Thursday, August 25, 2011

Desire by Paz Latorena: An Analysis

(In which beauty and love are redefined.)

***

Paz Latorena’s
Desire was a powerful representation of social issues and evocative of people’s tendency to value external beauty over what’s within. It was full of emotional waves – rising, falling, intensifying then pacifying. The manner of narration was simple; the omniscient narrator told the story directly, fluidly. The characters are unnamed – only the personal pronouns he and she are indicatives of their identity, perhaps signifying the universality of the experience – that it happens or could happen to any male or female. This generality didn’t affect the narration, however. The picture the story painted was nonetheless vivid.

The central theme of the story is the title itself – desire. By definition, the word falls under two shades of meaning. The first one is an intense wanting for something while the other is refers to a strong sexual appetite. Latorena remarkably presented these two facets of desire through the story of a woman whose physical appearance was both a gift and a curse.
She was homely. A very broad forehead gave her face an unpleasant, masculine look. Her eyes, which were small, slanted at the corners and made many of her acquaintances wonder if perchance she had a few drops of celestial blood in her veins. Her nose was broad and flat, and its nostrils were always dilated, as if breathing were an effort. Her mouth, with its thick lips, was a long, straight gash across her face made angular by her unusually big jaws.
But nature, as if ashamed of her meanness in fashioning the face, moulded a body of unusual beauty. From her neck to her small feet, she was perfect. Her bust was full, her breast rose up like twin roses in full bloom. Her waist was slim as a young girl's, her hips seemed to have stolen the curve of the crescent moon. Her arms were shapely, ending in small hands with fine, tapering fingers that were the envy of her friends. Her legs with their trim ankles reminded one of those lifeless things seen in shop windows displaying the latest silk stockings.

Her face is nowhere close to a dream. But her body was a source of exotic aesthetic qualities. Which she hates, and with substantial reasons.
But she hated her body--hated that gift which Nature, in a fit or remorse for the wrong done to her face, had given her. She hated her body because it made men look at her with an unbeautiful light in their eyes--married eyes, single eyes.
She hates the body because of its effect on men. She hates it for it seemed to own her, and not the other way around, because nothing else about her mattered to men the same way that her body does. Men see her as a source of their desire – the desire to take that heavenly ensemble of curves and flesh.
Men looked at her face and turned their eyes away; they looked at her body and were enslaved. They forgot the broad masculine forehead, the unpleasant mouth, the aggressive jaws. All they had eyes for was that body, those hips that had stolen the curve of the crescent moon.
Latorena exposed men’s vulnerability in this part of the story. She presents them in an almost misandrist way – generalizing them into a pack of hormonally-enslaved creatures. It could have been controversial considering the conservative era when the story was written. Her generalization of men as being enthralled beautifully carved bodies was manifested by her usage of “single eyes and married eyes.”

This changed the perspective of the protagonist as regards to men as far as her body is concerned. She decides to hide her physique with the hopes of extinguishing the “unbeautiful light” it cast from the men’s eyes. She starts wearing loose dresses then. And she succeeded. But she still has one unfulfilled desire – the desire to be loved. For now the men no longer care for her. Without the body they adore, she was nothing but a “homely face” and a “mass of unshapely flesh”.

Thus the two desires were manifested. The sexual desire was embodied by the general male population while the feeling of intense wanting was symbolized by the protagonist’s desire for true love. In the modern society, it is still surprisingly happening, and with alarming intensity at times. For the women were known for their vulnerability and romanticism and men for their infidelity and idealism. It was an interesting Venn diagram showing that over time, the difference between the two sexes haven’t changed much, as also reflected by other literary works such as The Scent of Apples by Bienvenido Santos.
. . . Twenty years ago our women were nice, they were modest, they wore their hair long, they dressed proper and went for no monkey business. They were natural, they went to church regular, and they were faithful." He had spoken slowly, and now in what seemed like an afterthought, added, "It's the men who ain't."
Women, on the other hand, were usually presented as the waiting character as shown by classic romantic tales depicting a lady in distress waiting to be rescued by her knight in shining armor, or the slave girl dreaming for Prince Charming. Latorena’s protagonist was a waiting character, too. And while she was, she wrote and scribbled and her works found their way to a publication, and eventually captured the attention of a man from the West. They had a brief epistolary correspondence, for they soon decided to meet personally. Of course the man was shocked to see her. But he soon grew comfortable in her company due to her wit and sensibility. They quickly established a friendship that the homely girl enjoyed thinking that her appearance meant little, if anything to the man.

