Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

July 1, 2015

Tiger of Ajanta


It was about 200 B.C., in Maharashtra State, in Central India, that a community of Buddhist monks began building Ajanta. For almost a thousand years, they dug and carved out of the sides of a steep ravine about thirty caves and temple halls, leaving besides a gallery of frescoes and sculptures that continue to beggar the imagination to this day.

The work was completed circa 650 A.D. For centuries this legacy was lost to the world: the jungle is never ill-disposed to take over. But then one day, in 1819, a tiger emerged from behind a tangle of vines in the area and by sheer happenstance came in the sight of a British soldier's rifle. Before he could fire, however, it vanished and was never seen again.

In "Tiger of Ajanta", a short preface to his book Work in the Mountain, the novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez recounted the accidental rediscovery of the Ajanta Caves in India. He himself visited the place along with other Filipino artists and writers in 1962, a few months after the Sino-Indian border conflict. Before the group visited the temples of Ajanta, they were almost attacked by some Indians as they were mistaken for Chinese nationals. The tensions brought about by the conflict had clearly not subsided by that time.

The visit to the cave, a much needed diversion after the traumatic incident, became emblematic of the novelist's search for meaning and inspiration. He wrote about it to underscore what he admitted was his "slow grasp of the significance of Ajanta." He supposed that "the encounter at the park had been meant to remind us of our fervid quest for identity."

Unlike the tiger that vanished in the wink of an eye, my experience of Ajanta has stayed with me for years. I remember entering one of the large cave temples: a path beneath a waterfall leads to it. With the sputter, indeed, still on our arms and faces, we reach a large prayer hall. There we come upon two benches that are empty but there is a feeling that they are to be occupied shortly. The feeling grows as it dawns on us that at our back is a choirloft with banisters. Could it be that singing is about to begin? We wait and look around; the ceiling is markedly arched and our line of sight is quietly directed toward a Buddha figure at the far end of the hall. At this time of day, a beam of sunlight has descended upon the head: it is pointless to be awed any further! There is enough wonder here to last a lifetime. The Buddha's lips have broken into a smile ...

The singular experience of a Buddha bathed in light had etched itself into the mind of the writer. The writer had brought home with him "a sense of fullness and the oneness of things." The unity brought by staggering intricacy of design.

For this is the message inscripted in the frescoes, and the ample walls of the cave temples appear to have taken the vegetable dyes and colors so well. Time seems to have done little to diminish the love of life that the ravishing and voluptuous men and women of that age celebrated and now invite us to share.

Perhaps the meaning I am giving to Ajanta, my sense that it is as quintessential a metaphor as any for the writer's task, is too idiosyncratic, even perverse. But countless have been the times when my memory of those cave temples so inspired my writing that I feel certain that the only logical and honest way an artist may deal with Reality is to aspire to the dedication and faith of those workers at Ajanta. How fortunate of that one monk, perhaps the last of several who had been committed to the task, into whose cubicle a tiger once turned for shelter and safety.

Stupefied and overwhelmed by the temple frescoes and monuments, Gonzalez was grasping for meanings carried by the visible objects. He defaulted praise for the ancient workers. The dedicated workmen, or creators, of Ajanta were wonder workers. They were the vanguards and classicists of the cult of art, shaping the cliffs into an abode of worship and workmanship.

A classic work of art, said J.M. Coetzee, is "what survives". It is what remains. Like the caves complex of Ajanta, it is what endures. Forgotten and hidden for centuries by dense forest, the flash of a tiger's stripes appears to direct the way to Ajanta's sacred temples and figures.

Inspiration and art were no mere accidents. The anonymous creators were no longer unsung. But their life's work outlasted their finite stay on earth. Toil and dedication transformed into pyramids and carvings. Into great walls and rice terraces.


May 29, 2015

Reading list: Best 20th century Philippine novels in English


What are the 10 best Philippine novels written in English in the last century?

