Reading Novels: A Novelist’s View

[Note: I thought I’d set my thoughts down, in any case it will be useful for future lectures, on this issue that has bedeviled me since I was a kid—why do people write about Filipino novels as if they were not constructed out of specific material: language, perspective, narrative structures, and so on? I think I cover here 3 aspects of the Filipino novel that I would consider when coming to terms with their so-called “meanings”: language and its tricks; the translatedness inherent in the Filipino novel [how the author confronts the problem of our multiple languages in the novel]; and the role of the reader: or the web of writer/reader/text/world that a novelist is always dealing with, consciously or not.

Caveat: A section of this involves a reading of my own novel, which is, I think dangerous territory for any writer. Of course, I have read Roland Barthes declare the author is dead; and I have agreed with him, on one level. One harm in describing your work to others is that readers might see your author’s perspective as absolute truth—and so you destroy an intrinsic enjoyment of a reader: her freedom to imagine her own meanings. I’d say the deconstruction, however, of Barthes’s point is that an author is just as provisional a reader of her work as anyone else. I respond here to my work as that provisional reader—I am very aware, whenever I think of my work, that my reading is not absolute. That is not to say I might not be as obstinate or hardheaded as any other reader. But absolutely, there are multiple ways to read the novel—and mine is only one of them.]

On Reading Novels: A Novelist’s View

A friend of mine, the essayist Laurel Fantauzzo, recently tagged me on FB to show me an essay written in Manila Review. When I read that it was a discussion of the elite in Philippine novels, and one of the novels under discussion happened to be my last novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, I groaned. I thought my work was being corralled into one of those pieces consciously or unconsciously privileging the privileged that I had seen before in Manila Review. The novel was being discussed along with other work about so-called elites, such as F. Sionil Jose’s Juan Bacnang and Rizal’s El Filibusterismo. An editor of the Review pointedly told me later on that I should feel good because the novel was “placed on the same level as F. Sionil Jose and Jose Rizal.” The statement puzzled me: of course the novel should be placed on the same level as F. Sionil Jose and Jose Rizal. It is a novel, carefully written, with the history of the Filipino novel, and Rizal, in its sights, which is the burden anyhow of all Filipino novels. (I was, in fact, thinking about the Fili a lot when I wrote Gun Dealers’ Daughter.)

I wondered why it is when novels gets discussed, they often seem to be manhandled and run roughshod over with impunity to fit some social studies thesis, as I call it, say, on colonial war or second wave feminism or the diaspora. (In some ways, my personal response to this type of thinking about books made me begin a novel when I was around nineteen, called Bibliolepsy.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad the novel was read. And I think it is absolutely important to consider the social dimension of the novel. I write novels with that social dimension in mind. As a writer slightly obsessed by our history, I think our emergence as a nation perhaps makes it imperative to yoke how our art is constructed with the social dimension in which it exists. But I think the discussion of one should go with the other.

And I have found beautiful readings of the novel in essays of that sort.

I heard a long time ago one of the most beautiful readings of a novel—a lecture on Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere in a social science building at Johns Hopkins. I had no idea who the lecturer was. But the essay was a close reading of the graveyard scene of Noli Me Tangere,Todos los santos,” when the narrator notes the stench of peeing dog on Manila’s graves. The lecturer did a lovely reading of the tone of the Noli: the sarcastic wordplay of Rizal’s Spanish, teasing out vagaries of insult and injury in Rizal’s arch choice of verbs (les calienten y laven), exhuming a voice lost to us. Then he compared Rizal’s Spanish to the English translation by Leon Maria Guerrero: he noted the dull, bowdlerized American English of the famous translation by Guerrero that had won a Commonwealth Prize. This lecturer had me from the minute he revealed, through his illumination of Rizal’s verbs, the richness of meaning arising from a simple close reading of the text—from looking closely at tonalities of words. From there this lecturer went on to his point—his social studies thesis—the colonial tragedy of the Philippines. He discussed colonialism, but he did it through the tragedy of translation: the Filipino loss of the voice of Rizal, through bowdlerized speech, an erasure of the novel’s pleasures arising from prim Victorianism and censorship in the American era. In short, and quite wondrously, he did a whole sweep of the cruel effects of the American colonial era through one close reading of verbs.

I left that lecture hall fairly stumbling, as if I were drunk. It was a profound pleasure that has still not left me, and I have spoken about it before—this powerful commingling of language, text, and thought to raise a specter of my history that I had never contemplated.

I wrote my second novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, more or less haunted by that essay’s evocation of a lost Rizal. Much later, I learned the lecturer was Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities. (So if anyone has ever felt burdened by the obligation to read The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, blame it on Ben Anderson.)

What I am pointing out right now is the power of a close reading of a text—it can both evoke a history and create a novel.

What concerned me about the Manila Review essay, and all essays of that sort, were the unmentioned gaps in the way such essays discuss novels. It’s a fault of the genre, maybe. I was in the middle, actually, of writing my next novel. So when I got the tag from Laurel, I gave the piece the once-over and, while I found the work’s historical ideas replete, beautifully nuanced (though I disagreed ultimately with its concluding prescriptions), on the other hand I did not recognize my novel at all—didn’t hear language, tropes, ironies, complexities—a non-reading of art.

It was strange how viscerally repulsed I was by the discussion of the novel, anodyne and congenial though it was. The novel was reduced to a social studies thesis: “novels like Gun Dealers’ Daughter depict the social crisis in terms of an existential crisis, a crisis of identity etc etc. They highlight the economic inequalities and socio-political divisions that haunt Philippine society, etc etc but are unable to offer any terms for imagining the elite etc etc other than as tragic figures of guilt and betrayal etc etc who continue nevertheless to live on the largesse etc etc that inflicts its own forms of everyday violence on the less privileged etc etc.”

It was, to my mind, a sordid, flat, and numbing way to read art—a non-reading of it as an art form, which can lead to misreading it. And the sense of the Filipino novel as almost always a translated text, a text about language, as usual was absent. Lastly, the imagined community of reading, writing, text and world, which is at the heart of writing novels, was buried by flattening sociological distinctions quite unconcerned about the ambiguities of novels created from a writer’s art-moves to craft reader response.

