Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

August 30, 2014

A list of Philippine novels in English translation



The poet Gémino H. Abad, introducing his collection Care of Light: New Poems and Found (2010), believes that there is no English language, no Tagalog language, no Filipino language. "There is only one language—language itself. And that language is most manifest in our finest writers, whatever the provenance of their idiom. [1]" It is a refreshing position, a more open and more expansive position than the ultra-nationalist championing of a single national language.

The literary text, as language purposefully worked [sic], may be the clearest expression of one's sense of country; in that light, a poet's sense for language—whatever the language he has mastered—may be his most intimate sense of his country's landscape, and his people's lived lives.

For the writer, one's country is what one's imagination owes its allegiance to.

The "poet's sense of language" might as well be the novelist's, the playwright's, or the essayist's. A poetical work might be any literary work of great poetical sensibility and imaginative distinction, any carefully wrought feeling.

***

Abad's nationalist poetics is a particularly welcome position in a country of many languages and whose literary tradition is as linguistically diverse as its biological diversity. Philippine literature exists in dozens of languages (the estimate is 150). The traces of its Spanish and American colonial past are evident in the texts published in these languages. A lot of Philippine literary works in Spanish still await translation for the benefit of the present generation of readers.

The works produced in other Philippine languages (Bicolano, Hiligayon, Kapampangan, Ilocano, Cebuano, Kinaray-a, Cuyuno, etc.) also makes apparent a cultural richness and literary minefield. Translation, obviously, is a critical specialization the country direly needs right now if it wants to introduce to the world its cultural and intellectual heritage. Sadly, a healthy dose of translation appears to be what the country sorely lacks.

There are currently 100 million Filipinos living in the planet, making the country the 12th most populous nation. A large proportion of them are speakers, readers, and writers of at least two languages: English and Filipino. But population only correlates with potential readers of translation, not with translation outputs. In fact, familiarity with English is probably a major reason why literary translation is ignored in the country. As a former American colony, it is not surprising that the production (and perhaps reception) of translation, from any language to English, is not thriving.

Translation is said to enrich the resources of a language or to deepen our appreciation of a language's strength and dynamism. These apply to both the target language and the source language. There remains, for instance, Filipino fiction in Spanish (which was still a major language in the country in the 19th up to the early 20th century) that remains to be translated. These period pieces can provide essential information (cultural, literary, philosophical) that can still illuminate aspects of the present.

Translation is probably an indicator of progressiveness in a society as it values openness to cultural exchange and free interplay of ideas. The state of translation in a country may, therefore, be indicative of its prospects of sustainable development. A healthy culture of translation can be an indicator of the values of tolerance and cosmopolitanism.

I want to talk about the production and publication of Philippine book translations not only in the Philippines but in other countries as well. But it is safe to assume that translations of Philippine literature outside the country is close to none (or downright non-existing). The database of Three Percent shows that from 2008 to present the number of translations from the Philippines or from the Filipino language published in the United States is zero. Wala. Nada.

But what exactly is the state of literary translation in the Philippines? In the past two years I have been fortunate to read and review selected locally published works that appear just recently in translation. I want to see what a reading list of translated Philippine literature would look like, specifically English versions of Philippine novels in any language.

I want first to focus on the English translations, apropos of the many translations of novels from several languages (local or international) into the vernacular Filipino (or Tagalog) and perhaps to other Philippine languages. Eventually, of course, to talk about translation culture in the Philippine setting is to include all possible target languages. A preliminary focus on English translations of Filipino novels makes for a rapid assessment of the health of Philippine translation because, as it turned out, there are only a handful available so far [2]. Probably only a few Philippine languages have a strong novelistic tradition.

***

The result of the listing exercise is pathetic really. The pitiable number of English translations of Philippine novels, the only novels that are potentially accessible to readers of world literature, makes it very necessary for the Philippine arts and literature establishment to develop aggressive programs that will incentivize translation and cultivate a strong interest in it among its local and international readers. In the first place, novel writing in the Philippines is probably not a very lucrative business. There are only a handful of published novels each year. As for short fiction, I can't think of any full length Filipino book translated into English.

