My country’s take on magic realism

I started reading works by Latin American writers when I entered college. They appealed to me because they quenched my thirst for Literature both fantastic and profoundly real. South America served as a nutrient-rich petri dish for this kind of writing because of the political experience of the region. Chile, Bolivia, Columbia, Paraguay, Uruguay have their comical, albeit not in a funny way, dictators who inspired writers to write stories that, in turn, never stopped inspiring and entertaining the world. They related their unique national experience in novels and stories that define what superb narration about angel, saints, whore, and men of adventure is.

Which makes me wonder why Filipino writers have not produced a body of work that could rival if not equal those written by Latin American authors. The travails of this country on its way to nationhood are more than sufficient an inspiration for a book that can be as great as Ciento Años Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude).

On a closer look, however, this country is not found wanting with magic realism, the Filipinized version, that is, although ours is darker and more malevolent in nature. In this country magic realism does not exist in books neither is it told by a village elder while the rest of the village is seated around a bonfire. Filipinos live in it every day; we are so accustomed to it that we need not consciously brand it as such. For us nothing is fantastic with being stopped in the middle of the road, being forced to get off, being shot at point blank. In this part of the world, in this plane of existence, nothing is magical, everything is real. Chillingly real.

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In the Philippines, there are minor gods who sometimes act like God. They are centerpiece angels whom the people worship until they are replaced by their kins. They build bridges and roads, provide employment, and if the situation demands, decide who will live or perish from the face of the world. They are the powers-that-be. And will remain so. No one has enough guts to question and challenge these gods; some who were foolish enough attempted to overturn the table but ended up being sent to hell and were never seen since.

This country is a stuff of fiction, a fiction of a sloppily imitated über-verisimilitude. The people on this island country fixate themselves with the tube where they see themselves being mirrored. They are mirroring the image they see which in fact is a mirror image of themselves. This is repeated to point infinity. No one thinks this is absurd for absurdity is a fact of life. What is rational is an anomaly. What is anomalous is rational.

And so the island people find themselves feeling nothing before an atrocity in front of them. They feel desensitized before a massacre of magnitude never thought possible. Everything is a show. None is fantastic because everything is fantastic.

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Sedating Sedaris

The unforgivably corny title of this article is inspired by this anthology of essays written by a humorist (I do not know if it is appropriate to call him this way) and radio jockey David Sedaris.

I was at National Bookstore in Robinsons Pioneer when I chanced upon this oddly titled book When You are Engulfed in Flame and its equally enigmatic cover of the painting Skull With Cigarette (1885) by Van Gogh. The book that went beyond my ceiling for paperback by an author I’ve never heard before is rather pricey. It’s worth mentioning that I did not feel bad when I gave the cashier 400 pesos. So far I’ve never felt bugged by my conscience whenever I buy books not as much as when I buy new shoes or splurge on gourmet food.

The essays contained in this book have no common bond that will give a reader a sense of the whole after wolfing the entire book. But this randomness of the topics made this book a tour de force. The anecdotes in the life of David Sedaris as he moved back and forth Raleigh, his hometown in North Carolina, New York City, Paris, Normandy, and Tokyo are reeking with his funny observations and witty remarks about himself, the people, and life in general.

Not a few times did I find myself laughing inside the MRT on my way to work while reading the book. It’s not the kind of laughter that you force on yourself, it’s the bwahaha kind of laughing that makes you to forget that you are squeezing yourself inside a cramp train filled with passengers who smell like a concoction of garlic, sweat, and some unrecognizable expensive perfumes overpowered by a lot of cheap colognes liberally splattered to the unknowing commuters.

EngulfedSedaris

His masterful and truthful way of describing his characters and his mental commentaries while doing this will send you laughing to the point of crying and embarrassing yourself in case you decide to read this in a public venue. Of his essays, his characters who left the most indelible impact on me is Helen, a retiree who was his neighbor in his small apartment in New York he was renting with his boyfriend. She was a complex woman whose words are as interesting as the streets of the Big Apple.

The real-life characters portrayed in his stories seemed too fictional to be true because of their poignancy. They are the same people you meet along the hallway of the high rise you are staying, probably your officemates, or that lady in the concierge of the mall that sells expensive goods you regularly frequent. People you ignore and dismiss as boring but unwittingly became subjects of interesting stories David Sedaris shared in the book.

You will discover in the last essay about his stay in Tokyo to quit smoking why this anthology is entitled When You are Engulfed in Flame, something that an English-speaking tourist visiting Asia always notices.

A conversation with Gabo (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

“Truth when written becomes fiction”

-the ugly, little, five-year-old boy

I remember I was five years old then; I was walking on my way to school and the most unexpected thing happened. I met Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

He was holding a dictionary and told me that he reads several pages of the book every day of his life. It was my first time to see a dictionary, and for a five-year old the word dictionary was not yet a part of my vocabulary then.

“Here you can see fancy words, mostly,” he said, and added “only two hundred or so are useful.”

“The two hundred or so are enough to tell human history.”

“Why read them then?” I asked for my logic that time was already rather developed although I was not sure if I’d be able to comprehend the answer of Gabo (he insisted that I call him Gabo because according to him space and time are not absolute and that they merge to create meanings to the seemingly strange world so our age difference is not anymore material, or was it Einstein who said that (I’m not sure anymore)).

“Because,” he looked at a beautiful woman who walked in front of us wearing a space suit, “in case man is not satisfied, as he always is, he can use the remaining fancy words,” he said while coughing slightly to catch the attention of the astronaut. The woman went on, not noticing Gabo.

“I don’t know my parents aren’t satisfied,” I said looking at his unbuttoned shirt and dirty collar, “they seem to be very happy all the time.” (By the way, the word satisified, according to him was also unnecessary.)

“Because they are lost in their own world that revolves around a five-year-old ugly boy,” he said.

He never gave me an opportunity to retort his statement, and before I could say anything he looked at my faux army bag my mother bought from the community market for less than 50 pesosm and then to me “And eventually they will use fancier words to describe what they would feel if that ugly little boy leaves them someday for faraway lands.”

“What a pitiable couple,” he said and looked at me blankly then attempted to go back to the book he was reading, paused for a while, then looked back at me, “Do you have anything to say boy?”

“I am flabbergasted with what you just said Gabo!” I said.

“You have all the right to be little boy.” He said yawning. “You see, what’s your name again?”

“John.” I said with anger in my voice.

“You see little John, poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable,” he said while scratching his greying moustache.

He stood up, and turned his back on me. “I must go, that woman is irresistable.”

“I do not understand you at all.” I shouted

So he went after that astronaut and together they flew to space and I never saw him again after that. For the past seventeen years after meeting Gabo, I’ve been looking forward to meeting him again and challenge him to write the entire of mankind’s history using 200 words.