March 29, 2017
Preparing for a few days journey by ship. Books to bring.
A shipwreck! Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed made me reconsider my priority reading list drafted a lifetime ago (on the first year of this blog). What my desert reading looks like I leave to a combination of fortuitous circumstances.
Inter Ice Age 4 – Kobo Abé
The Writing on the Wall – Miklós Bánffy
Frost – Thomas Bernhard
Selected Non-Fictions – Jorge Luis Borges
Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus – Sir Thomas Browne
Sakhalin Island – Anton Chekhov
Scenes from Provincial Life – J. M. Coetzee
The Last Samurai – Helen DeWitt
The Lover – Marguerite Duras
The Maias – Eça de Queirós
Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck
The Siege of Krishnapur – J. G. Farrell
Mysteries – Knut Hamsun
Amerika – Franz Kafka
A Time for Everything – Karl O. Knausgaard
Satantango – László Krasznahorkai
Nada – Carmen Laforet
Women in Love – D. H. Lawrence
Payback – Gert Ledig
Joseph and His Brothers – Thomas Mann
Wittgenstein's Mistress – David Markson
Oleza – Gabriel Miró
The Sea of Fertility – Yukio Mishima
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
The Man Without Qualities – Robert Musil
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – Álvaro Mutis
But for the Lovers – Wilfrido S. Nolledo
Hygiene and the Assassin – Amélie Nothomb
At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O'Brien
The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
The Gray Notebook – Josep Pla
The History of the Siege of Lisbon – José Saramago
Silent Catastrophes – W. G. Sebald
The Case of Comrade Tulayev – Victor Serge
And Then – Natsume Sōseki
Indian Summer – Adalbert Stifter
Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories – Kōno Taeko
Petals of Blood – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Territory of Light – Yūko Tsushima
Poemas Humanos – César Vallejo
The Aesthetics of Resistance, vol. 1 – Peter Weiss
The Vivisector – Patrick White
The Waves – Virginia Woolf
February 25, 2017
My wing is ready to fly
I would rather turn back
For had I stayed mortal time
I would have had little luck.
– Gerhard Scholem, “Angelic Greetings”
The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic. Quite a mouthful title for an anthology. I am happy to finally see Filipino novelist Nick Joaquín being made available to a wider audience via the Penguin Classics edition. Coming in April are some of his "tropical gothic" narratives in his famous tropical baroque prose. Apparently, the selections include his several stories and a play from 1940 to 1965. At 480 pages the edition is bound to be a fulsome, moveable feast. In stories like “Three Generations” (1940), “The Summer Solstice” (1947), and “May Day Eve” (1947), Joaquín made a name for himself as a preeminent postwar Filipino writer who displayed a unique approach to storytelling. He fused elements of magic, horror, folk-lore, myth-making, and history into a blend that was entirely unique and alive. I included The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1952) in a reading list of the best Philippine novels in the English language of the past century. The novel is an expanded version of a story of the same title. I do hope that the version included in the Penguin edition was the full novel instead of the origin story so that one would get the full shock value of its mannered telling.
Joaquín dabbled in various genre of writing: drama, novel, short prose, the essay, historical writing, politics and journalism, children's stories, news writing, literary criticism, translation of poems and newspaper columns from Spanish, cultural commentary, biography. In each genre, he used a cosmopolitan approach to writing, balancing wit with drama and sprinkling his prose with some ornate details, some whimsies and whimsical revelations, some occult and mysticism, as in his second novel Cave and Shadows (1983). The inclusion of his famous play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1966) in the Penguin anthology was an inspired decision. The three-act "elegy", which the playwright also labeled as "a novel in the form of a play", was a distillation of his romantic ideas on Spanish Filipino culture, its struggle against modernity and war, symbolized by the protagonists—two spinster sisters—and their tenacious hold on a highly symbolic picture painted by their disillusioned father and inspired by Greek mythology. A Portrait was the writer's statement about art and its role in restoring ceremonial traditions, art and its fragility against the savage wars of peace. The writer was much concerned about the inability of culture (Spanish Filipino customs and ceremonies) to adapt to encroaching lawlessness and to reconcile the history of the past with the chaos of the present. Much like Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History" in On the Concept of History (Thesis IX), after Paul Klee's Angelus Novus (1920), Joaquín's elegiac source spring was looking back at the past with the foreknowledge that the future storm would bring ruin to memory. The play was adapted into a classic 1965 black-and-white film and a modern Filipino musical. In commemoration of the writer's centenary of birth this year, a new musical adaptation will be shown in theaters in the country.
