Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

September 17, 2014

What Passes for Answers

What Passes for Answers by Mikael de Lara Co (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2013)

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. So careful it is that it never trips even if abstract concepts are animated into being.

The young poet, Mikael de Lara Co (b. 1983), has already arrived. His first collection is an instant collectible. The lines register a vision of kindness and humble reflection and yet the feelings evoked are palpable, heartfelt. The main thread of his discourse centers on silence and its variations. The title poem – or poems, there are four of them – already hints at plural approaches to understanding the mystery of existence. A question is asked in each of the title poems' first line: "What is true?"; "Where will this path lead?"; "Whom should we believe?"; "What disturbs the trees?" The answers are more hesitant questions. Nature is revealed as the bearer of answers; the seeker only needs to commune with her. The last lines of each of these title poems may provide an answer. The declarative nudges at the interrogative mood:

To dig for roots and breathe along
to the crackle of wood
as the water lies waiting.


What passes for radiance
in this shadowbound space
is the sound of a river
singing not far from here.


I would like to speak to you now
in rustles and twig-snaps.
Please hum with me.
Let us forget the way
out of this forest.


The berries keep me full,
and I have taken nothing from the forest.
My clothes dampen from sweat and dew.
Two birds flit past, answering
each other's caws.
My heart quickens. I am warm.

What passes for answers is the warmth and generosity of people. The selfless offering, the gift giving. A poet's recognition of the saving power of listening.

... If only [the walls] had fists
they would know how a hand
is defined by its unclenching.
By opening. Some day listening
will save the world.
What music is is five fingers
pointing outward. A palm
facing skyward. Asking
for nothing. Receiving.


Listening (to a choir singing, to someone) saves the world, if only because in the serenity of listening we can recognize another generous point of view. This poem reminds me of Edith L. Tiempo's dual image of open hands offering and receiving.

True that life is given,
And received. But truer still:
The single-act of giving
Makes the offerer the beggar, too –

For when down on the knees
The man (or god) stretches the arms
In giving,
It is no accident the hands
Are curled like bowls or cups,
For he offers self, yet
Begs it back again,

[from "Guru Puja: The Offering" by Edith L. Tiempo]

"Now I desire no more from poetry than silence," the poet declares in a prose poem, humbly requesting its (future) reader not to consider his book as a work of poetry: "These are just lines. This is just a gift, not even wrapped, its silence the only thing of value to anyone."

What passes for answers is silence. Perhaps the silence of a night, so deep one can hear the soft stirrings of sleeping living things. It is a type of silence that allows sufficient space for rumination of pregnant meanings.

Metapoetry is another manifest element in this collection. The self-questioning metapoet is already building an aesthetic position that will inevitably measure his future outputs. In "The Doomed", the poet acknowledges the difficulty of writing beautiful lines when the subject of the poem is terrorism.

One word for lily is enough;
there is enough beauty in flowers.
I want to find beauty in suffering.
I want to fail.

Even if, as the poet writes, "The task of poetry / is to never run out of words", in the face of terrorist attacks the poet asserts that it is his ethical obligation not to find appropriate synonyms and for his poetry not to be beautiful. It is a reflexive contradiction and yet a compassionate position. The poet's success lies in his failure to be poetic.

A kind of poetry
that does not need poetry
to speak it ...


What passes for answers is a grasping for words. In "Pith", the open fruit with its pith of seeds is the essence of poetry itself. The poem is so short and yet the main idea is already compressed in it. The last lines read:

What other truth is there
than this broken fruit?
Its seeds peek from inside
a fist of pulp. Once
I had a word for this.
It is not lost. Look.

One need only look. One looks back at the title ("Pith") to recognize the word. But this is not only looking at a title or a fruit visually. One looks inside, at the essence of a thing.

One way of discovering the pith of things is to give them a right to exist and an opportunity to express their innermost thoughts. Two poems in the collection have this unique approach of personification. In "Archipelago", "the horizon, lover of light" and "priestesses rummaging through their rucksacks" – two entities introduced early in the poem – are suddenly privileged to communicate with each other. In "Pastoral", the inanimate "mossless cheek of a boulder" and "knife" suddenly engage in a conversation.