At first I want to think that the low number of English-translated novels in the Philippines reflects more on my poor investigation since I only used online search, which really did not make a difference because the list consists of the very same ones I basically found in local bookstores in the past few years. Anyone with information about the titles I missed out, let me know though a comment to this post below.

Philippine Novels in English Translation:

1-2. Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo by José Rizal. These two revolutionary and political works in Spanish, published in 1887 and 1891, are the Bible of Philippine nationalism. They are widely translated. [3] There are multiple English translations of this book, the most important are probably the ones by Charles Derbyshire (1912, gothic/baroque style, dense vocabulary, probably the closest in flavor to the original 19th century diction, Faulknerian, in public domain), Leon Ma. Guerrero (1961/62, minimalist, Hemingwayesque), Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin (1997, romantic, Hemingwayesque, faithful to anger and subtle humor, recommended), and Harold Augenbraum (2006/2011, most recent, stiff). The 2011 Penguin edition of the Fili should appear in the Three Percent database but apparently retranslations are not counted.

3. The Gold in Makiling (2012) by Macario Pineda, tr. Soledad S. Reyes. A Filipino classic published in 1947, this magic realist love story is finally made available through this fine translation of Reyes, who is also a brilliant literary and cultural critic. [review]

4. What Now, Ricky? (2013) by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes. A 1971 political novel about the tumultuous events leading to the declaration of martial law in the Philippines. Reyes is definitely a champion of translation. I do hope her translations of two other novels by Lingat would come out soon. [review]

5. Eight Muses of the Fall (2013) by Edgar Calabia Samar, tr. Mikael de Lara Co and Sasha Martinez. Originally published in 2008, this nonlinear coming of age novel contains metaphysical and metafictional qualities and references to local folklore. Here's hoping its young translators will pursue more novel translation projects in the future. [review]

6. Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting (2012) by Ramon L. Muzones, tr. Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava. An epic adventure and fantasy novel from Hiligaynon language, first published in 1946. Locsin-Nava is supposed to be at work on another Muzones novel. [review]

7. La Oveja de Nathán (Nathan's Sheep) (2013) by Antonio M. Abad, tr. Lourdes Castrillo Brillantes. Originally in Spanish, this 1928 historical novel was written during the time when Spanish language was still widely taught and spoken in the country. Winner of the Premio Zobel (a literary prize established back in 1920), it is considered the Philippine War and Peace. I'm wary of the comparison. The book appears in a bilingual edition. [4]

8. Orosa-Nakpil, Malate (2009) by Louie Mar A. Gangcuangco; transliterators: Carla Mae Sioson and Louie Mar Gocuangco. A novel dealing with the issues of HIV-AIDS and homosexuality through the erotic adventures of a young medical student. It was self-published in 2006 when the author was just 19 years old and it became a certified local bestseller a year later. [Wiki]

9. The Birthing of Hannibal Valdez (1984) by Alfrredo Navarro Salanga. I am cheating here. The novella is actually written in English, but it appears alongside its "Pilipino" translation so why not. [5]

That's it: nine novels. Not even a round ten. Four from Tagalog, three from Spanish, one from Hiligaynon, and one other (contestable) from Tagalog. There are many factors for this dull performance; not least of them is, as mentioned, the lack of Philippine novels to be translated in the first place.
 
The fact that these novels practically appeared in the 2000s—in the last five years, to be precise—shows that English translation in the country is a recent phenomenon. Considering that English language has been used in the country for more than a century now, it's a bit puzzling why novel translation has not been cultivated.

The consolation, if there's any, is that there's no other way but up. Translation is starting to be recognized and the market for it is starting to respond to some hidden and positive Jedi forces. (For instance, the emergence of "outsourcing" culture in the country can be an opportunity to be tapped, representing a large audience of readers out there.)