February 21, 2017
"An Indication of the Cause" (Die Ursache, 1975) by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, translated by David McLintock, collected in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes (Vintage, 2011)
I found the city increasingly intolerable as a result of hundreds of sad, squalid, appalling, and mortifying experiences, and essentially it has remained intolerable to this day. To pretend otherwise would be untrue, hypocritical, and dishonest, and it is imperative that I should set down this record now and not later—I must set it down now, while I am still capable of fully recreating my experience as a child and an adolescent in Salzburg, of recreating it with all the factualness and scrupulous regard for truth which are necessary if I am to give a true indication of what it was like to be a schoolboy there. I have to seize this moment when it is still possible for me to say what has to be said, to indicate what has to be indicated, and so vindicate, if only partially, the truth as it was then, the true facts and the true reality. For all too soon the time may come when everything that was unpleasant will be unwarrantably mitigated and appear in a pleasanter light; and whatever Salzburg was to me as a schoolboy, it was never a pleasant or tolerable place, and I should not wish to spare it now by falsifying the true picture.
Thomas Bernhard's motive for his autobiography was clear. When his mental faculties were still clear, and his health still permitted it, he wanted to produce an account of his childhood and schooldays in the blighted city of Salzburg. And so, between the years 1975 and 1982, Bernhard produced the five parts of his memoir. His novels, too, are practically the same hate mail to his city of childhood, with its "mindless blend of National Socialism and Catholicism." W. G. Sebald attributed Bernhard's "factualness and scrupulous regard for truth" to the impending knock on the door, as he mentioned in an interview in December 2001, eight days before he himself received the knock.
Thomas Bernhard was in quite a different league because he occupied a position which was absolute. Which had to do with the fact that he was mortally ill since late adolescence and knew that any day the knock could come at the door. And so he took the liberty which other writers shied away from taking. And what he achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others.
Much more so in Gathering Evidence, the novelist was openly testifying using his own voice, or voices—the voice of his childhood and the retrospective voice of the writer—the horrific experiences he endured firsthand before, during, and after the war. While remembering-slash-writing, his current self was trying to recapture the wounded feelings of his former, thirteen-year old self. Yet he would like to differentiate his description of "how I felt at the time" with "the way I think now". The bursting energy of his tale was derived in part from layers of memory soaked in varying densities of perception. He would shift pronouns from "I" to "he" on page 79, then go back to "I" on page 83. David McLintock also noted his use of shifting perspective in the translator's preface: sometimes he views his youth from the standpoint of the present, at others from another intermediate point.
His appeal to "the true facts and the true reality", however, remained guarded. He knew his story was not distorted because they were based on factual evidence, but he could only give an indication of what he remembers.
The facts are always frightening, and in all of us fear of the facts is constantly at work, constantly being fuelled; but this morbid fear must not lead us to conceal the facts and so to falsify the whole of human history—which is of course part of natural history—and pass it on in falsified form just because it is customary to do so, when we know that all history is falsified and always transmitted in falsified form.
From which we can gather that the writer had divested himself of all illusions of an accurate account of history. And from which we sense that his only protection from falsification was to perceive and create a version of history to the best of his memory and to the best of his ability. He simply had to make the attempt. Here we read about his recollection of multiple suicides of school boys his age and the air attacks skirted by Sebald in his lecture in On the Natural History of Destruction. Bernhard's descriptions of the air raids and their aftermath were some of the most brilliant writing he wrote. They could surpass the supreme irony in Heinrich Böll's accounts of air bombing destruction in The Silent Angel.