Too much shade
stunts the saplings.

Do we wait for the trees
to fell themselves?

Upon this brittle pile of leaves.
Upon this fading patch of light.

See me poised to gut you.
See my [serrations], blessed by time.

Examine the canopy.
Brother, who called us here?


From which technique we can glean a direct confrontation with ordinary things often neglected in life. Much like Pablo Neruda's odes to common things, the poet here celebrates common nouns to find their proper place in the world. He awards them the right to self-determination in a universe continually challenged by disequilibrium such as deforestation, the felling of trees. In this collection, the balance of nature depends on every component part of the natural and built environments, an all-inclusive eco-poetic worldview.

I am glad to finally read a full length poetry collection from Mikael Co. I have only read his four poems appearing in Crowns and Oranges: Works by Young Philippine Poets (2009). His first poem in that anthology already signals his affinity for certain thematic areas described above. The first stanza already announces brooding silence:

We begin with a house.
The spaces we inhabit
or used to inhabit. The silences.

["A House"]

There is the turn into metapoetry: "But this is not a poem about return / ... / This is a poem / about a house." There is the appeal to the pith-essence of a poem about a house: "See / the pith of an orange sits hardened, // orphaned on the kitchen counter."

For his poetry, Mikael Co has already received three grand prizes in the Palanca. As a translator, he has equally built an impressive résumé. He has translations of a section of poems in Shockbox: Ang Butas na Kahon ni Kulas Talon: The Complete Posthumous Poetry (2013) by Kulas Talon [Khavn De La Cruz] and couple of contributions in Under the Storm: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry (2011). His co-translation of the novel Eight Muses of the Fall (2013) by Edgar Calabia Samar is a finalist in the 2014 (Philippine) National Book Awards, where this book is also in contention in the category of best poetry book in English. One other finalist – To the Evening Star by Simeon Dumdum Jr. – I read last year. It is a strong bet. The other finalists – Luisa A. Igloria, Ricardo M. de Ungria, and Allan Popa – are seasoned Filipino poets. It is a tight race; it is a particularly strong field of poets. What Passes for Answers is in fine company, and they are in his.

September 8, 2014


Conversations by César Aira, tr. Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2014)

The theory of error states that no measurement is ever exact. From which it can also be deduced that (1) every measurement yields errors, (2) true measurements are never known, and (3) the exact size of errors present is also never known. In the case of fiction, César Aira has his own theory of errors, but instead of measurements it is applied to memories. His protagonist in Conversations, the latest novella from him in English, asserts that his memory is always perfect. At night, during his "nocturnal recollections", he can reproduce all conversations he had had in the morning. He claims he can produce through "rigorous step-by-step memory" every exchange he had with his friends, down to the smallest details, including the nuances in the inflection and tone of voice, the facial expressions of his conversation partner. He leisurely remembers at night what happened exactly in his morning conversations.

Here we almost have the same mechanism of remembrance as Don Juan in Peter Handke's novel of the same name, Don Juan: His Own Version. In the case of Handke the titular protagonist talks to someone about his past one day at a time through remembrance of what happened on a particular day exactly a week before. Eventually Don Juan realizes that there are details in the scene he was remembering that he only ever recognized right now as he is remembering it.

In Aira, as with Handke, remembrance of things past becomes an enriching experience by virtue of repetition. The morning conversations are intensified by "nocturnal representation".

Memory allows me to go more deeply into ideas that pass by too quickly in the course of reality. I can stop wherever I want and contemplate a thought or its expression, analyze the mechanisms that articulate it, discover a defect in an argument, make a correction, retrace certain steps. I look at these conversations, which have become miniaturizations, through a magnifying glass, and my sleepless contemplations render them as beautiful and flawless as jewels. Their very disorder, redundancies, and lack of purpose are swathed in an artistic iridescent sheen because of and thanks to repetition.