It is clear that translation work in the country still has to peak and to make its important presence felt. There is a compelling need for the mainstreaming of translation in the local literary scene, for a massive information drive on the tangible and intangible benefits of translation, including the enrichment of languages and culture. With a disappointingly few titles to show for it, I am thinking of posting on something with more competitive choices, say, The 10 Best Philippine Classic/Contemporary Novels in English or The 10 Best Philippine Novelists or 20 Under 40 and such-like.

***

Notes:

1. Gémino H. Abad. "The Poem Is the Real: A Poetics". Introduction to Care of Light: New Poems and Found (Anvil, 2010).

2. At the back of my mind, there's also Nick Joaquín advocating for Filipino writers to engage in long form fiction writing, instead of concentrating on and perfecting a small short story. "By limiting ourselves to the small effort, we make ourselves less and less capable even of the small thing," he writes in Culture and History (1988; reprinted 2004). For Joaquín, the novel is the mark of ambition, the bold enterprise, the heroic effort. "Many little efforts, however, perfect each in itself, still cannot equal one single epic creation. ... [Y]ou could stack up all the best short stories you can think of and still not have enough to outweigh a mountain like War and Peace." Eventually though, I would like to consider translations of Philippine lit in other genres (poetry, drama, non-fiction, YA).

3. Noli and Fili probably vies with Dusk [Po-on] by F. Sionil José as the most translated Philippine novel.

4. I would have wanted to include in the list the Oleza novels by Spanish writer Gabriel Miró, Our Father San Daniel and The Leprous Bishop, mainly because the translator, Marlon James Sales, is Filipino.

5. If a novel in English is later translated into another language, say, Filipino or any other Philippine language, then the fact that it exists in two languages means that one is a translation of the other. Can we then say the reverse: that the original is a translation of its translation? Ah, not to sound Borgesian, this effect of double-sided mirrors.

I want to say, for example, that once the classic autobiographical novel America Is in the Heat by Carlos Bulosan is finally translated by Carolina Malay and Paula Carolina S. Malay as Nasa Puso ang Amerika and when The Lady in the Market by Magdalena G. Jalandoni finally appears in Tagalog as Dalaga sa Tindahan, the original novels practically become the living translations of the English versions! I am here following (distorting) the 'precursor concept' of Borges: that every writer creates his own precursors. Hence, every translation creates its own translation (in the form of the original!).

Whatever. There are more than 60 foreign and local literary novels translated into Tagalog/Filipino. I should post something about them too.


August 8, 2014

XXth Century



XXth Century: 2 Plays [bilingual ed.] by Malou Jacob (The University of the Philippines Press, 2009)




http://biblibio.blogspot.com/2014/05/women-in-translation-introducing.html




The epochal title of Malou Jacob's book of plays hinted at how its subjects remain as the defining (and lasting) events in Philippine history. The martial law and the rise of communism in the Philippines during the last quarter of the twentieth century continued to cast their dark shadows in the present and are still expected to shape the future of political landscape of the country.
 
The two plays appeared in Filipino and English. I'm not sure which was the source language and which the target language of translation. The plays might even be simultaneously written in the two languages. In any case, I submit this review for the Women in Translation (WIT) Month, organized by Biblibio.

In "Country in Search of a Hero", Jacob investigated the supposed heroism of dictator and strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Subtitled "A Political Satire" and set in the afterlife, its comedy was unrelenting although the history lessons were quite painful. How can a country be great when its youth were tortured and killed? That question asked by a character (an angel) in the play was, in a nutshell, the basic question haunting the two plays by Jacob.

A celebration in heaven meant to honor the heroes of the country was interrupted when Ferdinand Marcos insisted his heroic status and appealed to God, St. Peter, and the angels to recognize his contributions to national development. In every argument, Marcos was rebuffed by several dead witnesses who refuted his pronouncements and brought into light his transgressions against his people and the country.

One of the witnesses, Edjop (Ed Jopson, a real life based character) detailed the crimes perpetrated against the youth during the dark days of dictatorship.

