Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

January 30, 2015


Pesoa by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles (Balangay Books, 2014)

The spelling of the title was not wrong. Pesoa, as in Ernando. A letter subtracted was a new word gained. The poet Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles was a connoisseur of found meanings. His latest collection featured what was called "blackout poetry" or "poetry of subtraction" or "erasures" or "redaction poetry." Portions of a text were redacted, leaving out words or phrases that formed new contexts and new reading experiences. An altered book.


The text in this case was a book by the late playwright Rene O. Villanueva's memoir of childhood called Personal: Mga Sanaysay sa Lupalop ng Gunita (Personal: Essays in the Territory of Memory). Villanueva traced a portrait of a young man developing his artistic sensibilities. Arguelles traced the portrait of a self discovering his other selves, his heteronyms.


The ghost of the Portuguese poet haunted the spaces between words. But Pessoa and I might as well be Borges and I. We did not know which of the two – the poet or his persona (or even the persona of his persona) – wrote the page. And which of the two was imploring the other.

Hindi ako nakasisiguro
kung nakakasulat siya
at nakakabasa. Habang
kaharap ko siya,
nakakaharap ko rin ang
aking sarili: na kung
bakit hinding-hindi ko

[I am not certain
if she can read
or write. While
facing her,
I also face
my self: whom I wonder
why I never ever

The poet's (or her persona's) existential crisis led to an attempt to excavate her one true self from the confusion of words in the text. The forcefully imposed words (only) served to reinforce the quest for the poetic identity.

Matay ko mang tingnan ang sarili ko sa salamin, hindi ko makita yung nakikita
ko sa hindi ako. Hirap na hirap akong magpakuha ng retrato. Hindi ko makikita
sa retrato ang ako sa retrato. Iniaangat ko ang mukha na parang lumang mukha.

[However much I gaze at myself in the mirror, I do not see what I see
in what's not me. I find it so hard to get my picture taken. I will not discover
in the photo the I in the photo. I turn my face up as if it's an old face.]

Her confusion leads to a profusion of selves. Many selves. The crisis was not resolved until she embraced her multiplicity.

Sa kabuuan, palinga-linga ang mata
ko kung saan-saan. Minsan, wala
namang kadahi-dahilan. Sa kauna-
unahang pagkakataon, natuklasan
kong iba sa sarili ko ang pinag-
uusapang ako. Hindi lamang ako.
Marami ako.

[In sum, my eyes wander
around. Sometimes, for
no reason at all. For the very
first time, I found out
that the I they talk about was
not me. Not only me.
I am manifold.]


The "I" was legion and determined. The self was the many true selves. The poetic persona was liberated by her mystical self. She was who she was.

Marami ang ako o hindi ako. At kulang ang sarili.
Pero ako, ako! Siyempre hindi ako lang ako. Maya-
maya, ipagpapatuloy ko ang paghakbang, tatawirin
ang labirinto, maglalakad.

[The I and not-I was manifold. And the self was lacking.
But I, I! Of course I am not merely I. Later,
I shall continue my journey, cross
the labyrinth, and walk.]


Day by day, according to the poet, her list of selves was getting longer and longer. She lost her way into the words. Her world was deleted, captioned. Yet she endured.

The process of redaction was here accepted without question. What emerged from the disappearing words was not a character but a multitude of characters, of selves. The erasure expanded the coverage of identity to embrace other characterizations, other labyrinthine ways of expressing one's selves.

The reader, however, could only see the clean and clear lines of the poetry, not the physical evidence of erasure, of blacked out words. It was all to be taken on faith. The product was shown but not the process. The short short poems were set out in clean, wide margins. The self must be evident.


What is a review but an abstraction of reading, a subtraction of the author's intents? And is not the translation of erasures another set of erasures?

* Translations are mine. I used the feminine gender in the translation although the gender of Tagalog pronouns (panghalip) is indeterminate or neutral. This is to highlight the distance that separates the male poet from his creation, the writer from his heteronym.

With thanks to K.D. for a copy of the book.

January 16, 2015

Child of Fortune

Child of Fortune by Tsushima Yūko, tr. Geraldine Harcourt (Kodansha International, 1983)

By all indications Child of Fortune, the first novel of Tsushima Yūko, was a realist novel of domestic matters. It centered on Kōko Mizuno, a divorced single mother who had had complicated relationships with two men: her former husband Hatanaka and her former lover Doi who was married to another woman. Lately Kōko had sexual relations with Hatanaka's friend Osada.

