Monthly Archives: October 2011

Para Kay B

I was never one to read love stories. Filipino ones, especially. In my mind, that category was confined to thin paperback romance novels with tasteless titles and promiscuous covers. Para Kay B has neither. Since 2008, recommendations have remained short and succinct: “Basahin mo. Maganda.” But I never got around to it, until this year. Afflicted with a related hangover, I resolved to track down a copy, mostly because I wanted to understand why, why, why. By the time I found a copy though (an ironic thanks to Maki), the hangover had passed, and I simply wanted to enjoy the book.

And enjoy it I did, not merely for its humor (which always guarantees immediate satisfaction), but for the very recognizable truth it contains. In Para Kay B, the realization of love transpires in an instant, within a single gaze or an instance of touch: “And they knew.” But what this kind of love lacks in span or length, it makes up for with an extended aftershock. Only 1 out of 5 lovers, the novel declares, will find happiness. And so all the characters in the book struggle—with unexpected disappearances, regrets, the endless searching and waiting that follows—pining with all hope for that single coveted slot, for another chance at bliss.

This novel follows a convoluted concept, with twists and turns unimaginable to the unsuspecting reader. Structured as five stories within a novel within a novel, Para Kay B masquerades as Lucas the Writer’s first manuscript, the product of years’ worth of heartache. “The love story…is the tribute the lover must pay to the world in order to be reconciled with it,” Barthes declares in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. In this case, we are given five.

To be honest I did not like all the stories. I had issues with one-dimensional characters, too-familiar metaphors, cop-out endings—but nearly all of these were resolved by the last chapter. From the start I expected it to reveal a shocking truth, but still “Ang Totoong Kuwento sa Totoong Kuwento” blew me away. It was genius, meticulously prepared for, brilliant. And yet the trademark humor remained, highlighted by the sheer absurdity, the un-confines of metafiction. It was mindblowing.

Refreshingly inventive and embarrassingly true, Para Kay B is accessible to anyone who has ever felt the pangs of love and the indelible persistence of memory. Basahin mo. Maganda.

Bigla, naging parang magic ang lahat. Tumigil ang mga daliri ng mga relo sa buong San Ildefonso, pati ang malaking wall clock sa simbahan at ang bundy clock sa lumber factory ni Mayor Ignacio, habang ang mga dahon, mga damo, mga punong niyog ay nakikiramdam.

Pero me mga bagay nga na di nagtatagal. Maski pag-ibig.

Nawalan ng tunog ang lahat. Sa mga bahay at mga bukid, kalsada at ilog, sa simbahan ng San Ildefonso, maging sa gubat kung saan kabilang sa mga trabahador ni Mayor Ignacio na nagpuputol ng naglalakihang punongkahoy ay ang ama ni Irene, ang maririnig lang ay ang tibok ng puso ni Irene.

Ayaw ni Ester na ang anumang bagay ay sumobra sa dapat. Buong buhay iisa lang ang patakaran niya: Never go out of bounds.

…totoo ang sabi nila, ang great love mo, hindi mo makakatuluyan. Ang makakatuluyan mo ay ang correct love.

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Forty Stories

Chekhov’s gun and The Cherry Orchard. Until I opened this book, this comprised the extent of my knowledge about the author: his oft-quoted rule and his last play, which I read for Mark Cayanan’s class three years ago. Forty Stories compiles Chekhov’s short fiction from over two decades of writing. Arranged chronologically, the stories in this collection reveal his development as a writer.

Chekhov begins with his career with tales of mischief, written for amusement. These range from short vignettes like “The Threat” to longer, more character-heavy pieces such as “St. Peter’s Day.” A few years into his writing, he begins incorporating socio-political issues in his works, and eventually arranges entire stories to revolve around this concern. Compared to his humorous sketches, these are more layered pieces that tend to opposite extremes: although often hilarious (“Sergeant Prishibeyev,” “Death of a Government Clerk”), these stories can also, at other times, be deeply disturbing (“Sleepyhead”). Later on he finds interest in emotional stories, in the daily grief of mortals (“The Huntsman,” “Heartache”), a preoccupation that will resurface toward the end of his career with newfound subtlety. His last few stories reveal a skillful combination of these fixations—humor, social commentary, and human emotion—in myriad situations set in the nexus of public and private life.

