Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

August 16, 2015

The Hand of the Enemy

The Hand of the Enemy (1962) by Kerima Polotan (University of the Philippines Press, 2010)

If Nick Joaquín was to be believed, it was Kerima Polotan's protracted relationship with her father that impelled her to write The Hand of the Enemy, her first and last novel.

Her anguish over a relationship left dangling in the air, unresolved by a deathbed embrace, troubles her fiction, so cold on the surface, so angry at the roots. The Polotan heroine is a lonely, embittered, unsatisfied woman who craves to be loved but sees in the hand of the one loved, the hand of the enemy.

Private grief had become literature.

And that's how books get to be written. But grief that had become a book has also become a public commodity, which must be sold, peddled, advertised. How important are such commodities to public life? Do the forms one woman has given her anguish really matter as much as rice and groceries?

Joaquín was spot on in identifying the hermeneutics of grief as the positive, conscious force driving Polotan's text, feeding the manic momentum of her prose. This was, for example, the same force that wrote A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke's autobiographical novella about his mother's suicide.

Private grief was indeed laminated in the pages of The Hand of the Enemy. But as with the best works of grief literature, the personal and the political (historical) were intertwined. Set in the postwar period of 1950s to 1960s, the novel was the story of two marriages and their dissolution. The title was so ambiguous it could be applied to any enemy, and to either of the two hands.

"Kerima Polotan Skips a Dinner", Nick Joaquín's witty introduction to the novel, echoed the novel's skewering of the hyprocrisy of the noveau riche. During the literary dinner in honor of Polotan's publication of her novel (which she skipped), Joaquín asked questions about the relevance of the novel in the time of the rice shortage (this was 1961). Food for thought or food for stomach?

The blather of one "chairman of the cultural committee of the Philippine Columbian", as quoted verbatim by Quijano de Manila, was not lost on the reader.

I submit that literature—and novels in particular—should not be considered as just a form of entertainment. In portraying characters and dramatizing conflict, novelists can influence society and change behavior patterns. Novels and other forms of literature can serve a social purpose; in the present preoccupation with intensive economic development we are likely to neglect this powerful tool for social change, if we could only show that contemporary novels can be an effective vehicle in attaining the economic objective, then the campaign will have been won.

Novels? Change behavior patterns? Powerful tool for social change? Effective vehicle in attaining the economic objective? My goodness. What daunting tasks for the contemporary novel! One could detect the journalist's amusement in hearing such nonsense. As with any highfalutin dinner, the spirit of Rizal was invoked in full measure.

Andres Cristobal Cruz wrote a paper on honoree Kerima Polotan. He began with a long quote from Rizal, ended with another long quote from Rizal. The rest of the paper was also mostly abut Rizal but Mr. Cruz occasionally remembered that his subject was Kerima Polotan, who, he said like D.H. Lawrence, explored the theme of forbidden relationships with a passion that touches the heart. He opined that, by "the hand of the enemy," Kerima Polotan meant the superstitions still around us, the poseurs and phonies of our society. This inevitably reminded him of what Rizal had said about superstition and Kerima Polotan vanished for good in the incense offered to the national hero.

Ever attentive to the nuances of literary reception, our guide Joaquín quoted at length from a Chronicle column published the next day by fellow writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, expressing her minority position. She must have, Joaquín presumed, "shuddered at what seemed hucksterism running wild at what was supposed to be a cultural soiree".

"It must have been curiously humiliating for writers to sit at a dinner-forum intended to create more awareness of the need for reading books by Filipino authors—as many of them did last night at the Philippine Columbian. It was rather an uncomfortable feeling—rather as if one were a brand of soap whose sales had fallen off or a consignment of abaca matting which was losing out to a more popular, washable, colorfast kind imported from the United States.


"One cannot help wishing ... that people ... would buy and, more important, read what one had to say between the covers of a book without someone important beating a large promotional drum or holding the sword of philistinism over their heads.

