. He was the writer of the people, the writer who tasted poverty and hard work first hand and who was eternally frustrated by university politics and false righteousness and posturings among revolutionaries and rebels. Deo could never reconcile the (for him) hypocritical lifestyle of national leaders and supposedly creative class of writers with their (lip service) literary cause and vocation. His convictions were always eroded by the realization that the world was an unfair playing field.

Amid her father's frustrations, bitterness, and cynicism, Laya's literary consciousness slowly developed. Though her father had his fair share of quirks and impatience, hers was not a dysfunctional family although her childhood was not entirely lacking in neighborhood and domestic conflicts (from relatives outside the nuclear family). Her family experiences certainly marked her for life and shaped her critical and practical worldview. The discrete units of memory (hers, Deo's, her mother Gloria's) disrupted and invaded the flow of Laya's narrative. The reliance on unreliable memory was a novel device to get at the crux, at the essence or substance or point, of a writing life.

When will he write these memories into a novel? How will he draw out from his life the right words, and the words into a novel that would respond to these times? The blank page from his notebook stared at him waiting for his pen.

Like Edgar Calabia Samar's first novel, Eight Muses of the Fall (2008), this turned out to be a modern exploration of the fount of creativity and the ways with which lived and remembered and imagined and dreamed experiences colonized the writer's blank pages to produce the first novel of the would-be novelist. Samar and Cleto's protagonists were equally possessed by (literary) demons. They had to get the first novel out of their system if only to make sense of the materials they excavated from their personal experience. They had to make a report of their spiritual sojourns into literature and to publish their findings.

The same impulse and literary sickness afflicted Cleto's accountant mother, Ellen Sicat, who at the age of 57 decided to write a novel after the death of her husband Rogelio Sicat. Interestingly, to begin the literary conversation with her daughter's novel, she also named her character Gloria in her two novels Paghuhunos (Molting) and Unang Ulan ng Mayo (First Raindrops of May).

But since this was after all an elegy, or more like a homage, to a father, the onset and progress of Deo's fatal disease finally exposed the festering grief and loss in the novel's center. For the mortal Deo, brought face to face with his impending demise, this existential crisis was the closest he would get to an imagined holocaust or auto-da-fé. For the impressionable Laya, the loss of a parent was harbinger not only of pain but of the loss of her moral compass. A subplot concerned Laya's unfaithfulness to her husband. An affair with a co-worker was presented like a temporary bout of lust and insanity, a sacrilegious offense to the typewriter altar, symbol not only of the altar of creative minds, but of the spiritual moorings and moral groundings of a person.

By the time the novel inhabited Gloria's memory in the final chapter of the book, we were already used at following the episodic mind of a creative writer. The relationship between reader and writer was already secured, in the same manner Gloria appreciated being the first reader (and reviewer) of Deo's writings and feeling "privileged" because of it.

And I knew where it started—my own voice had been looking for its own space. I wasn't a writer but he let me feel the fulfillment, the exhilaration whenever he finished a work. And I admit, it was a privilege. I could tell him what I thought of what he wrote.

Perhaps like Laya's growth as a writer based on her close observation of and fascination with her father's explosive temperament as a writer, the incremental cultivation of Gloria's literary consciousness had its beginnings with the daily observation of her husband's habits and a close reading of his writings. Tentative and unsure like her daughter at the beginning of the narrative, Gloria was awakening from a dream of letters.

Would she be able to write her own narrative, her own story? She didn't know where these musings would lead. But she knew she had material that she could write, that she wanted to express. She removed her name and began the narrative again by using the gender nouns "woman" or "man," and the children were simply their family rank: eldest, second, youngest. In erasing their names she was putting back the story she knew. She was not aware that she was now creating her own parable.

In the altar of memory and grief, the creative mind wanted to assuage its pain. What better way to find comfort than to follow the source spring of inspiration: to try one's hand at creative writing. Give in to the compulsion to write, inhabit fictive memories and fictional personalities, temper the point of view, hone the technique, discover subtlety.

Since the writing bug bit her she neglected to scrub the floors, forgot all about the curtains that had been hanging at the windows for, perhaps, three years now. When Gloria was writing, it was as if time stood still, everything was suspended. She had no morning, no noon, no night, so on that desk was parked a pink-lidded tray. Inside were some fruit. She'd peel a ponkan orange or a banana whenever she felt hungry.

That's Gloria Dimasupil now. My mother.

Laya and Gloria emerged as keyboard novelists after breaking out of the oppressive shadow of the father and husband. The "writing bug" that inspired them to tell stories proved to be a legacy just as lasting as the stories Deo Dimasupil typed in his typewriter, at nights when Laya and her sister would sleep outside their only room in the house so that Deo in deep concentration in his sacred altar would never be disturbed.