Bernhard's aesthetics of falsification was similar to Sebald's own, but only to an extent. Sebald was concerned with the truth (moral rightness) embedded in aesthetic form and feeling. The rightness and truthfulness of a narrative could be gleaned from its aesthetic and literary design. Bernhard, for his part, was concerned with the content and the desire (i.e., personal indications) to communicate the truth of that content. Both confessed to subjectivity. Bernhard acknowledged the impossibility of depicting the absolute reality of the past and, hence, its truth. But in refusing to give up and stand aside, in continuing to write what he knew and remember in order to set the record straight according to his own personal convictions, he was after the truth or an indicative version of it.
What is described here is the truth, and yet at the same time it is not the truth, because it cannot be. In all the years we have spent reading, we have never encountered a single truth, even if again and again what we have read has been factual. Again and again it was lies in the form of truth and truth in the form of lies, etc. What matters is whether we want to lie or to tell and write the truth, even though it never can be the truth and never is the truth. Throughout my life I have always wanted to tell the truth, even though I now know that it was all a lie. In the end all that matters is the truth-content of the lie. For a long time reason has forbidden me to tell and write the truth, because that only means telling and writing a lie; but writing is a vital necessity for me, and this is the reason why I write, even if everything I write is bound to be nothing but lies which are conveyed through me as truth. Of course we may demand truth, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that there is no such thing as truth. What is described here is the truth, and at the same time it is not, for the simple reason that truth is only a pious wish on our part. [from "The Cellar: An Escape", italics in the original, bold emphasis mine]
The immediacy and the urgency of Bernhard's account of the war must be set off against what Sebald diagnosed as a collective repression of wartime narratives and against the self-censorship by leading writers of the time who could not summon their energies to give witness. "Time makes its witnesses forget", Bernhard concluded when nobody remembered what happened on a site of destruction after he questioned them years after the bombing of a building on the same site which killed many employees working in it: "rows of bodies covered by sheets, their bare feet visible on the dusty grass behind the iron railings of the so-called Co-op, and ... trucks arriving ... with enormous consignments of coffins ..." Sebald's thesis on forgetting certainly was indebted to Bernhard's anguish against people who deliberately wanted to forget. Whenever Bernhard talked to people and asked them about what they went through during the war, he was met with "extreme annoyance, ignorance, and forgetfulness." He found this offensive to the spirit, this concerted determination to forget. His desire to remember was his "pious wish" to settle his personal account of history.
The cat in the box was simultaneously dead and alive. But someone, the novelist, had to dare to be the first one to open the box. All that matters is the truth-content of the lie.
February 18, 2017
"The Cellar: An Escape" (Der Keller, 1976) by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, translated by David McLintock, collected in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes (Vintage, 2011)
[The work of a commercial apprentice] does not consist solely of the orderly routine of a grocery store like the cellar-shop in the Scherzhauserfeld Project: first of all unlocking and pushing back the concertina grille, then unlocking the shop door and letting the boss, the employees, and the customers into the shop, in which everything had been made spotless and all the containers topped up the previous evening, often by dint of hours of work put in after closing time—all of it involving the meticulous performance of numerous small tasks requiring conscientious devotion and a methodical, mathematically inclined memory. These jobs and hundreds of others equally important have to be carried out daily. In my day there was in addition the enormous task of dealing with the ration coupons, which required great precision and attention to detail; these had to be cut out whenever a purchase was made and stuck onto a sheet of wrapping paper every evening after the shop closed. Quite apart from continually lugging bags around and filling bottles and grading potatoes and sorting fruit and vegetables and making up bags of coffee and tea and slicing butter and cheese; quite apart from the feats of skill required to pour vinegar and oil and every other possible liquid such as rum and wine and fruit juice into every possible kind of bottle, all with impossibly narrow necks; quite apart from having to be constantly on the look-out for mould and decay, for vermin, for excessive cold and excessive warmth; quite apart from perpetually unloading all kinds of deliveries, sometimes making hundreds of journeys a day from the shop to the storeroom and back, cutting bread and making breadcrumbs, keeping the ham fresh and the eggs cool; quite apart from dusting the shelves daily and rushing to and fro between the refrigerator and the counter, between the potato boxes and the counter and between each of the shelves and the counter; apart from continually washing and drying one's hands and using knives that have to be sharpened every day and forks and spoons that have to be cleaned every day and jars that have to be washed out every day; and apart from cleaning the windows and mopping the floor and waging a continual war against flies and gnats and horseflies and wasps and cobwebs on the walls—quite apart from all this, the most vital requirement was never to slacken in one's attentiveness to the customers, always to be polite and friendly and obliging and to engage them in conversation, constantly keeping oneself in practice, in a word to satisfy them all the time and never, not even for a moment, to let up in one's eagerness to help: on the one hand to meet the wishes of the customers and at the same time never for a moment to neglect the interests of the business. Tidiness and cleanliness were imperative.
