And yet whiteness is not a straightforward object of desire, any more than light is: blackness is desired, and whiteness is only the disappointing result of a desire that proclaim itself satisfied. Whiteness will be disavowed, as a truth that is either deceptive (as with the white spaces on the map, which hide the black continent) or illusory: the whites think that ivory, white, is the ultimate truth: but Marlow exclaims: “I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life” (23). Whiteness may be an obstacle to knowledge, as with the white fog, “more blinding than the night” (40), which impedes the approach to Kurtz (Todorov 107).
Of late I admit that I’ve set reading books aside. Like most Gen Y-ers, I am also as susceptible to attention deficit disorder, or something akin to it. I could not focus on just one thing. Before I realize it, my mind already starts to wander and think of another thing. And this has taken a serious toll on my reading habit. I barely finished two books in a month, and there were months this year when I finished nothing.
To correct things, I only have one resolution for next year, and that is to read a least ten books, regardless of thickness and difficulty, every month, discounting those required for my class at the university.
This afternoon, I went to National Bookstore and a used-books outlet to complete my reading list. Most of these are for leisure, neither heavy nor dense. Here’s my list of readings for the first month of 2010:
1. Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong) Searching for spirituality in the 1960s China durng the Cultural Revolution, Beijing intellectual Chen Zhen travels to the pristine grasslands of Inner Mongolia to live among the nomadic Mongols—descendants of the Mongol hordes who once terrorized the world. At the core of their beliefs is the notion of a triangular balance between earth, man, and the fierce, otherworldly Mongolian wolf whose fates are all intricately linked. The few wolves that remain haunt the steppes locked with the nomads in a profoundly spiritual battle for survival.
2. A Man of the People (Chinua Achebe) A young man caught in the tricky politics of an Africa country, redeemed himself, and rose above the chaos and frustration. I’ve read Things Fall Apart by the same author, and based on this novel, Achebe’s use of the English language, devoid of any spectacle and ‘prose fireworks’, will make A Man of the People an easy but profound reading.
3. The Discovery of Heaven (Harry Mulisch) This book, considered the magnum opus of the Dutch author Mulisch abounds in philosophical, psychological, and theological inquiries of the rich twentieth century trauma that focuses on diverse themes like friendship, loyalty, family, art, technology, religion, fate, and good and evil.
4. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco) I got intrigued in this book when the story was hinted by my professor in her Comparative Literature class. I thought I’ll try it and see if I am a good-enough reader to survive the dead-boring first 100 pages, which according to my professor is a method employed by Eco to sort his readers. Those who give up in the initial pages are not worthy of the riveting, fascinating, ingenious, and dazzling narrative. Page 101 until the last sentence of the final page, she said were written so well that the hurdle of the first 100 was all worth the effort.
5. The Places in Between (Rory Stewart) In January 2002 Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan—surviving by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindheartedness of strangers. By day he passed through mountains covered in nine feet of snow, hamlets burned and emptied by the Taliban, and communities thriving amid the remains of medieval civilization. By night he slept on villager’s floors, shared their meals, and listened to their stories of the recent and ancient past. Along the way Stewart met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion—a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor.
Through these encounters—by turns touching, confounding, surprising, and funny, Stewart makes tangible the forces of tradition, ideology, and allegiance that shape life in the map’s countless places in between.
6. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera) A young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing; one of his mistresses and his humbly faithful lover. In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and fortuitous events, a world in which every thing occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence, we feel the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ not only as the consequence of our pristine actions but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.
7. Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man (Joseph Heller) This sort of the author’s autobiographical novel is a story of a modern-day cultural icon Eugene Pota who became a legend in his lifetime because of his first novel. Subsequent work never achieved the critical acclaim to match what was garnered by his first novel. Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man is a poignant exploration of the pain and frustration that this caused.
8. New Writing from the Caribbean Selections from the Caribbean Writer (Erika J. Waters, Ed.) The stories ranged widely over the relationships between men and women, parents and their children, and the condition of exile. The contributors are drawn from Caribbean countries of Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Montserrat, the Virgin Islands, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago.
9. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) This is my third copy of the book with the best looking cover page and paper quality. I have already read the short novel twice, and I confess that it was not an easy read. This is my third, and hopefully the last attempt to penetrate the dark jungle of Conrad’s mind.
10. Touch and Go (Eugene Stein) From Belize to New York, Brussels to Los Angeles, Stein evokes strange—yet strangely familiar—worlds, feelings you did not know were there, flavors aplenty. Into the dark corners of your heart and mind he shines a unique light on love, life, and desire—illuminating and brilliant. This is unfair, but I will see how Stein fares if I pit him against David Sedaris, a favorite in this genre.
Have you experienced this gnashing urge to hurl whatever you are holding, say a padlock or a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica, to somebody whose level of idiocy has reached a point that even the most forgiving of humans cannot tolerate, much less you?
You thought such existence of a pea-sized brain is only possible in the realm of science fiction, but you caught yourself aghast after discovering that God has forsaken them and deprived them of a basic human attribute — possession of a brain that is of decent size capable of basic functions and of thinking with a semblance of sense, at least.
Now tell me, who says God is fair?
I just cannot fathom why people like these exist. Diversity makes the world more exciting, I hear somebody reasoning out. These dimwitted, imbecilic, morons have the same right as I have to exist and enjoy this fleeting opportunity to live. If you ask me, however, I’d rather be dead than dumb.
“What are you reading?” He asked in his all too forced American twang.
“Oh, a novel by Joseph Conrad. By the way, I’d rather read than talk about banalities and your problem with that seventeen-year old you impregnated,” said I.
“Interesting. You love reading Pupung?”
“Sure, I also enjoyed reading that when I was in college.”
“I have a complete collection of all the volumes. But my all time favorite is Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.”
