January 21, 2016

How I Became a Nun


How I Became a Nun (1993) by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2006)


In my second reading of How I Became a Nun I suggested how, borrowing from Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet, gender identification may be a strategy to break grammatical rules and assert freedom of choice in spite of the restrictions of usage. In subverting the conventions of language, where 'he' must refer only to a male person, the novelist was flouting style guides. 'Free radicals' were not always welcome in the body of literature. They were operating outside the system, outside the norm. The heresy was already prefigured in the novel's first paragraph.

My story, the story of "how I became a nun," began very early in my life; I had just turned six. The beginning is marked by a vivid memory, which I can reconstruct down to the last detail. Before, there is nothing, and after, everything is an extension of the same vivid memory, continuous and unbroken, including the intervals of sleep, up to the point where I took the veil.

The self-referential nod to the title was a programmatic approach to metafiction. Yes, this was the story of the narrator turning into a nun, right down to the moment when she took the veil. These are gendered nouns. Somehow, this story (my story) was also the story of the writing of this novel (called "how I became a nun"). The story could be reconstructed to the last detail. There's reliability for you.

It was as if Bernardo Soares was intoning: Today, during a break from feeling, I reflected on the style of my prose. It was a fluid telling of the child César who identified (insisted) on the feminine gender every step of the way. In twenty-three instances* César viewed herself as a girl.

From the point of view of others, from five viewpoints** actually, dear little César was all of a boy. This "boy" had a militant streak. He got into some thorny situations and miraculous experiences.

Was the child's gender preference only a deep-seated stubbornness? Was the novelist's gender preference a deliberate violation of grammar? Was it not an innocent compositional choice? Or a mock display of freedom from the constraints of gender and rules?



* Pages in the book and the exact feminine gender identification.
2 devoted daughter
23 little girl
25 girl
28 difficult girl
32 daughter
42 little girl
46 girl
54 fourteen-year old Argentinean girl
59 daughter
61 daughter
63 girl
64 girl
67 daughter
72 daughter
82 girl
92 normal little girl
94 girl in the crowd
96 supreme mistress
100 girl
107 idiotic daughter
111 little girl
113 another girl
116 six-year old girl

** Pages in the book, the masculine gender perception, and the person speaking.
6 "Everyone except you, son, because you're a moron." (father)
16 "Is it my fault if the boy didn't like it?" (ice cream vendor)
34 "And how are we today, young Master César?" (doctor)
56 "That Aira boy ... He's here among you, and he doesn't seem any different. Maybe you haven't noticed him, he's so insignificant. But he's here. Don't be fooled. I always tell you the true, the theck, the trove. You are good, clever, sweet children. Even the ones who are naughty, or have to repeat, or get into fights all the time. You're normal, you're all the same, because you have a second mother. Aira is a moron. He might seem the same as you, but he's a moron all the same. He's a monster. He doesn't have a second mother. He's wicked. He wants to see me dead. He wants to kill me. But he's not going to succeed!" (Miss Rodríguez, the teacher)
57-58 "He want's to kill you too. Not me. You. But don't be afraid, teacher will protect you. You have to watch out for vipers, tarantulas and rabid dogs. And especially for Aira. Aira is a thousand times worse. Watch out for Aira! Don't go near him! Don't talk to him! Don't look at him! Pretend he doesn't exist. I always thought he was a moron, but I had nnno idea ... I dddidn't realize ... Now I do! Don't let him dirty you! Don't let him infect you! Don't even give him the time of day! Don't breathe when he's near. Die of asphyxiation if you have to, just so long as you freeze him out. He's a monster, a killer! And your mothers will cry if you die. They'll try and blame me, I know them. But if you watch out for the monster nothing will happen. Pretend he doesn't exist, pretend he's not there. If you don't talk to him or look at him, he can't harm you." (Miss Rodríguez, the teacher)
67 "César Aira ... a boy by the name of César Aira." (voices from loudspeakers)

December 16, 2015

The Seven Madmen


The Seven Madmen (1929) by Roberto Arlt, translated by Nick Caistor, afterwords by Nick Caistor and Roberto Bolaño (Serpent's Tail, 2015)



I didn't think I shall ever finish The Seven Madmen, Roberto Arlt's infamous novel, in time for the end of the world. I tried to pace myself, reading a few pages at a time, but the virus of desolation spread rapidly to contaminate my buoyant spirit. I'm far from the finish line on this one. I'm hardly halfway through the novel. Definitely not your average picker-upper read.

Remo Erdosain, the protagonist, might as well be frolicking in purgatory. At the start of the novel we found him down and hard on his luck, having been accused of stealing money from his company and being given an ultimatum to settle the money he stole. As he walked the streets of Buenos Aires, trying to find a way out of his sticky situation, he encountered a gallery of characters, in various states of derangement. How bleak the outlook for Erdosain. The very air he breathed seemed saturated with depression and desperation. Erdosain was fucked. The novel was packed with an emotional wallop.