When he was 16 years old, Thomas Bernhard applied for a shopkeeper apprenticeship in Scherzhauserfeld Project, a notorious neighborhood of the poor and criminals, to cater to the needs of the "dregs of humanity". It was an about-face from his being a grammar school student. Fed up with the abuse of his schoolteachers and the "deadly institution" that was the educational system of Austria during the Nazi period—a system to blame for the suicide of many sensitive young students in boarding houses, fed up with the "educational trauma" he suffered from his schoolteachers, the teenage Bernhard just up and decided to become a grocer's assistant in one of the bleakest neighborhoods imaginable. But for Bernhard, this was all for the best. He felt he had graduated from "the school of philosophy" introduced to him at a very young age by his grandfather and had now entered "the school of absolute reality" wherein Herr Podlaha, the grocer, was his master and mentor on the practical aspects of life and "the art of human relations". In the cellar store, dealing every day with the demands of the common people, he had become adept at his work as an apprentice, and he had discovered that he had the capacity to become a people person. To his own surprise, he never realized he could adjust well to his job and even go through work with such infectious cheerfulness (cheerful Bernhard?!) and friendliness to customers (in a "most refreshingly extrovert fashion"!). Freedom, independence, and the exercise of free will—these were the things he most valued and the things he had acquired from his experiences in the cellar. His escape from the grammar school, his daily escape from his own impoverished and cramped household, his escape from the larger Salzburg society, from the immediate post-war malaise, an age he characterized as "inimical to the mind and the imagination." He made a dash for it, in a completely "opposite direction" from his school, and he felt exhilarated by this sudden decision. His stay in the cellar was such a formative phase in his life he had devoted a volume (the third of five chronological volumes in translation, the second in terms of publication in original German) of his collected memoirs recounting his work and trials in the cellar-shop. For his apprentice work he still had to attend a technical college once a week. This time he appreciated the instruction given by teachers who were actually local businessmen. As opposed to teachers in grammar school, the new teachers had "total concern with the present" and familiar "with what went on around them in the real world." These people of trade, having fought on the economic front, taught only what was practical, stuff of "immediate utility", in a straightforward, if rough, tone. As evident from the excerpt above, his recollection of the details of his apprenticeship showed how he loved and took pride in his work. This was a great period of learning for him. It was an apprenticeship on life. He had found something to do—a purpose—during the post-war years, "the bitterest time [his family] ever knew". Daily he looked forward to work in the store (limbo). Daily he left the depravity of his poor home (hell). The gaps in his school and home education were being filled by the practical education in the store dealing with the chaotic mass of poor and difficult customers exchanging their ration coupons for merchandise and goods. From his home to the cellar, his salvation was renewed each day he serve the lowly people of Scherzhauserfeld Project, the blot and the stigma of the Salzburg landscape. He did not find it degrading. He belonged to these people of low standing. In their daily transactions, he kept his dignity intact and his customers kept theirs intact. From limbo to hell and back, it was a privilege to find oneself with a purpose, productive, and gaining in self-confidence. To be able to read people and interact with them daily, I do not think there were more valuable lessons from an on-the-job training. He confessed that he owed a life lesson from his exacting boss, Herr Podlaha: "an insight into human possibilities I had never dreamt of, the alternative human possibilities." These alternative possibilities would play in many combinations in his fictional set pieces, would contextualize and foreground his works. Behind the despair, suicide, moroseness, self-destruction, and moping that characterize his literary work, the other possibilities—the will to live, to endure—exists. This singular motive drove him, Bernhard's "will to