In short, with all its elisions of a novel’s actual art, of a novel’s language and technical and structural gestures to make its meanings, some bowdlerized rendition of novels occurs in these types of essays that flourish somehow—a disemboweling, which strips the Filipino novel of a core and feeds as if on a corpse, gnawing at it with whatever sociological aim it has in mind—making essays of this sort seem more like, may I say it, a stench of warm urine over some hapless graves.

It is not the essayist’s fault, as I much admire Caroline Hau, author of Necessary Fictions, perhaps one of our best close readers of fiction, and of Rizal. To me, it is a problem with that essay genre—it accepts such elisions. It’s possible my enduring dissatisfaction with essays of this sort may be because my ear is simply tuned differently: that is why I am a writer and not a social scientist. But it bears constant repeating that when sociological pieces carefully consider and question art as well as its ramifications, you get powerful readings, as you have in the deconstructions of Necessary Fictions. There are the pleasures of Martin J. Ponce’s Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading, steeped in close readings and hugely illuminating. Same with witty readings, like Sarita See’s essays in The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance, to name just one.

I imagine that for me, a teacher of novel reading, discussing the novel as art in popular journals when discussing its social dimension helps also as a way to instruct—it teaches non-academic people how to read art. This alone is a social good, as the coarsening of that faculty also diminishes our ability to understand each other, or know ourselves.

Lastly, I understand as someone who is always thinking about novels, or in the middle of writing a novel, the mysteries of crafting art are my central concern—and so silence on the acts and art of novel writing occurs to me only as obtuse. After all, themes in novels generally arise from the desperation of artists trying to solve their work’s problems. Novels are a result of a daily grappling with form.

I go back to Ben Anderson’s commentary on Rizal. The entire lecture was about our culture’s loss because of our inability to read Rizal as perhaps Rizal was meant to be read—with the full flavor of turns of phrase, subtle sarcasms, reserved ironies or blunt insult. To read Rizal as an artist who was careful with his language, interested in his tropes, anxious about his narrative choices. But I would go even further—and I have said this before—we have killed Rizal even much more than the Spaniards or Americans have because we have placed him, too often, within that social studies thesis without apology or self-reflection—he is manhandled and mangled to fit whatever social need we have for him. So we often fail to see Rizal as a man who carefully wrote novels. And this kind of reading from scholars likely infects, who knows, our common discourse about art.

Hence the seeming specialness of being told by someone—your novel is being compared to Rizal’s—when it should be quite a normal thing for one novel to be compared to another novel. No one wonders in casual conversation about whether filosofo Tasio’s speech about Purgatory is a grafted diatribe taken from one of Rizal’s journals on religion or, in fact, a seamless part of the Noli’s plot. We’re not taught in either our classrooms or journals to imagine the writer or the work in flux. Instead, we get such paragraphs—passing as they are and a blip in the writer’s canon, such paragraphs are still numbing: “Rizal’s novels continue to cast a long shadow over Philippine literature because of their memorable, often scathing portraits of assorted members of the elite, but also because of the question of revolutionary violence they pose.” These history-based approaches could bear to question how the elision of art in discussing texts further cripples our ability to read them well. We have a mania for the social dimension in art (but it is not peculiar to us: it is common in high school freshmen, readers at book signings, introductions in anthologies, and maybe, who knows, peeing dogs). So in our common discourse Rizal remains this man whose words are meanings and themes couched in smug prescriptions rather than, or also, a crafted, carefully devised, ambiguous art.

But when we fail to see the novelist at his craft, what do we lose?

We can lose the fantastic and mesmerizing mirroring that complicates the twin novels of Rizal.

I’d like to talk about Rizal here from my perspective a bit, from reading him as a novelist. My favorite among Rizal’s works is the Fili. Recently, I did a rereading of the Noli and the Fili in tandem, mainly for fun (and for the usual occult reasons as I write a new novel, but I still don’t know what those reasons are). I also wished to confirm a thesis I had about his art.

Disclaimer: I love Rizal. He’s a mutant nerd before whom my irony fails; I’m not one of those who’d like to smash the idol with my hip wit—that’s a job, equally entertaining, for some other reader, or maybe my other me; I think we are lucky to have him, period. For this current writing project, I read first Chapter 1 of the Fili, then Chapter 1 of the Noli, and so on, creating a puzzle reading that I thought might simply be amusing. My thesis, however, was this: the Fili is a mirror text of the Noli—written mainly to revise it. But what I found, oddly enough, was also the converse: read in tandem with the Fili, the Noli gains complexity and texture as a strangely doubled text, as if the rich and fluent Fili also lives in it, a ghost within its machine.

In the end these mirror-texts could tell me a story of Rizal as a novelist. What might come from the reading is a portrait of a writer questioning his means, wondering through his second novel about his first novel’s choices. Ambeth Ocampo tells me there is yet no book on Rizal as a novelist, which does not surprise me. His use of perspective, for instance, rarely comes up in discussions of Rizaliana, though some social studies thesis on vegetable gardens, or opium addiction, or student life in Manila, could be well served by a close reading of the books’ choices of discourse. (When vegetables come up, the discourse is a woman’s, a priest’s, or a madman’s.)

I have always found the Noli a less interesting text: my trite formulation has been that the Noli is great as propaganda but not as artful as the Fili. When I was reading Rizal for my second novel, Raymundo Mata, I began to think that our sensibilities are still tied to his favored nineteenth-century romances: the pop melodrama of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas that so enthralled Jose Rizal. If the Filipino novel is germinated by Rizal, then Rizal’s tastes tell me nineteenth-century French blockbusters, like Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew and Hugo’s Les Misérables, are in our DNA. And the Noli’s voice, to me, seems more tuned to the Frenchmen Hugo, Sue, and Dumas than to their younger, seemingly more experimental contemporary, Flaubert. (To be honest, I kept wishing the Noli would read more waywardly, like the eighteenth-century, like Candide.)

