January 30, 2011

Mondo Marcos: Mga Panulat sa Batas Militar at ng Marcos Babies
















Ang "Marcos babies" ay tumutukoy sa henerasyon ng mga Pilipinong isinilang o namulat sa matagal na panahon ng panunungkulan ng diktador na si Ferdinand Marcos. Ang Mondo Marcos ay kalipunan ng mga sulatin (maikling kuwento, sanaysay, tula) patungkol sa pamumuhay sa ilalim ng nasabing diktadurya. Kung ang pagbabalik-tanaw ang isa sa pinakamabisang paraan para mapasakamay ang pagkaunawa sa kasaysayan, ang aklat na ito ay matagal nang hinihintay ng mga mambabasa. Maaring hindi pa nila nalaman ang pagkakalimbag nito, pero sa sandaling mabuklat ang mga pahina nito ay posible kayang maging mitsa ng pag-alala sa nakaraan at pagproseso ng kritikal na pangkaisipan? Ang mga sulatin ba na nalikom ng mga editor na sina Frank Cimatu at Rolando B. Tolentino ay pwedeng magsilbing giya sa pagtahak sa kinabukasan ng sambayanan? Bagamat ito ay walang kaseguruhan, at ang leksiyon ay hindi pa rin natututunan, ang naisulat ay nagpapamalas na hindi kailanman nawawala sa malikot na imahinasyon ng mga kwentista ang mga kuwentong nag-aatubiling mailahad. Sariwa pa rin ang mga sugat na nagpapaalaala ng pagwawalang-bahala, ng paglapastangan, sa karapatang pantao ng di-mabilang na mga mamamayang Pilipino sa ilalim ng pamumuno ni Marcos. Ang mga kwento dito ay naratib ng pagpapatalsik at pagkalugami, ng krimen at salamisim. Maging ito man ay direktang karanasan ng manunulat o sulating piksiyonal, ang mundong muling binuhay sa antolohiyang ito ay isang mundong hindi naghahangad na pag-isahin ang karanasan pangkolektib. Bagkus, ang mga sulatin ay nagpapamalas ng mundo ni Marcos bilang isang pagsikil at isang pagkakataon. Pagsikil sa maraming uri ng kalayaan at pagkakataon para sa maraming paraan ng aktibismo. Sa limang istorya sa aklat, namumukod-tangi ang unang kuwento, "Kulto ni Santiago" ni Kristian S. Cordero, dahil sa matalinghaga nitong paglalarawan sa karahasan bilang isang hungkag na pamana, isang karapatang mana, nilinang ng sekswal na pagkamulat habang pumapasok sa buktot at walang katapusang pag-inog. Sa kabuuan, masasabing higit na interesante ang mga sanaysay kaysa sa mga maikling kwento, marahil dahil ang buhay na saksi sa mga kalupitan at pagmamalabis ay di kailangang magtago sa gawa-gawa lamang para marekord ang katotohanan. Ang "Redefinisyon" ni Janet Tauro-Batuigas at "Tanghalan sa Lansangan" ni Joi Barrios-Leblanc ay parehong magaling na naitala ang mga personal na prinsipyo at masidhing pag-asa sa darating pang mga araw. Kapansin-pansin din ang seleksiyon ng mga prosang tula. Nakadaragdag sila sa ginamit na malayang usapan. Na tila baga ang tuluyang pagdepende sa nakagawiang putol na mga linya at pira-pirasong imahe ay di talaga uubra sa pinapaksa. Sa epilog ng aklat, si Rolando B. Tolentino ay nagbalangkas ng teorya para sa buong koleksiyon. Ito'y tila pinaghalo-halo lamang na mga konsepto at kalituhan. Ang kanyang pagkabigong magpakita ng isang maliwanag at kapani-paniwalang dokumento ukol sa relasyon ng etika at korupsiyon sa ating lipunan ay marahil pruweba na ang karanasan sa ilalim ng mapaniil na estado ay hindi pa na-internalisa ng ating kamalayan. Kailangan pa nating masusing intindihin ang ating kultural at pulitikal na tugon sa hamon ng kasaysayan. Ang mga sulating gaya ng Mondo Marcos ay nandito lamang para ipabatid na ang kalamidad na dinulot ni Marcos ay mananatili sa ating buhay sa matagal pang panahon. Bumalik na sa kapangyarihan ang mga Marcos habang ang ating bayan ay nahihimbing pa rin. Di pa tapos ang kuwento. Patuloy pa rin nating isinasapelikula ang karugtong na matino.