And what of the novel itself? What of the anguish between its covers?

No, this novel would not alleviate poverty or prevent rice shortages. On the contrary, Polotan offered a healthy dose of reality. She must have a checklist for the purpose of avoiding any sense of redemption or indulgence or absolution for the reader. Every action seemed to be haunted by the past—the transgressive, unforgiving past. Every other scene allowed for restrospective leaps of telling, for further digressions into the past, always auditing the temporal present for an account ("Just two weeks ago ..."; "But that day ..."; "Earlier that week"; "that day long ago"). She imbued every gesture, every word with import.

Fleeing Glo's over-percolated charm, Emma Gorrez ended up in front of the largest department store in the city. The mannequins in the window, the silks, the porcelain ware, all seemed vaguely familiar. The curving bridge nearby and the fetid odor of the shallow creek brought back that day long ago when she had come to this same place, money and misery together, to bury the presence of Mr. Navarro. She had interred the memory of that tragic old man beneath piles of the most useless things she had ever brought in her life. How instinctively a woman turned to bangles for surcease! She had bought a pendant that day and hung it around her neck, loud and noisy and vulgar, as if the sound of brass would exorcise the dangers of the dark—there was something fundamentally comforting in the process of buying: you pushed your money over the counter and clutched whatever foolishness you had paid for, grasping it like a talisman against the shadows in the long corridor of the mind.

Like holding a talisman, yes. Hers was a careful exercise of the apocalypse. She was a conjuror of doom, an existential witch. The vision of the novelist was one of fatalism. Life was a force majeure. As one character said: "Life is a bitch ... a foul-smelling, filthy bitch".

The world was something outside him; life was something outside him; a great big something, a mighty merciless great big hand picking up people and lives and hopes and tossing them athwart the sharp prow of circumstance.

So how to conduct and keep one's self, how to keep it "dear, inviolate, true"? In the face of the merciless blows dealt by the hand of the enemy, the hand of circumstance, how not to make it—one's self—one's own sworn enemy?

For one, one must avoid unhealthy literary soirees that bred further bitterness and disillusion. Joaquín concluded just as much.

The state of Philippine literature may be as bankrupt as the critics say; but Kerima Polotan is not concerned with improving the state of literature or the state of the nation. She simply writes; her motives are private. If she should stop and ponder if she should not be writing in Tagalog instead of English, or be writing pamphlets instead of novels, or be writing books that are easy to sell, or not writing at all at a time when people are standing in line to buy rice but should do something to solve the rice crisis, go to the province, maybe, and plant rice—she would be destroyed. Her selfishness is her salvation.

No wonder Kerima Polotan skipped the dinner held in her honor. There were temptations everywhere of violence and misconduct. There was enough drama already. The book was written already.

July 9, 2015

Old Masters

Old Masters: A Comedy by Thomas Bernhard, tr. Ewald Osers (The University of Chicago Press, 1992)

"Stifter is no genius, Stifter is a philistine living a cramped life and a musty petit bourgeois and schoolmaster writing in a cramped style, who did not even meet the minimum requirements of the language, let alone was able to produce works of art, Reger said," wrote Thomas Bernhard. "All in all, he said," Bernhard wrote, "Stifter is one of the greatest disappointments of my artistic life. Every third or at least every fourth sentence of Stifter's is wrong, every other or every third metaphor is a failure, and Stifter's mind generally, at least in his literary writings, is a mediocre mind." The creaking complaint almost echoed Prospero's lament, in an inverted sense,"And thence retire me to my Milan," Shakespeare wrote, "where / Every third thought shall be my grave." This last line formed the epigraph of Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, a lacerating lengthy monologue on sex and mortality. The same lashing voice, unflagging in intensity, characterized the comic novel Old Masters. But where Prospero consigned himself to resignation, Bernhard's tempest was only starting to brew. It was only the beginning of inspired verbal lashing. He was a cultured dragon spewing fire and brimstone and vituperation at the mediocrity and pettiness of writers and artists in Austria, represented by Adalbert Stifter, Heidegger, and the composer Bruckner.  He breathed fire and scorched everything in the path of his fire-breath.