It was in their third meeting when she decides to reveal her hidden beauty, thinking that it would also matter little to him because he tells her he likes her. She is very confident that this man could be trusted. When he sees her, he’s in total awe. But he quickly regains his composure that gave the homely woman more faith in him.
She heaved in a deep sigh. She was right. She had found a man to whom her body mattered little if anything at all. She need not take warning. He had learned to like her for herself.
However, it's their fourth (and most probably the last) meeting, the woman again displays the body that cause men to be enslaved. And this time, she gets the biggest surprise – the shattering of a dream.
“I… I… love…” he stammered after some moment, as if impelled by an irresistible force. Then he stopped. . .

The small eyes that slanted at the corners were almost beautiful with a tender, soft light as she turned them on hi. So he loved her. Had he learned not only to like her but to love her? For herself. And the half finished confession found an echo in the heart of the woman who was starved for love.

“Yes…” there was a pleading note in her voice.

He swallowed hard. “I love…. Your body.” He finished with a thick voice: And the blue eyes flared with the dreaded, hateful light. . .
Beauty was one of the ubiquitous themes in literature as manifested by Edgar Allan Poe’s To Helen and Anacreon’s Beauty is a Woman’s Weapon, among others. Both show the significance of beauty and their admiration to a beautiful woman. Latorena, however, depicted beauty as an instrument of disillusionment and a bifacial thing. It wouldn’t have the same interesting dramatic impact had the protagonist possessed both an attractive countenance and physique. It’s the imperfection of the character that rendered beauty to the work.

Another important factor worth mentioning was the story’s being a transition literature. The presence of the White man, presumably an American, symbolized the Westernization of aesthetic standards, which is also currently predominant as shown by the predilection of people to admire attractive exteriors and façades various types of media. Latorena, didn’t just show one period of time, but her work was somewhat of a clairvoyant nature, extending to the present era when Exuperian philosophy of looking at real beauty was hardly adhered to.

The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey


(In which another scandalous artist takes the limelight.)


***
“Poor Jane!” he said when she had finished, but he said it merrily, not pityingly. “All that is needed is three wicked stepsisters and a pumpkin coach.” – p. . 46
It is almost a Cinderella story. That typical poor, abused girl whose fate started to take a better course after attending a party where she meets her Prince Charming. But Jane Burden’s tale somehow breaks away from this fairy tale convention in the sense that she isn’t only a poor, abused girl. She is the ugliest girl in a slum in Oxford, England and she lives in a house near the public privy. She has a brother and a sister who are not as wicked as the cinder girl’s siblings but are equally annoying. She isn’t taken by a pumpkin coach to a party; she walks her way to the theater where she meets her Prince Charming who happens to be a rather charismatic artist with an Italian surname. He doesn’t make her wear the other pair of a glass slipper, but a beautiful moss green velvet gown for his painting of Guinevere. And that luxurious gown was designed and delivered by her other Prince Charming. Yes, this Cinderella is quite lucky at that part. But, this is where the fairy tale stops – the ending isn’t as happy as fairy tales should be.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t expecting a fairy tale. I was just struck by the interesting comparison. Of course, Hickey’s second novel is about art. And remarkably, she was able to connect the lives of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded by Daniel Gabriel Rossetti. Hickey laid out the foundation of an initially romantic future between Jane and Gabriel, until the latter is spirited away from her life by an emergency. Then she was rescued by William Morris, also an artist, from both her parents’ decision that she marries a neighbor’s son and from the pain Rossetti has caused her when he left. Everything goes on reasonably well. Jane ceases to live a life full of hardships and starvation. She is introduced to the grand and scandalous society of artists and poets and writers and receives praises for her beauty which both humiliated and humbled her. She has a grand mansion, a workaholic husband and two beautiful daughters when Rossetti comes back. And then the passion between them also returns with a vengeance.

Reading Elizabeth Hickey’s
The Wayward Muse is a concoction of varying emotions and opinions. However, this time, the experience is not entirely about sentimentalism due to a poignant narration. It rather sounded as if I overheard friends chatting over coffee one afternoon. The narration was awkwardly hasty. And it took me 84 pages before I came across a time indicator, a rarity in historical fiction. But of course, the writer is not supposed to start the tale with a mentioning in what circa the story took place. But due to the quick story-telling, I barely had time to relish the setting that the story could have happened in a more contemporary time. The idea was promising, though. Having a protagonist who defies popular esthetic standards as a model for paintings verifies the truth that beauty cannot be measured by general criteria. And though the novel didn’t really focus on the artists at work but the scandal that ruined them, they were presented well as real humans with real flaws and vulnerability. It was pretty much the same pattern Hickey used in The Painted Kiss, which I, by the way, will surely remember more fondly.