Let us say, for the sole purpose of comparison, that Erdosain is a citizen under the regime of Kim Jong-un. In this case, of course, Buenos Aires is Pyongyang, and Argentina is North Korea. That was an unoriginal approach. But you get the drift.

What's being paraded were hollow, cartoon characters, defined only by their anguish and revulsion. Characters wallowing in monotony and boredom. Even their flashes of paranoia and distrust were predictable. Wretchedness piled on top of wretchedness. What's worse than a damned soul?

He felt as though blood was pouring from every cranny of his soul – as if it was being torn by a drill. With his powers of reasoning numbed, stunned with anguish, he set out on a wild search for a brothel. It was then he experienced the horror of empty nothingness, that luminous horror like the dazzling brilliance of the sun as it bounces off the curved surface of a salt-flat.

The novel was full of these brilliant metaphors of light and darkness. The same light that blinded Meursault in Camus's L'Étranger or Tajomaru in Akutagawa's "In a Grove". In fact the novel was swimming in perverse metaphors.

Here's another example: "It seemed to Erdosain that each worry was an owl that flitted from one branch of his suffering to the next." That was the formulation of translator Nick Caistor who said he tried to avoid straightening the repetitions, lack of grammatical accuracy, and wayward logic of Arlt.

Los sietes locos was in fact translated twice in English, the first one in 1984 by Naomi Lindstrom, published by Godine. She translated the same sentence snappily as: "He felt each spasm of grief hopping like an owl from branch to branch in his misery." That sounded more wayward to me.

Another sentence comparison:

Lindstrom:
Like a horse with its guts torn out by a bull, mucking around in its own viscera, every step he took drained his lungs of their lifeblood.

Caistor:
Just as horses who have had their guts ripped out by a bull slither about in their own intestines, so every step that Erdosain took left him with a little less lifeblood in his lungs.

The violence in that sentence was palpable and exact and scientific. At the level of a sentence, Arlt conjured the devil in the details. One's life was at stake in each Arlt sentence. A bullet fired into the chest, close to the heart, gave a life or death sentence: "His life was saved only due to the fact that this organ contracted at the precise moment the bullet whizzed by." Whew!

What Erdosain was longing for was redemption for his soul, but we were almost sure he would not get it in this life.

"What am I doing with my life?" he would ask himself, trying with that question to shed light on the origins of this anxiety which led him to long for an existence where the next day would not be merely time measured out in a repetition of today, but something different and totally unexpected, like in the plots of North American films, where yesterdays tramp suddenly becomes today's secret society boss, and the gold-digging secretary turns out to be multimillionairess in disguise.

Let us say, it was a fictional fulfillment of desire. Erdosain was longing for fiction, for something unpredictable, "something different and totally unexpected". Wasn't that an existentialist objective?

Arlt's world was a beehive of lowlifes in the entrails of Buenos Aires. Whores and gangsters and tormented souls rubbed shoulders with pseudo-anarchists and terrorists. There's a fuzzy destabilization plot to rid the world of the bourgeois army. Society was a sewer connected to the latrines of emo individuals. Still, the perplexity and the questioning mode of Erdosain made for a novel of pathetic grandeur.

Lindstrom (81):
“I’m nothing in everyone’s eyes. But still, if tomorrow I throw a bomb or murder Barsut, suddenly I’m everything, the man who exists, the man for whom generations of criminologists have prepared punishments, jails, and theories… That’s really weird! And yet, only crime can affirm my existence, just as evil is all that affirms the presence of man on earth.. Really, this is all so weird. Still, despite everything, there is darkness and mankind’s soul is sad. Infinitely sad. But that can’t be how life is. If tomorrow I figured out why that can’t be how life is, I’d pinch myself and disinflate like a balloon spewing out all these lies I’m filled with.”

Caistor (88-89):
I'm nothing to anyone. And yet, if tomorrow I throw a bomb or kill Barsut, then I become everything, a man who exists, a man who generations of legal experts have prepared punishments, gaols, and theories for. ... That's so strange! And yet it is only thanks to crime that I can affirm my existence, just as it is only evil which affirms man's presence on earth. ... All this is very strange. And yet despite everything, darkness does exist, and man's soul is full of sorrow. Infinite sorrow. But that cannot be all there is to life. Something inside me tells me life cannot be like that. If I could only discover the precise reason why life cannot be that way, I could stick a pin in myself, and all this hot air of lies would be deflated like a balloon.