The realism of the main character's travails as a husbandless woman was complicated by her constant examination of her failed relationships. Her many detours into the past expanded her story, and the reader gradually became acquainted with her independent outlook in life. Sometimes her memories could be disturbing even as they betrayed her present anxieties:

Doi had once told her about seeing some deformed babies in glass cylinders. He was shown them by a friend who worked at a university hospital. Some twenty cylinders, about twelve inches high, were arranged on shelves. The surfaces were kept very clean. Inside floated the whitened bodies of all kinds of babies. Some were staring wide-eyed from behind the glass. All of them, Doi had said, looked very much as though they'd forgotten they were in glass jars and were still intending to be born.

This memory proved to be ironic, given the fact that Kōko, at thirty-six years of age, was apparently pregnant once again. This realization opened wide the floodgates of her memories as she carefully analyzed what her life amounted to so far. The regret she felt that Doi was not the father this time. The decisions she made that estranged her from her sister. Her increasingly difficult relationship with her daughter Kayako who was about to enter secondary school.

Despite the seemingly calm and harmless surface of the novel and its prose, there was an undercurrent of malignity in it. As with Tsushima's stories in The Shooting Gallery and Other Stories, written at around the same time as this novel, her prose was simple and unassuming and hardly intellectualized. The stream of consciousness of her protagonists was built not only on shaky memories but also on unfounded assumptions such that the question of the reliability of their narratives was already moot. The free consciousness of Tsushima's characters was what made their narratives interesting. They were intelligent characters who were prone to over-analyzing their situations. In this case, situations that involved the men in Kōko's life: her lovers, her own absentee father, and her deceased retarded brother. Even Kōko's descriptions of her sexual encounters with Osada bordered on the comical, a careless balance of lust and wit.

Kōko's narrative was framed as a journey into self-discovery and yet it meticulously mapped a pregnant woman's mental and physical conditions. Her resolve not to have an abortion and to raise the baby herself eventually hardened.

Thickly muffled in weariness, she was glad she would soon slip into the same routine. From now on she would think of nothing but her womb. She would get plenty of sleep, plenty of nourishment, think of names, and prepare baby clothes. This time she wanted to give the baby all the loving she could. This time, there would be no regrets. Just as long as the baby came safely into the world, she didn't care if she, the mother, were left an empty shell. Her child would feel proud to be alive if he knew how intently his mother had awaited his arrival. She promised him that much, regardless of what kind of future she would be able to give him. He might be born terribly handicapped, but that mustn't stop him growing up proud. Let him grow up arrogant and ruthless, she thought, with Kayako and me to watch over him. Especially if he's retarded like my brother. No one is going to force him to live in servile deference to other people's wishes.

The freedom that Kōko experienced as a pregnant woman at an advanced age, in a Japanese society transitioning toward liberalism and modernity, was the freedom she wanted for her unborn child where "no one is going to force him to live in servile deference to other people's wishes." Her choices in life defined her life. Kōko herself was the titular child of fortune, not her daughter, not the one in her womb.

I know I've been stubborn—but not about Kayako alone. All my life, though often I haven't known which way to turn, I have managed to make choices of my own. I don't know if they were right or wrong. I don't think anyone can say that.

One thing, though, was certain: that she had never betrayed the small child she'd once been; the child who had pined for her brother in his home for the retarded; the child who had watched her mother and sister resentfully, unable to understand what made them find fault with her grades, her manners, her language. And she was not betraying that child now, thirty years later. This, she had always suspected, was the one thing that mattered. And although she was often tempted by a growing awareness of the "proper thing to do" once Kayako was born—not only in the harsh advice she was constantly offered by others, but within her own mind—in the long run her choices had always remained true to her childhood self.

Her "fortune" was in being wise. Her wisdom was gained from experience. In her careful delineation of the psychological (and physiological) aspects of Kōko's pregnancy, Tsushima founded an alternate reality where various scenarios were already erected and accepted as true. This was how imagination, how fiction, built alternate realities.

Most bewildering of all, these two things had both been real, and both at the same time. Neither was a figment, nor a fleeting image. She'd believed, in spending her time the way she did, that this reality was the only one there was ... But when had she split in two? She didn't know....

This foundation of alternate realities within a domestic, realistic narrative fabric became a signal element in Tsushima's fiction, already present in her early stories and in her latter novel Laughing Wolf. In this regard, her first novel was reminiscent of the novella The Black Swan (1954) by Thomas Mann, the story of a woman whose medical condition was supposedly triggered by her sexual expectations. The major difference was that Mann's female protagonist died tragically while Tsushima's Kōko – symbolically depicted as a drowning woman through the recurring images of water and beach in the book – had a chance to escape the quagmire and reach the surface.