As I read his letters and miscellanea, I kept looking for signs Rizal had read Flaubert. I knew he had certainly read Balagtas, a romantic spirit that runs through the Noli. Anderson notes he had one book by Flaubert in his library and many by Dumas. I knew from his letters he loved Eugene Sue, The Wandering Jew in particular, now a fairly unreadable novel (at least to me; I tried, and I sadly found it ghastly), but I wished to know whether he was familiar with that exemplar of style indirect libre, or free indirect discourse—Flaubert. I had this theory that my enjoyment of the Fili has to do with the fluidity of Rizal’s narration modes in the book, an entertaining, complex, para-Flaubertian style. (I recognize this happens to turn on my own taste in novel-making: I accept that my comments are shot through by my own views of art. I also accept that my concerns with his texts are technical: I read all books, from Poe through Perec, for instruction on my own writing.) But I did not need to find Flaubert under Rizal’s pillow to confirm my idea of about narration modes; I just needed to read the Noli and the Fili in tandem, one chapter after another, and compare their uses of point of view.

Free indirect discourse is a supple narration that enters multiple consciousnesses within an omniscient frame. The psychological acuities of Henry James and the comic shrewdness of Jane Austen (to mention just two of my favorite novelists, who teach me a lot) arise from those authors’ fabulous control of this third person form. Free indirect discourse allows for multiple and contingent authorities and in turn also plays tricks with the reader’s consciousness. The nineteenth-century novels of Dumas and Hugo, beloved of Rizal, enthralling in other ways, indulge mostly in the straight omniscient voice. And it’s true, in general, Rizal does use a straight omniscient in both novels: his default mode is a single, ironic voice of authority that delivers his themes with excellent and subtle wit. He’s good at it. He follows a good writing workshop mantra: he sticks to his strengths. Especially in the Noli, his godlike, omniscient perch above the fray is a powerful tool to impel reader response—specifically, outrage.

Rereading Father Damaso’s evil malice at the beginning of the Noli, I still get angry. I hate Father Damaso as much as I hated him when I was a kid, and I want to kick him in his stupid, handsome Roman coño face. It became clear, on rereading, how Rizal’s omniscient narration in the Noli binds the reader to his seductive bias. It’s important to note that his godlike irony is the vessel of speech for the angry Filipino in the text—whom in fact Rizal does not picture in chapters 1 and 2 of the Noli. Instead, he foregrounds the acts and dialogue of the elites, all Spaniards. In those opening scenes, Rizal’s omniscient voice is the sole witness for the otherwise mute, absent, and angry Filipino. His omniscience and our absence whet our anti-Spanish rage: this sharpening of our knives, that is, our reader response, is a prominent part of his novel.

Reader and narrator are entwined in the Noli and the Fili: we, the reader, are part of Rizal’s narrative moves, and shrewd as he was, his choices of narration inevitably bound us to him—they incited revolt. He clearly had a social studies thesis in mind, and he played his readers with a puppeteer’s skill to create a novel of propaganda that, as we know, worked only too well—it killed him (a narrative consequence I do not necessarily recommend). This keen sense of readership is crucial to the Noli and central to its power. Neglecting the role of the reader in the Noli diminishes our understanding of the text.

The fascinating mirroring of the two novels, the eerie incidences of twinning in the Noli and the Fili, further complicated any superficial reading I had of the Noli. One of the more obvious mirrorings is the twin structures of scenes.

The most powerful among these mirrored chapters, for instance, are the parallel Chapters 23. Fili Ch23 is titled “Un cadaver:” multiple deaths or decays are imagined in this chapter but the corpse in question lies in the news Basilio delivers to Simoun, on the brink of his revolution plot—that Maria Clara is dead. And what is the parallel action in Noli Ch23? Hauntingly, it is the memorable scene of the picnic, when the young lovers are completely blissful, and Elias the pilot saves them from the crocodile, and we hear a full poem by Rizal sung in Maria Clara’s voice—sweet are the hours in one’s native land. How eerie to have these two chapters side by side, like inverted envelopes in which one scene enfolds the other: so that the news of Maria Clara’s death encloses her voice in the past singing Rizal’s distant poem of his country, and the song of Maria Clara in the Noli encloses her future as un cadaver, destroyed by a priest’s lust.

But even in less haunting ways, these seeming accidents of analogy occur. In Chapter 5 of both novels, for instance—in Fili Ch. 5, Basilio, an orphan, returns home to San Diego on Christmas break; in Noli Ch. 5, Ibarra, who has just been told why he is an orphan, is spending his first night home on his return to Manila. Orphan versus orphan returning home in these parallel chapters. These hallucinatory mirrorings kept happening as I reread: funhouse returns of doubling scenes. In the analogy created by this tandem reading, Ibarra, the upper-class victim of priests, is translated in the Fili into Basilio, the lower-class victim of priests. Thus, in the Fili, Rizal recasts his hero, turning the upper class into the lower class, and so in the Noli, vice versa. (Remember Rizal was a sculptor, too, and thus familiar with recasting: of remolding and overlaying forms.)

This structural twinning gets underlined in the mirrored narration strategies of Chapter 6 of both novels: Fili Ch. 6 is a flashback, telling the backstory of Basilio, that is, the saga of the education of a poor servant kid. But interestingly, Noli Ch. 6 is also a flashback, but telling the backstory of Capitan Tiago, that is, the saga of how a dumb wealthy kid becomes wealthier. Constantly, the Noli’s chapters on the elite become implicated in the saga of the lower classes through analogous mirrorings in the Fili. Talk about demoño de las comparaciones indeed.

Surely one can say he’s just a writer with a narrow imagination—he doesn’t have too many plots. As Poe’s detective Dupin might say: possible but not interesting. It is fascinating to imagine how these doublings and analogies in the two novels allow us to imagine Rizal’s problems as a writer, his self-critiques. Rizal in his ephemera is garrulous, about boxing or books or bagoong. But he never much talks about his art: he talks about problems with nation not narration. But the amazingly persistent mirroring of structures, characters, scenes, and tropes in the Noli and Fili tells us that, in some way, the Fili does rewrite the Noli, not, as I imagined, only by his narration modes but also by his weird doublings, capturing, but in elusive and not strictly absolute ways, how Rizal commented, through the Fili, on the Noli’s devices, questioned them, resculpted them, reframed binaries of elites and masses, or indio and Spaniard, or civil and religious, or slave and revolutionary, and so wondered about his art. Someone else can write a whole book on that.