In a novel of art criticism, raw and extreme, his call was as much for the rejection of anything hopeless and base—like Stifter's "unbearable provincial raised-finger kind of prose"—as for the celebration of excellence, for the "highest art". Even if that kind of art, Bernhard wrote, was a strange mix of utter sublimeness and revulsion.

Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously, he said. But we must make ourselves believe that there is high art and the highest art, he said, otherwise we should despair. Even though we know that all art ends in gaucherie and in ludicrousness and in the refuse of history, like everything else, we must, with downright self-assurance, believe in high and in the highest art, he said. We realize what it is, bungled, failed art, but we need not always hold this realization before us, because in that case we should inevitably perish, he said.

What lent authority to Bernhard's voice, what made his narrators convincing, was not so much his aesthetic pronouncements but his delivery, his style. His characters, Reger and Irrsigler and the narrator Atzbacher, were his stand-ins, refracted through a loop of successive narrative appropriation. This tendency for perfect attribution was demonstrated early on (p. 4):

The art historians only swamp the visitors with their twaddle, says Irrsigler, who has, over the years, appropriated verbatim many, if not all, of Reger's sentences. Irrsigler is Reger's mouthpiece, nearly everything that Irrsigler says has been said by Reger, for over thirty years Irrsigler has been saying what Reger has said. If I [Atzbacher] listen attentively I can hear Reger speak through Irrsigler. If we listen to the guides we only ever hear that art twaddle which gets on our nerves, the unbearable art twaddle of the art historians, says Irrsigler, because Reger says so frequently. All these paintings are magnificent, but not a single one is perfect, Irrsigler says after Reger. People only go to the museum because they have been told that a cultured person must go there, and not out of interest, people are not interested in art, at any rate ninety-nine per cent of humanity has no interest whatever in art, as Irrsigler says, quoting Reger word for word.... Reger hates Reni [the painter], therefore Irrsigler hates Reni too. Irrsigler has achieved a high degree of mastery in appropriating Reger's statements, indeed he now utters them almost perfectly in Reger's characteristic tone. [my underlining]

Irssigler was almost the alter-ego of Reger, and Atzbacher was proving himself to be the alter-ego of both Irrsigler and Reger, their willing mouthpiece. Atzabacher quoted them accurately and perfectly like a journalist. Did Atzbacher serve as the alter-ego of Bernhard too? This supposition was a trap for the reader. Whatever the case, the novelist and his characters were not self-styled aesthetes. They are stylists. Therein lay their authority and believability. It didn't matter whether the reader agreed with his (with Reger's) literary taste or not, with whether Stifter was a dumbass quack or not. What matters was the conviction with which he banged his literary gavel, his emphatic judgement, his didacticism and mad belaboring.

Old Masters was the last published volume of his so-called Trilogy of the Arts (1983-1985), an otherwise arbitrary grouping of successively published books that include The Loser and Woodcutters (or Cutting Timber). In this concluding volume, he at least arrived at the unity of the arts, at a hard-won consilience. And this brought him happiness.

I am a critical artist, he said, I have been a critical artist all my life. Even in childhood I was a critical artist, he said, the circumstances of my childhood made me a critical artist in an entirely natural way. I certainly regard myself as an artist, that is as a critical artist, and as a critical artist I am of course also creative, that is obvious, hence a performing and creative critical artist, he said. What is more, a creative and performing critical artist of The Times, he said. I certainly regard my brief reports for The Times as works of art, and I think that as the author of these works of art I am always in one person and simultaneously a painter and a musician and a writer. That is my greatest delight: to know that as the author of these works of art for The Times I am a painter and a musician and a writer in one, that is my greatest delight. I am not therefore, as the painters are, only a painter, and I am not, as the musicians are, only a musician, and I am not, as the writers are, only a writer, you must understand that I am a painter and a musician and a writer all in one. That is what I perceive to be the greatest happiness, he said, to be an artist in all the arts and yet reside in one of them. It is possible, he said, that the critical artist is the one who practises his own art in all the arts and is aware of it, utterly and totally aware of it. This awareness makes me happy. To that extent I have been happy for over thirty years, he said, even though by nature I am an unhappy person.