Who knows? For every subjective reader's list, there are always gaps and provocations. Any list will be faulted not for what's included but for what's excluded. But I expect more for what's included. Whatever. I offer the following list not to canonize or beatify. Not to spur discussions or debates (if anybody disagrees, please let him post his own perfect list), but to create a reading list for myself.

These are the books that I have read, partially read, or will read as I feel they offer something literary and lasting. I do not want a safe list or a predictable list, or a list of well-digested books. The three basic criteria are language, power, and technique. Perhaps I might be bothered to post another list of honorable mentions. But I suppose that secondary list will be more controversial for what were still excluded.

I want novels that go beyond place (Philippine setting or abroad), time (Second World War, Marcos regime), nationality of writer, and subject matter; though I find that the watershed for all of this novelistic creativity, the reference marker and benchmark, is the violence and injustice of the martial rule. This is an era that still has to yield "untold novels" of corruption and decadence. These are novels written before, during, and after the Marcos dictatorship.

These, I suspect, are novels worthy of their wasted words. They are "Philippine novels" because they are superficially about the Filipino experience. Their universal value is for anyone's judgement. The list is ranked, starting from what I consider to be the best of them.



Best 20th c. Filipino novels in English

But for the Lovers
The Peninsulars
America Is in the Heart
The Bamboo Dancers
State of War
The Hand of the Enemy
The Woman Who Had Two Navels
His Native Coast
Renegade or Halo2
Empire of Memory


Ryan's favorite books »





1. But for the Lovers (1970) by Wilfrido D. Nolledo

More dreamscape than novel, But for the Lovers is a linguistic aria of war and memory. Wilfrido D. Nolledo is an unjustly neglected writer in his own country where his works are not known or not even widely available. Aside from this novel, he completed two others in his lifetime. Sangria Tomorrow (1982) and 21 de agosto or Vaya con Virgo (1984) were winners both of the prestigious Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel. Both are mysteriously out of print.
 
2. The Peninsulars (1964) by Linda Ty-Casper

Linda Ty-Casper is probably the most qualified Filipino writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Almost exclusively a historical novelist, she has produced a body of work that follows the template of history but with its own interpretive flair. In her novels about the turn of the century American occupation and the Marcos regime and its aftermath (Awaiting TrespassWings of Stone; Fortress in the Plaza; A Small Party in a Garden; DreamEden), she is an ardent historian not only of events but of human nature. The Peninsulars is set in the Spanish-occupied Manila in the 1750s, a prelude to the British invasion of the city in 1762. Also criminally out of print. 

3. America Is in the Heart (1946) by Carlos Bulosan

A Marxist novel based on the life of Carlos Bulosan, this "personal history" is a living document of racism and emigration. It is full of adventures and longing, full of despair and hope. What the narrator states in the title is succor for himself, in whatever country can take the place of America. In whatever welcoming place will unequivocally give him salvation and redemption, staking his hope in discovering this shelter for his wounded self. Any country one finds himself may reside in the heart. Bulosan shows why.

4. The Bamboo Dancers (1959) by N. V. M. Gonzalez

I read it earlier this year and can attest to its enduring literary value. In tracing the peripatetic journey of an artist (sculptor) in post-war America and Japan, mid-twentieth century, it just might offer a floating portrait of a floating artist in a culture-clashing world. Yet Gonzalez does not provide that totalizing portrait, only snapshots of a quest for a life of meaning, a life devoted not solely to art and beauty, perhaps to the elusive peace of mind. The Bamboo Dancers is the cosmopolitan counterpart, and a direct response, to his almost ethnographic A Season of Grace. I just might write a blog post on it.

5. State of War (1988) by Ninotchka Rosca

Sharp prose and biting irony characterize this novel about the Marcos regime. The forceful, language-driven delivery of the novel, and its surrealism, sets it apart from other works of the period. In this novel and in another (Twice Blessed) Rosca is an staunch satirist of political repression and greed. Her fictional state of war predates the confusing, kaleidoscopic countries of other writers abroad like Jessica Hagedorn (Dogeaters; Dream Jungle) and Merlinda Bobis (Fish-Hair Woman).