“Really? Please evaporate.”
I went on reading and tried to look as riveted as I possibly could with the story of two men forced by their work and circumstance to live in the Congo Basin. This I hoped would send him a statement that I do not need a brain dead lurking while I am spending my precious time reading. But he is as thick skinned as he is a pudding head.
“Do you want to go out and use the free internet in the other building?”
“No, I’ll just stay here. If you want, you can just go. I’m okay here.”
“You know what, my wife [they’re not married] is giving birth this August.”
“Oh nice, eh di ayos. Leave me alone.”
But he stayed there beside me interrupting my reading every thirty seconds disregarding my almost pleading actions that told him to leave me alone. I was holding a heavy duty padlock that time. Reading the darkness in Conrad’s characters Kayerts and Carlier, I had a hard time holding back my internal need to force the metal lock inside his big mouth.
While riding a bus from LRT Buendia to Boni MRT station, while the faceless crowds of people in Ayala Avenue were scampering on their way home or to wherever they are going, I felt that this sense of alienation I have been trying to ignore since I arrived here in Manila forced itself in my psyche again, but stronger and more overwhelming this time. And although I am not a fan of Joseph Conrad, I am reminded of a line in his short story An Outpost of Progress:
Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every significant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion. But the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart. To the sentiment of being alone of one’s kind, to the clear perception of the loneliness of one’s thoughts, of one’s sensation – to the negation of the habitual, which is safe, there is added the affirmation of the unusual, which is dangerous; a suggestion of things vague, uncontrollable, and repulsive, whose discomposing intrusion excites the imagination and tries the civilized nerves of the foolish and the wise alike.
I feel, this time, like a man stripped of the security my society used to provide me. In a way, I feel I am trapped in a place where the rule is that of a primitive man’s.
When I look at it, I realized that for somebody outside, the image of me inside the bus staring aimlessly at the crowd outside is as alienating as any other images of the members of the crowd are also confronting while they walk in their stilleto or pointed-toe leather shoes on the cold concrete of Ayala Avenue, as they wait in line for the cab, as they ask themselves whether this reality is worth the other realities they have to give up.
For somebody who does not have a formal study on sociological theories, I may loosely use anomie as this feeling of normlessness and the seeming lack of order in the world surrounding me. The universe is indifferent toward man. And this evening, while inside that cramped bus, I especially felt this non-forgiving indifference. It is lamentable.
Nine months ago I came scared and unsure of the life I was to face in this country. Nine months later, although I may not profess to fully understand what Vietnam is, Hanoi gave me a glimpse of the beauty of a country I used to not understand when I was younger.
This afternoon I went out with Chi Le to buy a gift for Co Doanh in Trang Tien Plaza and bought some English books to read while traveling by train to Saigon tomorrow. I bought a copy of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a collection of stories by Joseph Conrad, and an anthology by Saki. We then went home by bus, which we seldom take whenever we go around the city.
I then told her that I would just go to my center to get my certificate. I was excited to reach the center and know the result of my examinations only to be told by the director that the university made a mistake and that the center would be sending me a copy of the certificate through freight. When he asked me for my address, I almost laugh at myself when I found out that I have nowhere to go when I reach Manila so I gave my parents’ address in South Cotabato instead (this sentence is odd). Thay Ha, the director gave me two boxes of Vietnamese coffee, Trung Nguyen, which is my favorite.
After leaving the center, I passed by the pavement in Ngoc Khanh street where my friend, a woman selling tra da (iced tea) and tra nong (hot tea) was doing her usual chatter. I said good bye to her and told her I’m leaving for my country tomorrow. She said good luck. I was touched.
I then proceeded to the gym to work out for an hour when I received a call from a girl named Khuyen who works in a cafe in front of the gym telling me to meet her in the cafe after I finished working out. I did meet her, but it was a very short, hurried meeting. She told me that she wanted to go with me to the Philippines. I gave her a smile and told her that I shall come back to Vietnam after two years and promised to meet her again. It’s funny how relationships are ended as soon as they are created.
Then I passed by a shop selling dresses and bought the dress Chi Le said is beautiful a week ago while we were riding her motorbike on the way to the silk village. I had to bargain with the man selling the dress telling him in Vietnamese to give me a good price because it was for my girlfriend and I am a poor student. He agreed to give it to me with the price that I asked him. I then walked to a gift shop near Ho Dac Di to have my gifts for Chi Le and her mom wrapped. These two people have been the closest to me. Co Doanh for letting me stay in her house disregarding what other people will say about her daughter and for Chi Le I whom I met in Germany two years ago and whom I thought I will never be able to meet again, but as Fate always likes to surprise us, became one of the best friends I’ve had.
Moments ago I finished cooking Maja Blanca. I promised Chi Le to cook a Filipino dish before leaving, but since I didn’t want them to think that Filipino cuisine is inferior to Vietnamese, I opted not to cook any complicated dish I know I am so bad at and instead decided to make a delicacy which is my father’s specialty.
Chi Le and I had a very serious talk about life and our ambitions. My experience of Hanoi would never be possible without her. I would forever be thankful to have met her during that cold winter day in Leverkusen and, again, on that excessively hot and humid summer morning on the street of Tran Hung Dao waiting for me to come out of my apartment in Hanoi’s old district.
I was supposed to write about her that day but I knew I would never give full justice to the beauty of her smile that time I saw her. She was wearing big sunglasses, smiling upon seeing me.
She then removed her sunglasses and said “Hi John.”
Now I realized that I really should have written about seeing her that day because it was one of the most unforgettable and beautiful images I have of a woman.
Our lives are made up of montages like these. Their meanings may not be apparent at first but we know that they sum up into a grand collection of events that we all call life.
Hanoi shall remain in my heart.