It is only by Chapter 7 in the Noli that Rizal moves into free indirect discourse, in the third person limited voice of Maria Clara; most of the novel otherwise is in persuasive omniscient. Rizal is very comfortable in a woman’s voice. The first trace of free indirect discourse in the Fili is also the psychological perspective of a woman: Basilio’s superstitious girlfriend, Juli. But unlike the Noli, by Chapter 4 onward, the Fili moves fluidly into multiple third person perspectives, indirect and free indirect modes of various characters—he ventriloquizes the psychological perceptions of the untutored Juli, the unlettered wit of the coachman carrying the medical student Basilio back home, the grief and terror of Basilio confronting the frighteningly radical Simoun in that creepy place of textual doubling, “Ibarra’s wood” (which is the site of Elias’s death in the Noli and entombs both the focus of Basilio’s grief, Sisa, and the focus of Simoun’s grief, the twin of Ibarra, that is, Elias—an infinite trail of mirrorings) and so on.

So fluid in his use of perspective in the Fili, Rizal seems to have liberated himself from the straitjacket of the omniscient in the Noli, giving consciousness to multiple voices in that new, confident, but experimental style, from Chapter 4 onward. For such a young writer, working only on his second book, Rizal displays no nerves, making unexpected moves, some noted already by Anderson in his readings of the chapter “Tatakut.” It is no wonder the Fili is less taught in high school classes—the book gets weird. He shifts in and out of the the minds of casual cynic Pecson, cowardly bully Juanito, opportunistic but oppressed Chinaman Quiroga—a whole panoply of tipos manilenses, as Rizal called them—in ways that seem to acknowledge the flat urgencies of the Noli’s singular propaganda voice. But interestingly, even as he moves into fresh narrative territory while recycling old plots, he honors the problems of Filipino discourse he had solved in the Noli. A novel quite clearly about the ‘social cancer’ of colonialism, the Fili also ponders the art of the novel—Rizal’s first novel, the Noli, in particular.

Chapter 7 is a touchstone passage in both the Fili’s themes and the Fili’s art.

Chapter 7 of the Fili is a gorgeous set piece. Amazingly reflexive, it weaves perhaps one of the most complex reader-writer-text-[language]-nation webs in Philippine writing—that imagined community in novels that I find most persistently engrossing and problematic in my own experience of writing novels.

It’s important to recognize here that the central plot of the Fili puts the novel in reflexive, refractive, mirroring territory—the reading/writing theme of language. The students in Chapter 2 are agitating for a Castilian Academy in Manila: a school for teaching Spanish. A crisis of language is the plot’s pivot. Rizal asks: is it revolutionary for Filipinos to learn Spanish?

One hears loudly the self-critical question of the writer Rizal: what does it mean for him to be writing a Filipino novel “hold[ing] a mirror up to nature” in Spanish?

And it implicates the text-within-this-text, the Noli—because the Noli has the odd effect of being both a bomb, la mecha, set among friars but also the fuse, a call to action, among Filipinos, precisely for its art-crime of convincingly mirroring (considering any number of projections and misrecognitions such mirroring entails) the conditions of Rizal’s Philippines.

Simoun says to Basilio, whom he accuses as a lower-order thinker, a reformist, who does not understand that a Filipino’s faith in Spain’s civil authority is a radical failure of self-analysis: “Go ahead, ask for Hispanization and do not blanch from shame when they tell you no…You want to add another language to the forty-odd we already speak here so we can understand one another even less?”

Simoun’s speech is a beautiful expletive that explodes in a singular tongue the problem of having multiple tongues. He delivers his illuminating rant on the Castilian in illuminating Castilian:

El español nunca será lenguaje general en el pais, el pueblo nunca lo hablará porque para las concepciones de su cerebro y los sentimientos de su corazon no tiene frases ese idioma: cada pueblo tiene el suyo, como tiene su manera de sentir. ¿Qué vais á conseguir con el castellano, los pocos que lo habeis de hablar? ¡Matar vuestra originalidad, subordinar vuestros pensamientos á otros cerebros y en vez de haceros libres haceros verdaderamente esclavos!”

How odd for Simoun to ventriloquize this point that Rizal has, in fact, already made quite moot through the persuasive phrases of his last novel, the Noli: “Spanish will never be the language of the country, the people of the country will never speak it because for the thoughts of their own mind and sentiments of their heart that idiom does not have phrases: each people has its own tongue, as it has its own manner of feeling. What will you gain with Spanish, the few who will speak it? Kill your originality, subordinate your thoughts to others’ minds and instead of gaining your freedom make yourselves truly into slaves!”

And so Rizal questions both the Noli and himself—wondering about his own originality and subordination, one of “the few who will speak it.” At the same time he frees himself from the bondage of being the iconic author of the Noli, indicted by Simoun as a suspect text, while also, oddly enough, recognizing its power.

The breathtaking reflexivity in this passage is contradictory, provocative, and dizzying on several levels: Simoun, speaking in Spanish, convicts himself as one of the verdaderamente esclavos [truly enslaved]; Basilio, understanding Simoun’s Spanish (he functions, too, as the reader’s proxy in the passage), is thus complicit and so also esclavo; the Filipino reader who understands Simoun’s Spanish is also part of the textual crime and thus esclavo; the novel, written in Spanish, is destabilized explicitly by the writer who devised this passage denouncing el español in español; and the writer, writing in Spanish, convicts himself, too, by the damning words he fashions in Simoun’s oracular voice.

This conviction by language—to play on that English pun—raises that specter (or speculum, Latin for mirror, as Rizal’s pedant Sybila might note, using one more of Rizal’s tongues) of that great mirror-novel hidden in the Fili, that is, the Noli. But he also knows the Noli has paradoxically already opened the eyes of the verdaderamente esclavos—in some sense freeing them (and in terms of the Noli’s reach, this is true not only of those Filipinos who read Spanish, but extends also its voice to us, those who read it in translation).