While tracing his perfect memory of a particular conversation with a friend about a blockbuster film, the narrator betrays his intellectual pretensions by his constant allusions to the quality of the conversations over coffee he had with his friends, the philosophical flavor of the topics, and a general cultural elitism that makes his reliable narration a bit comical. The way he namedrops Hegel, Plato, and Nietzsche in a matter of fact way while expressing support for blockbuster movies and blasting "cultural" programs on TV – in a manner that seems to say that he is always open to popular fare ("I've always distrusted those intellectuals who have never heard of the Rolling Stone.") is kind of funny.

A crack in the narrator's nocturnal duplication of morning's events starts to appear while he was recalling his long debate with a friend about the problem of verisimilitude in one film's scene. He questions the presence of a Rolex on the wrist of a poor desert goatherd, a character played by a famous actor. Surely that was unrealistic? The conversations that follow become a launching pad for Aira's thoughts on the nature of fiction and reality.

While I was reconstructing the conversation (and there, also, I was implacable in not skipping a single word, and I might have even added a few), I realized that the "actor" was already the "character" in a certain sense: not the character that he would soon embody during the shooting of the movie, but the character of the story that I, marginally and for the rhetorical imperatives of the demonstration, was recounting. [emphasis supplied]

Some few words start to slip in. The narrator begins to discover that his memory of the conversation about an actor playing a (fictional) character in a movie also makes the actor a character, this time in his reconstructed story that gradually he acknowledges as becoming less and less objective (i.e., more fictional).

What complicates the conversation is that the narrator and his friend have not actually seen in full the movie they are talking about, being distracted from time to time by various activities like answering the phone and going to the bathroom. The perfect nocturnal representation of a conversation about a half-seen movie starts to disintegrate into unknown territory when the layers of stories within the movie itself become apparent. How much more meta can a meta be?

The narrator's recollection and reflection are distracted by several thoughts about what he is recollecting and reflecting about. The distractions impair the pace of his memory such that the rigorous, hundred percent recollection starts to founder, "So to catch up I had to sum things up and take a leap forward".

The act of "summarizing" a bit of the conversation already introduces a wrinkle in the nocturnal telling. Is he already fictionalizing what happened in the past? Is he violating his conjecture on the ability of memory to perfectly duplicate reality? What does it say about the "fragmentary nature of one's perception" of reality? Is memory, which is "a reality of experience" and also an experience of reality, also fragmented? The narrator asked it tentatively in two ways: (1) "We were in the realm of fiction, right?" and (2) "To ride on a dehydrated goat through the star-studded sky, wasn't that fiction?"

In the end, the narrator faces up to the theory of error as applied to fiction and memory. He violates the very rule he introduces in the beginning. In Your Face Tomorrow, it takes Javier Marías's verbose protagonist all of three volumes of dense brick prose to reverse his admonition to contain all careless talk and keep secrets from anyone forever by admitting that "there comes a point when one has to tell things, after a lot of time has passed, so that it doesn't seem as if they simply never happened or were just a bad dream ... "

In a much shorter span of time, Aira's reminiscing narrator changes position about the perfect co-incidence of memory in the "real" and "fictional" levels. He finally confesses that everything remembered may, after all, be fiction. He is a fearless practitioner of fiction.

Whatever was improvised and stuttered and stammered, sometimes without proper syntax when we got carried away in the excitement of the discussion, I then polished and smoothed out and varnished during my nocturnal repetition.


When I go over conversations at night, alone, I turn into the artist or the philosopher who works his material at his will, like the director of a movie who does what he wants to or can do with the script. I, like all of them, have to face the superior unity of collective creation.

In Katherine Silver's winning translation, Aira's miniaturized philosophical meditation on the nature of fiction, perception, and reality somehow codifies or integrates together his preoccupations in his other books. It is a unified theory of fictional memory that he brings afresh here and that subsumes his general ideas on the continuum, improvisation, spontaneity, and (dare I say) world domination.