So much remains to be said about this relentless comedy, its protagonists and writer, a critical artist of "the times" who panned from one topic to the next. Reger was an extension of Bernhard for they were in sync temperamentally. Bernhard in his collected memoirs Gathering Evidence was as vocal and ceaseless and unforgiving and invigorating as Reger in Old Masters. Reger abhorred the small-minded and the provincial, the "twaddle" of authority (art historians), the "universal anti-intellectual meanness" in Austria, the brutal and corrupt and Catholic Austrian education system, the politics of (compromised) art.

The "old masters" had to be questioned, were not to be easily trusted. They represented a kind of stale idea and "twaddle" that must be interrogated time and again. The critic must not be beholden to old masters.

The old masters, as they have now been called for centuries, only stand up to superficial viewing; if we view them thoroughly they gradually become diminished, and when we have studied them really and truly, and that means as thoroughly as possible for as long as possible, they dissolve, they crumble for us, leaving only a flat taste, in fact most of the time a very bad taste, in our mouths. The greatest and most significant work of art ultimately weighs heavily on our heads, as a huge lump of baseness and lies, rather as an excessively large lump of meat might weigh on our stomachs. We are fascinated by a work of art and ultimately it is ridiculous.

If an artwork survived the scrutiny of truly discerning art critics, then it was safe for now. The artist, wherever in the afterlife, could heave a sigh of relief. The true works of art will withstand re-readings and re-viewings. But no work does, as all great works are fallible. Some texts fall out of taste and fall out of touch to the contemporary art world.

In the disillusionment we experience upon discovering that the greatness of the one we have venerated and loved is no greatness at all and never was such greatness, but only an imagined greatness and is in fact pettiness, and indeed baseness, we experience the merciless pangs of the deceived. We quite simply pay the price, Reger said, for having lent ourselves to blindly accepting an object, moreover for years and decades and possibly for a lifetime, and even to venerating and loving it, without time and again putting it to the test. If only, let us say, thirty or even twenty years ago, or fifteen years ago, I had put Stifter to the test I should have saved myself this late disappointment. Altogether we should never say this or that person is the thing, and will then remain the thing for all time, we should again and again put all artists to the test, because we keep developing our art scholarship and our artistic taste, that is unquestionable.

There lay the pragmatism of Bernhard's critical faculties. He recognized the value of ongoing criticism in deciphering the present and future value of art. There was a dynamic stock market of art appreciation. Works depreciate according to how they were defended and how they (helplessly) respond to the changing values and judgements of 2015 or say, 2045 or 2035 or 2030—30 or 20 or 15 years from now.

I'm only a third of the way through this novel and I can't help but write my own twaddle on it. Every third sentence of Old Masters is excruciatingly funny, every fourth is darkly refreshing, and every fifth leads to a trapdoor.

July 6, 2015

Tirante el Blanco

Tirante el Blanco: Ang Maputing Kabalyero by Joanot Martorell, translated into Filipino by Jeannifer Zabala and Isaac Donoso (Central Book Supply, Inc., 2010)

Something Cervantean-slash-Borgesian was detectable in the dedication page of Tirante el Blanco (1490), offered to Don Fernando of Portugal. Here I inverted the sense of literary influence—as in "Kafka and His Precursors" by Borges—with Joanot Martorell (c.1405-1465) creating his own precursors, through his posthumous novel, in Don Quixote and Pierre Menard. It turned out that Tirante el Blanco was a (fictional) translation.