Roberto Bolaño (the poor Chilean) supplied a back cover blurb and afterword to the 2015 UK edition. The latter was the infamous essay, or speech, from Between Parentheses where Bolaño described three strains of doom-virus infecting the Argentinean literary canon. The essay was hardly a flattering portrait of Arlt's novelistic enterprise. Read properly (i.e., literally), Bolaño was saying Arlt could not be a basis for an Argentinean literary school or movement because of his pure fatalism. For him, Arlt's art was infected. He compared Arlt to Onetti. Both "[opted] for the parched and silent abyss." Arlt's writing represented a desertification of literature that guaranteed the destruction of literature. That may or may not be exactly a damning judgement, but it was an ambivalent assessment of Arlt's fiction. And yet he considered Arlt one of the "exceptional writers and literary giants" in Argentina. It was a love-hate judgement.

I think Bolaño was more irked by Ricardo Piglia's championing of Arlt's flavor of fiction than by Arlt himself, whom he called blameless. In fact, he was wary of (false) prophets or literary apostles or disciples. He could not bear César Aira trumpeting Osvaldo Lamborghini's legacy. The literature of doom as represented by the two Osvaldos (Soriano and Lamborghini) and Arlt (to some extent) is a self-destructive enterprise. The language of novels in this mold devours itself.

Bolaño delivered the speech "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom" in December 2002 in Barcelona at the Kósmopolis International Festival of Literature. He prefaced his reading as follows:

Argentine literature is so rich, so powerful, that in the end it seemed more fitting to focus [my piece] exclusively on it; on Argentine fiction basically. ... The piece is ... limited to the drift of Argentine literature since Borges's death, basically. Sadly, this gangster literature, or literature of doom is the most vital, the richest. Personally, it doesn't excite me much, mostly because I'm sick of the literature of doom, but there's no doubt it's the most vital, and that it has the most influence on the rest of Latin American literature. The literature of doom, as I've said, is a kin of sub-world or infra-world outside the law.

The self-contradictions in those opening statements were glaring. Who needs a self-help book if one is sick of the literature of doom?



P.S. Mad covers of English translations

1. The 1984 Lindstrom translation. Talk about literalism in depicting seven mad persons. Almost cool, if only for the rapacious swimmers in the background.






2. The first edition from UK publisher Serpent's Tail. The glum look.





3. The 2015 edition of Serpent's Tail. Nothing remarkable here.



4. The US edition from NYRB (2015). The cover is more apt for Melville's Moby-Dick.







Passages from Naomi Lindstrom's translation of The Seven Madmen quoted above are taken from Never Stop Reading. All Bolaño quotes are from Between Parentheses, translated by Natasha Wimmer.

Caravana de recuerdos hosts The 2015 Argentinean (& Algerian) Literature(s) of Doom until the end of the month.



December 11, 2015

Favorite books 2015


My reading choices lately had been pretty much insular. For various reasons, I became interested in local (Philippine) literature in English and Tagalog. There's a very practical reason for this. The books were simply what's readily available and accessible to me in bookshops. Also, the postcolonial and postwar orientation of the books I've sampled was of great interest to me. I managed to make good headway on my two reading lists: the best Philippine novels of the last century and Filipino novels in English translation.

A subjective and flawed exercise, this singling out of books. Yet the obligatory post is quite enjoyable to write, if only to relive each specific reading experience, the beautiful flaws and obvious artifice of a well-made fiction. I selected eight novels as favorites this year. My only complaint about them is their ugly covers.


I probably have not read a finer Philippine novel in English in But for the Lovers by Wilfrido S. Nolledo. First published in 1970, it became extinct until miraculously resurrected in 1994 by Dalkey Archive Press. It is a fountainhead of creativity [not in any Ayn Rand sense, God forbid]. Surreal and savage scenes are interspersed with scenes of great hilarity and profundity. The large, multi-national cast of characters floats in a state of dreaming, half-waking, or in-between. The wartime set-pieces unravel in magical fashion. It's a powerful work of postcolonial perversity. Hyperbole does not give it justice.


After attending a party in a garden among socialites, the executive assistant of Imelda Marcos visited her estranged father. They argued about politics and the hot issues of the day. The father is a fervent critic of Marcos, the daughter does not care. In the end, both will be implicated in the New Society.

Linda Ty-Casper is perhaps the best living novelist from the Philippines, the one most deserving of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. (F. Sionil José -- the supposedly best bet of this country -- simply does not cut it for me.) She had a rather cruel vision of failed history in A Small Party in a Garden (1988). In this short novel, the intersection of domestic personal conflicts with fractured official histories is narrated with uncompromising irony. In one unpleasant episode in the novel, historical forces, military and male, simply shatter and belittle any human effort for decency. A political novel that slaps the face of anyone who kept silent (i.e., almost everyone) during the Marcos regime.


The Hand of the Enemy (1962), the only novel written by Kerima Polotan, is a postwar novel of social corruption that anticipated the political stagnation during the years of dictatorship under Marcos. Herself a Marcos crony, Polotan is redeemed not by the probity of her characters but by their failings. There is an almost metaphysical representation of chance fate as the enemy, whose iron hand is a specter not to be trifled with. And yet the shadow of a false prophet leading his followers to perdition haunts these pages, like the would-be dictator. And like Linda Ty-Casper, the ardent anti-Marcos, Polotan the Marcos sympathizer makes palpable a very human, and evil, design in the institution of marriage and in the political structure of government.