Also for the Doom at Caravana de recuerdos.

September 7, 2014

Kasal sa Dugo

Kasal sa Dugo [Bodas de sangre] by Federico García Lorca, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2007)

Dumating na naman ang oras ng dugo.

(The time for bloodletting has arrived once more.) 

Violence foregrounds Federico García Lorca's tragic play about a blood wedding. The image of blood is even there in the lullaby that puts a baby to sleep. The bride and groom-to-be are in many ways a perfect match. The young man is rich, strong, and extremely handsome. His intended woman is fair, beautiful, and timid. Class distinction can even be ignored in favor of making a family of strong children. But the riches of the landed man, his extensive vineyards, may stand in the way of a conjugal relationship, may disturb the equilibrium of love, as they sometimes do. Moreover, the unresolved issues of the couple's pasts are a yoke on their backs. The woman cannot forget Leonardo, her first love, who is now a married man but still crazy for her. Leonardo stalks her outside her house. When he gets the chance to talk to her, their conversations are often pregnant with lust and longing for their youthful affair.

Bakit ka naparito?

Para makita ang iyong kasal.

Ako rin, nakita ko ang kasal mo!

Nakagapos sa iyo, ginapos ng mismong mga kamay mo. Maaari nila akong patayin, pero hindi ako papayag ng ako'y duraan. Ang pilak, na sobrang makinang, kung minsa'y nandudura.


Ayokong magsalita, dahil madaling mag-init ang dugo ko, at ayokong marinig ng mga bundok sa paligid ang mga boses na gustong kumawala sa aking bibig.

Mas malakas ang boses na aking pinatahimik. 


Why are you here?

To witness your wedding.

Me, too. I was present during your wedding!

I'm bound to you, bound by your very hands. They can kill me, but I will not let them spit on me. The silver whose shimmer is extremely blinding can sometimes spit on one's face.


I don't want to speak, because it makes my blood boil, and I don't want the mountains around us to hear the voice inside me that desperately wants to escape my mouth.

The voice I repressed within me has a louder sound.]

Bound by personal and societal standards of morality, the illicit lovers cannot openly express the raging passions inside them. But the blood is hot not only with desire but with hate. There is a blood feud between the families of Leonardo and the groom. Leonardo belongs to a family of men who killed the groom's father and brother, crimes that the groom's vengeful mother will not forgive and forget. The mother's wronged past is crying out for blood. Even the upcoming wedding cannot quell her thirst for revenge.

Federico García Lorca thus prefigures the inevitable violence that haunts the play's unraveling. Its direct reference to the doomed affair of one Romeo and one Juliet assures us that the fatal ending is ordained for the major players. It is only a matter of knowing the manner and circumstances of death. Leonardo plans to pursue the affair regardless of the wedding. A woman's dignity is on the line.

Ang manahimik habang natutupok sa pagnanasa, iyan ang pinakamalupit na parusang puwedeng ipataw natin sa ating sarili. Ano ang kabutihang naidulot sa akin ng aking dangal, nang di ko pagtingin sa iyo, ng pag-iwan sa iyong hindi nakakatulog gabi-gabi? Wala kahit ano! Wala kundi ang pag-alabin ako! Akala mo ba, hinihilom ng panahon ang bawat sugat? Natatakpan ng mga dinding ang paghihirap ng loob? Hindi iyan totoo, hindi totoo! Kapag tumagos na sa ating kaloob-looban ang lahat-lahat, wala sinumang makababaklas sa kanila!
(Nanginginig.) Hindi ko kayang makinig sa iyo. Hindi ko kayang makinig sa boses mo. Para akong nilasing ng samboteng anis at nakatulog na balot ng kumot na mga rosas. Kinakaladkad ako ng boses mo, at alam kong malulunod ako, pero napadadala pa rin ako.
To remain silent while being razed by lust, that is the worst punishment we can impose on ourselves. What good does my dignity offer me, my denial of your existence, my leaving you unable to sleep every night? It offers not a thing! Nothing but to stoke my feelings! Do you think time heals each deep wound? Do you think the walls can hide one's suffering? Not true, not true at all! When everything pierces us in our deepest being, no one can pry out the spear!