She was lying on the bottom now, she decided, and there was only one direction from here: toward the surface. She must survive till she reached it, whatever happened; right now she must nurture the energy to carry her there. Her position reminded her of a shriveled fetus afloat in a glass cylinder of clear culture medium.

For the Japanese Literature Challenge 8 by Bellezza and January in Japan by Tony. With thanks to the translator, Geraldine Harcourt, for a copy of this book and another novel by Tsushima.

December 26, 2014

Diary of the War of the Pig

Diary of the War of the Pig by Adolfo Bioy Casares, translated by Gregory Woodruff and Donald A. Yates (E. P. Dutton, 1988)

"A proper doomsday spectacle," said one character in this apocalyptic novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999). He was aptly named Dante. "These crazy, abominable things going on everywhere—if they aren't a sign that the end of the world is near, then what do they mean?" Indeed, what could these heinous events mean?

In an Argentinean neighborhood—or nation (the scope of the epidemic was suddenly broadened)—old men and women were singled out and harmed. They were hunted, mauled, even killed. The war on the old people, perpetrated by the youth (who else), began without warning. They were derogatorily branded as "pigs," "real hogs," on account of the people supposedly being "greedy, selfish, materialistic, and eternally grumbling." Talk about a deep generation gap. The mania against old people went out of hand. It was as if the young people were infected by hate for the old.

From out of the confusion of noises, distinct sounds began to emerge: curses, blows, groans, the rattle of iron and sheet metal, someone panting for breath. Out of the shadows and into the ashen light surged a gang of boys, yelling at the top of their lungs, brandishing clubs and iron bars, pounding frantically at a shapeless mass lying huddled amid garbage cans and piles of refuse. Vidal caught a glimpse of the enraged faces—obviously young, drunk with arrogance. Under his breath Arévalo said, "That—on the ground—it's the newspaper vendor, don Manuel."

Don Manuel was the very first victim. Everything went awry from then on. Don Isidro Vidal, the main subject of this diary of the war, was too naive to initially detect the brutal nature of the war. He seemed to deny at first that such an inexplicable thing was possible at all. He was in denial, perhaps also smitten by a kind of mass delusion that gripped the nation and galvanized the young to weed out the old.

Originally published in Buenos Aires in 1969, the paperback's blurb did not forget to remind readers that the novel was "written almost a decade before the death squads disrupted Argentina." Bioy (or his translators) used the term "repression squad" in the novel. Diario de la guerra del cerdo certainly predated the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) of Argentina, 1974-1983, which would make Bioy a remarkable writer of prescience. Except that the age group for the novel seemed to have been the opposite. The average age group for the desaparecidos or the forcibly disappeared was between the teens and mid-thirties. Bioy could not possibly have anticipated this dirty business.

The only way to sustain this prescient, allegorical aspect of the novel was to consider the old as a metaphor, or synecdoche, for the young. The old, that is, as stand-in for the youth. The band of old men in which Don Isidro Vidal was a member often referred to themselves playfully as "boys", although the expression "did not indicate ... any complex and unconscious need to pass for young men; it is explained rather by the fact that once they were young and had then justifiably used the term with one another." Vidal was, strictly speaking, not as old as his comrades; he (and his old friends too) was called "young in heart" and "in the prime of life" by young acquaintances. And yet he really felt his age. He and his aged friends were wont to relive their younger days. And yet Vidal would reflect that "at heart every man is a boy disguised as a grownup."

The allegory—if we can use this unfortunate term for these extreme novels—was further compounded by the dream-like logic governing the strange events of the war. The mess was becoming more and more universal in scope. As one of Vidal's old friends mentioned: "We used to read in the papers about things like this happening to persons we didn't know. Now it's happening to people right in the neighborhood."

There were many reasons put forward for the liquidation of the old. They were supposedly more and more "a burden to the family." A Marxist reading of the encroachment of capitalism perhaps. (Contrast this unkind situation with the treatment of the elderly in Inoue Yasushi's memoirs of his mother.)

And then there's senicide. One character pointed out how the Eskimo and the Lapps take their old away and leave them for dead in the cold. It might be cultural, the antipathy for the old, or there might be no reason at all. People simply "have gone mad ... filled with hatred."

