Archive for the Literature Category

Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah

Posted in Film, Literature, Review on March 27, 2011 by theburningpulpit

Believe me when I say that this graphic novel is a fresh breeze. Hence, this is my final official entry to my Filipiniana Feature Month WordPress event.

I’ve heard of Zaturnnah years before, but I was able to watch the movie two or three years ago and read the graphic novel last week. And I must say that in the movie, the musical (which my sister has watched) and the graphic novel, there is a certain fidelity and unity testifying to the strength and brilliance of the Zaturnnah franchise.

The original graphic novel focuses on Ada and his best friend Didi, both members of the third sex. (To be less politically correct: they are both gays.) Ada, an owner of a small beauty parlor, receives a strange stone from the sky with the word ‘Zaturnnah’ etched on it. Whenever he swallows the stone, Ada turns into a voluptuously muscular female superhero, whom Didi dubs as ‘Zsazsa Zaturnnah.’ Zaturnnah then goes on to battle a giant frog, a horde of mumus, and a posse of radical alien feminists hellbent, for some strange reason, on dominating Ada’s little town. At the same time, Ada/Zaturnnah also has to contend with his/her feelings and romantic needs, condensed in the form of Dodong, a well-endowed *ehem, I’m getting a relish for certain things* and chivalrous young man. With the stress brought by evil supervillainesses and, worse, a troubled love life, Zaturnnah/Ada is stretched thin to meet the demands of both fronts.

Much has been said of Zsazsa Zaturnnah being a milestone for third sex literature–and the franchise, from Vergara’s graphic novel to the movie, truly is. That strangely moving scene between Ada/Zaturnnah and his/her father, now part of the mumu army, really struck me: that a father would, even beyond the grave, still harbor his disappointment and rather tear himself to pieces than accept Ada for who he truly is! And yet, even the biggest chauvinist, given that he has something of a literary inclination, cannot help but be at least amused with the self-aware humor in Vergara’s graphic novel. Ada’s swallowing the stone just because Didi told him to, Zaturnnah getting those dramatically burlesque panels, the superhero sardonically yelling at the panicking crowd to stay aside so as to avoid the rampaging giant frog, the said crowd’s uncontrollable tendency to surround dangerous fight scenes… all these things “deconstruct” (whatever that word means nowadays) the graphic novel form and the superhero genre, re-presenting the experience in a funny new light without trying to be hyped and/or intellectual. I mean, come on, see that scene where Queen Femina Suarestellar Baroux channels a tiger with her kung fu routine and Zsazsa channeling a mermaid with her… interesting… mahalay arts. If you don’t at least smirk at that episode, you should probably see a psychiatrist or three.

The musical and the movie, by extension, are also good renditions of the Zaturnnah story. My sister, who has watched the musical, said that the story was engaging and the music wonderful, even though the “Didi” dominated the stage. (Then again, Ada was never meant to be a show-stopper.) Perhaps the musical’s being staged seven times says something of its popularity, its ability to capture the audience’s imaginations. The movie I can vouch for, even though it did not bag an MMFF award. The music ranges from catchy (“Babae Na Ako”) to haunting (“Multo ng Nakaraan”), and its plot, retaining much of the original (as I later found out), preserves the soul of the graphic novel. The musical, the movie, and the graphic novel, in the end, are all must-sees.

Because really, we need more “earthy” literature. We need literature that can reconcile the intellectual might of the academe and the gravitational popularity of mass media. Perhaps Zsazsa Zaturnnah has shown us the way. And now, as I end my Filipiniana Feature Month after presenting one photo album, one academic novel, one movie, and one graphic novel, I hope that those who write Filipiniana can finally push the frontiers not a little forward, no, not anymore, but by leaps and bounds.

Smaller and Smaller Circles

Posted in Literature, Review on March 14, 2011 by theburningpulpit

I first read Smaller and Smaller Circles because it was required material in my literature class. Literature class. Hah. You get grades for doing what you would like very much to do: read.