The back cover of Forty Stories quotes from Chekhov: “I long to embrace, to include in my own short life, all that is accessible to man. I long to speak, to read, to wield a hammer in a great factory, to keep watch at sea, to plow. I want to be walking along the Nevsky Prospect, or in the open fields, or on the ocean—wherever my imagination ranges.” And in his stories, the author does all these. His protagonists come from all walks of life: princesses, clerks, exiles, wives, servants. Chekhov covers a variety of experiences and problems, and illustrates them in diverse manners, so that even after forty stories, you don’t feel at all weary of his voice. He achieves a delicate poignancy in his character portraits, most notably in “The Bishop.” And although his latter stories are rather long, you don’t feel the length because of his easy pace and manner of storytelling. Lastly, Robert Payne’s competent translation and his excellent introduction (possibly the best I have ever read) also add to the qualities of this book—making it, for me, a worthy purchase.

Death of a Government Clerk

Very often in stories you come upon this word ‘suddenly,’ and this is all very proper, since authors must always concern themselves with the unexpectedness of life.

Heartache

He heard the insults which were being hurled at him, he saw the people in the street, and little by little the feeling of loneliness was lifted from his heart.

The House with the Mezzanine

I am beginning to forget the house with the mezzanine, but sometimes when I am painting or reading, for no reason at all, quite suddenly, I find myself remembering the green lamp at the window and the sound of my footsteps echoing through the fields of the night as I walked home on the day I was in love, rubbing my hands to keep them warm. And sometimes too—but this happens more rarely—when I am weighed down with melancholy and loneliness, I am the prey of other confused thoughts, and it seems to me that I, too, am being remembered, and she is waiting for me, and we shall meet again…

In the Horsecart

Here was her past and her present, and she could imagine no other future than the school, the road to the town and back again, and again the school and again the road.

And it seemed to her that everything in the world was shivering with cold.

On Love

…I kept trying to understand why she had met him first and not me, and why it was necessary that such a terrible mistake should have occurred in our lives.

The Bride

‘Can’t you realize that to enable you and your mother and your grandmother to live a life of leisure, others have to work for you, and you are devouring their lives? Is that right? Isn’t it a filthy thing to do?’

In her imagination life stretched before her, a new, vast, infinitely spacious life, and this life, though still obscure and full of mysteries, lured and attracted her.

The King’s Speech (2010)

The King’s Speech does not simply depict the life of a king, but rather chronicles the making of one. Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York, is second in line to the throne, but is inhibited from performing his public duties by an uncontrollable stammer, to the disappointment of his ailing father. Exasperated, Bertie consults speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose unconventional methods have earned him a recommendation to the Duchess Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Amid professional incompatibilities and personal grievances, the two men forge a lifelong relationship that survives Bertie’s ascension to the throne and the onset of World War II.

Director Tom Hooper deserves praise for selecting an interesting bit of history and successfully turning it into a poignant portrait of an uncharacteristic friendship. The film also owes much to its main cast for its smooth execution. All three deserved the numerous accolades they received. Bonham Carter perfectly captures the role of charming wife, and Rush delivers just the right amount of impertinence as Logue. “My castle, my rules,” he tells the Duke during their first meeting. Firth, of course, shines as King George VI. He embodies his character’s stammers and frustrations so well that it becomes impossible not to sympathize. “If I’m King, where’s my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax, declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.”

A king struggling with a speech disability provides rich story material for any medium. Hooper knows this, and therefore mines it expertly. With its witty script, winning cast, and beautiful cinematography, The King’s Speech scores a win with almost every critic out there—most notably the judges of the 2010 Oscars. So it comes as a surprise that I am not as wowed by it. Yes, there is the issue of the movie’s “historical hiccups” but that’s not even what bothers me. Ostensibly, there is nothing wrong with the film, but my reaction to its Oscars success remains, “Was there nothing else?” The King’s Speech is well-crafted, yes, perfect, yes. It succeeds in what it aims to do. But it doesn’t offer anything else: no challenges or new truths. Essentially, its triumph relies on a tried and tested formula that, for me, just doesn’t deserve a Best Picture award.

‘Sometimes, when I ride through the streets and see, you know, the common man staring at me, I’m struck by how little I know of his life, and how little he knows of mine.’

‘Papa, what’s he saying?’ ‘I don’t know but he seems to be saying it rather well.’

Choke

From what I remember, I have already made two vows in this blog, neither of which I have kept unbroken. Yet here I am, still with enough audacity to announce another one: to read through all my unread books in the next several months. Since I am quitting teaching, I have no excuse to delay chipping away at my mountain-pile of accumulations (31, according to my last count). This review marks my first achievement, finishing Choke months after Mike gave me his old copy.

“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother,” goes the first line of Choke. Indeed, at first glance, there is nothing worth bothering yourself about here. It lines up awful scene after awful scene, showing images an average person would not want to look at—but then again, some things are just too horrible to ignore. Like Palahniuk’s other novel Rant, everything about Choke feels gritty and hard-edged, as if it’s contraband material. Choke has a solid voice in its narrator, but one that is sadly too familiar. It approximates the general tone of the myriad characters of Rant, and—I am tempted to assume—Palahniuk’s other books. Victor’s extremely cynical tone gets old quickly. He assumes to know so much about life and its hard truths: “It’s okay to cry as long as you’re faking it.” At some point I wanted to shout, “Life sucks. Get over it!”

