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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Novels that explore difficult, disturbing societal themes

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In The Collaborators, National Book Award-winning author Katrina Tuvera explores the themes of complicity and collaboration in the actions of several characters from different generations, from the pre-war period to the post-EDSA days.

The novel opens with Carlos Armando, a 70-year-old who lies dreaming of the past on his hospital bed. Born in 1930, his reminiscences cover a wide swath of Philippine history and the instances of complicity and collaboration that many chose to conduct for reasons of survival, status, or power.

Some of these collaborators worked with the Japanese during World War II. Carlos, then 18, recalls some of his classmates saying: “Not all collaborators are traitors. Some acted like shields, softening the enemy’s blow. The Americans failed us – why should they deserve our allegiance? Others countered, They are quislings, fattening bellies and pockets while the rest of us endured in misery.”

Tuvera has her character point out a perennial argument: that some of the accused collaborators, who killed no one nor committed any heinous acts, only “feigned cooperation – and no court in the world existed that could step into their hearts and declare them devoid of patriotism.” Who’s to say what is in the heart of a person, what their intention is, when no physical evidence exists for one thing or the other?

These award-winning books tackle difficult themes such as complicity and collaboration (The Collaborators) as well as rarely explored topics in Gulf fiction ( The Bamboo Stalk) including racism, religion, identity, and labor economics.

This argument in turn illumines the choices that other characters in the novel make as they negotiate their own situations in the world. The novel, rather than making grand, sweeping gestures of generalized statements and broad theory, focuses on how the little things – each individual action, choice, decision – compound over time to create a mass effect, a tremendous weight that tips an entire society into a reality where the social contract between rulers and ruled is undermined.

Set against a backdrop of a president’s impeachment for taking gambling payoffs, a whistleblower’s testimony about their unrighteous operation, and Carlos’ own inexorable slide into his final days, The Collaborators asks readers to think about political complicity, impunity, and the fickleness of relationships in the face of existential and identarian threats.

The Bamboo Stalk

I find works of translation interesting because they have the potential of bringing the discourse on certain important issues and topics to wider Filipino attention. Last week I wrote about Rogelio Sicat’s translation of the Czech play RUR into Filipino. This week, I present Kuwaiti journalist Saud Alsanousi’s second novel, The Bamboo Stalk (Saq al-Bamboo), translated into Filipino from English by Jen Recato-Daño.

First, let me talk about how often translators get a raw deal when it comes to credits. Translators bring work to an audience that would not have otherwise read it, thus they deserve kudos. That’s why I am puzzled that the book does not mention the English translator of the book version that Daño worked from.

I presume it’s the Jonathan Wright translation from the original Arabic version by Alsanousi that was published in 2012 – it’s the only English translation that I can find online. It could be that Daño worked from someone else’s translation; in any case, it should have been mentioned in a foreword or introduction, which this book doesn’t have, but it certainly could have used one.

The Bamboo Stalk, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013, is the story of Jose, whose parents are Josephine Mendoza, a Filipina who worked in Kuwait as a domestic helper, and Rashid, the only son of an affluent Kuwaiti family. They fall in love and marry in secret after Josephine gets pregnant. When their son is born, his father names him ‘Isa’ (Arabic for ‘Jesus’) while his mother calls him ‘Jose’ (after Rizal).

However, Rashid’s family rejects his choice of wife, and not even the birth of a grandson sways them. Rashid, to save his sisters from shame and to preserve his own privileges, gives up on his family and sends them back to the Philippines. Rashid sends money to his wife and child for several years, until Josephine and Jose lose contact with Rashid. Jose grows up with his mother’s poverty-stricken family.

Like many third-culture kids, Jose/Isa is conflicted about his identity: “Kung sana ako ay naging ‘Filipino’ sa Pilipinas, or ‘Arabo’ sa Kuwait! Kung sana ay may kakayahan ang salitang ‘kung’ para baguhin ang mga bagay, o kung… pero ‘wag nalang nating pag-usapan pa ngayon.” This is only one of the many passages where he seeks to negotiate race and culture in shaping his idea of self.

The book is divided into six parts, each of which starts with an epigraph by Jose Rizal. The first half of the book deals with Jose/Isa’s life on the margins in the Philippines, and how history, culture, and politics have shaped the realities of his existence. The second half recounts his return to Kuwait, and how he adjusts to life in a place his mother described to him as a paradise. Jose finds out what happened to his father in the years they did not hear from him, as the young man struggles to make a place for himself in his father’s family.

This novel was praised in the Arab world for raising questions on themes rarely explored in Gulf fiction, including racism, religion, identity, and labor economics. The Filipino edition, published by Anvil, is certainly worth a place on anyone’s bookshelf.

The Collaborators
By Katrina Tuvera
2022, 204 pgs, pb, Bughaw (an imprint of Ateneo de Manila University Press)

The Bamboo Stalk: Filipino edition
By Saud Alsanousi, transl. by Jen Recato-Daño
2021,  368 pgs, pb, Anvil Publishing, Inc.

About the author
Jenny Ortuoste teaches communication and creative writing at the BA and MA levels. She is a member of the Manila Critics Circle. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @DrJennyO

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