Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On Tagalog vs. English


Our discussions of language in the Philippines reminded me of some related observations by another Filipino writer that have always intrigued me. They're from the writer and critic Bienvenido Lumbera, but I came to them second-hand, in the essay Expression in the Philippines by my own favourite local writer, Nick Joaquin.

. . . Lumbera stimulates as he explains the absence of irony in Tagalog writing (writers in the vernacular have for sole tradition writing as naive as Florante at Laura, and for outlets commercial pulps with iron taboos) and the pronounced irony of Filipino writers in English (though generally of the middle class, they're alienated from it and moreover are spared the temptation to write for profit because they have no commercial outlets).

Lumbera's thesis was published in 1967, five years after F. Sionil Jose's first Rosales novel was published, and seventeen years before Po-on. All these books were written in English--but you can buy Tagalog translations, I think. (LOL!!!)

Later in the essay, Joaquin continues:

A related mystery is the continuing "naivete" of writing in the vernacular, including Tagalog. The language problem of the Filipino writer is usually posed as a choice between the native tongue and a foreign medium. But Bienvenido Lumbera has made a most perceptive redefinition of the problem: the choice is really between a written literature and an oral one. The modern writer writes to be read; it's not so much his training in English as the readership he would reach that obliges the 20th-century Filipino to write in English. However well he may know Tagalog, he cannot write in it because, in a sense, Tagalog is not yet a written language. What Tagalog literally has is an audience that does not so much read print as listen to it, the way it listened to bard or storyteller in pre-Hispanic times. It's still in the age of the ballad, not yet in the age of prose.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Po-on and the sense of home

I was pondering the title -- why "Po-on"? Why not "Rosales" or "Journey", since most of the book is concerned with those? Po-on itself only makes a brief appearance at the beginning, and then everyone has to pack up and get the hell out.

Then I realized that this is rather a silly question for me to ask, who am moving back to my family's old stomping grounds. I think that once you bond to a certain location, you can't get it out of your blood. I've wanted to come back to Ohio for years now, though when I first left I was chomping at the bit to get out. Istak's family, being forced to leave quickly, had to carry Po-on with them. They had no chance to leave the place behind or sever ties smoothly. Almost anywhere they settled would put them in mind of Po-on, whether through similarity or, more strikingly, through dissimilarity.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Damn Good Writing

Starting a new thread, since the comments are stretching out on the last one.

I just want to say how much I'm enjoying the narration in Po-on. Mrs. Darwin mentioned that it was written in English; I originally thought it was a translation. But I think the ESL quality of it is what appeals to me so much--the simplicity and straightforwardness of the language (almost, but not quite, monosyllabic), and yet the most expressive arrangement.

Mayang doesn't just get mad. "It was her time to be angry."

And Istak calming himself, "Let me not think ill of my father, for he has suffered."

The dialogue has each character sounding like an oracle, which should be annoying, but it's not.

"Will you pray the nine-day novena by yourself and keep the year of mourning?" he asked.

"Everything else that must be done I will do."

That's getting pretty close to iambic pentameter, and I've had to stop reading several times to dwell on a line of dialogue here and there, or some descriptive detail, like the rays that "impaled the mists upon the kapok trees."

I love being in competent hands. Thanks, E, for a fun read.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

First Impressions?


Although I knew almost as little as everyone else about F. Sionil Jose's Po-on before I started reading it, I was definitely able to put it in a context. That is why I first put it off for so many years and then came to like it so much.

The reason I put off reading it was that I thought I would hate it.

I certainly hated the two novels that were required reading (by law) in high school. They were written during the time the events in Po-on are supposed to be unfolding (I think the central character of this story even gets to read one of them); and they are some of the most bare-faced propaganda in the world. They are read primarily because of their historical significance (which I don't dispute) and the deep, dark desire people in government and public schools have to stick it to the Catholic Church (which they should finally acknowledge). Very recently, while with a friend from Canada, I described the more famous of the two novels as "the Mein Kampf of the Philippines."