6. The Hand of the Enemy (1962) by Kerima Polotan

Accused of being a compromised writer during the Marcos regime (she wrote a biography of Imelda Marcos), Polotan's writing prowess is undeniable. In The Opposing Thumb: Decoding Literature of the Marcos Regime (1995), the critic Leonard Casper criticized her for writing under the cloud of dictatorship as if nothing was afoot. "Although her 1975 collection of essays, Adventures in a Forgotten Country, was filled with pleasant reminiscences ... nothing in it was confessional: she had managed to remove herself from the agony of her fellow Filipinos as if, indeed, she lived in a forgotten country." Notwithstanding her ties with Marcos, her novel The Hand of the Enemy is an unapologetic narrative of domesticity. Not a political novel for her in the traditional sense. Only gender politics.

7. The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1961) by Nick Joaquín

Joaquín calls himself a man who had two novels. (He actually wrote three, if one counts A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, the quintessential Filipino text, an "elegy in three scenes" and a novel in the form of a play.) I almost chose the play just to rebel against form. But this novel set in Hong Kong is not just a 'proper' novel. Like everything Joaquín wrote, it is poetry in motion. This first novel is just an instance from a unitary body of work, from a constellation of greatness.

8. His Native Coast (1979) by Edith L. Tiempo

Tiempo is more appreciated as a poet. Her novels (The Builder; One, Tilting Leaves; The Alien Corn; A Blade of Fern) are played in minor key.What they always offer, however, is a reconfiguration of ideas about identity, duality, and finding a permanent sanctuary – a home, a dwelling place – for exiles. His Native Coast is representative of Tiempo's tortuous and spiritual engagement with a tortured psyche.

9. Renegade or Halo² (1999) by Timothy Mo

Timothy Mo is not even Filipino but here is the book anyway. I should maybe consider also other works written by foreigners and set in the Philippines, like Fires on the Plain by Shōhei Ōoka (originally in Japanese, however) or The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (in a fictional setting, but based on Mailer's wartime experiences in the country) or Ghosts of Manila by James Hamilton-Paterson (certainly in the honorable mention list). Renegade makes the list just because it adds diversity to the list, like the halo-halo of the title. Like Mo's own divisive Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, like the disagreeable Mo Twister, this picaresque novel is something out of place.

10. Empire of Memory (1992) by Eric Gamalinda

Gamalinda (Planet Waves; Confessions of a Volcano; My Sad Republic) is arguably the best contemporary Filipino novelist, perhaps rivaled only by Gina Apostol (The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata; Gun Dealers' Daughter). His novels are as diverse as they are inventive. Empire of Memory is another Marcosian novel, an ubiquitous genre, but distinguished by its modernist-revisionist approach to history.

May 23, 2015

The Cloak of God


The Cloak of God by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2013)


The novels of Rosario de Guzman Lingat (1924-1997) were finally available locally in English thanks in large part to translator Soledad S. Reyes's championing of her literary outputs. Except for young adult novelist Ceres S.C. Alabado, Lingat happened to be the only female novelist with works translated from a Philippine language.
 
The production of local novels in the Philippines was rather poor in showing. In the 20th century, only 637 novels were published in the country: 365 novels written in Filipino, 95 translated to Filipino, and 177 written in English. The list was compiled in Bibliography of Filipino Novels, 1901-2000 (2011) by Patricia May B. Jurilla. I do not know the male to female novel production ratio, but the discrepancy could easily be assumed.

So far, from the 365 Filipino novels of the last century, only five saw print in English, mostly very recently, three of them Reyes's translations of Lingat's novels. This was a measly 1.4% of Filipino-to-English translation rate. In a nation of non-readers and readers-who-would-rather-read-English-bestsellers, this of course was not surprising. The market for translations was minuscule.