Oh wait, that made me think: What’s with Hickey and hedonistic and irresponsible, albeit talented male artists who were reduced to invalids until their death? And luckily for them, one has a faithful woman who remained unmarried and the other a loyal mistress but an unfaithful wife who never left!



Currently reading

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie




Photo Source:
Wayward Muse
Half of a Yellow Sun

Friday, August 12, 2011

Philippine Literature in English Today and its Challenge to Contemporary Filipino Writers in English


(In which I share my serious thoughts.)

***

The following is an essay I submitted in school in response to my professor's question as regards to the current status of Philippine literature in English and the challenges the present and future Filipino writers in English face.

***

We live in an age where the kind of lifestyle predominant was unimaginable 100 years ago. Through the continuing development of science and technology, every aspect of human life is expected to improve. These advancements help shape the tremendous change in almost every field of study – communication, business, arts, etc. As technology elevates various fields of science and arts into a widely spread compilation of information accessible through the World Wide Web, it is no wonder that it has done equally so with Philippine literature. Therefore, the literary critic Isagani R. Cruz was correct when he said that “The Philippine literature is alive and well and living on the Web.” (Cruz, 2009)

He gave this statement in a lecture with the student group WIKA Kabataan in UP Diliman where he was asked to explain the current status of Philippine literature. In his article published in the Philippine Star entitled “Philippine Literature Today”, he managed to depict the condition of the country’s literature through a presentation of three types of writing – an excerpt from Virgilio Almario’s Hudhud trickily presented as prose, a long text from a blog presented as verse and a paragraph from Bob Ong’s blog. The reaction of the students in the conference confirmed his thesis for the lecture – that Bob Ong symbolizes Philippine literature today.

Considering the age of the Philippine population, it is rather expected that the youth will be the driving force of changes in the field of written arts. Their needs and predilection will be the prime mover of the future of our country’s literature. Therefore, Bob Ong’s popularity is an easy win, not to mention epic. The youth can easily relate themselves to his writing and the language in which his works is presented is the icing on the cake.

However, Bob Ong being known as a writer in Filipino raises questions concerning the other major aspect of our country’s literature: Who, or what, then, is the icon for contemporary Philippine literature in English?

Currently published works of fiction in the country written in English by Filipino writers are dominated by YA (Young Adult) and graphic novels. The subgenres vary from chick lit to fantasy. This trend, however, is expected, as in the case of Philippine literature in Filipino. Again, the current trend is dictated by the penchant of the younger generation; the popularization of which is made easier by online catalogs and digital downloads. It is also worth noting that these fictions are somehow patterned from the Western example, which where some of the problems start.

The revolution of the modern world around anything Western could be considered the epitome of the challenges that the present and future Filipino writers in English must face. The hype directing readers towards Western literature was one of the main causes for the insufficiency of the market for locally published works of literature. (Wikipilipinas) One sad facet of this is the readers’ creation of standards regarding the books that they choose to read. Not that setting a standard is bad. However, if the readers base their criteria on foreign books, i.e., writing styles and themes, the Filipino writer is expected to come to terms with it by giving in to what the prospective market expects, thus somehow losing some important aspects of cultural signatures in writing in favor of profit. Another challenge the Filipino writers need to triumph over deals with grammar, diction and meaning of words. (Santos, 2002) Although this might be a case of cultural preference or even tradition, some expressions, words and writing styles may appear unappealing to other readers.

Given these problems, the present and future Filipino writers in English are then expected to strive more in the attempts of encouraging more readers. It is quite ironic that in a population of more than 90 million, a literary work with a maximum publication of 1,000 copies is considered a bestseller if it sold that thousand copies in a year. (FilipinoWriter) Hopefully, in the future, more readers would be interested in patronizing works by local authors and eventually help in providing a more solid identity to our literature. It may sound Herculean, but not impossible.

