Monthly Archives: August 2011

Interpreter of Maladies

Four months ago, in Bacolod, Gen Asenjo recommended this collection to me. Typically, other books got in the way, so I finished it only last week. In 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri made her debut with this breathtaking collection of nine short stories, with concerns ranging from love and estrangement, to acceptance and separation. Her protagonists struggle mostly with specific Indian-American issues, but the breadth and depth of her stories reach out to a much wider world of human emotion.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories offer no pretenses, but they possess a delicate quality that flows from page to page. Much like Alice Munro’s Away from Her, the collection makes you want to “spend a whole novel with its characters” (New York Times Book Review). The stories are quite long, but remain very easy to read. They exhibit a rare, understated beauty brought about by clear storytelling, unhampered by glaring symbols or images: simplicity at its finest. The writer’s unaffected style fools you for a moment into thinking that it’s not at all contrived, but then the elegance of the stories convinces you otherwise, until you conclude: even this effect must have been intended. Finishing the first story, I remember thinking: this is the kind of story I want to be able to write someday.

Although vaguely familiar, the domestic stories work because Lahiri provides such precise descriptions that make it impossible for us to connect them with any other—details as specific as a man scooping up his wife’s trail of cigarette ashes from the floor. Also, the Indian elements don’t feel at all forced. Wherever they pop up in the text, they seem perfectly natural in the context of these stories. (Lahiri’s writing makes me crave Indian food, although I have barely any experience with it.)

“It’s rare to find a collection in which every story is a winner. Here is one,” declares the San Diego Union-Tribune. I generally liked all the stories in this book; I think all of them can stand alone in their own right, but of course I enjoyed some more than others. My favorites are “A Temporary Matter,” “Mrs. Sen’s” and “This Blessed House.” It might be too rash to proclaim anything like this, but I feel this is one of the best fiction collections I have ever read. Naturally, this grants Jhumpa Lahiri A-list celebrity status in my books: someone worth recommending again and again.

Mrs. Sen’s

‘Eliot, if I began to scream right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?’ ‘Mrs. Sen, what’s wrong?’ ‘Nothing, I am only asking if someone would come.’

An Education (2009)

At sixteen, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) already has life planned out for her. She is to study, ace her exams, and enter Oxford University. Under her father’s iron rule, she is allowed no distractions, her inclinations toward music and literature notwithstanding. But then she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a much older man who dazzles her with his savoir faire. He takes her on a dizzying tour of the world’s pleasures, at the end of which Jenny begins to understand that life is much more complicated than it seems, and what having a real education is all about.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing new in this movie. An Education teaches an old lesson in an old way, rendering in visuals a parent’s common reprimand. It’s a very simple story—and maybe that’s why it succeeds. It possesses a genuine quality that makes it difficult for viewers to turn away. In it, we see how much of life is in shades of gray, and how challenging it is to make intelligent decisions when the situation isn’t black and white—how easy it is to make a mistake.

Jenny wanted a lot of things, but what she wanted the most was to be treated like an adult—something she is continually denied. Before intercourse, she tells David, “No baby talk… Just treat me like a grownup, okay?” However much of a child she was at the beginning, Jenny grows in the course of the film. But even at the end, when she says to her school headmistress, “I suppose you think I’m a ruined woman,” the headmistress only laughs and says, “You’re not a woman.”

The title refers to both Jenny’s schooling and her experience with David, from whom she learns much—in many ways. Rebelling against the rigors of academic learning, she argues, “It’s not enough to educate us anymore. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” Essentially, these are the questions the movie asks: What makes an education? How much do students really learn from studying; from real life? How important are both? We see the answers unfold with Jenny’s life, with the choices she makes and their resulting consequences. The film’s treatment of the subject, however, is not simply didactic. Instead we see things through the eyes of a young girl, whom we follow until—despite what the headmistress says—she eventually finds her way to becoming a woman.

‘But if we’re all going to die the moment we graduate, isn’t it what we do before that counts?’

Away from Her

I have always been a fan of the Rizal Library. As a student I had a habit of hoarding books, only to re-borrow them two weeks later, without having read a single page. Now, as a part-time teacher, I am allowed to check out several books for a whole month’s period—a limited opportunity I intend to make full use of.

