Something Other Than the Given: on The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

"It's a fantasy," the Guardian boasts on my Vintage copy of Winterson's work. And so I read.

“It’s a fantasy,” the Guardian boasts on my Vintage copy of Winterson’s work. And so I read.

Whenever I write about something that’s been published a while back, I always mull over the irony of the word “review.” In particular, I always think about how what I’m doing is putting my thoughts down on paper for the record, if not for the novelty of subject. Then again, even when writing about something new, I have my reservations about calling my piece a review–the word itself suggesting the never-before, the newness that is here to stay–and yet, precisely which grows old, and fast.

That’s what social media does to novelty, I think: the moment something enters the market, it’s spread thin–high on Twitter or crawling on Facebook feeds, tagged on Instagram, blogged on platforms, in such picture-perfect sensibility–such that in the time it takes to take a glance at the brand new dream of a brighter piece of the different, the sensation feels as dry as yesterday’s crumbs.

But so too, the reverse may be possible: when something has been given for so long, haunting bookshelves both private and public, one can presumably choose to do one from the three–hail it as it has been hailed in canon, develop neutrality towads it, or defy whatever compliment has been thrown at it for as long as it has existed.

Having first opened Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, I had the notion of falling headlong into the first option. For, after all, this work doesn’t hold back when it entices the reader. Even when it speaks of Napoleon and the casino at Venice it convinces the hand turning the page that the story is that of the reader’s: “I’m telling you stories. Trust me,” Henri says, and we do. In part what’s so captivating about this novel is that it begins not with romantic love, but with hero-worship. Henri has fallen in love with the idea of Napoleon, as has all of France–for how could they not love this man and his Josephine? And later on, as all kinds of hero-worship must, this love becomes bitterness, come to face the foolishness of youthful idealism in the monuments we have built for ourselves.

This, from the boatman's daughter.

This, from the boatman’s daughter.

The other way that this novel entices is through Villanelle, who is, quite simply, a character that stands for the very act of falling in love with life: she with the red hair and webs of flesh between her toes; she who can love her body despite all it has been through! She is Venice herself, the city of disguises from which she is banished and to which she returns with Henri, who has fallen in love with her. But Villanelle does not put her heart on the line for Henri, not when it already beats for someone else, because after all, for her, that is what it means to live: “You play, you win, you play, you lose.”

It’s difficult to say what this work is about: perhaps a city, perhaps escape, perhaps masquerade, perhaps insanity (but what piece of literature does not tackle a bit of all those, at any given time?). Perhaps then, it would be more efficient to describe its failure.

My disappointment is not in what doesn’t happen (although, if one is a firm believer in decoration as determinant of theme, then that would certainly be a source), but in the lack of its development. True: Henri finds his answer elsewhere, and so does Villanelle, seemingly trapped as they are in what once seemed the city of escape. But this so-called development seems more like a lackadaisical ending to a narrative that is otherwise beautifully written: the decisions made by the characters seem half-hearted. Worse, to me, nothing in the plot beforehand can ever support the validity of their (non)action in the novel’s ending.

I love(d) these characters for their sentiments, but cannot see them as anything more than two-dimensional, for the lack of their development.

This was a story, and I trusted it; having done so, I valued its emotion and risked falling for its language, only to be disappointed.

That, at least, stays true to one other thing the novel assures us:

You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play. It’s the playing that’s irresistible. Dicing from one year to the next with the things you love, what you risk reveals what you value.


What Saddens Me These Days…

is miscommunication. Although perhaps that is always a danger, in any case. But what I mean to say is when I speak and you disagree, I know there is no respect in the trade-off. I have seen people around me clash in opinion, but I have also witnessed their conversation turn to laughter. What hurts is not the disagreement about style or message, but the fact of the years we spent together, closer than kin, sharper than a serpent’s tooth. Because with you there is no delight in the potential to grow even when we disagree as women. There is only your insistence on, well, you.

is also the irreducible happiness of being twenty-six. A select few will know this: I’d been told that to be twenty-six is to be sinfully young. I think that is true, although I have no idea perhaps, what it means to be sinful at all. And rather than dissect the term into black and white, good girl versus bad girl, I have come to the understanding that what becomes sinful to us, sometimes, are the joys we deprive ourselves of: because sometimes we think we don’t deserve them, have no time for them, or that such things are frivolities. And certainly those things exist, much like valid anxiety and priorities. But now that I am twenty-six I find that I am less worried about what might seem ridiculous to other people for as long as it makes me happy and causes no harm to others.