Some friends and others I don't know, clobbered to death or shot at by the police. The four student martyrs of the First Quarter Storm ... There, that's Purificacion Pedro. She was only twenty-eight, a UP [University of the Philippines] graduate when she was arrested. She was accused of being an NPA [New People's Army]. They shot her and beat her up with rifle butts. After they brought her to the hospital and she recuperated, they gang raped her and hanged her by the neck with her brassiere. That one there is Teotimo Tantiado, he was only seventeen, a student. That is Ariel Roberto Roce, a high school scholar; Crisanto Lomokso, eighteen; Crispin Villaflor, twenty; all tortured and killed. That is Ferdinand Oaing, Richard Escarta, Liza Balando, Benjie Jallores. Over there is Liliosa Hilao. Beside her, Lorena Barros. That is Nick Solana, and that ... Eman Lacaba, the poet of the revolution.

"Country in Search of a Hero" probed the deleterious effects on Philippine youth of the militaristic adventures under the Marcos regime. Marcos's crimes stood in stark contrast to the playful tone and setting of the satirical play. Also present to disprove Marcos's heroic exploits were Roger (Rogelio Roxas), from whom treasures of gold were allegedly seized by Marcos's men, and the ghosts of the Manila Film Center who were workers buried alive in an accident during the construction of the building in 1981.

The satire's reliance on infamous aspects of the Marcos regime was effective for building a new radical consciousness out of myths and urban legends of the Martial Law period (such as the golden buddha/Yamashita treasure and the ghosts of Manila Film Center). The "diplomatic" ending of the drama, however, with Marcos being resurrected to right his wrongs, downplayed the entire premise of the satire. Perhaps it was a reflection of the conflicted ways Marcos was viewed by certain Filipinos at present who could afford to be forgiving and forgetful of the past simply because they did not have a sense of history.

In the Filipino version of the first play, it was notable how Marcos spoke in straight English without exception in his dialogues. This fact was of course lost in the English version. His use of English in conversation deliberately contrasted with the language used by the other characters, particularly the character witnesses against him. This was not only a linguistic device but a cultural or class representation of the elite and oligarch as represented by Marcos. In ordinary Filipino conversations, English speaking can have derogatory connotation and straight English speakers are sometimes discriminated against or are labelled as coños which in the Philippines means rich people or those from a rich family.

"A Significant Life", the second play, investigated the direct effects of communism on a nuclear family due to the diaspora of revolutionary parents to the countryside. Bert was a tenured university professor whose upward career movement was almost assured in the coming years. He was, however, attracted to the "underground" life and became an "intellectual cadre" or trainer of young revolutionaries on the theory and philosophy of Marxism. The political turmoil in the 1960s and the rise of Marxism among the progressive youth led to the founding of the armed group of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the NPA or New People's Army, to which Bert joined.

It was to Jacob's credit that she presented one aspect of Philippine communism that was seldom discussed: the human rights abuses of the communists themselves who tortured and murdered their own comrades. The character of Bert discovered a failed application of communism when certain rebels were wrongfully accused of being informers and were tortured and killed in the process.

DELIA: We need you now more than ever. The peasants need you, the workers need you. Have you forgotten all the good things we have done for them?

BERT: All that we have done pales in comparison with the biggest human rights tragedy that we have inflicted on our comrades. We have become the greatest human rights violator surpassing the military ... No, it's no use. [...] You have all become militaristic! The socialist mind is gone!

DELIA: You're too harsh.

BERT: You have become the enemy. So, what are you fighting for? You have blood on your hands.

DELIA: We always had blood on our hands. That's what revolution is all about.

BERT: I never had blood on mine. And I am a revolutionary!

Meanwhile, Bert's wife and daughter whom he abandoned in exchange for his revolutionary activities were living their own lives. Pia, the daughter who never knew her father, continued to dream of her father's return. Bert started to question his loyalties to the NPA and to assess whether he made the right choice of leaving his family behind to pursue a certain political ideal. His daughter's abuse at the hands of another man during his absence was an indication that he probably made the wrong choice.