* * *


"Marcos babies" refer to the generation of Filipinos who were born or came of age during the long regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Mondo Marcos is an anthology of writings (short stories, essays, poems) about life under that dictatorship. If recollection is one of the most effective ways of comprehending history, this book has been long awaited by its audience. Maybe most people have not yet been apprised of the book's existence, but the moment a page of it has been turned, one wonders if it can serve as a reminder of the past and as an impetus for critical thinking. Can the writings collated by the editors Frank Cimatu and Rolando B. Tolentino be used as a guide in charting the future of our people? While this is uncertain, and the lessons up to now are never learned, what is written will show that it is impossible to hide from the storytellers' creative imagination the stories that are begging to be told. Still fresh are the wounds that speak of the disregard, the violation, of human rights of innumerable Filipino citizens during Marcos's administration. They are narratives of displacement and despair, nostalgia and crimes. Be they first hand experiences or fictional ones, the narratives in Mondo Marcos are works that do not attempt to unify a collective experience. Rather, they individualize the world of Marcos as a prison and as an opportunity. A prison for many forms of freedom and an opportunity for many forms of activism. Of the five stories in the book, the most notable is the first one, "Kulto ni Santiago" (The Cult of Santiago") by Kristian S. Cordero, for its metaphorical representation of violence as perverse inheritance, as birthright, cultivated by sexual awakening as it enters the vicious cycle. Overall, the essays in the anthology are far more interesting than the stories, perhaps because a live witness to brutalities and injustices does not need artifice to record truth. Janet Tauro-Batuigas's "Redefinisyon" and Joi Barrios-Leblanc's "Tanghalan sa Lansangan" ("Street Theater") are both exemplary in their personal convictions and their fervent hopes for better days ahead. It is also interesting to see several prose poems chosen. They add to the explicit use of conversational devices, as if exclusive reliance to conventional broken lines and fragmented images will simply not do for the subject matter. In the book's afterword, editor Rolando B. Tolentino tried to provide a theoretical framework for the collection. It was rather a jumble of concepts and confused references. His failure to elucidate a coherent and convincing article on the relationship between ethics and corruption in Philippine society is perhaps proof that the experiences under this totalitarian state have not yet sunk in to our consciousness. We still need to analyze our own cultural and political responses to the challenges of history. Texts like Mondo Marcos are only here to highlight the fact that the aftershocks of the Marcos experience will stay with us for a long time. The Marcoses are back in power and our country is still in slumber. The narrative isn't over. We are still filming a decent sequel.



Review copy courtesy of Anvil Publishing and Honey of Coffeespoons

January 27, 2011

Kafka on the Shore (Murakami Haruki)


Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki, translated by Philip Gabriel (audiobook)