The Cloak of God (1975) is the best of the three novels by Rosario de Guzman Lingat finally brought into English in recent years by her indefatigable translator and champion Soledad S. Reyes. Like The Hand of the Enemy, it analyzes corruption and degradation of spirit through its duplicitous main character, Felino Paras, a theater actor who accidentally became a religious leader. It has a parable-like quality in its treatment of religion as a source of salvation for the gullible masses, easily manipulated by the perfect performance of an actor who secretly lived in sinfulness and depravity. Maestro Felino perpetrated a massive fraud by brilliantly playing a double life, by naturally acting out the role of a religious leader. It is a role the artist is born to play. Wearing the cloak of God is the character's, as well as the novel's, performative act. And in the second act of the play, she will again subvert her own performance by switching roles and switching genres.


I couldn't readily decide which of the two novels by Tsushima Yūko I read this year to include in this list. Woman Running in the Mountains (1980) almost edged out Child of Fortune (1978) in terms of which mystified me the more. But the two are sister novels, both majestically translated by Geraldine Harcourt. There's a continuity in their themes and preoccupations. Both are portraits of an unwed, expecting woman in Japan, circa 1970s. The delicate progression of scenes in these novels reveals a portrait of an immediate family and a society almost unfit for bringing up children. Through challenges in their work stations and family relations, Tsushima's protagonists discovered small personal triumphs against personal doubts and insecurities. Her almost realist narratives are deepened by tensions arising from a wayward metaphor or a stray scene, a simple recollection or a brutal dream. Tsushima is a fixture in this blog and for good reasons.



All the Conspirators (1998) is Carlos Bulosan's posthumous detective novel, published 42 years after the author's death after being discovered among his papers. It exposes the deplorable actions of persons who collaborated with the Japanese enemy during the war and who betrayed their country and fellowmen in exchange for wealth and comfort during the Japanese occupation. This entertaining novel is accessible, full of action, and a fast read. But on the serious side, it provides a damning portrait of traitorous characters who sold out their souls by informing on freedom fighters. They are always waiting in the wings, these frigging collaborators.


And then there's this infamous 1915 Kafka story of magical transformation, Ang Metamorposis, in a recent Filipino translation. This is magical transformation in a cruel, terrifying way. The pathetic and noble struggle of Gregor Samsa against unjust power structures at work and in society is a reflection of the continuing class struggles of wage workers. A Marxist interpretation of the Kafkaesque may be inevitable, especially as it dramatizes how capitalism reduces the nuclear family to financial relations.


That's it for the year round up. Been a great year for badass reading.



December 4, 2015

All books 2015


Life happened, hence the lesser frequency of book writing on this space. Life meant work and its attendant time trappings. So demanding I had to take a break from part-time night teaching in a local university. My apologies for my lack of interaction with friends and acquaintances in the blogosphere. I do continue to read posts from blogs I follow, sometimes days after bookmarking them. I manage to read every fascinating book review and posting even if I can't bring myself to comment. Unmitigated, I still manage to go into book buying sprees at stores and online. Constants, bookish habits, that endure.

I keep on reading whenever I can. Blog reviews, books, print and digital. Fifty-two books this year, and that is enough. A blessed year of distraction all in all. Considering that life meant also fatherhood for me for the first time. A baby daughter, now a couple of months old, is finding her way into the world. She reads the air with her inquisitive eyes. She wakes up into a household of books. Soon she will open picture books, first chapters, and early chapters. And then young adult books the father was often not fond of. He will find himself browsing through shelves, catalogs, and collections not his usual fare. Some years and he will find The Tartar Steppe being interspersed with The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily. Mann's Joseph tetralogy broken by the volumes of Moomin.

Life. And he can't wait.







1. Kung Baga sa Bigas: Mga PilingTula (Just Like Rice Grains: Selected Poems) by Jose F. Lacaba

2. Light by Rob Cham

3. A Field Guide to the Roads of Manila and Other Stories by Dean Francis Alfar

4. Alinsunurang Awit (Attributed Songs) by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles

5. Gagambeks at mga Kuwentong Waratpad (Gagambeks and Waratpad Stories) by Mark Angeles

6. Si Janus Sílang at ang Labanáng Manananggal-Mambabarang (Janus Sílang and the Manananggal-Mambabarang Showdown) by Edgar Calabia Samar

7. Climate Change: Evidence and Causes by The Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences

8. Guillermo Tell = Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich von Schiller, tr. José Rizal

9. Pitong Kuwento (Seven Stories) by Anton Chekhov, tr. Fidel Rillo

10. Ang Kuwintas at Iba Pang mga Kuwento (The Necklance and Other Stories) by Guy de Maupassant, tr. Allan N. Derain

11. Niyebe ng Kilimanjaro at Iba Pang Kuwento (The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories) by Ernest Hemingway, tr. Alvin C. Ursua

12. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

13. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, tr. Samuel Moore

14. Ang Metamorposis by Franz Kafka, tr. Joselito D. Delos Reyes

15. Remember, Body... by C. P. Cavafy, tr. Avi Sharon

16. Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw (A Midsummer Night's Dream) by William Shakespeare, tr. Rolando S. Tinio

17. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

18. Ang Trahedya nina Romeo at Julieta by William Shakespeare, tr. Rolando S. Tinio

19. Reportage on Lovers by Quijano de Manila

20. But for the Lovers by Wilfrido D. Nolledo

21. The Global Warming Reader: A Century of Writing About Climate Change, ed. Bill McKibben

22. The Hand of the Enemy by Kerima Polotan

23. All the Conspirators by Carlos Bulosan

24. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke, tr. Ralph Manheim

25. Poems of Rolando S. Tinio, Jose F. Lacaba & Rio Alma, tr. Robert Nery

26. Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard, tr. Ewald Osers

27. Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, tr. Rosalind Harvey

28. The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín

29. Commend Contend/Beyond, Extensions by Edith L. Tiempo

30. A Small Party in a Garden by Linda Ty-Casper

31. Understanding Human Ecology: A Systems Approach to Sustainability by Robert Dyball and Barry Newell

32. The Deleted World by Tomas Tranströmer, tr. Robin Robertson

33. Translations by Brian Friel

34. The Cloak of God by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes

35. Tres by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Laura Healy

36. Campo Santo by W. G. Sebald, tr. Anthea Bell

37. The Death of Summer by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes

38. Woman Running in the Mountains by Tsushima Yūko, tr. Geraldine Harcourt

39. Sa Kasunod ng 909 (Next to 909) by Edgar Calabia Samar

40. Trip to Tagaytay by Arnold Arre

41. The Bamboo Dancers by N.V.M. Gonzalez

42. Green Sanctuary by Antonio Enriquez

43. Ang Kapangyarihang Higit sa Ating Lahat (The Power Greater Than All of Us) by Ronaldo Soledad Vivo Jr.

44. Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn

45. Ang Mundong Ito ay Lupa (This World Is of the Earth) by Edgardo M. Reyes

46. Child of Fortune by Tsushima Yūko, tr. Geraldine Harcourt

47. Bullets and Roses: The Poetry of Amado V. Hernandez: A Bilingual Edition, tr. Cirilo F. Bautista

48. Pesoa by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles

49. Trese: High Tide at Midnight by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo

50. Retrato ng Artista Bilang Filipino (A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino) by Nick Joaquín, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera

51. Kaaway (Enemies) by Maxim Gorky, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera

52. Diary of the War of the Pig by Adolfo Bioy Casares, tr. Gregory Woodruff and Donald A. Yates







2015

Kung Baga sa Bigas: Mga Piling Tula
Light
A Field Guide to the Roads of Manila and Other Stories
Alinsunurang Awit
Gagambeks at mga Kuwentong Waratpad
Si Janus Sílang at ang Labanáng Manananggal-Mambabarang
Climate Change: Evidence and Causes
Guillermo Tell = Wilhelm Tell
Pitong Kuwento
Ang Kuwintas at Iba Pang mga Kuwento
Niyebe ng Kilimanjaro at Iba Pang Mga Kuwento
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
The Communist Manifesto
Ang Metamorposis
Remember, Body...
Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw
Go Set a Watchman
Ang Trahedya nina Romeo at Julieta
Reportage on Lovers: A Medley of Factual Romances, Happy or Tragical, Most of Which Made News
But for the Lovers






November 7, 2015

Guillermo Tell


Guillermo Tell = Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich von Schiller, translated from German to Filipino by José Rizal (National Historical Commission of the Philippines, 2013)




Can a Swiss (European) national epic about a revolution inspire another revolution halfway round the world? Maybe it could. But it should be translated first.

Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) supplied the prefatory lines to José Rizal's (1861-1896) Spanish novel of revolution Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not). They are taken from the parody poem "Shakespeare's Ghost". The German original of the extract from the poem appeared on the left; the Spanish translation was on the right.

Qué? ¿No podría un César presentarse
En vuestras tablas? no más un Aquiles,
Un Orestes ó Andrómaca mostrarse?

Quía! Si no vemos más que concejiles,
Curas, alféreces y secretarios,
De husares comandantes y alguaciles.

Mas, di, ¿qué pueden estos perdularios
hacer de grande? Pueden tales ratas
Dar lugar á hechos extraordinarios?