Whatever the reason for madness and hatred, what elevated this novel or fable—let's totally drop the unfortunate term "allegory"—was the way it gradually developed its premise and succeeding events in a realist manner. It was all too tragically feasible. Like Blindness by Senhor Saramago and La Peste by Monsieur Camus, Bioy's story was grounded in the reality of an extreme situation. He followed a logical sequence of events. He had seen his story through. Right to its painful conclusion. And that was enough for the stifling scent of doomsday to trouble us.

If symbols are any good at all, according to W. G. Sebald, then they have to have multiple meanings behind them. This statement was as much political as literary. Not to have anticipated any political events but to have avoided the obvious. This was the democracy of genius. As in Saramago's Blindness, Bioy encapsulated the nature of evil in an indirect way.

People say that a number of explanations are less convincing than a single one, but the fact is that there is more than one reason for almost everything. And it might be that there is always something to be gained by avoiding the truth.

For The 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom.

Diario de la guerra del cerdo was twice adapted into film: in 1975, directed by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, and in 2012, directed by David Maria Putortì.

December 23, 2014

10 great books, in lieu of an anti-list


Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw
Our Father San Daniel
The Leprous Bishop
What Now, Ricky?
The Last Novel
Culture and History
Antipoems: New and Selected
What Passes for Answers
Diwalwal: Bundok ng Ginto

Ryan's favorite books »

1. Diwalwal: Bundok ng Ginto (Diwalwal: Mountain of Gold) by Edgardo M. Reyes

From a master novelist in Filipino, the reality based story of a people living in a mining community in Monkayo, Compostella Valley, in Mindanao. The mountain area is infamous for the "open secret" illegal mining operations tolerated by inept national and local government. Diwalwal is a place where laws are blatantly violated and where big people (politicians, military soldiers, businessmen) blatantly get the best of small people (the poor, the disabled, women, children, the aged). Almost documentary in style in some parts, this novel is a true exposé. The characters are so alive, especially the two friends, one hero and one anti-hero, whose destinies define the complexity of human struggles in a lawless society.

2. Bullfight by Inoue Yasushi, tr. Michael Emmerich

Inoue Yasushi managed to pack a lot of human observations in this elegant novella. The bull sumo was almost a side event in his exploration of the ethical aspect of human transactions; the lead up to main event was almost an excuse to investigate human profiteering and shady deals of businessmen. The novelist shrewdly introduced extreme situations to generate the responses he want from his characters. (review)

3. What Passes for Answers by Mikael de Lara Co

What passes for answers is a book of poetry, conceived in the mind of a poet, held in the mind of a reader. It is a quiet type of book, and the answers are withheld by careful writing. (review)

4. Antipoems: New and Selected by Nicanor Parra, ed. David Unger, tr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Edith Grossman, and others

This brand of poetry called antipoetry was more a worldview than a movement. On its surface, it was more like personal stuff than philosophical slash political stance. More myth than legend. If there was a guiding principle to it, then perhaps it was the anti-establishment position. A show of bravery and bravado, it knew not serious pretense nor preternatural seriousness. It was a show of freedom more than anything else. (review)

5. Culture and History by Nick Joaquín

Not every essay Nick Joaquín wrote is agreeable, but his arguments are thoughtful if not thought provoking, and the ways he phrased them are a display of skill and intelligence. He argued that the pre-Hispanic civilization in the Philippine islands are not too far advanced compared to China and India. He called it a "heritage of smallness": the Filipino works best on a small scale and by implication is unable to commit to big projects, hence, our ancestors built small boats (barangay). They also choose to work in soft, easy materials like clay, molten metal, and tree bark. According to him, our artifacts show that they did not develop to the next level, our pottery not as advanced as the Chinese porcelain. In contrast, the arrival of the Spanish brought advancements in technology that led to cultural progress. Joaquín is often accused of being a Hispanophile. He is a Hispanophile. His writings offer a reckoning of the Filipino in terms of colonial influences and the way diverse identities blended to produce the imprints of a culture and history.

6. The Last Novel by David Markson

This novel – a series of aphorisms – infuriated me at first. I wanted to hurl the book, to abandon it entirely. Until finally I began to get the hang of it, and get to feel the larger story in small installments. It was brilliant really. A very human story of a life nearing extinction.

7. What Now, Ricky? by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes 

The novel proposes electoral reforms, not bloody revolution, as a viable solution to the ills of Philippine society. The novel's epigraph said as much about how a nation's leaders were only a reflection of the greater society that elected them in the first place. The novel's backdrop was the First Quarter Storm in 1970, a period of unrest where students and laborers were violently dispersed by the police during demonstrations. (review)

8-9. Our Father San Daniel and The Leprous Bishop by Gabriel Miró, tr. Marlon James Sales 

Oleza was a memorable character in the double novel with her name. She was traditional and Catholic, her virtues intact and yet constantly tested by circumstances. Oleza was in transition; modernity was knocking on her doorstep. She was being courted by new values and attitudes. Her provincialism was in danger of being supplanted by dangerous ideas.