This is the 7th book by Murakami that I’ve read and so far I find his works to be a mix of the passable, the very good, and the mediocre. Kafka on the Shore belongs squarely to the last category. I was unimpressed by this long novel about incest, animal cruelty, music, destiny, and growing up. The translation by Philip Gabriel reads well but Murakami comes across as a minor writer, a mere crowd-pleaser. The repetitions of sentences and phrases are irritating. Granted that repetitions are used to imitate a piece of music, the flat Hemingway-esque prose can't save it from sounding contrived and didactic. The title refers both to a musical composition and a painting. But references to these art forms cannot help this piece of fiction approach the level of a good read. The plot just plods along, the disparate themes woven into a pointless puzzle. The puzzle is like a Scrabble board, the pieces being letter tiles that are sharply cut at the edges. There's no challenge to deciphering it, no net benefit to be had. Norwegian Wood is, I think, more worthwhile pointlessness than this. The novel is, moreover, a poor example of a "magical realist" novel, in which magic is utilized without "logic." My benchmarks for a good magical novel are One Hundred Years of Solitude, where fantastical elements are tightly integrated into the story, and The Literary Conference by César Aira, where magic is uncontrollable, wreaking havoc as it escapes from the grasp of the writer. The magic of Murakami here is neither mysterious nor crude. It is just plain dry old magic. A multitude of fishes falls from the sky, period. Leeches fall from the sky, period. The surreal worlding of magic and mystery in this novel is not to be accepted as inevitable but unbelievable. Very unlike the stifling nightmare world of its namesake writer Kafka, or the logical labyrinths of a Borges, or even the sustained suspension of disbelief in Murakami’s own brilliant A Wild Sheep Chase. The magic of Kafka on the Shore is without flair or drama. In its pure form, wry and deadpan, magic redounds to an unintended humor. Finally, the novel suffers from overkill: too much explanation trying to “justify” the incest, too much self-help crap undermining the characters’ consciousness. This self-help streak is prefigured in Dance Dance Dance but reached a young adult fever-pitch here. Save for some interesting scenes with the old man Nakata, the book is otherwise overrated.

January 16, 2011

TBR: Mondomanila by Norman Wilwayco

One of the books I'm excited about is Norman Wilwayco's Mondomanila. This, I believe, is his first book which, like Gerilya, won the Grand Prize in the Palanca Awards. Here's the start of the novel, followed by my rough translation. The acerbic voice is unmistakable.

Anuman ang sabihin nila, wala akong pakialam. Alam ng Diyos o ng kung sino mang nakatataas sa atin na masyado nang mahaba ang nilakbay ko. Putang ina, kailangan kong magpahinga. Kailangan kong tumigil, humimpil.

Ilang buwan na 'ko dito sa Baguio. Hindi ko na siguro pagsasawaan ang lugar na 'to. Malamig, maraming puno, mura ang mga pagkain. O malamang, paglipas ng ilang buwan pa uli, biglang mangati ang mga talampakan ko at maghanap ng ibang lugar. Doon sa kung saan walang makikialam sa 'kin. Doon sa kung saan hindi ako susundan at uusigin ng mga bangungot at ng sarili kong anino.

Pero sa ngayon, kuntento ako rito sa buhay ko. May maliit na loteng kinatitirikan ng maliit na bahay, may mga tanim na gulay at marijuana, may buhay, may pera. Itong huli ang pinahahalagahan ko sa lahat. Puta, nabuhay ako ng puro paghihirap ang dinaanan ko. Ni pambili ng bagong brief, pinoproblema ko dati. Natatandaan ko noong elementary pa lang ako, kung wala siguro akong pantalon, nahubo na ang brief ko. Si ermat kasi dati, ni hindi ako maibili ng bago. Ang ginagamit ko noong nasa grade six ako, iyon pa ring brief ko noong grade one. Kaya tuloy sa sobrang lawlaw na't wala na talagang garter, kapag tumatakbo ko, lumililis. Nahuhubo ang magkabilang tagiliran. Kaya lang hindi talaga nahuhubo, sumasabit sa pundya ng suot kong pantalon.

* * *

Whatever they say, I don’t give a fuck. God, or whoever towers above us all, knows that I’ve travelled such a long way. Fuck, I need to stop. I need to rest, to relax.

I've been here in Baguio for many months now. I may never get tired of this place. The cold, the trees, the cheap food. And yet, months will pass by and I’ll likely go footloose and find another place. A place where no one will mind me. Where I won’t be pursued and hounded by nightmares and my own shadow.

Right now, I’m contented with this life. I got a small lot with a small house on it. I got a garden of vegetables and marijuana. I got life, money. That last one is what I value the most. Fuck, I suffered a lot in life. How to buy new briefs, the kind of problems one had. I still remember when I was in elementary, if I didn’t wear pants, I’m good as naked. Blame it on ermat, she couldn’t buy me briefs. What I wore when I was in grade six were the exact ones I had on when I was in grade one. Since they were pretty much worn out and with the garter totally undone, whenever I ran they slid down, exposing my thighs. The reason they didn’t go all the way was that they got caught in the crotch of my pants.