By what awry, magical stroke, then, does Rizal in this passage complicate his novels but also conjure the problems of the Filipino reader of his novels? He creates a destabilized, reflexive people who must cross-examine who they are, or, in a sense, understand that they must recognize themselves through misrecognition, as a constantly lost and yet found figure of translation, when they read the nation in Rizal’s words.

This is the crux of ourselves as a nation—and the problem of all our novelists—we exist in translation, colonized and mediated and lost yet found in our multiple texts—and tongues. We are condemned to our multiple speech-selves. Very early on, like a prescient prophet of our “postcoloniality,” as some call our traumatic condition, Rizal in his novels grapples explicitly with the labyrinth of language that defines us.

As the student Sandoval exclaims in Fili Ch 14: “What does the integrity of the state have to do with the rules of syntax?!”

Well, Rizal the novelist might say—everything.

Of course, one must also take Simoun’s speech with a grain of salt: Rizal’s dialogues are diabolically dialectical (to be honest, as a writer I most envy Rizal’s skill as a luminous debater of plural ideas in conversations, powerful in both the Noli and the Fili). One is meant to refract this speech through Basilio’s (the proxy reader’s) modest skepticism in the scene, and as the novel unfolds, Simoun—versus such idealists as the poet Isagani or hopeful cynics like the student Pecson and so on—keeps shape-shifting: he is a masked, unstable truth-teller. We do not know even until the end if we are on his side.

This ambiguity is deliberate. Rizal is very aware of personalities as analogies, comparaciones rather than singularities, existing within a dialectic of ideas and forces, not simply as a flat image without a glass backing—without a mirror of comparisons. It is hard to see the elite Simoun without seeing his translation, or reflection, in the poor orphan Basilio in the scenes they have with each other, or to view poet Isagani without his twin, lawyer Señor Pasta, in that dialogue in which they both appear: scene by scene, Rizal keeps projecting one character in the other, and not only that, one book into the other, mirroring perhaps the multiplicity of his own desires and, more obviously, the rigors of his highly reflexive intellect.

As I noted in Raymundo Mata, it is no accident that Ibarra’s middle name is Magsalin, an infinitive verb, a pun, meaning both to translate and to transfuse blood—to me the name shows how aware he was of words, homonyms, and doubling texts running in our veins. In his Miscellaneous Writings, he gossips about his friends, such as the pseudo-novelist Paterno, in code—he’s a word trickster. One hears him laughing as he sets up his unexpected cryptogram for resurrecting that cryptic head in the Fili’s Quiapo Fair chapter—the password Deremof—an anagram not in Spanish but English, a double-tongued sword, meaning freedom.

Thus, any consideration of the representation of the elite or of peasants must consider the profoundly analogical, refractive acts of representation that run through these novels: there is nothing flat in the work of Rizal. There is trickery in his texts: he’s a demonic comparative thinker—and highly aware of readership, or acts of reading and writing in the text. Even in his practice as a novelist, he exercised reflexivity and found a way to read himself, and so forge his fresh, astonishing style in the Fili. And he creates, in the figure of Simoun, perhaps, his twin of himself, a doppelganger—a desperate, despairing fixer of plots: that is, a fictionist.

What we often think of as a vacillating revolutionary response in the Fili—the failure of Simoun—because we view him through that social studies lens, needs also to be seen perhaps as Rizal’s artistic response to the Noli: what psychological acuities, aesthetic considerations, and political certainties are gained, refashioned, and lost when one moves into free indirect discourse? You have a more reflective, doubting, politically and psychologically ambiguous character in Simoun, more ambiguous certainly than Elias—because Rizal’s narrative technique has changed. I doubt Rizal was not aware of his conundrum. (I am not saying one cannot extract sociopolitical insights from it, but one must bring up the aesthetic point.)

On one level, like Gun Dealers’ Daughter, Fili is a university novel, and many of its powerful scenes in free indirect discourse are set among students. It is easy to see why my favorite among these is Chapter 13, “La clase de fisica.” After considering the dizzying puzzle of mirror structures in Rizal’s two novels, how fascinating to read that this chapter centers on the trope that illuminates what I consider Rizal’s major device for evoking the nation in his novel-“diptych,” as Neil Garcia accurately names the pair of novels, the Noli and the Fili, so uniting them as one. In this satirical chapter on a physics class, Rizal’s illuminating plot device is—a mirror.

Padre Millon, the sadistic physics teacher who is also an idiot, makes students memorize a numbing definition of that basic subject of materials physics: un espejo:

Se da el nombre de espejo á toda superficie pulimentada, destinada á producir por la reflexion de la luz las imágenes de los objetos situados delante de dicha superficie por las sustancias que forman estas superficies se dividen en espejos metálicos y espejos de cristal…”

“The name mirror is given to all polished surfaces, destined to produce by the reflection of light the images of objects placed in front of said surface by substances that form these surfaces divided into metallic mirrors and glass mirrors…”

This theme of reflexivity, or reflection, or doubling, or mirroring, that becomes the center of this chapter satirizing education in Spanish in the Philippine (and is succeeded by the Quiapo Fair chapter on mirror tricks, and so on), causes a vertigo of refraction in this self-referential text. Because the novel, of course, is also a trick with mirrors, as is Imuthis/Ibarra’s storytelling deception in the Quiapo chapter: “destined to produce by the reflection of light the images of objects placed in front of said surfaces by substances that form these surfaces…”—this scene of the mirror in a physics class conjures a vertiginous layering of images—an infinite regression of reflections that is the fatal, unstable condition of novel-writing, a knowing deception that attempts truth, a ‘truth’ founded on ‘tricks’ [supercherías]—enclosing as a novel does the projections and mirrorings of the reader, the writer, the novel, and the world it hopes to mirror (which includes the reader, the writer, and so on).

Thus, Rizal becomes Borgesian when encountering the Fili with a close reading of his narrative moves. ‘Whimsical,’ yes, but intriguing.

When we gloss over what the novelist is doing to craft his or her meanings, what do we lose?