(Shivering.) I cannot listen to you. I cannot listen to your voice. It is as if I get drunk by a bottle of anise and fall asleep covered by a blanket of roses. I am being dragged away by the timbre of your voice. I know I'll drown, but I am still carried away.]

The verisimilitude of Lorca's drama relies on the macho society which conditions the violent actions and reactions of the characters. Even the female figure of the groom's mother condones naked violence and the ascendancy of a husband over his wife if only to affirm the patriarchal family traditions and arrangements.

The "blood" in the title [Spanish sangre; Tagalog dugo] is an inherent stain passed down from one generation to the next. It is violent, intolerant human nature that is transferred, because this human nature to injure and to do harm is bred in every macho generation. The mother attributes Leonardo's "unwell" (sick or bad) blood [Ang dugo niya'y hindi magaling.] to the blood that runs in his murderous family.

Anong magaling na dugo ang maaasahan sa kanya? Dugo ng buong pamilya niya. Galing sa kanyang kanunu-nunuan, na siyang nagsimula sa pagpatay, dumaloy sa ugat ng buktot na lahi, mga taong sanay magwasiwas ng kutsilyo, mga taong pakunwari ang ngiti.

[What good blood can we expect from him? The blood of his family. Inherited from his forefathers, the ones who started the killings, it flowed to the veins of a perverted race, people who are skilled in brandishing knives, people who smile falsely.]

There is strength in the Filipino translator Bienvenido Lumbera's choice of words, which I hope have captured and retained in my L2 translations of selected passages above. The somewhat quaint vocabulary and diction of a few passages add to the flavor of ancient and timeless conflict of human capacity for violence. The way in which the characters give full currency to upholding one's dignity and justifying killings to be able to do so, reminds me of Gabriel García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Lorca's play and García Márquez's novella in fact share the same theme and the same conflict operating in the same conservative society.

The unique style of Lorca's play offers another kind of marriage: the marriage of realism and symbolism. This is achieved through expressionist prose and the insertion of "symbolic characters" of the moon, Death (in the guise of a beggar), and the woodcutters. Their unrealistic presence heightens the realism of the blood feud and the transgression of a married woman's honor. It creates a space in which to comment on the proceedings and tragic aftermath of the wedding.

As he explains in the introduction, Lumbera (b. 1932) began to consult Graham-Luján's English version of the play for his translation. He was, however, not satisfied with how the translated dialogues sounded and flowed and how the songs and poetry interspersed in the play appeared in translation ("Hindi ako nasiyahan sa tunog at daloy ng dialogo at ng mga awit at tula sa wikang Ingles"). He eventually decided to translate directly from the original Spanish. Even so, some Tagalog lines of the songs in the play sounded rather awkward to me. (Perhaps they are the same in Spanish, or perhaps they are rendered literally. Lumbera's prose dialogues registered well than the poetry whose short lines weaken the Tagalog's density and linguistic register. Tagalog words are usually longer in length (with a larger number of letters) than English ones. If expressed in clipped Tagalog lines, the seriousness of the songs and poetry can derail the momentum of the play.)

Kasal sa Dugo is part of Ateneo de Manila University Press's Entablado Klasiko series. There are four plays in the series, all translations into Filipino by Lumbera. The other plays are Julio Cesar by William Shakespeare, Kaaway [Enemy] by Maxim Gorky, and Retrato ng Artista Bilang Filipino [A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino] by Nick Joaquín. Lumbera, a literary critic and scholar, started translating in the 1960s when he was a student of comparative literature in Indiana University. Other works he translated include poems by T. S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda.