survive" against the social, economic, and cultural forces of the time. Against fascism and "the rules of the bourgeois social apparatus ... designed to destroy human beings." Bernhard, like his protagonists, was a survivor of war or some grave catastrophe. They found themselves in a story yet to unfold, ripe for more calamities—a story where the epidemic was not yet over, festering in cities overran by zombies. In their apocalyptic flavor, Bernhard's novels are zombie flicks (I can't help myself. I like zombie movies). His characters were plagued by artistic, philosophical, psychological, and medical difficulties, rooted from or symptoms of a defect in human nature: individual cruelty or a collective disregard for feelings and reason. They had to depend on their survival instinct. To ensure his own survival, Bernhard had become a fine observer of people and a lifelong learner of art, commerce, sales, musicology, and singing. Unlike his grandfather, Bernhard was able to expose the whole farce, "smashing all the props and ... annihilating the prop men and all the actors." To ensure his own sanity he created his brand of literature of doom and survival.
Had I not actually been through everything which makes up my present existence, I should probably have invented it all for myself and ended up with the same result.
The Cellar won for Bernhard the Literary Prize of the Federal Chamber of Commerce, apparently for "a totally new form of autobiography" but obviously for the prize-giving body's connection to the subject matter. He wrote a short essay on the prize ceremony which was translated in My Prizes: An Accounting. This slim book of essays and speeches was appended to his five-part memoir in the latest Vintage edition. The last two volumes of Gathering Evidence—"Breath: A Decision" and "In the Cold"—were further demonstrations of the novelist's survival skills. They were among his darkest and life-affirming prose works.
February 15, 2017
Leche by R. Zamora Linmark (Coffee House Press, 2011)
"No, thank you," Vince says, looking past her at the mourners, who've turned a somber occasion into a fiesta with nonstop eating, drinking, socializing, and praying the novena, which is held for nine days, starting from the day the person expired. Another mass is said on the fortieth day, when the soul of the deceased leaves the earth for the afterlife. Throughout the novena, sweeping is forbidden because it's thought to chase away good luck.
The yard, lined with potted bougainvilleas, has been converted to a gambling den for mahjong and pusoy—thirteen-card poker. At the end of the night, a percentage of the proceeds goes to the family of the deceased.
The "somber occasion"-slash-fiesta was a wake where Vince, the gay protagonist of Leche, accidentally finds himself while looking for the seedy Leche bar—sex club by night, museum by day. It was an opportunity for Vince to share some beliefs, superstitions, and customs in the Philippines. Like a culture-shocked tour guide, Vince dished out all manner of things strange or odd about the country. The novel was flooded with facts and factoids, Filipino mannerisms, and all manner of Filipino stereotypes. (And here I insert my own touristic usage guide: Philippines (with an "s") is the country; Filipino is the citizen; Philippine (without an "s") and Filipino and Pinoy are descriptors/adjectives (e.g., Filipino food, Philippine president, Pinoy balut); no such thing as Philippino.)
I chose to highlight here the short scene of the wake because it reminded me of the nine-day custom of pasiám (or pasiyam) that was the narrative structure of Nínay by Pedro Paterno. Nínay was the first Filipino novel, published in 1885. Between Nínay and Leche was one and a quarter century—126 years—of novel writing in/about the Philippines. I called the former a "cultural guidebook or tourist brochure". In Leche, R. Zamora Linmark also offered a "tourist [guidebook] and brochure" [p. 165] prepared by his confused protagonist. Filipino-born, American-raised, Vince was a quintessential Filipino novel character in that his identity crisis while visiting his "home country" was palpable. Whereas Paterno reveled in and celebrated the Spanish cultural influences in Nínay, Linmark could not get past the Spanish and American confluences in Filipino culture. But like Paterno, Linmark could not get past the didactic tradition of the Filipino novel. Didactic as opposed to, say, the revolutionary tradition of José Rizal's landmark novels or the novels by Wilfrido D. Nolledo and Carlos Bulosan.