January 5, 2011

Cave and Shadows (Nick Joaquín)


















You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said ...
- Plato, The Republic



The most mystical Filipino writer is probably Nick Joaquín (1917-2004). In his books characters are seized by visions, the faithless become converts, and the faithful turn into seers. Nick Joaquín was a novelist, poet, dramatist, historian, journalist, and biographer. His significant contribution to Philippine literature in English led to his conferment of the title National Artist for Literature.

He was, as he wrote in his dedication, a "man who has two novels," alluding to his first novel, The Woman Who Had Two Navels. His second novel, Cave and Shadows, dealt with a literal cave and some metaphorical shadows. Yet the reference to Plato's cave was not lost.

From its first surreal sentence ("The vision—a crab on a string being walked by a naked girl—occurred in deep-hotel corridor twilight and moreover when he, Jack Henson, was feeling himself in a swoon.") the novel was propelled by the mysterious death of a girl found in a cave that was practically sealed from the outside. The girl was naked, had no sign of any injury or violation on her body, and a scent of flowers seemed to emanate from her. Was she the same crab-walking girl that Jack saw in the hotel corridor? If yes, why was she haunting him?

Jack Henson, 42, divorced, and an American expatriate living in an island in southern Philippines, was asked by his former wife to get to the bottom of the unexplained death of her daughter, Nenita Coogan, the girl found in the cave. A possible explanation for her death, as "folk memory" would have it, would be the sacrificing of youth at planting time so that the harvest of the fields will be more fruitful and abundant. The sweet-smelling body of a "saint" will appease the gods. But then it could also be a crime of passion. Or some other primal offense. No neat explanation was at hand.

As Henson investigates, Joaquín traced the increasingly surreal and mysterious circumstances surrounding the girl. He came to interview a number of quirky characters that were associated with her while still alive. As the story progressed, the present started to play against the insistent echoes of the distant past. Forgotten incidents were projected onto the pages of history, becoming more and more pronounced as they filled narrative gaps. Amid the reverent themes of religious fanaticism and the search for an authentic native god, Joaquín used the genres of the detective story and historical documentary as creative vehicles for exploring the intersection of various spheres of Philippine life: history, politics, religion, activism, and colonialism.

The main thread of the detective story was alternated with chapters that foregrounded the mythical and superstitious elements of the story. These include: a discourse on the origin of the cult of the cave; a documentary investigation into the rise of the religious figures known as the Hermana, the Beatas, and the cave goddess; and an exposition of events sometime in the 17th century, events that go back to the roots of religion and could rewrite the official history on paper and the articles of faith etched in stone. Yet again, as in Joaquín's short stories and his first novel, readers were privy to a subtle battle of the sexes in the book, wherein a feminist revisionist approach to history was enacted.

Joaquín situated the "present" of the story in August of 1972, a month before the declaration of martial law in the country. This avoidance of an important political turning point in history is significant in terms of Joaquín's deliberate gloss over an event that is still shaping the course of the present. In any case, the novelist did not completely detach himself from the political sphere since major characters in the story are either public officials or have direct connection to people in power. As Henson said in one conversation, "politics is what we have to have instead of love; it's how we arrange for safety and justice in a society where people don't really care much for one another."

The cave in question was subject to previous worship and ritual ceremonies as early as the 16th century before being literally obstructed by the Spanish clergy - it was covered by an embankment twice over. Out of sight, its existence gradually vanished from memory. The obstruction was meant to suppress the practice of pagan rites by the villagers which was threatening to eclipse the Catholic faith that was then being aggressively spread by Spanish colonists. In 1970 the cave was uncovered by an earthquake which brought down the paved scaffold and revealed the gaping entrance. What was once buried from memory was unearthed from memory.

The rediscovery of the cave became a sort of trigger that invaded people's consciousness, eventually excavating folk memories lying in the recesses of the mind. The process was aided by researchers who reconstructed the events in history. At least two versions came out of submerged history: the native and the colonial religious histories and their associated customs.