Lingat's novels, published in the 1960s and '70s, offered a historical glimpse into the social, political, and economic forces before and during the Martial Law years. Of her three novels translated in English – Kung Wala na ang Tag-araw (1969), Ano Ngayon, Ricky? (1971), and Ang Balabal ng Diyos (1975) – the latter perhaps provided the most oblique and powerful diagnosis of social chaos and confusion of the times, the artful culmination of the personal struggles of the anti-hero in The Death of Summer and the political activist in What Now, Ricky? It brought a tragicomical representation of mass uncertainty and delusion through the adventures of a failed theater actor (Felino Paras) who suddenly found himself revered, then venerated, as a religious prophet. It was all the more notable for being a novel of self-consciousness artistry, teeming with conscious character-actors "acting out roles created by a writer".

Felino was a reluctant prophet, at first. He acted out the part of a prophet of doom in order to avoid being found out as a criminal. He cribbed his lines from a play he was auditioning for and that he failed to get. He transformed his handsome features into that of a man of extreme piety and instantly realized he stumbled upon a mine when goods and donations from believers started pouring in.

But at what cost? His freedom and privacy were invaded. He could no longer keep to himself and freely go to bars and womanize.

Those vampires! There was no way they would leave him alone! They would not stop pursuing him! ...

He was being observed by all these people. They kept watch of his every move; they were waiting for that salvation they mistakenly believed he was praying for. These fanatics gripped by irrational terror!

Despite the stress and hassle his newfound calling gave him, he kept at it for purely material reasons. He acted out the part and continued to amass wealth from gullible people. He accidentally started a religious cult, with mostly agreeable ramifications.

As the days passed, the news spread fast. It reached the whole city and spread to the provinces. The end of the world was at hand! Darkness would engulf the earth and there would be rains of fire...

Felino's ministry grew, spilling over into the countryside. Churches were constructed to honor the True Faith. His charismatic presence, "a man standing erect, with eyes that radiated power, a role he had now learned to play to perfection, each opportunity for the faithful to listen to the full baritone voice", became most sought after. "He evoked fear and diffidence and inspired admiration and respect. Most of all, he was loved."

The novelist played the prophet's character to perfection. The salient role of religion in life was explored with irony and spontaneous comedy. The scenes were to the point; the dialogues were crisply delivered; the comedy of manners, of situations, of an anti-hero was inextricably linked to his accidental fate, and faith.

The Cloak of God was a very possible inspiration or influence to Himala (Miracle), a 1982 popular and critically acclaimed hit (cult) movie about a faith healer in a barrio. There were obvious parallelisms in how religious life took center stage in a needful society, and how the cult of art was manifest in the cult of religion and celebrity.

"But, is it true? Is it true that the end is near? That darkness will engulf the earth and there will be rains of fire?"

"You heard what I said last night."

The old man was gasping for breath; his knees were getting weaker.

"What do those people want from me, Mang Asyas?"

"They'd like to speak with you. Your prophecy has spread like wildfire." Felino's gaze was unwavering. "They'd like to know if salvation is impossible."

Felino was smiling inwardly, extremely pleased with himself. He raised his eyes and examined the ceiling so as not to let the old man get an inkling of this wave of pleasure coursing through his veins. Words plucked out of Gonzalo's [the playwright's] drama, which was never staged, raced through his mind.

And he said, "Compassion is shown to those who truly believe. Salvation is found only in True Faith."

"How is this to be?"

Felino's eyes were glued to the dark corner of his room. How? The script of that mean-spirited Gonzalo did not say how!

The question was repeated. "How, sir?"

Felino lowered his eyes and looked grief-stricken. "I do not know how." It was an honest answer. "Leave me, Mang Asyas. I am preoccupied with my personal problems."

Since Felino played his role to perfection, providing the precise modulation of voice, dignity, and bearing as befits a preacher, who really could say he was a false prophet? In his seamlessly improvised speeches and sermons, in his sincere posture and imposture, who really could judge him?