September 5, 2014

The cart, the folding bed, the stegosaurus

Shantytown by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2013)

Maxi, the muscular and boyish protagonist of CésarAira's La villa, was a volunteer loader of junk and trash in a suburban village in Buenos Aires, in a section of the city right beside the curving rows of shanties whose lights at night lit up like unblinking fireflies. He became a regular, reliable help to the trash collectors, all of whom were dwellers in the shanties. Maxi's selfless assistance earned him the trust of the mobile community. Garbage and trash picking was perhaps a fitting backdrop in a novel whose components and small pieces were collected and assembled into a novel form which attained solidity and function despite the pliant materials. The ingeniousness of the garbage collectors in creating something useful out of trash was evident in the way they fashioned found objects into functional art; for instance, the trash cart itself.

Every new cart he pulled was different. But in spite of this variety, all of them were suited to the common purpose of transporting loads as quickly as possible. Carts like that could not be bought, or found in the junk that people threw away. The collectors built them, probably from junk, but the bits and pieces that went into them came from all sorts of things, some of which were nothing like a cart. Maxi was hardly one to consider things from an aesthetic point of view, least of all these carts; but as it happened he was able to appreciate them more intimately than any observer because he was using them. More than that: he was yoked to them. He had noticed how they were all different, in height, capacity, length, width, depth, wheel size ... in every way, really. Some were made with planks, sticks, or pipes, others with wire mesh or canvas or even cardboard. The wheels were from a great variety of vehicles: bicycles, motorcycles, tricycles, baby carriages, even cars. Naturally, no two carts looked the same, each had its own particular beauty, its value as folk art. This was not an entirely new phenomenon. The historians of Buenos Aires had traced the evolution of the city's carts and their decoration: the ingenious inscriptions and decorative painting (the renowned fileteado). But now it was different. This was the nineteen nineties and things had changed. These carts didn't have inscriptions or painting or anything like that. They were purely functional, and since they were built from assembled odds and ends, their beauty was, in a sense, automatic or objective, and therefore very modern, too modern for any historian to bother with.

Each individual cart was unique in itself, functional, and artistic. The fastidious construction of a cart might be another self-referential nod to Aira's own artistic program (or lack of it). The final output was determined by literary discovery, by an improvisation. Building sturdy carts out of ordinary, available materials was an engineering project determined by just the basic literary requirements of form and structure. A parallel example was later made with the building of a folding bed, which eventually played a critical role in a critical juncture in the story – the opportunity when the garbage collectors could finally repay their debt to Maxi's unsolicited yet welcome help in carrying and hauling their trash for them. The bed was custom-built for Maxi – customized and reinforced to withstand his extra-large size, to fit into a small space (as in the space within a fileteado), and to be handy and portable enough to be transferred from place to place at short notice.

It was a sort of camp bed, made of coarse elastic fabric stretched over an aluminum frame, with four sets of hydraulic hinges. It had solid metal detachable feet, two feet high, arranged in three rows, one at either end and one in the middle. The shanty dwellers made a folding bed because it would have taken up too much space otherwise, and naturally they didn't want anyone but Maxi to use it. Plus it was easier to hide. ... They also carried out simulations every so often, to be sure that when the moment came they could unfold the bed and make it up in a few seconds.

Between the cart and the bed was the story of a policeman pursued by a female judge while he was trying to bust a suspected drug ring. The policeman was also spying on two girls – Maxi's sister and her friend  – who were eavesdropping on Maxi. Shantytown was a cat and mouse novel, obeying Aira's fictional model (or lack of it). His were novels of pursuit. The one who pursues was in turn being hunted by another pursuer. In The Hare, the title animal was pursued by a scientist, while Indians were searching for their chief who went missing, and somebody else was tailing someone else. In Ghosts, a young woman was being pursued by male nudist ghosts. In The Seamstress and the Wind, a child, a seamstress, the bridal gown the seamstress worked on, the bride, and a talking wind were all somehow mixed up in a Patagonian pursuit.