Bilang pagkilala sa mga paglalakbay ni Tirante na nakasulat sa salitang Ingles, ang inyong kamahalan, na naghangad sa akin na ito'y isalin sa salitang Portuges, alinsunod na mula sa simula ay naglaan din ako ng panahon sa Ingland [sic] na higit kong nalalaman ang lengguwahe kaysa sa iba. Para sa akin, ang kagustuhan ng iyong kamahalan ang pinakamagandang kautusan. dahil bilang isang ginoo ako ay nararapat na maglaan para sa magigiting na gawa ng kabalyero lalong-lalo pa na ang gawang ito ay napakahaba at tumutukoy sa mga puwersa at mga gawain ng mga kabalyero.

... At nagtitiwala din ako sa iyong kamahalan na pagtiisan ang aking mga kamalian sa aking sanaysay, maging ito man ay istilo o sa kaayusan, na di sinasadyang lumabas o sa katotohanang dahil sa aking pagka-ignorante o kawalang kaalaman. Susubukan kong isalin ang kuwento ni Tirante, hindi lamang mula sa Ingles hanggang sa Portuges, ngunit mula Portuges hanggang sa salitang Valenciano upang ang sarili kong bansa ay magalak at kapulutan ng aral ang mga maraming magigiting na gawa na nilalaman ng aklat na ito. Ako'y humihiling sa kagitingan ng iyong kamahalan na tanggapin ang gawang ito na kaloob mula sa iyong mapagkakatiwalaang tagapaglingkod; kung mayroon man na mga pagkakamali o pagkukulang dito, makasisiguro kayo kamahalan, ang mga ito ay dahilan ng lengguwaheng Ingles, na ang mga sailita sa karamihang lugar ay impossibleng [sic] isalin pa ng mabuti. Sa kabutihan at patuloy na paghahangad na mapagsilbihan ang di-matatawarang pagkapanginoon, hindi ako magtatrabaho ng may kasunduan o maging interpretasyon man, upang sa iyong kagitingan, ang iyong kamahalan ay makakabahagi sa gawang ito lalo na rin ang iyong mga tagapaglingkod at iba pa. [trans. Jeannifer Zabala and Isaac Donoso]


Since the aforesaid tale was written in English, and Your Illustrious Highness has been pleased to beseech me to translate it into Portuguese, believing that as I spent some time in England, I must know the language of that isle better than others do—which request I consider a most acceptable order, for my chivalric vows oblige me to make known the valor of former knights, and even more so because the book's main theme is the code and order of chivalry ... [A]nd trusting that Your Highness will excuse any failings in style or presentation that may have entered this book through carelessness or ignorance, I shall dare to translate it not only from English into Portuguese but also from Portuguese into Valencian vernacular, that my native land may receive joy and instruction from the many worthy deeds recounted. Therefore, I pray Your Highness to accept the present work of his affectionate servant, for should it contain any faults, the blame lies with the English language, some words of which are impossible to translate. Be mindful of my affection and constant desire to serve you, and excuse my clumsy rendering of the various thoughts. Impart them to your servants and others, that they may extract the kernels of wisdom hidden therein, urging on their valor never to shrink from harsh deeds of arms but to champion noble causes, upholding the common good for which the knightly order was founded. [trans. David H. Rosenthal]

In the same manner that Don Quixote was presented as a translation (from Cide Hamete's Arabic into Castilian), so was Tirante a product of linguistic transfer (first from English to Portuguese, and then from Portuguese to Valencian). And it was just like the fictional author (Joanot Martorell the knight) to blame the original English language for any error that may be contained in his narrative.

Tirant lo Blanch was first published in Valencian (Catalan) language, the language being spoken in the province of Valencia. That this book existed in Filipino translation was almost an anomaly. Translators Jeannifer Zabala and Isaac Donoso explained in the introduction the affinity of this work with the Philippine literature during Spanish colonial period, particularly in its thematic links with texts like Florante at Laura by Francisco Balagtas (1788-1862). In 1511, the first Spanish translation of Tirant was produced by Vicent Escartí. An English version was made in 1984 by David H. Rosenthal, and a supposedly more complete translation by Ray La Fontaine appeared in 1993.