And well, I thought Po-on, written in its shadow, would be more of the same.

After all, isn't one of the more famous stories about Jose that he read that famous novel as a boy and wept inconsolably at the fate of its two young altar boys--one of whom is beaten to death by a sacristan, the crime covered up by the clerics? (I do understand. I was staggered the first time I read it . . . and still skip those chapters whenever I have to reread the story again.) I asked myself whether he could possibly write a novel set in an age when clerical abuses were at their height that could also be fair and honest about the historical context. (Am I just showing my own inflexible bias here?)

But really, I think there was more to this chapter of the Philippines' story than the theme The Catholic Church was holding us back. I'm just never optimistic about historical novelists getting that. It's just so easy--almost traditional--to blame the clerics.

And yet . . . despite the fact that in the very first part of Po-on, we see a priest take advantage of one of the girls in his catechism class, and then learn that he was responsible for getting a (possibly innocent) farmer's hand chopped off in the name of "Spanish justice" . . . I think Jose is exploring a new theme. Maybe something along the lines of, After a long, hard, bloody labour, the Catholic Church finally gave birth to the Philippines.

So . . . what were your first impressions?

Friday, November 5, 2010

More Thoughts about A Song for Nagasaki

Well, then I was going to continue to post my thoughts as a comment below because I was too lazy to start a new blog post; but it got to be too long for a comment.

Like my previous comment, this is just a string of random bits, expanded from some notes I made as I read. Not really a coherent train of thought.

I think the moment in the book that most moved me was Chapter 26 "The Little Girl Who Could Not Cry", the chapter about Nagai's daughter. Her story is so sad, though I know it is not unique. It makes me think differently about how I react to my own children's tears: "Our childhood is happy because we can cry. We know that if we cry, our mother will come and comfort us. At times since your mother died, Kayano, I wanted to bawl my eyes out. But an adult cannot do that; only a child who has a mother can." How often do see their crying as an annoyance and an intrusion. How often do I deny them that comfort when they are crying because it is inconvenient to me?

The story about six year-old Kayano saving the pineapple juice and carrying it home from school because she thought her sick father would enjoy it.... I so could see my little Bella doing that. Another moment that made me cry. And that I had to read to my sister and to Dom, to anyone who would listen.

Also, in this chapter Glynn quotes from some of Nagai's books in which he writes down all the things he wants to tell his children before they die. that are not available in English, but which he says became bestsellers. So tantalizing getting a little taste of books I'd love to track down and read:

I'm sure you remember the fairy tale of the bluebird of happiness. When your mother dies, your bluebird, alas, flew away. You will not find your bluebird again except in heaven. Heartbreaking.

I don't frequently read biographies because they are so often dry. Like the bio of Jane Austen I've attempted several times but it's so weighed down with attempts to create the historical milieu through detail after detail that the story gets lost. Glynn knows how to tell a story and obviously cares about Nagai as a person rather than a subject.

I found the connections that Glynn drew between Nagai's prayer practices and traditional Japanese culture fascinating. I'm thinking of the passage in chapter 15 when Nagai is in China for the second time. Glynn writes about Nagai's adaptation of the Buddhist Nenbutsu prayer:

"Nagai's Christianity was deepening, but its style was becoming more Japanese.... Nagai began praying a kind of Christian Nenbutsu. He would choose a short passage from the Psalms or from the pocket New Testament he always carried and repeat it over and over.... His body and mind became almost numb as he worked around the clock, but he kept his spirit at peace by continually murmuring: 'The Lord graciously restores the dead to life.' Another of his Biblical Nenbutsu was a line from Isaiah, prophet in exile: 'For your sake we are massacred daily and reckoned as sheep for the slaughter."

While I don't doubt that Nagai was drawing on those roots and integrating Christian and traditional Japanese prayer practices; still what struck me about the prayers that he prays is how much they resemble the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic's practice of the Jesus prayer. Glynn says that in Nenbutsu the goal is to escape preoccupation with the past and the future and to dwell in the Now. Not at all very different from the goal of Christian prayer, except int he awareness that to be in the Now is to be with Christ.