MARCOS BUST BEFORE AND AFTER IT WAS DESTROYED
IN A BLAST IN 2002, LA UNION PROVINCE, PHILIPPINES.
(IMAGE SOURCE; BBC NEWS; THE PHILIPPINE STAR NEWS)



July 27, 2014

Carte blanche


Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas, tr. Jonathan Dunne (Harvill Secker, 2007)


'To recall with a memory that is not our own,' I heard him whisper in my ear, 'is a variant of the theme of the double, but it is also a perfect metaphor for literary expression.'

A narrator of Enrique Vila-Matas in the lecture novel Montano (in Spanish: El mal de Montano, 2002) was basically admitting that most of the things he (the narrator) was writing about was borrowed. He constantly alluded to his writing as parasitic, the way it depended on the ideas of other writers he read or conversed with. His conversation, for instance, with César Aira, whether it really happened or not (though why would the narrator invent something like it), found its way on the novel.

My memory is infiltrated by the recollection of something César Aira told me in the Café Tortoni, in Buenos Aires, one day when we fell into a bizarre conversation about the essence of literature. We had started discussing the review I had written of his last book and in a few seconds, with barely any transition from one theme to the other, we became engrossed, almost without realising, in the subject of the essence of literature. 'As a teenager, reading Borges,' Aira said to me, 'I saw where the essence of literature was. This was definitive, but later I also discovered that literature does not have one, but many historical and contingent essences. So it was easy to escape from Borges' orbit, as easy as going back, or as never having escaped.'

Aira was speaking in circles, contradicting himself as he was wont to do. It was a safe answer in any case. Designed as a discourse on 'literature sickness', Montano was a writer's attempt to arrive at the essence of literature, and it arrived not in one destination but in many of them ("many historical and contingent essences"), via the texts of many modernist writers and diarists, or more precisely, the insidious memory of those texts. 

Memory infiltration was the mechanism with which the lecture novel proceeded with its free association. Perhaps I should stop saying lecture novel when what I really meant was literary criticism. Montano was a compartment of many prose forms: diary/private journal, novel, dictionary, lecture, memoir, essay, criticism. And yet the veil of criticism was probably the most accommodating form of the novel since the recombination of many texts from various sources produced a new text and new bibliography of imagination, a new way of looking at literature from the perspective of a sick man, or a deceived man, as the narrator later considered himself to be.

As Montano progressed, the narrator was successively commenting on the preceding chapters of the novel, clarifying which parts of the work was fiction, which ones invented. Every page contained copious ideas from select writers. These bookish ideas were creatively incorporated into – or had infiltrated – the novelist's consciousness. Sometimes he would access "his real life" and insert it into the text, thereby breaking the monotony of his thoughts and finding another material for his text.

An hour ago, I rang the poet Pere Gimferrer to ask him which of Dalí's two diaries he likes more: 'Why do you want to know?' Gimferrer, who always wants to know everything, asked  me. 'I don't know if I want to know,' I told him, 'really I rang you so that you would appear in the diary I'm writing, which has turned into a novel and dictionary and looks less and less like a diary, especially since I started taking about things from the past, maybe that's why I rang you, perhaps to have something to relate that occurred today, that happened this Thursday in real life, I need a bit of present.'

And that was how the conversation with Gimferrer was integrated into the text. The narrator was free to escape from his philosophical musings and infuse reality, its immediacy, into his diary/text. The material of reality now invaded the novel, was now duly represented and made a part of that novel, the very novel enacted before the reader's eyes.

Thinking what Kafka would have thought about the 9/11 attacks in New York, the narrator felt the need to read the 11 September 1911 entry in Kafka's diaries, 90 years before the attack, discovering there the collision between a motor car and a tricycle. Later, the narrator would open the 11 September 1912 entry of the diary, reading about a particular dream by the Czech writer.