If I may indulge myself, I’ll go back to that part in the essay in the Manila Review in which my novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, appears in a cameo spot. The essay, a historical inquiry on the theme of the elite in novels, ends up talking about Gun Dealers’ Daughter, after which it segues to clinch a vision of the future of the Filipino novel in terms of its thesis:

“…novels like Gun Dealers’ Daughter depict the social crisis in terms of an existential crisis, a crisis of identity conveyed through images of exile and dislocation, through feelings of alienation and despair, through the fatalistic anhedonia of the elite’s stated irrelevance and non-consequence. They highlight the economic inequalities and sociopolitical divisions that haunt Philippine society, but are unable to offer any terms for imagining the elite other than as tragic figures of guilt and betrayal who continue nevertheless to live on the largesse that inflicts its own forms of everyday violence on the less privileged.”

On a personal level, if I may speak as the writer, the unreading of the novel’s devices in the paragraph is deeply baffling: and to me it leads to misreading. Of course, it is always the reader’s privilege to do as he or she wishes, and my own concerns are perhaps slight—only those of another reader.

But how different would it be if the essay rested on a close reading of the novel’s language or tropes to enable a reading of a notion of the elites?

In Rizal’s two novels, by trying to describe what the novels were doing as novels I found myself in a surprising conversation with Rizal’s books, and experiencing a pleasure that I had not realized before I sat down to describe their effects. I am addressing myself to readers here, ordinary readers of novels: I learned to appreciate the Noli in ways that had escaped me. (And to be honest, I was amazed, even creeped out, by the weird mirror congruencies persisting in the texts—and I had to email Ambeth Ocampo, to make sure I was not hallucinating.) I was excited when I noted an image that had escaped me in early readings, the persistence of that poststructuralist mirror image—a trope in one of my favorite writers, Borges, that I found beautifully enlaced in Rizal: so in effect I could read Rizal as an odd “precursor” of the Argentine, in a funhouse-mirror way. And it gave me a way of imagining Rizal as a writer, and to picture him in that fleeting, mortal act—revision. An explicit close reading of the work of art and its effects is useful because otherwise the readings you beget, if driven by an extrinsic thesis first rather than by the engrossing complexities inherent in the art itself, enforce fairly one-dimensional ways that people already read our nation’s novels—calloused, prescriptive readings that are unsurprising and, worse, unsurprised.

As I maintain about most novels, and it is true of mine, a novel’s crux lies in its narration modes, in this case, the choice of the ultimately doomed and unsympathetic Sol as the first person narrator of a web of actions that involve not only her acts and choices but also those of a diabolical family whose ruses she only faintly suspects; a lover, Jed, who may or may not have used her for his juvenile but violent ends (and the cloud of sexual ennui around which she mystifies her attachment to his aims only exacerbates her mental instability); an American colonel whose secret mission is cloaked, not in direct knowledge of his purposes, but only in mediation, rumors and news accounts of his counterinsurgency exploits in Marcos-era times; a beloved godfather who perhaps might be the most demonic of all and yet, at the same time, saves her life while inexplicably disappearing from it; a family driver whose life is a void for Sol; and finally Soli, that cipher of a doppelganger, a mirroring twin, her tokayo, whom Sol ultimately and most grievously fails properly to imagine.

Thus, around the first person narration of Sol is a satellite of actors none of whom she knows. The novel, for me, posed a writing problem—there is an entire plot involving these other characters that cannot be known fully to the narrator (for various reasons)—and yet it is she who must conjure them as she “writes” her talambuhay. Writing and reading, these self-referential acts in a novel’s plot, are central to Gun Dealers’ Daughter. I, as the writer, needed to know their lives, but she, as the character, could not. Sol is a blind reader of her life. It took me years of revision to figure out this technical dilemma—otherwise known as a huge headache—by which this novel tormented me.

This technical matter, implied narration, as writing manuals call it, I learned to recognize as a tool rather than an enemy from a line in Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler—which to me is an eminent manual on writing masked as a collection of linked tales.

So how to fill in the void of Sol’s unknowing—the implied lives of others that this narrator ultimately fails to penetrate? Speech, of course. Language. Word games. Slippages of tongue and texts. Puns and bricolage.

My editor says that the reason she picked up this novel and fought for it at Norton was because of its language. The wordplay was funny, she said. The pleasure of the text. For me, the work of language is where a novel’s eroticism, pleasure, lies.

This pleasure happens in many ways. It can be the clipped, modernist play in Butch Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister. It can be the grotesque clarity of Gertrude Stein’s sentences. It can be the crystalline, dialectical dialogue in Rizal’s twin novels. It can be the very obvious rich wizardry of Nabokov. It can be the quiet, restrained, stripped choices of Alice Munro.

You’ll note the metonym, the trope of substitution, in Gun Dealers’ Daughter, therefore, which is only a recapitulation of the obvious metonym that is language in all of our lives: her speech is the substitute for the problem of unknowing that plagues the narrator. She’s trying to revive her memory for people whom she never sufficiently knew in the days she had agency—when her mind was healthy. Catching her memory into knowledge, slips of language and word games reveal and write her story of unknowing.

If I were to write a social studies thesis on imagining the elites in this novel (a very difficult thesis, to be honest, resting as it does on a complicated problem of representation in fiction, which necessarily involves acts of reading in the text), I would consider the metonym offered me right there—the metonym that is language. (And note there is not only one way to read closely any novel; I imagine there are many avenues to reading this text, or any text; the point is, one should be obliged to find those avenues.)

Among the word games of the book are obvious ones, basic poetic devices: alliteration ad nauseam, but also periphrasis, hypallage, consonance, assonance, and so on. The book makes tropes and language a central problem:

“Language plays its part, the doctors say: above all, words are symptoms. I must be alert. Even one’s vocabulary could be a crime. The way sounds repeat themselves. Assonance. Odd lines in slant rimes. Repetition: the site of trauma. Repetition is the site of trauma, the doctors repeat. Beware the Asian mariner, the lady with the albatross. Words have their own way with you: be careful. Allusion, ditto. Consonance, epistrophe, chiasma, miasma. Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto.”