Typewriter Altar is part of the short reading list of Filipino women novelists in translation.

August 7, 2016

Translation and its discontents: On Austregelina Espina-Moore's novelas cebuana, 2


One thing I appreciate in the translations of Austregelina Espina-Moore's three Cebuano novels was Hope Sabanpan-Yu's effort to add a translator's introduction or preface in each of them. Personally, I would like these introductions to appear as afterwords because most of the time they spoil too much of the story line, but the reader always had the option to read them for later.

Sabanpan-Yu discussed several translation issues in her preface to Where a Fire Tree Grows. The aspects she talked included literalness and fluency in translations and their tradeoff and the dangers inherent in "naturalizing" or "domesticating" (vs. foreignizing) a text.

Since Cebuano is culturally and linguistically different from English, it makes sense to try fluent translation but without the alienating aspects of this particular type of translation. It also makes sense to translate literally especially when the goal is to emphasize the uniqueness of Cebuano. The language can be both creative and acceptable to English readers when translated literally. Because the translator "cannot possibly preserve all the features of the original" (Gutt 382), I allow myself to be guided by Jiri Levý:

In translation, there are situations which do not allow one to capture all values of the original. Then the translator has to decide which qualities of the original are the most important and which ones one could miss out. The problem of the reliability of translation consists partly in that the relative importance of the values in a piece of literature are recognized. (382)

Elements of the Cebuano language text such as syntax, phonology and diction, have to be brought into English, the target language text, otherwise it will no longer be translation but adaptation. I refer to syntax as the set of rules governing the manner in which words are combined to form sentences in a language. English is an S-V-O (subject-verb-object) language while Cebuano is a V-S-O language.

The translator then highlighted these issues using sample passages from the novel and some of the strategies she used to deal with syntax, phonology, and diction. She presented (i) the original Cebuano text, (ii) its corresponding literal translation in English, and (iii) how she finally rendered her translation by analyzing and weighing the aspects of translation she wanted to preserve. However, the strange thing about this preface was that the passages she quoted in the preface differed from the actual translations contained in the text.

I could only presume that the preface was written before the translation was finalized and that the revisions made in the final translation were not used to update the quoted passages in the preface. If this assumption is correct, one unintentionally stumbled upon the process of editing or revising translations, with the versions in the preface taken as drafts and the version in the text as final. Here are some instances, with the original language first presented, followed by the "draft" and the "final" versions of the text.

Mouna ka pagka propesiyonal kanako sa lima o unom katuig.

You'll become a professional five or six years earlier than I.

You'll be a professional five or six years earlier than I.

***

Si Jun ug si Lily namasilong sa sibay nga hulatanan sa bus duol sa escuelahan. Hapon kadto, sinugdanan sa Agosto. Nagbunok ang ulan ana sa usa ka panamilit tungod kay nanghinapos nang mga adlaw sa tingulan.

Jun and Lily took shelter at the bus stop near the school. It was an afternoon in early August. The rain poured down a farewell because the rainy days were ending.

Jun and Lily took shelter at the bus stop near the school. It was an afternoon in early August. The rain poured a farewell because the rainy days were ending.

***

Mainit, pilitpilit sa asin sa singot ang ilang kamot nga nagunitay.

Warm, their hands entwined, sticky with the saltiness of sweat.

Warm, sticky with the salt of sweat, their hands clasped.

***

Taudtaud, mahitungod gani silag tinukod ni Mr. Gonzales mohunong ug motanaw paglibotlibot. Human sa pipila nila ka nakitan, nangutana si Jun kon unsay ilang hunahuna.

Later, whenever they came across a construction of Mr. Gonzales, they would stop and look around. After they had seen a few, Jun asked what they thought.

Later, when they came across a building constructed by Mr. Gonzales, they would stop and look around. After they had seen a few, Jun asked what they thought.

***

Mao tingail nga ang mga tawo nga namasiyo sa Luneta niadtong hapon sa Mayo mohangad gayud, ngadto sa estatuwa ni Dr. Jose Rizal, ang hero sa Pilipinas – yutang tabonon.

Which is why the people who were strolling at the Luneta that afternoon in May had to look up, to the statue of Dr. Jose Rizal, the hero of the Philippines – land of the brown race.

Which is probably why the people strolling in the Luneta that May afternoon looked up, to the statue of Dr. Jose Rizal, hero of the Philippines – land of the brown race.

Whether or not the assumption that the final version is the one contained in the text is correct, I think that the small or not-so-small deviations from the quoted texts in the preface were an improvement.