I kept talking about "the narrator" here as if there was only one protagonist when in fact there were probably at least five personae whom Vila-Matas created in this novel, one for every chapter. Every narrator subverted the form and contents of the previous one's writing, until the reader was no longer sure which person was written about and who was a character in whose text. The selection of quotes from many writers – Walter Benjamin, Kafka, Walser, Sebald, Musil, Josep Pla (in The Gray Notebook) – only served to stitch together Vila-Matas's meditations on literary creation and mortality, on the anxiety of influence and the labyrinthine ways in which novelistic ideas relate and coincide.

By the end of Montano, the narrator's comic and melancholic tone gave way to exhaustion. The narrator dissembled even as he pursued his never-ending text. More than once, the narrator/s referred to himself (themselves) as the very embodiment of literature and even if he was "literature-sick", there were indications that he had freely embraced his literary destiny.

I wonder how I can have been so stupid, believing for so long that I must eradicate my Montano's malady, when it is the only worthwhile and truly comfortable possession I have. I also wonder why I should apologise for being so literary if, in the final outcome, only literature could save the spirit in an age as deplorable as ours. My life should be, once and for all, purely and only literature.

The sickness had taken full possession of the narrator. The novelist had disappeared inside the novel, right there in the text, fulfilling Blanchot's question in the epigraph: "What will we do to disappear?"


* * *

"There is nothing sometimes further away from reality than literature, which is constantly reminding us that life is like this and the world has been organised like that," the novelist in Montano said, before entertaining the converse, "but it could be otherwise". The autonomous world we lived in is not a tidy novel, and the ways we negotiate our lives do not resemble a well-argued literary essay. If anything, it fitted well with how the novelist in David Markson's final novel self-referentially described his final novel:

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.

The collage novel was perfectly realized in Markson's novel called – again, self-referentially – The Last Novel (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007). Quoting Walter Benjamin, Vila-Matas described the  ideal properties of a collage novel in Montano (a collage in its own way): "In our time the only work truly endowed with meaning – critical meaning, as well – would have to be a collage of quotations, excerpts, echoes of other works":

In its time, I incorporated into that collage relatively personal ideas and phrases, and slowly created for myself an autonomous world, paradoxically very closely linked to the echoes of other works. ...

And I came down, as tends to happen when one scales the peaks of tragedy. I came down and saw that I did not have to worry about my parasitical past, rather to convert it – to revert it – into my own artistic programme, to turn into a literary parasite on myself, to make the most of the reduced but autonomous part of my anxiety and of my work which I could consider to be mine. Then I read 'Second Hand' by [Alan] Pauls and relaxed even more when I saw, for example, that Borges had been a highly creative and astute case of literary parasitism.

Nothing so comforting as Pauls' idea that an important dimension of Borges' work revolved around the writer arriving always after, in second place, in a subordinate's role – with a minimal biography, but with a biography, which is already saying a lot – this writer always arrives later and does so to read or comment on or translate or introduce a work or writer that appears first, original. [emphases added]

The Last Novel was a novel of aphorisms, of successive short sentences or flash sentences, in the manner of flash fiction. Its narrator was called Novelist, with capital N. Like the narrator of Montano, Novelist in Markson's novel was mapping out his minimalist autobiography in the work. While the narrator of the second section of Montano – "Dictionary of Timid Love for Life" – promised to tell only true things about himself in his diary, Novelist decided "carte blanche to do anything [in the novel] he damned well pleases". Like Vila-Matas (and his narrators), Markson (and Novelist) was establishing a personal genre: "A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak, minus much of the novel."

I'm still in the middle of Markson's book. The form should be tiresome, but there were fascinating details and comic relief in every page. The self-contained aphorisms had an invisible engine propelling them forward, wee drops of wit accumulating, accumulating.

While waiting for the death of the novel, which is like waiting for the barbarians, we could welcome the arrival of new novel forms, in new formats. These anti-novels and autofictions, they follow their own artistic programmes. They depend on a trove of treasures and trivia about certain writers and artists, recalling memories not their own, creating a mosaic of passages from literature to produce new texts, new textures. They are "last novels" because they hardly look like proper novels. Certainly they terminate, or break, the monotony of this-happens-and-then-this-followed-by-this storytelling.