(A conversation with a colleague: how happy it is to spoil oneself during the semestral break! We were like two giddy children, telling each other what we planned to do once we got home. I confessed that lately I had started wondering if I was overdoing it, which is ridiculous. Because burning the midnight oil and paying for it with a body ready to fall sick at any moment, I would never tell myself, You’re overdoing it. How ridiculous, how strange!)

is the inhumanity behind positions of power: when someone is murdered and their humanity becomes secondary because of the wish to please the imperial master, when people are more disgusted at the prospect of two people loving each other despite race/distance/sexuality rather than the fragile ego of our leaders, when we refuse to acknowledge that state policies and international relations killed her as much as his hand did, we become complicit. We are the killers. We become ready to kill again and again. She dies, again and again.

is that the road seems to stretch forever: while I refuse, still, to measure myself against what others have gained I also learn impatience with the self. And how do I carefully balance that with self-discipline and care? There is, too, the material and substantive meaning of manuscript: that it exists not by mere power of will or thought, but by action. A memory now: a mentor laying down sheets of his manuscript on a long table, page by page: the way I plan lessons and understand poetry that I’ve no mind for. In that moment, when the cards are laid out and the tiles prepared for a palace, I see before me the material conditions of possibility.


What makes me happy these days:

The craft of Self, and the understanding that one grows in direct proportion to the relationships that one chooses to take care of and watch prosper.

Edit to Add: After all, some things are more important than happiness.


Stolen Truths: On Tanghalang Pilipino’s Kleptomaniacs

Nicco Manalo and Micko Laurente pose as the brothers Tabo and Buchoy in Tanghalang Pilipino's Kleptomaniacs. Photo from Tanghalang Pilipino's official Facebook page.

Nicco Manalo and Micko Laurente pose as the brothers Tabo and Buchoy in Tanghalang Pilipino’s Kleptomaniacs. Photo from Tanghalang Pilipino’s official Facebook page.

We expect any play we watch to bring us to another place: to transport us, through time or space, to a different world; and when we do find that the world depicted in theater reminds us of our own, still we find that an aspect of it has been highlighted or distorted or charmed. Of course, the idea of realism in theater has never completely disappeared. Some may even cringe from the thought of this: What is the use of entertainment after all, if it cannot make us forget our own troubles?

But that is the surprise of the medium: to be able to show a recognizable world made fantastic because it calls by its name the monster that we dare not acknowledge, for fear of having to tame it ourselves.


Sa Kabiguan Hindi Kailanman Papayag

It takes some time to get used to the idea of a rap musical.

More so, when the premise, as it sets out, is difficult to understand. The play started this way: that he has talent cannot be denied Micko Laurente, who raps as Buchoy, even as he ate his words and it was more than halfway through that I began to understand what he was saying. But even in the chaos that was the ensemble of the first act, the play managed to interest, if only because the clash of costumes, the pandemonium onstage, takes the audience by surprise. Yet it is some time again before the situation becomes clear: Tisay (Angelina Kanapi), is outraged when she learns that her daughter Vicky (Thea Yrastorza) is with child, and that the father should be no less than Tabo (Nicco Manalo), taga-padyak ng pedicab, the reigning village idiot.

Ah, but worse! Tabo is convinced that he can care for the child—that, in fact, against all odds he and Vicky should wed, hope springs eternal, love is forever, even when Vicky’s mother wants to kill him, his little brother Buchoy reminds him, “Paano na ang aking pag-aaral?/Di ba sabi mo dahil first honor ako/Sagot mo pag-aaral ko hanggang kolehyo…” and Vicky claims that there is only one sure way to end the dilemma, still tabo  insists. He will never forget his little brother, he can support a family—he could get a job at the municipal hall!

The municipal hall!, cries Vicky, and for what! To become a kleptomaniac?

And here, premise and foreshadowing briefly coincide. A kleptomaniac: one who steals from others, not out of any need but simply out of impulse, a psychological crisis. But it is not a condemnation of the disease itself, or even of the people outside theater who have been clinically diagnosed of this mania, that the play serves to criticize, as the confusion begins to clear.

As the narrative continues, the conflict is narrowed down; we are introduced to the vigilant best friend Ngongo, the devious pal Peklat (Ybes Bagadiong), the lecherous Kap Cris, (Akong Bongcaras). And here the set design provides a polish that proves the effectivity of simplicity: an earthquake takes the town, and suddenly the wooden planks, evoking memories of rusty yero and wooden shanties both, shake and fall down. The small town is devastated, and the faithful best friend perishes.