This passage plays mirror games with its vocabulary, from repetition to epistrophe—that is, the passage itself has repetition, it has assonance (the long i sounds in “odd lines in slant rimes”), it has allusion (“Beware the Asian mariner” alludes, of course, to Coleridge’s sailor traumatized by the albatross of guilt into retelling his story), and so on. The book has bricolage (the construction of a work or passage from things already at hand)—Sol reads a book: “I found these penciled words on the book flap, which I turned when I reached the end: a bland vocabulary list. ‘Jejune, oleograph, grisaille, Duchess of Malfi, scrofulous, milieu’”—these vocab words listed in Evelyn Waugh’s book about the British upper classes, Brideshead Revisited, have all already been recycled ‘blindly’ by the narrator in her story. And of course, finally, there is the naming game, the twinning of Sol/Soli, the heart of horror in the novel.

Sol’s unstable mind conjures her world through slips. On one hand, the psychological theme (also central to what writing a novel feels like, to me) is this: in a very mundane, physiological sense, all memory is constructed. Proteins reorganize our synapses constantly to create what we call memory: it is not one stable organ that creates memory but enzymes in flux. So we are condemned to always reconstituting what we know. Some psychologists say that our most “false” memories are the ones we keep retelling. The more we retell, the less true our story. Hence, the centrality of ambiguity in novels attempting to be ‘realistic,’ in our modern, neuroscientific times. In the case of trauma, where our unconscious has taken hold (if we go with Freud), the keys to truth telling lie in the slips that emerge from our unknowing. Psychologists have noted how compulsive wordplay could be a sign of brain damage in traumatized patients: excessive punning, hypallage (transferring epithets or sounds), rhyming. The devices of poetry, as Sol notes, “could be a crime.”

The novel is full of the slips in Sol’s story that betray her instability, what the essay in Manila Review calls “the social crisis in terms of an existential crisis, a crisis of identity.” But the essay elides what is crucial to this crisis: it is embodied precisely in the novel’s linguistic effects—what my editor calls “the word play [that] was funny.” The heart of the novel.

Of course for me, as a writer, the language play, which was fun, was a way to get through the terror of trying to finish a book. It was also a way to solve my headache, the paradox of unknowing and yet telling in the text.

It’s good to recognize the writer’s problems and consider any implications, or not, in their solutions. It also allows us to remember this important fact about writing: that the novel is not an organic whole that arose like Athena from Zeus—the novel is more like Hephaestus, the crippled god whose mother Hera despaired of, because he was so ungainly and awkward and unfinished. (In fact, ugly Hephaestus, among the Olympian gods, is the artist: he is the artificer, the laboring craftsman of Achilles’s Shield, that prime work of art meriting an extended close reading, what the Greeks called ecphrasis, in The Iliad.) There is about the act of writing a sense of accident, while at the same time Proust is correct when he says: “in fashioning a work of art, we are by no means free.”

How then could one yoke that issue of language, wordplay, and in this novel in particular English wordplay, to the social studies thesis of an essay on how novels imagine the elites?

Precisely, this novel foregrounds English, the chosen and only possible language of this extremely articulate, word-damaged narrator so tied to American imperial aims. Not only is it English, it is a precious English, an English of hyper-literacy, of kneejerk alliteration and assonance, a cursed English that, some readers say, “exhausted them”: “it’s like my brain was being wiped clean,” one reader kind of complained to me, noting how she had to be always alert, because she kept being made aware of the novel’s language, the text’s constant referentiality, while she read (this is not necessarily good: for one thing, it won’t make a bestseller of a novel).

The essay in Manila Review notes how “Gun Dealers’ Daughter depict[s] the social crisis in terms of an existential crisis, a crisis of identity.” A good reader should note, if so, that the crisis of identity is tethered to the plot that delivers the novel’s climax, in which this identity is pulled into action and horror by its satellite world of unknown lives and unsuspected ends. The social dimensions of the plot, about which, during her times of agency, she was unconscious—she did not know them—that sociopolitical world in which she was blind becomes the world that her traumatized unconscious keeps wishing to reenact, through writing and its language games: through slips, name games, and other messages.

In this book, then, the social crisis and existential crisis is a language crisis, a crisis of writing. And, as one might guess from books like Rizal’s Fili, the anxiety of language may be the time bomb that runs the Filipino novel, like a pomegranate fuse of dread, art, and horrific self-recognition. The novel’s referentiality, the mess of language, needs to be confronted in order to read the novel well. And this does lead us neatly into the social studies problem of English.

What can one make of English, the problem of language, as the crisis of this text, within the social studies question of the elites?

It makes the reader, who reads and takes pleasure in English in order to read this novel, inextricably entangled in the problem of Sol.

Or at least, that is how I envisioned this novel.

Part of the problem of writing in English in the Philippines is that one might say that English is a sign of trauma: it inscribes our colonized self in our every day lives, just as Rizal noted the same for Spanish in his time. English, just as Simoun noted about Spanish, touches on a divide. Right now, you can succeed without English, like Erap (or at least the myth of Erap), but our system makes it difficult. In the early American period, English was both the rape and redemption of the middle classes. Knowledge of it allowed the middle classes to expand, so it democratized even as it also drove a wedge: it created marked division. So it’s useful to note that this partnership between the reader and the narrator in this novel is pleasure, or at least proficiency, in English. Language is the erotic tie between narrator and reader.

What do we make of that partnership? One tack we can take is to recognize that there is a shared trauma here in this twinning of elites and masses in the language of English: we all share that colonized state, and our colonized state has won. It entangles us all, every day. In some way, because we cannot escape language, English is both trauma and cure: rape and reparation. In a work of art of this sort, it is a sign of rapture and rupture. Almost inescapably, an essayist doing a critique about novels in English writes in English. In one sense, complacently, we can also say English is now for us an “ordinary state of being human,” just another language among our many languages, but in economic and sociopolitical terms, depending on one’s use of English, in the Philippines the terrible fact is that some are more human than others.

There are many other paths you could take in trying to figure out the mystery of language, or the twinning of reader and narrator, or reader and text, or elite/masses, and so on, via the language slippage of Sol/Soli in this novel.