References

Cruz, Isagani. (2009, August 20). Philippine Literature Today. The Philippine Star. Retrieved December 7, 2010, from http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleid=497452

Philippine Literature in English. (n.d.). In Wikipilipinas. Retrieved December 7, 2010, from http://en.wikipilipinas.org/index.php?title=Philippine_Literature_in_English

Santos, H. O. (2002) Philippine Literature Today: A View from Afar. Philippine Best Short Stories. Retrieved December 7, 2010, from http://www.sushidog.com/bpss/essays/rplit_today.htm

Tantizm, (2009, September 8) "Read or Die" ni National Artist Virgilio S. Almario. Retrieved December 9, 2010, from http://www.filipinowriter.com/read-or-die-ni-national-artist- virgilio-s-almario

ReaderCon Filipino Friday Week 1: Introduce Yourself

(In which one’s colors are proudly shown.)

***

This weekly meme hosted by the First Filipino ReaderCon site five weeks before the event gathers Filipino book bloggers to unite. As it’s the opening week, participating bloggers are invited to introduce themselves. Write an introduction about yourself and link up here! Or better yet, come to the First Filipino ReaderCon event! Please check the website for the details.

***

I am Funandfearless. Not that the pseudonym really reflects a fierce and outgoing personality. The choice is more driven by the cool sounding title from a magazine than reality. This blog, The Bibliophilic Night Owl, however, is more realistically connected to me, as the only serene time for me to read is late evening, or early morning, depending on what time I got home from work.

My library is the self-same room I sleep in and inhabit when I’m at home. I just pile the mostly secondhand books I acquire in my weekend wanderings on one corner and let them fill the space. I group them according to my own weird categorization. I actually have two TBR piles – one for the not-so-interesting-so-no-rush books and the I-can’t-wait-to-read pile. Then I’ve got the already-read pile.

I don’t have a lot of books since I have just restarted reading last year, or was that two years ago? Anyway, I am a terribly slow reader. I usually spend a month on regular books. When I say regular books I mean the ones whose pages range from 300 – 400. So it takes 2 months for 800+paged books, and so on. See? I’m really slow.

The books I read are not the ones favored by the majority. I enjoy historical fiction. But not all types of historical fiction. My book piles generally include art and music fiction, or those about famous people (as long as I know them) and recently, I began to collect novels about courtesans. My favorite authors are Susan Vreeland, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Arabella Edge, Sarah Dunant as well as Michel Faber, who was nowthe most unforgettable in my list of authors for providing me my best read for this year – The Crimson Petal and the White.

I haven’t read a lot of books yet. And I haven’t explored every literary genre there is. But I’m taking my time. Besides, I still have a lot of nighttime to read.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mt. Mayon by Simeon Dumdum Jr.


(In which I got the chance to see it again . . . in someone else's eyes.)

***

Mt. Mayon
(From the airport in Legaspi City)

Simeon Dumdum Jr.

As to this jacketed, hunting-capped
And skippered man following me as though
Afraid I might ogle his daughter,
Perhaps he is really just a tricycle driver
Stalking a fare, but beast enough to stand
Wide-eyed, watching this mountain too
As it goes déshabillé, while the wind
Shoos away the clouds of sheep until
nothing remains
But a lamb sucking the blue nipple.

***

At first read, or even at the second or third, a reader will simply find a scenario typical of provincial mountainside life in Simeon Dumdum Jr.'s Mt. Mayon. It is just a fleeting moment, a scene captured through the lens of a camera and could even be an abstract emotional memories of one's first visit to a province. But the structural brevity and simplicity of the poem actually exude beauty and love for it.

I have been to Bicol only once and was granted a visit to a mountain where we got a better look at Mt. Mayon. Some of the memories I had from that trip include children running barefoot after our vehicle while shouting greetings of welcome, and old men and women smiling toothlessly at the sight of local tourists. It was so heartwarming, light and human. Yet those adjectives always fell short of full description. So when I read how Dumdum described the man he encountered at the airport, I was amazed both by the simplicity and the weight of words he used.
As to this jacketed, hunting-capped
And skippered man following me as though
Afraid I might ogle his daughter,
Perhaps he is really just a tricycle driver
Stalking a fare . . .
And then the sight of the mountain. It had been a long time since it was branded for it conical perfection. But I dare say that at time, I, the amateur self-proclaimed connoisseur of beauty that I am, saw no apparent disgrace to its name, based on postcards from which my judgment emanated. It was no wonder why the man was,
. . . but beast enough to stand
Wide-eyed, watching this mountain too . . .
It was just a moment, a fleeting moment when wind and mist of evaporated water waltzed to uncover a beauty capable of putting other beauties to shame. The excitement one experiences while watching the mountain come into clearer view is akin to the expectation of a gallery spectator for a celebrated masterpiece to be unveiled. As the clouds, which Dumdum referred to as "clouds of sheep", moved away, what remains is the perfect mound of earth, déshabillé. At the peak of it was "a lamb sucking the blue nipple", the tip of the cone kissing the blue sky.
As it goes déshabillé, while the wind
Shoos away the clouds of sheep until
nothing remains
But a lamb sucking the blue nipple.
Poetry, in its purest and most perfect state, is a reproduction of ephemeral beauty with the hope of making it last for posterity. In Mt. Mayon, Simeon Dumdum Jr.'s artistic play of words was a gift to people who love nature as well as verses. It could even be a call, a reminder for people to look around and marvel at how wonderful the world is, and perhaps ruminate on the fact that serenity could be sometimes found in a glance at a beautiful mound of earth.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