It is said that every moment in life must be lived as if it was the last. In the same way, every novel could be written as if it is the final one. Haunted by death, sustained by the last flickering breaths, final novels have unlimited freedom. To play around with texts, with wild artistic abandon. To do whatever with a blank page as with a signed blank check. Unrestricted, only the last novels have the spirit of carte blanche.



For the Spanish Lit Month, by Stu and Richard


Titles read: January to July 2014


Works in English or English translation

Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas, tr. Jonathan Dunne [review]

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

Care of Light [poetry] by Gémino H. Abad

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan [review]

Roberto Bolaño's Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews [review]

XXth Century: 2 Plays [bilingual ed.] by Malou Jacob [review]

An Aquarium [poetry] by Jeffrey Yang

Shadow Without a Name by Ignacio Padilla, tr. Peter Bush and Anne McLean [review]

Gotita de Dragon and Other Stories by Nick Joaquín, illus. Beth Parrocha

In Praise of the Stepmother by Mario Vargas Llosa, tr. Helen Lane

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio

The Tenant and The Motive by Javier Cercas, tr. Anne McLean [review]

Sound Before Water [poetry] by Jim Pascual Agustin

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry

The Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven

Spooky Mo: Horror Stories by Marivi Soliven Blanco

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag [review]

Seven Mountains of the Imagination by Virgilio S. Almario, tr. Marne L. Kilates and Phillip Kimpo Jr. [review]

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism [rev. ed.] by Benedict Anderson [related post]

Shockbox: Ang Butas na Kahon ni Kulas Talon: The Complete Posthumous Poetry [bilingual ed.] by Kulas Talon, tr. Mikael de Lara Co, Khavn De La Cruz, Ramil Digal Gulle, et al.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, tr. Samuel Beckett

The Voice From Sumisip & Four Short Stories by Antonio Enriquez

Eight Muses of the Fall by Edgar Calabia Samar, tr. Mikael de Lara Co and Sasha Martinez [review]

What Now, Ricky? by Rosario de Guzman Lingat, tr. Soledad S. Reyes [review]

The Master of Go by Kawabata Yasunari, tr. Edward G. Seidensticker [post 1, post 2]

This I Believe—Gleanings From a Life in Literature by F. Sionil José

The Leprous Bishop by Gabriel Miró, tr. Marlon James Sales [review]

Our Father San Daniel by Gabriel Miró, tr. Marlon James Sales

Works in Filipino

Ang Kuwento ng Haring Tulala [Crónica del rey pasmado] by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, tr. Marlon James Sales [review]

Ang Alkemista [The Alchemist] by Paulo Coelho, tr. Edgardo B. Maranan [review]

Tabi Po: Isyu 1 by Mervin Malonzo

(Im)Personal: Gabay sa Panulat at Pagmamanunulat [(Im)Personal: Guide to Writing and the Writerly] by Rene O. Villanueva 

Si Janus Sílang at ang Tiyanak ng Tábon [Janus Sílang and the Child Monster of Tábon] by Edgar Calabia Samar

Para Kay B (o kung paano dinevastate ng pag-ibig ang 4 out of 5 sa atin) [For B (or how 4 out of 5 of us were devastated by love)] by Ricky Lee [review]

Diaspora at Iba pang mga Kwento [Diaspora and Other Stories] by Genoveva Edroza Matute 

Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady [How I Became a Leading Lady] by Carlo Vergara and Elmer Cantada

Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw [Three Nights, Three Days] by Eros Atalia [review]

Reading stats

38 books read: 23 (61%) fiction; 7 nonfiction; 4 poetry; 2 drama; 2 graphic
29 (76%) books by male writers; 9 (24%) by female writers
23 (61%) in original language; 15 (39%) in translation

Titles in blue are highly recommended.


July 12, 2014

Smaller and Smaller Circles


Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan (The University of the Philippines Press, 2002)



Perhaps I should preface this post with a trigger warning. The quote below describes in graphic detail the method to a cold-blooded crime.