One is tempted to ask, what kind of society breeds a perfect prophet in their midst? What hidden social arrangements and mores could allow new faith to take root, could compel a passionate and devoted following? Pertinent questions, the answers to which provide strong indicators of social imbalances in unjust, post-colonial regimes.

The final act of the novel was a shocker. The matter of fact comedy suddenly switched genre, into mind-bender speculative fiction or high-strung science fiction. Lingat manufactured values and meanings using the art of modern, self-parodying novel, as if to rattle and shake the devoutness of one's faith in fiction, to measure the depths of satire. She took to a higher level the implications of what it really meant to wear the mantle of God. Her outrageous plot lines would test the capacity of fiction to stupefy, to enact miracles that willingly defy mannered, realist fiction.


May 15, 2015

Woman Running in the Mountains


Woman Running in the Mountains by Tsushima Yūko, tr. Geraldine Harcourt (Pantheon Books, 1991)


She was a full six months pregnant by the time her mother noticed. Her mother at once launched into an endless stream of angry questions, demanding to know why hadn't she gotten an abortion, how had it happened, who was the man, did she want his child because she loved him, was he a married man, did he know, did she plan to bring it up herself, did she think she knew how, was she doing this to get back at her parents, did she have such a grudge against her father, did she realize what this would do to her life, and just what was the big idea?

The consistency with which Tsushima Yūko plumbed the stories of single women dealing with pregnancy and motherhood is impressive. The women in her narratives face debilitating domestic situations. As in this novel where Takiko Okada found herself constrained to bring out a child in a society where her kind is being discriminated against. Even her pregnancy does not deter her father from physically assaulting her several times.

But Tsushima's Takiko does not belong to the traditional mold of feminist heroines. Her protagonists start out as uncaring of their lot in life. The shift in their disposition is very slow in coming. The process of discovery and recognition is a slow burning of indifference and reflection. Takiko doesn't or can't particularly think far ahead of her situation. She can be profoundly apathetic. And she can be ruthlessly pragmatic. They are, at best, passive resisters of life.

When they'd told her at dawn, "It's a healthy baby boy," they must have been talking about her child. But she could also have dreamed those words. She was in no hurry to find out. Whether what she'd given birth to was alive or dead, and what it might be like if it was alive, need not concern her right now. Takiko couldn't help being profoundly relieved to find that her own body seemed to have come through safely. As long as she, at least, could live that would be enough. She couldn't let anything happen to her because of this, not when it had turned out to be such a simple thing.

Little by little, Takiko starts to acknowledge her motherhood. She enrolls her son in a baby home and actively participates in recording and reading the baby's progress in a journal.

Mon., Jan 1 (cloudy)
 7:15   Formula (200 cc).
           Bed.
10:10  Playing on his own.
11:00  Pumpkin puree (small amount).
           Formula (200 cc).
11:50  Started crying.
12:10  Bed.
 1:00   Woke up and started crying.
 1:30   Juice (120 cc).
 3:00   Formula (200 cc).
 4:30   Very bad temper.
 5:30   Bed.
 6:00   Started to howl.
 6:20   Gave him a crust to suck.
           BM.
 7:30   Formula (200 cc).
 9:00   Started to cry.
 9:30   Bath.
 9:45  Juice (120 cc)
          Bed.

The long stretches of this journal in the book are puzzling and yet somehow illuminating. The writing is accessible, with flashes of engaging haiku-like lyricism, yet the ideas are modernist and complex. This novel mystifies through suggestiveness and avoids being too subtle. Her naturalistic writing in this book is beyond subtle. It can even veer toward comedy of the dark kind.

Takiko closed her eyes and relaxed. The bed was slow to warm up. The snow outside had given the room an icy chill, the first real cold of the winter. In the living room the kerosene heater would still be burning with a bluish flame. There might well be an earthquake in the night, or one of the men [her father and drinking companions] might knock it over with his foot and start a fire. But so what if there was a fire? Since Atsushi [her brother] would no doubt rescue their mother, at worst those three men would burn to death, and she and Akira [her baby] as well if she didn't wake up; and the house would burn down. That was the worst that could happen, and it wouldn't be any great loss. If she turned the heater off the three men might freeze to death in this drafty house. Seeing as how they were such old friends, born in the same town, that might not be such a bad way to go. But if everyone were calmly to wake up tomorrow morning without having burned or frozen to death, that wouldn't be a bad thing either.