As the first true crime fiction novel in the Philippines (Nick Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows is not so much a crime story as a Quest for Identity novel), Smaller and Smaller Circles cannot help but be compared to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, from which the book obviously draws inspiration. (I was lucky to read this book just after watching the Guy Rithchie film and reading the original Holmes stories.) Smaller and Smaller Circles’s Holmes and Watson, Fathers Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero, respectively, are irregulars in a crime scene where the official authority (Scotland Yard and the NBI) fails to step up. And yet the novel also departs from the Holomesian fiction: instead of the clear and singular perspective of John Watson, the point of view rotates along a rigodon of characters: Fathers Gus and Jerome, Father Emil of Payatas, the journalist Joanna Bonifacio, the unscrupulous Ben Arcinas, the victims, and even the murderer.

Glossing aside criticisms regarding the ridiculous transparency of the case and the hint of technical pretentiousness in the novel, one must still accede that Smaller and Smaller Circles is a fresh and smart read as well as an incredibly relevant book for the study of Philippine society. The circulating perspectives throughout the story hints at the difference between Victorian London and its Jack the Ripper and contemporary Manila and Payatas with its psychotic face-stealer. Instead of Holmes and Watson shedding a pure light straight into the heart of chaos, the differing voices and the plot’s roundabout resolution and conclusion suggest the plight of a confused community, much more confused than a London drowning under the clutches of Moriarty. For evil in the Philippines does not come forth so simply and clearly from a singular and well-oiled agency, but from every corner, from every strata of society: the inefficient NBI, the corruption which allowed for Saenz money, the sensationalist media, the depraved criminals, and the starving and desperate poor. Everyone is a victim because everyone is a perpetrator.

In the exam question in Sir Max Pulan’s class, it was noted that detective fiction is a reflection of a troubled society’s search for order. Victorian London needed Holmes to be because Scotland Yard could not quell the tide of crime. How troubling is it that Payatas needs two Jesuits because the police cannot do their duty? How troubling is it that the murderer is also a victim, the hero a part of the system of bribery, the supporting cast of an insensitive mass media? In the end, Smaller and Smaller Circles provokes more than it clarifies. And if the case is rather transparent and the plot rather pretentious, maybe this is because these things are not the point. In this country, we all know who are the sinners, we all know who is guilty, and we all know that we, and the personalities we have shaped, are to blame for our plight. What we must consider is why we are going through things in a roundabout way.


Recuerdos de Filipinas: Album-Libro

Posted in Literature, Review on March 5, 2011 by theburningpulpit

Util para el Estudio y Conocimiento de los Usos y Costumbres de Aquellas Islas


Treinta y Siete Fotopias Tomadas y Copiadas del Natural


Don Felix Laureano

I was very lucky to have come across this one neglected book in the Filipiniana section of National Bookstore, Mall of Asia. Translated and edited into the English language by Felice Noelle Rodriguez (with Renan Prado and Ramon C. Sunico), Recuerdos de Filipinas is a lively and engaging first-hand source on the late Spanish colonial era. As stated in the subtitle, the photo-album contains thirty-seven photographs depicting scenes of Filipino customs and landscapes (mostly in his native Iloilo) and, more importantly, accompanying descriptions and contextualization by the colonial settler Felix Laureano, not to mention an appendix pertaining to Luzon, Manila, and the Visayan Islands.

This source is important not because it presents images of the great city of Manila and the famous Ilustrados and the other principal members of elite Philippine society; on the contrary, the photo-album is especially important because it presents day-to-day images of ordinary life. True, the images were staged (inevitably, given the technology of the time), as stated by Rodriguez’s introduction. And yet the texts that accompany the images possess so much detail and even a hint of humor so that when Laureano invites us to a luncheon of adobo, tinola, and kari (which one suspects to be kare-kare, a variant of the Asian curry) in a calenderia, when he regales us with stories of elaborate courtship rites when he should have kept on describing the wedding procession, and when he romanticizes the beauties of the Filipina mestiza, we, the readers, are indeed being transported into an age that has long gone.