Spanish writer Gabriel Miró (1879-1930) created a haunting central character in Oleza, except that Oleza was not a person. She was the setting of the novel, patterned after the author's Spanish hometown, Orihuela. The town was celebrated in the novel through detail-rich, postcard descriptions. The writing style was married to the pomp and pageantry of the novel's Catholic rites and ceremonies. It was a costume drama (and comedy) about how tradition and religiosity could occupy a dominant place in the personal and collective lives of a small town community and about hypocrisy and self-righteousness that were always bound to pervade any such community. It was a pulsing novel of humanity, in microcosm, limited by geography and historical time of late nineteenth century, but unlimited in its generous delineation of a gallery of fascinating characters, mainly clerics and their parishioners. (review)

10. Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw (Three Nights, Three Days) by Eros Atalia

While the true face or faces of the villain still can not reveal or unmask its legion, the dignity of the characters - the dignity of the people of Magapok - reigns as the unquestioned hero of the story. Men encroached into the rural area of Magapok and squeezed the life out of it, sucked the blood of the people in it and pillaged its natural resources. Mechanization, militarization, mineral extraction. The spooks have many faces. Just ask Pedro Paramo. Three nights and days of passion is all it takes for a disaster - man-made or simply inhuman - to strike hard.

It takes a special kind of writer to internalize the endemic problems plaguing his society and use them as materials to an allegory or parable or plain horror story that provokes, mystifies, and sows fear and 100% terror. It takes plenty of gumption to collectivize the ills of neglected countryside, then structure a broad fictional framework out of them. Hang together all seemingly loose elements in a fragmented story. Let the reader's imagination range freely in a created context of terrifying evil. Misunderstandings and puzzlement reign, comprehension and meanings are devoured, if meanings are still redeemable in purgatory, in case we are not yet immersed in hell.

December 21, 2014

Titles read: August to December 2014

Works in English or English translation

Solar by Ian McEwan

Ang Diablo sa Filipinas ayon sa nasasabi sa mga casulatan luma sa Kastila (The Devil in the Philippines according to ancient Spanish documents) by Isabelo de los Reyes, tr. Benedict Anderson, Carlos Sardiña Galache, and Ramon Guillermo [post 1, post 2]

The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W. G. Sebald, ed. Lynne Sharon Schwartz [post 1, post 2]

Words and Battlefields: A Theoria on the Poem by Cirilo F. Bautista [review]

Château d'Argol by Julien Gracq, tr. Louise Varèse

Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (4th ed.) by René Descartes, tr. Donald A. Cress

Bullfight by Inoue Yasushi, tr. Michael Emmerich [review]

Dwellers by Eliza Victoria [review]

Eros Pinoy: An Anthology of Contemporary Erotica in Philippine Art and Poetry, eds. Virgilio Aviado, Ben Cabrera, and Alfred A. Yuson [review]

Conversations by César Aira, tr. Katherine Silver [review]

Shantytown by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews [review]

What Passes for Answers [poetry] by Mikael de Lara Co [review]

Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes, tr. Daniel Hahn and Sean O'Brien [review]

Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great by Nicanor Parra, antitranslation by Liz Werner

Antipoems: New and Selected by Nicanor Parra, ed. David Unger, tr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Edith Grossman, et al. [review]

The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus [epic poetry] by Cirilo F. Bautista [review]

Culture and History by Nick Joaquín, illus. Beaulah Pedregosa Taguiwalo

The Last Novel by David Markson

Works in Filipino or Filipino translation

Tabi Po: Isyu 2 by Mervin Malonzo  

Diwalwal: Bundok ng Ginto [Diwalwal: Mountain of Gold] by Edgardo M. Reyes

Julio Cesar by William Shakespeare, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera

Kasal sa Dugo [Bodas de sangre / Blood Wedding] by Federico García Lorca, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera [review]

Silent comics

14 by Manix Abrera

See also:

Titles read: January to July 2014

A list of Philippine novels in English translation

Reading stats (January to December 2014)

61 books read: 32 (52%) fiction; 11 (18%) nonfiction; 10 (16%) poetry; 4 (7%) drama; 4 (7%) graphic
50 (82%) books by male writers; 11 (18%) by female writers
35 (57%) in original language; 26 (43%) in translation