"We know from the clean incision at the neck that he would slit the skin under the chin first, from ear to ear. I think he needed help to peel the skin back from the chin, so he would hook this under the skin and flesh, using it much like you would use a chisel, and start to pull the skin upward. But it couldn't have been easy. For something so thin, these things are pretty tough, made from surgical steel or chromium; the skin and flesh would tear in place. So he'd hook in again and again, and in the process of pulling the skin over the chin bone, he would leave these marks."

Perhaps the novel itself should come with a bit of a warning. Nothing could have prepared the reader for—pardon the comparison—a prose that cuts and slices cleanly. The violence in this detective novel was unflinching.

A series of killings was being committed in Payatas, in a garbage dump site in Metro Manila. All victims shared the same profile: all adolescent boys, all poor, and all with slight body frames. They were found dumped on a mountain of garbage, with facial skin peeled off and with vital organs missing.

The National Bureau of Investigation enlisted the help of Father Augusto Saenz, a Jesuit priest and renowned forensic anthropologist. He was easily becoming the go-to person in solving high profile cases in the city. Saenz was assisted in this case by Father Jerome Lucero, another priest, a clinical psychologist and his former student. During the course of their investigation, an unflattering portrait of urban poverty and ineptitude of law enforcers was drawn. The characters meanwhile were shown as full, rounded human beings worthy of our sympathy—the detective priests hard at work, the victims' relatives, and most disconcertingly, the killer himself.

F. H. Batacan's debut novel won the two prestigious literary awards in the country—the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel and the Philippine National Book Award. It was a surprise hit, too. It had several print runs and must now be considered a cult novel.

Part of its appeal, I think, is its quick and efficient sketches of characters and situations. It effectively dramatized the professional work of the two detectives priests and rather menacingly tapped into the psyche of the serial killer. Hunter and then hunted, the killer was as creepy as the ubiquitous rats, large and numerous, running around the garbage heap. He was as much offender as offended quarry.

I can feel them. Scurrying in circles around me, smaller and smaller circles like rats around a crust of bread or piece of cheese. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the right moment. The moment when I slip up, when I make a mistake, when I get careless.

I can hear their feet. Some of them pass by the gate on the sidewalks; they think I can't see them. Some of them are brave enough to rattle the gate; they bring my mail, my bills, they ask for donations. Some of them get into the house while I'm sleeping, and I wake up and I hear their feet on the stairs, yes I do.

As the world of the killer gradually narrows down and collapses into a point, detectives Saenz and Lucero, and the reader with them, began to sense that the crime scene of a garbage dump was the very emblem of social and economic ills that drove human beings to despair and destruction. The quiet moments of anguish and reflection in the novel proved to be as devastating and desperate as the violent acts they seek to redress.

This turned out to be an old-fashioned detective story, using the conventional effects of the genre to create suspense. Despite the artifice, the paradox of deriving pleasure and excitement from reading crime novels was obvious.

Satisfied, Saenz steps carefully towards the body. He feels more than a bit ashamed of the way sorrow and horror and revulsion are warring with the excitement mounting within him; the shame feels like sand in his mouth, rough and gritty, and he wishes he could spit it out.

Saenz himself could not properly acknowledge the giddy feeling he felt as he found a critical evidence near one victim. This was the evidence that could help solve or explain the crimes. The gratuitousness of it all was at least fully acknowledged.

Two-thirds into the novel, the identity of the killer was already revealed. The remaining one-third was spent on the search for the root of evil, its motivation, its internal workings. In the end, the case was solved rather too neatly. The novel's strength lay not in the plot, but in the characterization and in the writing. The sentences were arresting and clinical in their precision and passionate intensity.

Blunt to the point of occasional abrasiveness, he has few friends.

A thin blade of fear, cold like surgical steel in the brain, slices through the priest's consciousness.

The hatred on his face [is] so intense and terrible that she feels it almost as a kind of heat on her own.

Fr. Saenz will later return in a short story by Batacan in Manila Noir. Hopefully his wits and expertise will be put to use in another novel of great human interest. I am almost ashamed to wish so.