And yet for all his good intentions and pose of objectivity, Laureano’s faults also shine through. Noticeable is his bias against the Indios, the indigenous peoples, and the Chinese: the Indios he described as suplado or proud; the Ati-atihan, vulgar; and the Chinese, swindlers and tricksters. While he dwells on the beauty of the women taking a bath on the sea, he does not mention names: the characters he try to bring into life end up becoming mere nameless faces. However, even Laureano’s faults also add to the learning experience: we see here the Ilustrado who, in spite of disdain and pretensions to superiority, still highlighting what he thinks is the best in his country. Especially after finding out that the photo-album was launched in 1895, just a year before the Philippine Revolution, we readers cannot help but be a little skeptical of his quaint and peaceful depiction of a (slightly) romanticized and exoticized Philippines. (As an aside, one may wonder how, in spite of his stand-offish attitude towards his Indio subjects, he has acquired so detailed a knowledge of their customs.) And yet, we also end up pardoning Laureano for having done these things, first because, as the title says, the photo-album is his memory of the Philippines, that country which he, having named himself as a “Filipino,” must have loved.

All in all, Recuerdos serves as an excellent first-hand source, despite its focus on his local Iloilo, and even despite his biases and other such quirks. Or perhaps, “despite” is not the right word, for even in these “despites” his worldview, his feelings, and his rationale as a Filipino shines through. It is in two levels, namely, the information he provides of the country and its customs as well as the information he unwittingly provides of himself and of his class, that Recuerdos proves itself valuable and informative.

Crime and Punishment

Posted in Literature, Review on November 14, 2010 by theburningpulpit

When I was in early high school we read an obligatory fic piece. The main character was supposedly a reading prodigy who suggested making Crime and Punishment the topic of her grade school book report.

Only lately have I realized how tall a claim that was. This book is definitely not a kid’s read.

I actually bought the book some time ago (only to find out that my sister had a practically unread copy), but it was Sir Mike Mariano, our Great Books (Ancient Period) prof and member of the Philo department, who encouraged me to read it. Or, to be more precise, he told me to read Anna Karenina first because Tolstoy was the easier read, but then proceed to Dostoevsky’s philosophical and psychological genius. But, yours truly being, well, yours truly, I found Anna Karenina a bore and went straight for Crime and Punishment.

It must be said that Dostoevsky does not seem to have the best writing technique in the world. Unlike the “god of art” (I think that’s Dostoevsky’s own line) that was Tolstoy, he had awkward phrases and sentences, and at times I was confused with who said what. However, what I love about the novel is 1) its ability to sustain interest as it plunges deep into the troubled psyche of Raskolnikov, and 2) its honest take on the dangers of liberal thought. Raskolnikov, believing himself (or at least initially deluding himself to be) a genius, a Nietzschean superman, a Napoleon, kills an evil old pawnbroker to prove a mere theory: that a genius can transgress moral law for the greater good of humanity. And yet, as Dostoevsky’s superb psychologizing shows, there seems to be in man, or at least in Raskolnikov, a strong moral impulse, a strong aversion to evil, a strong conscience that haunts him until he confesses his crime. And Dostoevsky points at this strong conscience and its respective root: Christian piety and grace.

One might argue that Dostoevsky was making unnecessary polarizations by pitting Greek Orthodoxy and devotion to religion against Western thought and progress. One might argue for the existence of the good atheist, the good liberal, just as much as the deluded fundamentalist. And this argument, for me, seems valid enough. And yet historical experience would tell us that there have, indeed, been many times when errors were made in the name of liberalism and progress. In Dostoevsky’s time, a fanatically liberal student made an attempt at the Czar’s life. A little above half a century later, the Revolution claimed the lives of the reigning Romanov family. The rise of Fascism and Communism also brought about death by the millions. In the end, then, perhaps Dostoevsky had the reason to fear the hasty march of liberalism and modernization. Hence the necessity of this book.