And there are other aspects of language play, or tropes, or metaphors, or scenes, and so on, that you could pilfer to create a way to read a social studies thesis vividly.

Where this tack takes us, in my view, is a lot more interesting or more productive than the fairly flat notion of “tragic figures of guilt and betrayal who continue nevertheless to live on the largesse that inflicts its own forms of everyday violence on the less privileged.” Instead, because reading language forces us to recognize complexity, the figure of the elite, Sol, is not a flat figure of guilt and betrayal, but a shared figure of guilt and betrayal as the reader is attached to Sol through their shared (implied or, maybe more accurate, intended) enjoyment of language—the reader/narrator dichotomy in the text twins them.

When you do not examine the crucial ways the reader is implicated in a self-referential text, (and most texts, once you read them closely, are self-referential), which involves the tropes of reading and writing, in which the crisis of self-discovery lies in the ruses of language, and in this case, in particular the rapacious English language, the reader might be led to a meager, shallow reading. The essay in Manila Review concludes that novels like Gun Dealers’ Daughter are “unable to offer any terms for imagining the elite other than as tragic figures of guilt and betrayal who continue nevertheless to live on the largesse that inflicts its own forms of everyday violence on the less privileged.” I disagree.

In this novel, and in other self-referential novels that deliberately involve the reader in language’s games, these novels that involve acts of reading and writing in its tropes are also directly addressing community—the imagined community of novel reader, novel, and protagonist, that needs also to be imagined by the essayist.

Reflexivity is key. And one needs to imagine the role of the reader.

What that MR essay fails to imagine fully is why the so-called “tragic figure” of the elite is twinned with Soli, the figure of the middle, who is destabilized by the mirroring of her life in the world of Sol. The elite versus masses in the world of the novel is not a mutually exclusive world, in the sense that the masses, as readers, consume the world of the elite, just as Rizal’s readers consumed the world of Ibarra and Simoun (and in that case, some revolted). This referential and reflexive point about novels is important (and, I guess, too obvious to me as a novelist): that the reader is part of the text.

We, most of the readers who are not of the elite who read Sol’s story, might mirror ourselves in the figure of Sol, of the upper classes, as we do perhaps in the lives of people of privilege in the non-novel world. (Note the textuality of the expat Colonel Grier’s death, devoured by the gossipy people of Manila and expressed in the novel through news accounts, the way we read about Vhong Navarro or David Beckham.)

The novel, in some sense, though maybe only metaphorically for some readers, and maybe literally for others, forces the reader into that reflexivity by the discomforting use of the first person in the text. The twinning of Sol/Soli as well as reader/narrator may be imagined as inverse mirrors of reflection in the Filipino psyche, with the corresponding psychological illusions that the image, mirror, implies. It might be interesting, for a social studies writer considering the issue of the elites, to consider more fully this syllogism, touched upon but not explored in the Manila Review essay: Soli is a projection of Sol; Sol is a projection of the masses. This flux of entanglements, the slippages of identity, between reader and text, elite and masses—more obviously seen in a close reading of language play—constructs the imaginary of wholeness, in which the elite and masses are not so alienated, as each must find its image in the other—through this use of English in which we, educated readers who find pleasure in the text, and we, writers in English who urge pleasure in the text, are also twinned. (To be honest, this pact between reader, writer, text, and world is simply what novels do, all the time.) There is an interplay of gazes in the novel, an emphasis on mediation, provisionality, and readership, made explicit by the last passage, which is not in Sol’s voice but in the voice of a very minor character, the portrait photographer Sally Vega, an awry reader outside of the plot’s frame, who provides the final misrecognition, or misdirected gaze, in Gun Dealers’ Daughter.

Finally, there is the question of what to do with the fact that this twinning, like the novel, is an imagined construction, and a tragic problem in the text, and that it excludes those not privileged by language. That is my true problem as a writer and citizen. I am still working on it, though I do have my suspicions about how novels, including this one, resolve it.

Among the Filipino blogs brought to my attention, one of them, called stillthehellkitten (, reads Gun Dealers’ Daughter incisively, setting up language and detail with skepticism and clarity. Her uncanny conclusion might be useful to end my point as well. Stillthehellkitten presents the central dilemma of the Filipino reader of Gun Dealers’ Daughter:

“…that is where the novel falters. The fact that it speaks with the eloquence of a privileged young woman, who even in her years of exile thrives in material comfort (though without much joy), that it has been published by a major publishing house, that it has been talked about both in the Philippines and abroad, also makes us wonder: how effective can this impetus to action, contextualized and produced as it is, be? How can its essence be extended to precisely those who are not its direct audience, but whose existence deals, daily, with the crudeness of this split-soul society?”

This, in fact, is my own question as a writer, and I fashioned the novel in the hope that the reader ask precisely that question. The writer of this blog resolves the question by moving into the arena of reflexivity, the reader’s role in her country—that open question where the novel wishes the reader to go. This blogger, whose name I do not know, nails the novel’s intention, that is, the political move hoped for. She (or he) enacts the twinned relationship between Sol/Soli and reader/narrator when the blog post concludes:

“In the end, is it better to have moved on like the rest of the novel’s characters  – Sally Vega, Edwin Cardozo, Jed de Rivera Morga — or to exist in stasis, remembering what those who have moved on easily forget?… Better yet, perhaps it is time to dare ourselves to take a side that’s anything but middle, in a time where so many choose no side at all. For the challenge of the novel is not for Soledad to pick herself up and start going again, ending stillness. It is for its readers to end the cycle themselves, and realize that history is movement, ex stasis, and thus necessitates action.”

By accurately recognizing the role of the reader in the imagined community of this novel’s art, the writer gains an intuitive understanding of the refractive figure of the elite in the novel. By recognizing the reader’s role, the anonymous blogger could be just as clearly reading the effects of Rizal’s framing of the elite Simoun in the Fili, as she or he does the effects of reading the elite Sol in Gun Dealers’ Daughter—after all, that shadow text is inescapable: Simoun is the masked name, the alias, of Jed the lover, who haunts the narrator in Gun Dealers’ Daughter.