Perhaps the novel of pursuit was the ideal fictional template with which Aira could manifest his instinctive storytelling. The outcome of a racing contest, like any contest, was unpredictable, open to any possibility, to any inconceivable cannonball run. In How Became a Nun, a young child named César suddenly became aware of a stalker following him. He fell victim to the whims of storytelling. So was Carlos Fuentes who was the target of a mad scientist who was planning to clone the novelist.

This appeal to a dynamic plot was driven by improvisation. The weird turns in the story were "dictated" by an organizing principle we can call improvised realism, a term both tautological and oxymoronic. Improvised realism was the construction of fictional reality on the spot. The novelist gambled everything though he was not after the prize.

Results were secondary. The masterpiece came first. In the end, after all the time he'd spent thinking about it (or not: it came to the same thing), the operation had performed itself; he'd barely had to intervene. After all that thinking and promising not to let what he did be governed by impulse or circumstances, it had been an improvisation on the spur of the moment. That's why it had been easy; that's why it had seemed to happen all by itself.

The about face parenthetical aside – "or not: it came to the same thing" – was characteristic of someone pulling one's leg. The third person storyteller of Shantytown was prone to these asides ("Vanessa saw her turn slowly, like a sleepwalker (or was it an effect of the distance?) and look all around"). The teller was sketchy on many details; memory's demand was the least of his concerns. Uncertainty and unreliability were the fate of works of improvised realism. What differentiates it from magic realism was its ability to conveniently forget. Steve Dolph, a translator of Argentinean novelist Juan José Saer, described in an interview how uncertainty was subsumed within Saer's prose style and how this style differed from that of a Boom author like Gabriel García Márquez.

On the formal level, the narration in many of [Saer's] novels, especially after Glosa, is hesitant, unsure. There’s quite a bit of direct questioning and a sort of vulnerability in the way it reaches out to the reader for support. All of which creates these long, intricate thoughts that build up, clause after clause, to form a dense cloud of uncertainty. In that syntactic fog, without a clear focus to the sentence, or the paragraph, the reader doesn’t quite know which way to turn. Within all of this, one of the central themes of Saer’s novels is the fragility of memory, how fraught our effort to reconstruct the past becomes when narration, whether through text or images, is the means we use. This sense of what memory is and how it does or doesn’t function effectively to portion out our identity is starkly different from what you find in a writer like Márquez. So as to avoid getting too wonky in the analysis, just look at the central characters in their novels and note the difference in the way they remember things: Márquez’s characters tend to have incredible memories. Not so much in Saer, or at least there’s often a strong force that undermines their efforts to remember.

Even Márquez’s own positioning as an author, from the monumental autobiography that effectively concluded his career, to the often-repeated quote that he’d gathered all of the material for his novels by the time he was eight, from his grandparents, overhead gossip, urban legends, and so on, all of which suggests that his entire oeuvre is one immense act of remembering. (Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious” is the perfect parody of this authorial position.) It’s possible that his popularity in the U.S. owes something to an analogous sense of fiction in the ’60 and ’70s, which wholeheartedly valued this strong, romantic concept of the value and reliability of individual memory. 

The "syntactic fog" was a kind of improvisational image, the very fog that was lifted in the fictional worlds of García Márquez. The foggy memory of improvised realism was a clean break from the magical clarity and the perfect memory in García Márquez. (Even the latter's journalism was hyper-realistic as in The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Clandestine in Chile. Their narratives relied on 100% memory: the verbatim transcription of a subject's words.)

The black hole of perfect memory had the tendency to devour fiction. Aira's hyper-plot, even at the level of a sentence, managed to escape the gravity of the situation.

A massive wind had risen, blowing in all directions, chaotically. The plants in the little gardens were thrashing about madly, throwing off leaves and buds like a frenzied gambler throwing dice.


She saw him as a bloodthirsty stegosaurus hoisting his rocky neck from a lake of oil, on the night of the end of the world.

Uncertainty is a byproduct of improvisation. To be perfectly certain is to throw realism to the mad wind. When it closes the room for interpreting or questioning reality, hyper-realism disables realism. And perhaps humor.


For The 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom by Caravana de recuerdos.

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.



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.