Word Made Revolutionary: On Gina Apostol’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata

Posted in Literature, Review on October 11, 2010 by theburningpulpit

The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, according to the blurb (found behind the Anvil-published copy) by Eric Gamalinda, “creates a new, atonal anthem that defies single ownership and, in fact, can only be performed by the many—by multiple voices in multiple readings.” For him, Apostol is able to present an “alternative [narrative] on history other than those… who claim entitlement to official memory and national identity.” But what is this “new, atonal anthem”? Why must the rambling of Raymundo Mata, a night-blind man creep like a vine around the story of the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal? Why is there a need for multiple voices: for the rabid nationalist, the overly academic psychoanalyst, and the unreliable translator to compete within the hundreds of footnotes? In the end, is this alternative history true—or, perhaps, we may better yet ask: is it, at least, of consequence? Or, perhaps, does the author’s style, instead of delivering the alternative history, mystifies it, lending it a confused miasma that obscures rather than sheds a clear, penetrating light on our Filipino identity? This paper, then, seeks to explore what kind of alternative history the novel introduces, and whether this presentation is successful. To achieve this, we shall begin with a summary of the novel and then proceed to an analysis of its characters and then with remarks to its themes and structures. From there we shall attempt to see the novel within the context of contemporary Philippine society as well as the tradition of Filipiniana and in the end determine what Gina Apostol’s opus has to say regarding the Filipino identity, especially within the historical (and, to be more specific, revolutionary) lens.

The novel supposedly centers on Raymundo Mata, an uncouth night-blind member of the Katipunan and participant of the Philippine Revolution. In the form of a memoir, the story traces Mata’s childhood, his education in Manila, his love affairs, and his discovery of Dr. Jose Rizal and his books, which in turn involves him with the Philippine Revolution and, ultimately, Makamisa, Rizal’s third and unfinished novel.

Raymundo Mata’s autobiography, however, is de-centered by another story: that of the development of the book. In the foreword(s), afterword(s), and footnotes, we see the translator Mimi C. Magsalin (a pseudonym), the rabid nationalist editor Estrella Espejo, and the neo-Freudian psychoanalyst critic Dr. Diwata Drake make multiple readings of the Mata manuscript. Inevitably, clashes between these readings occur throughout the novel, and in the end no singular and comprehensive interpretation arises: depending on which interpretation the reader follows, one may either conclude that the manuscript contains and/or is Makamisa, or that it is an elaborate hoax perpetuated by the translator.

Perhaps the cause of the different readings is the fact that, in the first place, the novel has multiple protagonists—and this does not merely mean Mata plus translator plus editor plus psychoanalyst. In a quixotic fashion (that is, literally, stemming from Cervantes’ Don Quixote), the interlacing of the story (Mata’s memoirs) and the story of the story (the way it was re-written and re-presented as a book) invites the readers to participate in the creation of the story: we are asked throughout the novel to scrutinize the anglicized text and contrast it with the original Tagalog, Spanish, Chabacano, and (occasionally) Visayan phrases. We are asked either to agree or disagree with an overtly nationalistic reading (where everything, even a plagiarized form of Candide, is a Katipunan code) and/or an extremely academic psychoanalysis (where everything, even young Raymundo Mata’s encounter with his father, is a symptom of the Filipino Psychosis). As the reader progresses in the novel, he finds himself not only a witness, but also a co-creator, an inspired party in the interpretation of Raymundo Mata’s word.

And then there is Raymundo Mata himself, which, one might suspect, is also a multiple character. In the novel we find that this lewd, pun-loving, Rizal-worshipping bibliokleptomaniac is intertwined with none other than Dr. Jose Rizal: both read the same French authors (Voltaire and Eugene Sue), love the same women (Mata’s K., Orang, and Leonor find their parallels in Rizal’s real-life romantic interests), and even write similar diary entries (Entry # 22 is a case in point, as Dr. Diwata Drake points out). And so, we find that throughout the novel Raymundo Mata fulfills at least two roles. On one hand he is the provincial, the base Caviteño providing a lopsided (and one might say irreverent) view of Aguinaldo, Paterno, Mabini, and Bonifacio—in this role he shares in the word of the Philippine Revolution by putting in his two cents, that is, by bumbling through his initiation, the discovery at the Diario de Manila printing house, and the Battle of Balara. And yet, as the bibliophile obsessed with words, Raymundo Mata also shares in the word of Rizal, “the world of words that creates the world of things” (Apostol 123).