Likewise with the Parable of the Bare Hut in chapter 25. Nagai's hut is modeled on the huts of Buddhist pilgrim hermits and the later tea hut/private chapel of Christian baron Lord Takayama. But at the same time the Christian tradition in the West also has a history of hermits withdrawing to live alone in spare huts. The early desert fathers, the Irish monks on the islands off the west coast in their little beehive huts. Of course the difference in Nagai's hut is the emphasis on gracefulness and beauty that the Japanese aesthetic brings. In that way, the traditional tea hut has a very different spirit from the crude huts of Western monastics. Perhaps it's more akin to a Benedectine aesthetic, which tends toward balancing beauty and austerity.

If I had any quibble with Glynn's approach, perhaps is was the excessive focus on Nagai's Japanese exceptionalism that de-emphasizes a continuity with traditional Catholic practice. I suppose I'm still thinking of Silence and the insistence that Christianity is somehow a foreign invader that is swallowed in the swamp of Japan. Although I think the fact that it survived underground for centuries without any priests in itself rather belies that claim. Anyhow, it seems to me that Nagai's life shows much more clearly how inculturation happens, it's subtle and nuanced blending the best of East and West. He reads the text of the Book of Revelation onto the landscape of the atomic wasteland of Nagasaki. Far from being a foreign invader, Christianity gives him a rubric that makes sense of the tragedy in a way that native philosophy cannot.

It was especially interesting the contrast between Nagasaki's peaceful celebration of the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb and the violent protests in Hiroshima. Glynn lays almost all the credit for the difference at Nagai's door. This deep-seated and widespread influence made me wonder whether there has been or might ever be a popular movement in Japan for Nagai's canonization.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

About November . . .


This is an awkward post for me to write because I barely survived October, the month when Horror movie connoisseurs are pelted with requests for "scary" recommendations. Picking movies for other people is like building a glass house and handing out stones at the house warming party--or at least that has been my experience.

Picking books for other people is almost exactly the same, but with hand grenades instead of stones. My recommendations hardly ever go down well. (Do you suppose that might be due to the way I preface them with comparisons like these? Hmmmmm . . .)

I'm not really sure what the criteria for choosing our books is, and my original idea, from when I was still expecting to be "Miss October", was Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear all of you cringing from here, but this novel really is an incredible expression of faith. Undead faith, yes, but faith nonetheless.) Since then, I've mellowed out a bit and have settled on two possible picks for November. I figured that if I gave everyone more of a choice, I wouldn't be hated so much in the end . . .

#1) Po-on by F. Sionil Jose

Since we had so much fun reading poems from New Zealand last July, I thought I'd suggest something from my own part of the world. Po-on is the one Filipino novel I automatically recommend to anyone who is curious about Philippine literature. It is an epic--a Historical spanning ten of the most tumultuous years of the Philippines, which saw the end of Spanish colonisation and the beginning of American rule. The whole nation's history becomes the central character's personal history.

The above is a rather dry description, so I'll just point you ladies to my non-review of Po-on and my character sketch of Istak Salvador on my blog.

#2) The Other Shepards by Adele Griffin

Just in case everyone would prefer some lighter--or at least shorter--reading, here is a Young Adult recommendation. YA and MG are the genres which take up most of my shelves, so trust me when I say that one doesn't have to be part of that demographic to enjoy them.

A few years before the two Shepard sisters were born, their three older siblings died together in a huge car accident. Although they never knew them, they are haunted by their memory every day, living in the same house the three grew up in and even going to the same school. And it turns out that their lost sister and brother are the toughest act in the world to follow, especially in their own parents' eyes. I mean, how do you compete with seemingly perfect ghosts who have taken the best of your parents' love with them?

There is an element of fantasy here--which I guess is something to be aware of if you prefer your fiction as realistic as possible. And if you don't mind another shameless plug, I wrote about The Other Shepards very recently, too.