***

"What? Does no Caesar, does no Achilles appear on your stage now?
Not an Andromache e'en, not an Orestes, my friend?"
"No! There is naught to be seen there but parsons, and syndics of commerce,
Secretaries perchance, ensigns, and majors of horse."
"But, my good friend, pray tell me, what can such people e'er meet with
That can be truly called great?—what that is great can they do?"

["Shakespeare's Ghost", tr. John Bowring]

Rizal translated Schiller's final play on 1886, a year before Noli Me Tangere was published in Berlin. Hence, it came to be that the first great Philippine novel was written in Spanish, printed abroad, and partly influenced by a Swiss dramatist. Rizal was a polymath of languages. From German, he translated Wilhelm Tell into Tagalog. The recent version printed by the National Historical Commission modernized Rizal's Tagalog into contemporary Filipino.

The translation was published in the Philippines posthumously, in 1907 and 1908, almost a decade after Rizal was executed by Spanish authorities for sedition. Schiller's revolutionary thinking influenced Rizal's thought and the writing of his twin magnum opus, Noli Me Tangere and its sequel El Filibusterismo (Subversion).

Like Schiller, Rizal depicted a nation in chaos and under the grip of terror from imperialistic and militaristic powers of the state. The empire and its cohorts were terrorizing the land, seeking to control the populace and enrich themselves by land grabbing and stealing other people's properties. The people were incensed by the endless malevolence and abuse of authorities, by their lack of freedom, the unjust social conditions. From apathy, they were awakened toward resistance, toward social organization, and toward the use of force. Blood accompanied their revolt.

Rizal learned from Schiller how to dramatize the fight for freedom, for independence, and self-determination. Revolution against prevailing authorities was ever justified if their representatives ("parsons, and syndics of commerce,/Secretaries perchance, ensigns, and majors of horse") use their power perversely to thwart natural and divine laws, the laws that protect human rights and basic good. In the most famous and very effective scene of the play, Guillermo Tell was told by one of the emperor's men to shoot with an arrow the apple placed on top of his own son. Who could blame Tell, who at first seemed reluctant to join the brewing revolution against the empire, if after a first-hand taste of an unjust attempt to kill his own child (by his own hands!), he decided to stamp out the enemy?

Throughout history, subjugated peoples reached saturation points, enabling them to unite and band together and to act decisively against totalitarian rulers who eventually suffered the fate of their folly. Accompanying such wars and revolutions was the emergence of nationalism and a new world order. The resistance in Schiller's drama came from people of all classes, from the working classes (fishers, shepherds, hunters, farmers) to the bourgeoisie (rich landowners, barons, heirs). In Rizal's time and in his fiction, the rebels were a mix of the workers and commons with the landed class and the ilustrados (educated elite); in Noli: the disinherited Elias and the disenfranchised Juan Crisostomo Ibarra, the novel's idealistic protagonist who will later metamorphosed into the vengeful figure of Simoun due to the abuses he suffered from Spanish clerics and authorities.

It was possible Rizal borrowed lines and ideas on radicalism from Schiller in a climactic encounter in Noli where Elias had a conversation with Ibarra. This scene was a turning point for the novel for this is when Ibarra had an epiphany, the "eye-opening" scene where he admitted his previous error in sympathizing with the authorities. Ibarra's lament might as well be a synopsis of Tell's revolutionary awakening.

"May katwiran ka, Elias, ngunit nililikha ang tao ng mga pagkakataon. Bulag ako noon, masama ang loob. Ano ba ang malay ko? Ngayon, tinanggal ng kasawian ang aking piring, natuto ako dahil sa pag-iisa't pagdurusa sa aking piitan. Ngayon, nakikita ko ang nakahihindik na kanser na ngumangatngat sa lipunang ito, nakasakmal sa lahat ng laman, at nangangailangan ng marahas na pagbusbos. Binuksan nila ang aking mata. Ipinakita nila ang sugat at pinilit akong maging kriminal! At kung gayon nga ang ibig nila, magiging filibustero ako. Subalit isang totoong filibustero. Tatawagan ko ang lahat ng sawi, ang lahat ng nakadadama na may pusong tumitibok sa loob ng dibdib, iyongmga nagsugo sa inyo na lapitan ako. Hindi, hinding-hindi ako magiging kriminal kailanman; kabaligtaran ng kriminal ang lumaban alang-alang sa kaniyang bayan! Sa loob ng tatlong siglo, nag-abot tayo ng kamay sa kanila, humingi sa kanila ng pag-ibig, at umasam na tawagin nilang kapatid. Ano ang kanilang itinugon? Sa pamamagitan ng mga alipusta at paglibak, ipinagkait maging ang katangian ng pagiging tao natin. Walang Diyos, walang pag-asa, at walang sangkatauhan! Walang natitira kundi ang katwiran ng lakas!"

Saklot ng damdamin si Ibarra, nanginginig ang buong katawan.