If you research Away from Her, you will find that it is not a book, but a movie. This is because Sarah Polley based her film on Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” and after it came out they published the story as a separate book, titled anew. Away from Her covers a difficult period in an elderly couple’s life. As his wife Fiona succumbs to Alzheimer’s, Grant must unravel the long history of intimacies and betrayals that make up their marriage and make a decision that could redirect both their futures.

The story combines the couple’s present predicament with Grant’s perspective on the past. He recounts a quietly shocking litany of affairs without the slightest hint of regret, only bitterness. But after everything, somehow he is still able to say that he loves Fiona. And despite obvious logic, I cannot seem to deny him that. Even at the end, Grant again betrays Fiona, but this time it is an act that, for complicated reasons, he chooses only for her happiness. I cannot say whether what Grant did was right or wrong, whether it was selfish or selfless. I refuse to pass judgment, just as this story does. Instead I think about “how mysterious the bonds of love really are”; how love changes through the years, in form and depth, until it is almost unrecognizable from the undying devotion we dreamt about during adolescence.

The narrative seems deceptively simple, but contains so much within it. “In Munro’s hands, a short story is more than big enough to hold the world,” declares a Chicago Tribune review. And it’s true, at one point I was jolted into the realization that I was just reading a short story; it had felt like a novel. Away from Her is all the more heartbreaking because it hardly gives you any sympathetic moments, only objective observations. It is a torturous distance. Upon closing, it leaves a silence that stuns you for a long moment, until you realize it wasn’t that distant after all.

Because if she let go of her grief even for a minute it would only hit her harder when she bumped into it again.

Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (2011)

Some films just take you by surprise. For me, most recently, it was Alvin Yapan’s entry to the 2011 Cinemalaya Film Festival, Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa. I simply did not expect the impact. I knew that Alvin Yapan was brilliant, but the fineness of his work still astounded me, especially the opening scenes. Actually, it was my first time to watch a full-length Vim Yapan production. It’s embarrassing to admit—and I haven’t quite forgiven myself for this—but I still haven’t seen Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe. It’s a regret I wish to remedy.

Set in contemporary Manila, Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa interweaves the lives of three characters. Marlon (Paulo Avelino) and Dennis (Rocco Nacino) are university students taking a poetry class under Karen (Jean Garcia). Stalking her, Marlon discovers that she teaches dance by night, and that his classmate Dennis works as her assistant. Determined to impress her, Marlon enrolls in the dance class and hires Dennis as a tutor, unaware of the consequences this arrangement will have for all three of them.

There’s a lot to praise in this movie, but what really struck me was the sheer beauty of the setup: the combination of poetry, music, and dance on film. These montages took my breath away. The actors do not disappoint either. Jean Garcia gives a remarkable performance as the mysterious Karen. One scene showed her deftly transitioning emotions while watching Dennis and Marlon dance together. But although she plays a pivotal role in the story’s progression, very little is revealed about Karen. We only get glimpses, near-insights into her character—no more.

An “almost-orgasm,” Gian calls the film, and for good reason. There is a clear intent to bring viewers toward that crucial almost, only to end there. As in Closer, a lot of flirtation occurs here, but instead of dialogue, Ang Sayaw uses cinematography to beguile its viewers. The camerawork reveals a deliberate use of mirrors and stairways in a style reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai. I found the slow-motion scenes too melodramatic, but regardless, the entire experience was still stunning, dizzying, heart-wrenching. Like Ace, I couldn’t get over the film immediately, and I didn’t want to. It was just like how I had felt after reading Never Let Me Go.

Because it made me cry, here is Joi Barrios’ poem “Paglisan” in full, as used in the film:

Sinasalat ko ang bawat bahagi
Ng aking katawan.
Walang labis, walang kulang.

Sinasalat ko bawat bahagi
Ng aking katawan.
Nunal sa balikat,
Hungkag na tiyan.
May tadyang ka bang hinugot
Nang lumisan?

Sinasalat ko bawat bahagi
Ng aking katawan.
Sa kaloob-looban,
Sa kasuluk-sulukan,
Nais kong mabatid
Ang lahat ng iyong
Tinangay at iniwan.
Nais kong malaman,
Kung buong-buo pa rin ako
sa iyong paglisan.