In Leche, the narrative was interleaved with postcard letters and "Tourist Tips". What Vince saw from the frontlines of Manila, he reported back to his siblings, mother, and friend in Hawaii: the quirks of the people and the quirks of "Philippine English" that for him was English language that still needed English subtitles (e.g., "restrooms" are called "comfort rooms" in the Philippines). His confusion and cultural disorientation were boundless. Vince's default register was rant, rage, endless complaints, and extended lectures. Subtlety and restraint were thrown out. Satire and exaggeration were his literary tools. The "Tourist Tips", for instance, reinforced many stereotypes and generalizations about Manila and its people.
Red light means "Gas it!"
One way equals four-way.
Motorcycles speeding on sidewalks.
People living off garbage.
People living in garbage.
Komiks vendor gives birth to mudfish.
Brownout is blackout.
Diarrhea is an acronym.
Where are all these metropolitan hyperrealities exploding from? Where else, but in the Metro Malignant mind of Vince; Vicente; Vincere. El Conquistador. Constantino to the nation's First Daughter. First-class passenger to the city of contrasts and blackouts. The capital of collapsing metaphors and memories.
Vince could not reconcile his childhood memories of the country with the current chaos and disorientation he experiences as a visiting adult. Linmark was so steeped in Pinoy pop culture circa 1991, he could easily deploy satire to defamiliarize current events, celebrities, and political personalities. He was an astute observer of Filipino tics. Fancy channeling all of Kris Aquino's complex antics. He made 1991 a flashpoint in Philippine history: the death of film auteur Lino Brocka, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the rise of Pinoy massacre films, the expiration of the Visiting Forces Agreement between US and the Philippines.
In Paterno's Nínay, the ghost of Nínay haunted the Ilustrado-ish narrator as he listens to her story told by the second narrator over the course of the nine-day vigil at her wake. In Leche, Vince was haunted by his memories of living in the country with his grandfather before moving out overseas. In "The Spirit of Nínay", Eugenio Matibag, a professor and scholar of nineteenth century Filipino nationalism, considered Paterno's novel as a kind of "spectral allegory", where flashes of nationalism and nation-formation are implicit in the costumbrismo (local color) storytelling of the "outsider" or returning-from-abroad commentator. Leche's costrumbismo was of a hybrid kind. While oftentimes informative, Vince's commentaries on Philippine life and (pop) culture were often infuriating and patronizing. What gave poignancy to his satire, or what served as its foil, was his unacknowledged longing for family roots and the recollection (haunting) of his dead grandfather.
Manila. The sprawling metropolis that, after being back in it for only four days, is becoming more and more the capital city of Vince's frustrations, daydreams, nightmares, reflections, and wonderment. It overloads his senses, wakes up tastebuds he thought he never had, or had lost, guides him from one darkness to the next, from one window of sadness to the next, from one reverie to the next. It shocks hims with what was once familiar. It assaults him with memories that pull him, break him. It floods him with dreams, his grandfather appearing in all of them, first as apparition then as cameo, with face, body, voice.
Vince's spectral nationalism was rooted in his identification as a Filipino (as he confessed in a riotous TV talk show scene with Kris Aquino) even if he does not speak the language, has spent most of his life abroad, and noticed a lot of negative things around him. He felt offended when people around him do not consider him Filipino. His otherness, his prejudices, his endless tirades against the way of life in Manila—the traffic, the air pollution, the language barrier—these were not a façade. He had a love-hate relationship for a nation and a people he barely knew and yet strove to discover and report back to his relatives in Hawaii. There were some three dozen postcard letters Vince sent from Manila to Honolulu. Each was a spontaneous response to his immediate surroundings, and perhaps spectral instances of his mourning, intimations of mortality, and desire for life.