Part of the literary value and prestige accorded to Tirante could be traced to an oft-quoted short passage from Don Quixote I, Chapter VI. This was the scene where a copy of the Tirante book was almost fed to the fire during the great book purging of the knight errant's library. If it were not for the priest recognizing the title ...

"God bless me!" said the curate with a shout, "'Tirante el Blanco' here! Hand it over, gossip, for in it I reckon I have found a treasury of enjoyment and a mine of recreation. ... [I]n truth, gossip, by right of its style it is the best book in the world. Here knights eat and sleep, and die in their beds, and make their wills before dying, and a great deal more of which there is nothing in all the other books. Nevertheless, I say he who wrote it, for deliberately composing such fooleries, deserves to be sent to the galleys for life. Take it home with you and read it, and you will see that what I have said is true." [trans. John Ormsby]

"The best book in the world", Tirante el Blanco could very well be in the eyes of a well read priest. Yet this book contained such "fooleries" that Joanot Martorell well deserved to be incarcerated for writing this realistic account of knights eating and sleeping, and dying in their beds, and drafting their last wills and testaments prior to dying. Do we trust enough of a character's (much more so that of a priest's) outburst to believe the author's (Cervantes's) literary judgement of the book? Do we sense sarcasm and double talk in the priest's arguments with the barber? Whatever. Tirante's influence on the quixotic brand of chivalry was enough to ascribe importance to the value of the book.

Running for 972 pages, it was not light reading. With the incessant battles, pageantry, adventures, and violence in it, it truly live up to its reputation as an authentic chivalry romance. Themes of the honor and sanctity of knighthood and military service, the defense of Christian faith at all costs, the villains represented by the Moors, the awe accorded to the monarchy, slapdash of patriarchy. There was a manual here: a code for knights in honor, from a thousand pages of chivalry and cavalry and knighthood occupation being extolled and elevated to the highest pantheon and with knighthood being almost equated with sainthood and priesthood, the highest sacrifice. It was now understandable how the old man Quixote was driven to the brink of wayward knighthood.

The book was divided into seven parts. The first part detailed the colorful life of a count, Guillem de Veroych (William of Warwick), who was a veteran knight prior to becoming a hermit—the horseman becoming a veritable saint. Near the end of this first part, we finally encountered the titular character, who actually derived his name from his father's dominion (Tirania, fronting England) and his mother's name (Blanca).

What made this particular translation an anomaly, or a flawed one, was the preponderance of spelling errors, mistranslations, punctuation errors, grammatical slips, and other mistakes. Each page contained no less than five errors, which was surprising given that the book was supposedly vetted by language experts. The prefatory pages contained endorsements from Komisyon sa Wilang Filipino and The National Society of Filipino Translators.

These errors made the entire publication sloppy. I detected errors prevalent in software with auto-correct function. For example, the word dito (here) replaced by ditto. There was also the repetitive mistake in the use of  ng versus nang.

Fortunately, I still understood the general story being told. From what I have read so far in the book—some 100 pages—Tirante was a revealing work from the 15th century that could still inform the art of the novel and the critical appreciation of the Cervantean and chivalric romances. In its own right this translation was already an accomplishment, but it could have been more. I could only hope that there would be a second edition with all the errors cleaned out by a competent proofreader and the translation thoroughly reviewed by an editor for consistency to the original.

For this year's Spanish Literature Month, by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu (Winstonsdad's Blog).

July 1, 2015

Tiger of Ajanta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 29, 2015

Reading list: Best 20th century Philippine novels in English

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

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

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

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

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

Best 20th c. Filipino novels in English

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

Ryan's favorite books »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. State of War (1988) by Ninotchka Rosca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Renegade or Halo² (1999) by Timothy Mo

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

10. Empire of Memory (1992) by Eric Gamalinda

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