Two themes, then, emerge: the Philippine Revolution as text, as a “world of things” born out of the “world of words” of Rizal’s novels, and the multiple readings that generate multiple meanings, multiple interpretations, of the “world of words”. The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (the title itself may be seen a Biblical reference to the Gospels), the product of the many voices of Mata, Rizal, Magsalin, Espejo, and Drake, then becomes a word (I do not say the Word) of the Revolution—and the novel’s structure emphasizes its word-iness through the length of the footnotes, Raymundo Mata’s fondness of puns and witticisms, the ciphers, and the onomatopoeias (as employed by Mata just as used by Gina Apostol on naming Mimi Magsalin, Estrella Espejo, and Diwata Drake). The novel, as Mimi Magsalin might put it, is “raped” by words. And the words, as Estrella Espejo implies in the end, pose themselves as Makamisa, Rizal’s unfinished third novel—a final word in the Bible of Philippine salvation, a word that is perhaps, as Dr. Diwata suspects, is ingrained in the Filipino psyche: “That a nation so conceived, from the existential exigencies of a young man’s first novel, will find redemption in the phoenix of his lost words” (Apostol 277).

The line may have, perhaps, more significance than we, the readers, first perceive. Setting aside, for now, whether such a belief shall or shall not actually prove the salvation of the Philippines, the Filipiniana has a tradition of authors striving to write the “Great Filipino Novel” that shall expose the Filipino’s identity. This quest for identity has taken a historical vein, as we can see from the writings of Kalaw, Joaquin, Gonzalez, Rosca, and even up to Gamalinda and Syjuco. Even in spite of the lack of readership (or, at least, when it comes to so-called “high literature”), the Philippine literati have continued to plumb the neglected, forgotten past (whether American, Spanish, or pre-colonial) in search of the Filipino identity. Of course, this is a worthy and crucial task, and the attempt to write the Third Novel to Save Us All should continue. The problem, however, is when people neglect the quest for the right words in order to come up with the Word—erect a singular, “national,” totalizing Tower of the Filipino Narrative.

This is where the theme of multiple readings, multiple meanings, and multiple interpretations come in. It is important to note that in The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, no final, definitive Word appears. Espejo’s interpretation is as valid and yet as flawed as Dr. Drake’s, just as Mimi C.’s final statement is not authoritative: she assures the readers that the Mata manuscript is not a lie and is trustworthy, but she does so in cipher. The text, then, is liberated from a constrictive, imperious, violent summa, a One Message that excludes other readings, puts other perspectives into the background, and eliminates all criticism. The words in the novel, then, by being multiple and open to diverse interpretations, becomes a truly revolutionary one: The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata liberates the reader from one view of history, and hence a singular Filipino identity that may violently exclude the others. As in Entry # 36, we find that “like a novel revolution is never finished” (Apostol 220). The act of reading is both a novelty and a revolution: the Word is de-centered, indeed de-capitalized, and is made new and fresh and accessible to all readings.

So far, this paper has pursued a Biblical metaphor. And perhaps this is just as well. The Bible, after all, is first and foremost a text that has, throughout the ages, been reread and re-interpreted according to the needs of the Church (that is, the community). Just as any one totalizing reading limits the power of the Word of God, indeed making it stale and dead, unresponsive to a different time and a different audience, so must the quest for Filipino identity remain flexible and open to many reinterpretations. The text must be dynamic just as the people who read it are dynamic. For if the world of words is to remain static, then the world of things that it creates cannot be anything but false; being false, such a world cannot but fail and fade.

In the end, then, we, the readers, must ask ourselves the question: is The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, at last, the long-awaited Makamisa, the novel that shall save the country, the country that which the same hand, Rizal’s, created? But as we read and get lost in the maze of the miniscule footnotes, as we get lost in the highly postmodern “mystification” of the novel (for we cannot deny that the novel is, in a sense, mystified, given the highly literary mirroring, footnoting, and other such illusory styles; yet we must bear in mind that the word “mystery” is not merely something that is not understandable, but something more), we must accept that we cannot, and should not, discern the Word. Gina Apostol has—by revolutionizing the Word into an alternate history, a multiple “world of words”—already shown that we must go beyond looking for the Answer. Perhaps, like the realization found within the loop in Entry # 46, the finding of the Filipino identity already lies in the searching.