Culture, Joaquín seemed to be implying, is not forever dormant even if systematically suppressed. It is very like strands of DNA that remain intact even after several millennia. It only takes a blunt force of nature for it to uncoil itself and spread its contagious doctrine.

With the cave once again "in place," it was thus inevitable that the cultural DNA will be resurrected by its modern-day adherents, the neo-pagans. The vestiges of anito - old faith of the forefathers, sticks and stones ready for worship - can survive in the new and can reclaim its once strong foothold in people's hearts and souls. Naturally, in the reorientation of belief systems, there was bound to be a clash of beliefs, an overt war, between introduced Christianity and home-grown paganism. Each of the two sides had proponents who will go to such length as to form new cults and recruit followers to protect the interest of their gods. The all-out war on faith and the unchecked ceremonies of the faithful could turn deceptive, violent, and deadly, as they in fact did. The cave was ordered closed to the public before Nenita Coogan was found dead in it.

I will hazard a guess as to what the cave probably signified in the novel. It may be a stand-in for memory, particularly that of cultural memory. Its reopening allowed paganism, a recessive trait, to be reborn in contemporary times, brought out again to the light for everyone to inhabit and cultivate. It would only take a well-timed stimulus, a natural calamity, or perhaps a demagogue's fiery speech during a demonstration rally, to trigger a crisis of faith. The objective histories told in books and in official documents belied the deep-set motives and desires of the characters. Everyone was capable of compassion; everyone was capable of murder and machination.

The novel was so opaque and tangible that it can harbor many interpretations, many individual readings and tellings, of fortune and literary meanings. As a variation of the Socratic allegory, the philosophy proceeded to its dark conclusions. Along the walls of the cave, the shadows conjured confusion and mystery such that the viewers of these dark images could not distinguish the shadows from the objects that cast them.

The cave became the canvas in which the novelist projected his own portraits of shadows, characters like trapped animals, darkened by their savage capabilities and blinded by their own appetites and desires. Shadows that were like figments of one's susceptible beliefs, readily accepted as rock-hard beliefs, but ultimately hollow and easily ground. They were fooled by perverse forms reality takes, the objects dissolving into their petty projections.

The characters' shadowy attitudes reflect our own inherited failings, our national defects. This is the un-reality we cannot face and yet we must do so to escape it. As the dying words of a female mystic in the novel put it: "All only shadows in a cave ... Oh, fly me outside!"

A note on the prose. Joaquín was a poet and he wrote in beautifully observed sentences ("The kneeling light was also examining the purple thread in their plaid, the curl of bead or shell, the jewelry of white buds in dark hair, the throb of gold in the flesh."). He was one of the best Filipino stylists in the English language. Even with descriptions that were somehow excessive or accessorized with bourgeois accoutrement, he was an original at the level of the sentence. His writing breathed and throbbed in quick flashes, like gold in the flesh.



Review copy courtesy of Anvil Publishing and Honey of Coffeespoons.


January 1, 2011

Reading diary: December 2010





Ryan's dec-2010 book recommendations, reviews, favorite quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists



It's the last post of this 2010 series of capsule reviews, the first post of the new year. Eighty books read, it's been a great year, like going around the world in the same number of days. Here's my seven titles in December, two of which made my favorites list.



Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel García Márquez, tr. Asa Zatz

A true story of Miguel Littín, an exiled Chilean film director, who re-entered Chile in disguise during the late years of Pinochet regime. He undertook this clandestine mission to shoot a documentary that exposes life under the military dictatorship. It's a candid and nostalgic look at losing one's own identity and being a stranger in one's own homeland.

My full review here.


The Trial by Franz Kafka, tr. Breon Mitchell

Whoever said The Trial is a comic novel must be joking. The things that happened to Josef K. are not funny at all. Having come face to face with a corrupt justice system, with his individual rights violated at every turn, and being at the mercy of inept lawyers and judges ... Nobody is laughing at all. *looks warily at his back* Right?