In this novel published in Japan in 1980 and in her first, Child of Fortune (1978) and in The Shooting Galler and Other Stories, Tsushima has mapped out the subterranean consciousness of women responding to difficulties in their lives in their own singular ways, responding to the shifting societal and economic forces in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s.

The choices Takiko made, for better or worse, are hers alone. This is what ultimately defines her and how she came to achieve her sense of self.

She didn't regret it, nor did she think she ought to go down on her knees and apologize to her mother. This wasn't something that an apology would solve. It wasn't something that allowed regrets and second tries. All she could do was go on giving Akira his bottle and watching her parents, her brother, and her self, without regrets. There was nothing else she could do: this was the conclusion she inevitable reached. She had given birth to a baby that no one had wanted her to have, a birth to which she alone had consented. Regrets were not permitted.

Takiko's passivity ("All she could do ...")  belies the power she gained from acknowledging and accepting the repercussions of her decisions. Takiko herself is a complex portrait of a society coming slow to a liberal mindset. This is reflected in the three-part structure of the book, mirroring the various changes in her employment status as she constantly changes jobs to support her baby. The structure follows Takiko's gradual recovery of her self-worth, in her own eyes and in the eyes of the reader. Suffice it to say that the third act of the book involves a literal mountain and a man that opens her eyes to wider horizons. The mountain as an elevated destination. The ideal place to reconcile inner with outer conflicts. From which she would descend with a newer purpose.



With thanks to the translator Geraldine Harcourt for a copy of the book and for sharing her translation of a very insightful kaisetsu (commentary) by Tomoyuki Hoshino which appeared as an afterword in the novel's 2006 paperback edition in Japanese.



May 9, 2015

The Deleted World


The Deleted World by Tomas Tranströmer, tr. Robin Robertson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)


I close my eyes.
There is a silent world,
there is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled over the border.

—"Midwinter"

The last lines of Tomas Tranströmer's poem "Midwinter" closed the collection The Deleted World. It ended with an eerie image of the silent world and the dead being trafficked through a crack. The poems themselves offered a silent procession of images and left the reader with an atmosphere of foreboding. The world was not the only thing deleted, but words were seemingly redacted to produce extremely short poems. What's left were bare traces of ideas and a profound sense of incompleteness. Even crowding faces—of houses or the couple, it was not exactly clear—was cancelled. The landscape was as if annulled.

All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,
extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.
They crowd in close, attentive:
this audience of cancelled faces.

—"The Couple"

Whole poems themselves were seemingly deleted. The reader was treated to only 15 short pieces, in a book that ran for mere 37 pages, half of which were devoted to the original poems in Swedish facing the English versions of Robin Robertson. The criminally sparse selection of poems terminated a lot of potential richness from Tranströmer's oeuvre. It was a rather short introduction to the poet, though it in some ways gave an impression that the selection was representative of the poet's 11 books of poetry. Because the poems were short, the lines were short, the book was short, image subtraction and language condensation were the order of the day.

Tranströmer was a poet of compression. He could write poems using language, yet without using words. The poet confessed that he was "sick of those who come with words."

From March 1979

Sick of those who come with words, words but no language,
I make my way to the snow-covered island.

Wilderness has no words. The unwritten pages
stretch out in all directions.

I come across this line of deer-slots in the snow: a language,
language without words.

The wordless natural world described everything for him. Language was derived from the essential meaning of silence. The utterance of words—mere superfluous words—would disturb the balance of nature. The Nobel laureate had the luxury to repudiate the wordiness of modern society as he was a deleter of the inessential. He was a tranströmer of words.