The calm before the quake. Set design by Tuxqs Rutaquio, lighting design by John Batalla. Photo c/o Keisha Uy.


Lekat Na ‘Yang Tulungan

Now the real plot unravels. It is remarkable how easy it is to recognize an object that we tell ourselves is part of daily life: how a plastic bag held by a woman and handed to a ragged child onstage signifies without warning, instantaneously, two words: relief goods. What makes more sense than that? It all seems faintly familiar, like a dream we tell ourselves is as fantastic as cinema, as dramatized for most of us as a stage propped to the eaves and actors dressed for the part. We recognize the sheer clamor for it onstage and ogle, as though they were animals, while the survivors of the earthquake grab and tear and throw and pull, simply to receive one plastic bag.

And for what? Lumang damit, and goodness knows, these things having been shared on social media before reaching those who have every right to claim: “Mga putang ina nilang ipokrita/Magaling lang sa mga salita/Para malagay sa Facebook o Instagram/Sa buhay natin walang pakialam.” How then, can we demand gratitude for that? For what should be the simply human capacity to love?

If, by now, you ask yourself: Is the point then, of all this, to preach? To condemn all burgis? No, because it does more than that. It dares to ask the important questions that, in a society far removed from the destruction of an impoverished town—onstage and elsewhere—how dare we tell people of hope, when they have every right to tell you that they have none?


Squatter Tayo, Tandaan Mo!

But that is precisely what is remarkable in Tabo’s character. The play implicitly, again and again, asks, who is Tabo? It is, after all, easy to say: he is the uneducated, the naïve, the symbol of the masses!

But it is not the masses who are disillusioned. It is, after all, the beggar along the streets of Katipunan, the sampaguita-bearing children along EDSA, and the old crone dying underneath the MRT station, who know Jollibee as a luxury; who rejoice in one, two, maybe three passersby and the drop of their coins; who know that whoever wins the next election makes no difference because today, tomorrow, and as far ahead in the future as their emaciated bodies will take them there will only be the stark reality that they have nothing, they are nothing, and even when they die, they will remain nothing (Do you ever pause to wonder where their bodies go, the street-dwellers and taong grasa, when finally they relieve us of their presence, of our middle class guilt, and expire?)

For, after all, it is only the privileged who can tell the impoverished: get up on your feet! The Filipino spirit is stronger than disaster! More powerful than poverty! More resilient than pain. In the end Tabo’s insistence on hope is only so irritating because it is so frighteningly familiar, as only those traits that we possess can be, when we see them in somebody else.

But there is something to wonder at when a production can use language in a new light. Case in point: kleptomaniac. An exercise in language: Why, after all, are we able only to associate this term with those who have been diagnosed (and with uncalled-for distaste at that), but not with those in power? Why is it easier to call a spade a spade than to call kleptomaniacs those who live excessively, and with nary an excuse for it all?

Why is it so easy to say that Rizal wrote of that insidious social cancer, but so difficult for us to see that the impulse to allow foreign aid to come in where local government has failed suggests a kind of disease, a defect in logic all the more horrific because we are shameless about it?

That is the beauty and terror of the confrontation between Tabo and the Mayor (Brian Sy). In fact, it is so frightening because we can only imagine what it would be like to demand accountability and call a beast by its name—and to its face, no less!

And yet, what is the point of theater if not to bring out conflicting emotions in the audience? What is the use of it unless it allows us to praise it even as we can critique it and acknowledge its truths?


A Truth By Its Name

This, then, is true: I saw the rap musical on opening night, and the edges were rough. At crucial points verbal cues were missed, the sharpness of emotion dulled by misplaced pauses and voices attempting to keep up with the tempo. At some moments one has to wonder: is it simply because some chemistry lags where the rest of the cast, in smaller number, can be cohesive?

And this too, is true. I do not think Kleptomaniacs is the best rap musical ever. I have not even seen enough rap musicals for that. I do not think I can say that on that night I witnessed the best onstage acting I have ever seen, because again, I have not seen enough of that.

But to the extent that this play managed to turn our own vocabulary against us, to the extent that it makes us question whom we are really rooting for when we summon the idea of hope against every disaster, to the extent that it forces us to confront poverty as a reality instead of a play on words: this rap musical deserves to be seen, and its questions lived off the stage.