Patikim by Mark Angeles

Patikim is Mark Angeles's first book of poetry, a harvest of love poems that contain some of the most cheesy lines that express heartfelt sentiments. They are the kind of lines that make a stone cringe: "you asked me, the me within me – / why the leaves flutter in the wind / why the stones are weeping / why a kiss tastes sweet." Faced with these crude expressions, the reader expecting complicated lofty thoughts will be disappointed. Instead what he will get are unapologetic jolts of feelings interspersed with entertainment, sometimes deadpan, sometimes wicked, often irreverent. The poems show that love can be a cure against cynicism, and laughter is the bitter medicine. The technique is hidden by apparent accessibility.

I have translated and posted a couple of these poems here. Here is another one, a short question the poet asks the violin and it encapsulates Mark's attempt to, in his own words, "objectify love." It can be a two-take objective: one that objectifies and one that object-ifies.


          O, Mahinhing Biyolin

          O, mahinhing biyolin,
          dalit ko'y iyong dinggin—
          Paano susuyuin
          and iyong pagkabirhen?


O, Virtuous Violin

O, virtuous violin,
hear my grieving hymn—
how does one win
your virgin being?



Blow-Up and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar, tr. Paul Blackburn

Reading Cortázar, it's like having a tiger in the room. A cute tiger, stripes and all. You wouldn't know, though, when it's going to pounce. But you know it's going to make a mean move, snack on you maybe, drink your blood, like a poet drinking metaphors, satiated beyond satiety. Like a reader drinking the prose of Cortázar. They are perfect prose pieces, unexpected like tigers. He is one of those prose stylists whose sentences you read for their music and poetry, without caring for the cohesiveness of the stories. The surprising thing is that the stories are impeccably plotted, with always something mind-walloping in the end. My favorite short stories here are the first two, "Axolotl" and "House Taken Over."

I decided to start with these stories after reading only a few pages of Hopscotch. I know the latter promises to be great but I felt the need to get some bearings with the short fiction. I predict a new (literary) hero worship is in the offing.


Tres by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Erica Mena, unpublished translation

I accidentally came across Erica's translation while surfing on the web. Unfortunately, it's not authorized for publication. I find in this translation of Tres the concentration of Bolaño's strengths as a poet. The conversational voice, the perfect muscle control of the lines, the powerful and various abysses, strangely structured, surreal, improviso.

Here is the start of the third poem called "A Stroll Through Literature."

1

I dreamed that Georges Perec was three years old and visited my house. I hugged him, I kissed him, I told him he was a precious boy.

2

We were left half-done, father, neither cooked nor raw, lost in the vastness of this interminable garbage dump, missing and mistaking ourselves, killing and begging forgiveness, manic depressives in your dream, father, your infinite dream that we unraveled a thousand times and a thousand times again, like Latin American detectives lost in a labyrinth of crystal and mud, traveling through rain, watching films where old men appear and cry tornado! tornado!, looking at things for the last time, but without seeing them, like phantoms, like frogs in the bottom of a well, father, lost in the poverty of your utopian dream, lost in the variety of your voices and your abysses, manic depressives in the immeasurable room in Hell where you cook up your Jokes.

One must read Tres for its rhythm, for its content, for visceral realism. Above all, for its rhythm. One, two, or three times.


Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquín

A satisfying blend of history and detective story, Cave and Shadows investigates the death of a young woman found in a cave. There was no sign of foul play. She was found naked, and as if sleeping. There's an inner cave within cave, secret passages, neo-paganism, ritual sacrifices, cults and activists, converts and sinners. I think it has a lot to offer the readers of mysteries and mysticism.

I'll put up a longer review of this book sometime this month.


Mondo Marcos: Mga Panulat sa Batas Militar at ng Marcos Babies,
ed. Frank Cimatu and Rolando B. Tolentino

"Marcos babies" refer to the generation of Filipinos who were born or came of age during the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Mondo Marcos is an anthology of writings (short stories, essays, poems) about life under that dictatorship. A full review of this book is also upcoming.



HAPPY NEW YEAR!