At first, Choke proved addictive. I couldn’t put it down. Its unbelievably short chapters kept me going. But soon enough I wasn’t following the plot closely anymore, and I couldn’t care less. Perhaps intentionally, Choke cultivates a passive dislike for its characters. Their different ways of thinking create a text that regularly spouts Zen or language philosophy, and even thoughts you would expect from violent true believers. Interesting, yes, but also disturbing—not people you would want to empathize with.

You can probably tell, reading this book wasn’t exactly a thrill for me. The supreme irony is, it picks up again in the closing chapters. But things still don’t make sense until literally the last page, when everything suddenly falls in place like one of those jigsaw puzzles Victor keeps mentioning. To keep myself from spoiling, I will limit myself to this: If life doesn’t give you anything worth living for, invent something better. “Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.” Even, apparently, life.

It seemed that moment would last forever. That you had to risk your life to get love.

Painting a picture, composing an opera, that’s just something you do until you find the next willing piece of ass.

There’s an opposite to déjà vu. They call it jamais vu. It’s when you meet the same people or visit places, again and again, but each time is the first. Everybody is always a stranger. Nothing is ever familiar.

We’ve spent so much time judging what other people created that we’ve created very, very little of our own.

Language, she said, was just our way to explain away the wonder and the glory of the world. To deconstruct. To dismiss. She said people can’t deal with how beautiful the world really is. How it can’t be explained and understood.

Anything new or different or original was probably against the law. Anything risky or exciting would land you in jail.

What Denny says is that maybe the second coming of Christ isn’t something God will decide. Maybe God left it up to people to develop the ability to bring back Christ into their lives. Maybe God wanted us to invent our own savior when we were ready. When we need it the most. Denny says maybe it’s up to us to create our own messiah.

There’s no way you can get the past right. You can pretend. You can delude yourself, but you can’t re-create what’s over.

We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are. Letting our past decide our future. Or we can decide for ourselves. And maybe it’s our job to invent something better.

Chungking Express (1994)

Blackouts are always a bummer. This one, particularly, because it lasted 24 hours and included both my apartment and my family’s home. The last time we had one that lasted this long, I spent most of it squinting at Noli me Tangere by candlelight and thinking, how very appropriate. This time, I watched Chungking Express alone at midnight and felt the same. Somehow, the atmosphere is better when it’s dark inside and a strange quiet hangs in the air.

Chungking Express opens with a chase. He Qiwu, or Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), runs through crowded passageways to nab a criminal, pushing past an older woman (Brigitte Lin) whom he claims he will fall in love with 57 hours later. At the end of this episode (which lasts for half the movie), he briefly encounters another girl called Faye (Faye Wong) at a snack bar, and tells us that six hours later, she will fall in love with someone else. What follows is her story with Cop 663 (Tony Leung).

I expected this to be like all the other Wong Kar-wai movies I’ve watched: sad, serious, tricky with the camerawork. It certainly seemed so at the beginning. The liquid swathes of color, combined with eerie music, create an impressionistic illusion of hurry. (At this point, with an attentive viewer, the point is already established.) But Chungking Express is different. It’s definitely lighter, although that doesn’t make it any less profound. Throughout the film we see momentary intersections of lives, mere points in the long line of our existence. We all lead tangential lives, and we spend most of it searching for that someone with whom we can share our solitude, someone whom we will return to, again and again, across distances and even after the passing of time.

Towards the end of the movie, there is one scene which seemed like a suitable ending: Faye alone in a restaurant, one year after. Outside, it is raining, and the camera slows down to capture droplets sliding down a window. The scene freezes. Desperately, I hoped that it would continue, although I knew that an ending right there would have worked as well. At that point I realized—with shocking disclosure—that whichever conclusion the film chose, I would still like it. Apparently, I had gone beyond being an objective viewer. Chungking Express had already gripped me, and it wouldn’t let me go.

Every day we brush past so many other people. People we may never meet, or people who may become close friends.

This was the closest we ever got. Just 0.01 of a centimeter between us. But 57 hours later, I fell in love with this woman.

We’re all unlucky in love sometimes. When I am, I go jogging. The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears.

Somehow everything comes with an expiry date… Is there anything in the world which doesn’t?

I’ll fall in love with the first woman who walks in here.

Knowing someone doesn’t mean keeping them. People change.

If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.

I didn’t open the letter. Some things need time to sink in.