(In which everything is surprising.)

***

“Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them”, goes the introductory warning in Michel Faber’s novel about a nineteen-year-old prostitute named Sugar and his patron, the future owner of Rackham Perfumeries, William. The speaker of this warning leads the reader down to dark alleys slimy with muck and noisy with yells of mongers and pathetic pleas and offers of beggars and prostitutes competing for the attention of passers-by. This is where the 895-page tour starts.
The first itinerary is Church Lane, St. Giles, in the house where Caroline, Sugar’s friend and also a prostitute, lives. It only needs several minutes of being guided through all the external and internal filth of the place for the reader to realize that this is not the place one wants to stay in. Luckily, Caroline takes us to a more decent (compared to St. Giles, of course) Silver Street where Sugar is to be met. Sugar then takes the visitor to Mrs. Castaway’s house of ill repute and to The Fireside, a tavern Sugar frequents in search for customers. From here, the course of an unusual romance between a man who had been refusing to manage a perfume empire and therefore has been suffering an increasingly unbearable financial torture from his father, and a whore whose only dream is (well, apart from publishing her rather gory novel which depicts her desire to be the female version of Jack the Ripper) to escape the embarrassing and disgusting life in a whorehouse run by her own mother, begins to take shape.
The affair started out of William’s curiosity regarding a very inviting article from More Sprees in London – Hints for Men About Town, with advice for greenhorns which features Sugar as the most sought-after girl in Mrs. Castaway’s. After a night of being with her, William decides that Sugar is to be his and only his. And for that to materialize, he needs to elevate from a distressed husband with a blurry future to a man of great consequence. He eventually becomes able to afford exclusive patronage of Sugar, and later on, a luxurious lodging at Priory Close as their love nest. Their dangerously clandestine relationship takes the visitor to omnibus and carriage rides to William’s mansion at Chepstow Villas, Notting Hill to his vast lavender farms; to the shabby house of William’s brother Henry to the Catholic church that Agnes, William’s sickly wife, thinks was miraculous as well as to her own delusional Convent of Health and to the secluded quarters of their daughter Sophie. In fear of losing William, Sugar armors herself not only with facts about perfume-making through painstaking determination but with intimate knowledge of the Rackhams and goes as far as stalking them to parties and theaters. It is an enjoyable trip – intriguing and amusing and stressful all at the same time. But, of course, the novel doesn’t start with a warning for nothing.
The Crimson Petal and the White is unique in the boldness of using the subjects of sex and filth with such a smooth artistic refinement. The scenes he painted are not the usual places one reads in historical novels. Instead of massive, grand hallways where wealth reigns and ladies in fashionable clothes speak in hushed voices, he describes pathetic makeshift houses with pathetic inhabitants compared to a mansion teeming with servants but holds a young girl captive in fear of a superstitious mother. The characters are not noblemen but mere businessmen and a prostitute. The peripheral characters include a doctor, a clergyman and widows and widowers. And the picture of poverty! The novel taps the social and religious state of the era so hard one would thank the novelist cum tour guide for the cautionary introduction of this novel within a novel.
Dark, sexy, dirty and mysterious with all the comparisons and contrasts and the fearless blending of all those, The Crimson Petal and the White proves any reader initially daunted by its weight wrong. In fact, its dimensions are designed to make one scream for more. For after reading a tale of only a hundred and five pages short of a thousand, the tourist will be caught stranded in the same street where the journey started, watching Caroline disappear in the darkness amidst the sound of a carriage leaving, with the guide ending the trip with this:
“But now, it’s time to let me go.”
Currently reading:

The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey





Photo Source:
Crimson Petal and the White
The Wayward Muse