[Noli Me Tangere, tr. Virgilio S. Almario]

 ***

“You’re right, Elias, but man is a creature of circumstances! Then I was blind, annoyed—what did I know? Now misfortune has torn the bandage from my eyes; the solitude and misery of my prison have taught me; now I see the horrible cancer which feeds upon this society, which clutches its flesh, and which demands a violent rooting out. They have opened my eyes, they have made me see the sore, and they force me to be a criminal! Since they wish it, I will be a filibuster, a real filibuster, I mean. I will call together all the unfortunates, all who feel a heart beat in their breasts, all those who were sending you to me. No, I will not be a criminal, never is he such who fights for his native land, but quite the reverse! We, during three centuries, have extended them our hands, we have asked love of them, we have yearned to call them brothers, and how do they answer us? With insults and jests, denying us even the chance character of human beings. There is no God, there is no hope, there is no humanity; there is nothing but the right of might!” Ibarra was nervous, his whole body trembled.

[The Social Cancer (1912), tr. Charles Derbyshire, emphases are mine]




The debate on the use of violence to fight for what is right is at the center of Schiller's drama. In Schiller, the image of a blindfolded man suddenly seeing very clearly was present in the (trembling) words of Rudenz, an erring nephew of a baron who formerly sympathized with an abusive judge from Austria.

Binayaan ko ang aking bayan, ang mga kamag-anak ay tinalikdan, lahat ng taling katutubo yaring pagkatao ay iniwan, nang mapakapit sa inyo, sa kapaniwalaan kong ginagawa ang kagaling-galingan at pinagtitibay ang lakas ng emperador --- Ang piring ay nahulog sa aking mga mata --- nangingilabot akong tumutunghay sa malalim na banging aking nilusong --- inyong iniligaw ang malaya kong pag-iisip, dinumihan ang dalisay kong puso --- Mabuti ang aking nasa, at walang malay na iyo'y nagpapanganyaya sa aking bayan.

[Guillermo Tell, tr. José Rizal, my emphasis]

***

My people I forsook—renounced my kindred—
Broke all the ties of nature, that I might
Attach myself to you. I madly thought
That I should best advance the general weal
By adding sinews to the Emperor's power.
The scales have fallen from mine eyes—I see
The fearful precipice on which I stand.
You've led my youthful judgment far astray,—
Deceived my honest heart. With best intent,
I had well-nigh achiev'd my country's ruin.

[Act III, Scene III, Wilhelm Tell, tr. Theodore Martin, my emphasis]

The trajectory of the apple (and the arrow) follows the Newtonian laws of physics, but to deny laws governing "the chance character of human beings" is to tempt fate and to test the patience of man. "Papanain sa ibabaw ng ulo ng anak! Kailan ma'y walang nakitang katulad na utos sa isang ama!", exclaimed a fisherman who learned of the scene with Tell and his son.

Paano ang hindi pagngalit ng buong poot at dahas ng sansinukob at hindi pagtutol sa gayong gawa! Oh! hindi ko nga pagtatakhan kung ang mga bato ay magsiyuko sa dagat; kung yaong mga nakatayong yelo na hindi naagnas buhat pa nang ang lupa ay lalangin ay magsitunaw at bumuhos ngayon, kung magputukan ang mga bundok, kung ang matatandang bangin ay magsagupaan, at isang pangalawang paggunaw ay lumamon sa buong tirahan ng tao at sa lahat ng may buhay.

[tr. Rizal]

***

To level at the head of his own child!
Never had father such command before.
And shall not Nature, rising in wild wrath,
Revolt against the deed? I should not marvel,
Though to the lake these rocks should bow their heads,
Though yonder pinnacles, yon towers of ice,
That, since creation's dawn, have known no thaw,
Should, from their lofty summits, melt away,—
Though yonder mountains, yon primeval cliffs,
Should topple down, and a new deluge whelm
Beneath its waves all living men's abodes!

[Act IV, Scene I, tr. Martin]

The act was not only against divine law (ungodly), but also against logic (unreasonable); not only against human nature (inhuman), but against nature itself (unnatural): "And shall not Nature, rising in wild wrath, / Revolt against the deed?" This was to overturn all sacred beliefs and to run counter against natural instincts. This was universal stuff and felt by many. The personal (interest) seems to be a major force to reckon with when it comes to the political (matters).




Tell is somehow one of the composites, a template, for the filibuster character of Simoun Ibarra in Rizal's El Filibusterismo. In Translation and Revolution (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2009), Ramon Guillermo's book-length study of Rizal's translation of Schiller's play, Guillermo dissected Rizal's several word choices and exposed the nuances in the translator's grasp of the necessity for bloody revolution to quell slavery and to protect life, property, and family. I discovered reading Guillermo's book how the "modernized" version of Rizal's Guillermo Tell produced by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines may actually have done violence to the work by unduly renovating Rizal's Tagalog and paraphrasing too much his (old) Tagalog expressions which to me were still relatively understandable. An example was the famous passage quoted by Ramon Guillermo.

Hindi nga! nagwawakas din ang karahasan, kapag ang naaapi ay walang makitang tulong dito sa lupa, at ang kanyang tinitiis na pasan ay hindi na makayanan, ay itinitingala ang loob sa langit, at tinatawagan ang walang hanggang katuwiran ng Diyos, yaong katuwirang walang pagkabago na gaya ng mga bituin, at doon humihingi ng lakas. Sa gayo'y nagbabalik ang matandang panahon na ang mga tao'y nag-aaway at nagpapatayan, at ang patalim ang huling kinakapitan kailan ma't naubos na ang ibang paraan sa pagkakasundo. Ang ating mga mahal na yaman ay dapat ipagtanggol sa mga manglulupig; dapat nating ipaglaban ang ating lupa, alang-alang sa ating asawa't mga anak.

[modern Filipino version by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), based on Rizal's translation]

***

Hindi nga; natatapus din ang karahasan.
Kapag ang nagigipit ay ualang makitang tulong,
kapag ang bigat ng pasa'i lumabis ...
kukunin nga niyang masaya sa langit at ipananaog sa lupa
and di matingkalang katuirang nahahayag doon
sa itass di nababago at di nasisira,
paris din ng mga bituin ...
nagbabalik ang matandang lagay ng lupa,
kapag sa tao humahadlang ang kapua tao ...
at sa huling gamot, kapag ang lahat na'y aayaw bumisa,
ang patalim ay ibinibigay sa kaniya ...
ang ating mga ari ay dapat nating
ipagtanggol sa karahasan.—Ating ipaglaban ang ating lupa,
ipaglalaban ang mga asawa at ang mga anak.

[tr. Rizal, quoted by Ramon Guillermo, from May Gaua Caming Natapus Dini: Si Rizal at ang Wikang Tagalog (2002) by Nilo S. Ocampo]

***

Yes! there's a limit to the despot's power!
When the oppress'd for justice looks in vain,
When his sore burden may no more be borne,
With fearless heart he makes appeal to Heaven,
And thence brings down his everlasting rights,
Which there abide, inalienably his,
And indestructible as are the stars.
Nature's primaeval state returns again,
Where man stands hostile to his fellow man;
And if all other means shall fail his need,
One last resource remains—his own good sword.
Our dearest treasures call to us for aid,
Against the oppressor's violence; we stand
For country, home, for wives, for children here!

[tr. Martin]

The most obvious tinkering done by NHCP was to transform the poetry lines into prose format. The "modern" paraphrasing, furthermore, was arguably different in tone and content from Rizal's original version. It's a translation of a translation. I'm no longer sure if I'm actually reading Rizal's version!

Ramon Guillermo's study of Guillermo Tell provided a lot of background information and context into Rizal's creative process, his theory of translation, nationalism (c. 1890) and ideological background of the work. He used computer-aided discourse analysis, quite technical and academic and stiff in many parts but the insights he extracted were fascinating, based on the few pages I read and browsed.

Going back to the original question posed at the start of this post, it appears that Rizal was inspired enough by the revolutionary ideas of Wilhelm Tell to create his own revolution in his novels. Novels which inspired the outbreak of the 1896 Philippine Revolution against three centuries of Spanish rule in the Philippines. Novels that "survive" and "live on".*


I read this for Week 1 (Friedrich Schiller Week) of German Literature Month V, generously hosted once again by Caroline (of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (of Lizzy's Literary Life).


* In his concluding chapter to Translation and Revolution, Guillermo introduced the idea of translation as a lifeline.

At the beginning of Wilhelm Tell, Konrad Baumgarten is being pursued by soldiers for killing Count Wolfenschießen who had made indecent advances on his wife. He arrives running at the bank of the raging river and pleads with the reluctant boatman to bring him across the river to safety. Baumgarten exclaims:

Ihr rettet mich vom Tode! Setzt mich über! (V. 68)

Save me from sure death! Bring me across!

It can be observed here that the German verbs for "taking across" and "translating" has the same form: "übersetzen" (though the verb "übersetzen" which means "translation" is, strictly speaking, not separable into "über-" and "setzen"). This pure coincidence creates the possibility for playing on two possible meanings of "übersetzen." It could therefore be read as either as "Save me! Bring me across!" or as "Save me! Translate me!" Walter Benjamin's (1985) much cited philosophy of translation, in fact, looked upon translation as the means by which a literary work succeeds in "living on" (Fortleben), or "surviving" (Überleben). The translated work achieves this not by remaining simply as it was but by being transformed and renewed in translation. If Baumgarten's life was saved by Tell who had the courage to bring him across the raging river, the text of Wilhelm Tell could in turn be made to "live on" by being translated across other languages and cultures. Jose Rizal's Wilhelm Tell translation can therefore be considered as one example of this "living on", though it is actually one translation, which almost never made it across.