Theater and its power to haunt. Photo c/o Keisha Uy.



Kleptomaniacs, written by Layeta Bucoy and directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio, runs until 27th July at CCP’s Little Theater (also known as Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino). For tickets, kindly call Ticketworld at (632) 891-9999 or visit

Official Kleptomaniacs poster. Photo c/o blogger.

Official Kleptomaniacs poster. Photo c/o blogger.


Today I woke up to a downpour, and to pasta prepared by my mother. She does this, sometimes, prepares me my favorite dishes when I least expect them. I like to think that all mothers do some version of this love for their daughters, and know by heart that my mother does this despite the limited ingredients, or her exhaustion from all the work around the house that she insists on doing, despite her seventy-plus years.


Camera 360

Camera 360

I want to express what permeates this, along with her insistence for me to rest, even though before the school year hits my time (when not given to deadlines) is my own: to read, to write for self, to binge-watch television shows. But I know what motivates these things, like my father washing the dishes in my stead even when I tell him that I’m in charge of doing it. As the days fall away, closer to the day when I move out, I remember the last time I lived away from home. In the last two years of university, and more so in senior year I recall every weekend homecoming had been turned a shortened celebration by my parents: all my favorite dishes cooked for lunch and everyone kinder to me in a way that cannot be explained in words. While there is no denying that the sweetness of the victory–knowing my absence vindicated me from the petty grudges of the quotidian–what else is there to say but that it was ideal, and that I enjoyed it?

This is that feeling, again, but colder this, time, and more distant. I am moving away for different reasons, and my insistence hints at what might be a permanent removal, if not address.  Hence this gift of gestures: of my parents wanting to spend time with me, giving in to my wishes no matter how small, of concealing their doubts and fears even when my father cannot hold back sometimes and suggests a different course of action. My mother assures me that she is only a little bit sad. My father approaches me about the ridiculously long book I have and asks, how far along am I?

I tell him, and I wonder how much longer I can convince myself that I want to read this book, I do, I do.

All over and every time, friends have expressed happiness about recent events in my life, but I like it best when they express the very excitement that, my entire life, I had been told to contain.

And if anyone asks me, at this point, how far along I am, I can say: a little too far along, I think (in life at least) than I would have imagined possible. But apparently not anywhere close to where I need to be just yet.

I imagine all the promises of tomorrow, and I think that, given everything else–goals and inspiration and adventure–there are days when I’d like to stay in, even in this house full of memories, and eat whatever my mother cooks me, forever a child in that sense again.

Camera 360

Profound Disconnections in August: Osage County

Last March, I made a decision to watch two plays: not a particularly easy decision to make, even as I was excited about the prospect. Sure, watching a play sounds cultured. One thinks of lights and playbills and catches a whiff of Broadway, even when one is undoubtedly a part of the Manila audience. Still, the fact remains that watching plays remains a luxury here, unless a) you earn enough and can keep up with the latest in Philippine theater either by keen interest or whim, or b) you’re a student and can justify the expense by the fact that you need to watch something to pass a class.

In circumstances like mine, the sense of watching a play is now a little more nuanced. I earn my own money, so the stakes (if you can call them that) are higher, because more urgent factors come in when it comes to considering how I spend my limited resources. There’s no grade to be clamored for, so when a show is good that’s some money well-spent, and when it’s bad, it’s really bad because it’s a waste, a source of unease.

To Osage County, and where it failed

To Osage County, and where it failed

Perhaps it’s just as well that I started this review with a sense of discomfort, as that was what I felt throughout Repertory Philippines’ August: Osage County. Of course, it’s anything but fair to compare an onstage performance to that of a cinematic one, so if, like me, you’d watched the Meryl Streep, Oscar-nominated movie before the play, your singular goal should have also been to eliminate the allowances that a feature film can make and which an onstage performance cannot follow.


An Unsound Beginning

However, it is precisely because a stage has its limits that overcoming these makes for a more marvelous theater experience. It is also, sadly, in its failure to face up to these challenges that Repertory’s Osage County failed from the moment it began. The first act opened with Leo Rialp as Beverly Weston: alcoholic, award-winning poet, and patriarch in a home slowly going to the dogs. Not a bad start, in theory, and in fact I don’t think it took the audience long to identify the character as such–pained, disappointed, brilliant.

It did, however, take the audience a while to hear what Beverly was saying, as the audio was terrible. The audience had to strain to understand the dialogue, raising some questions:  Is the microphone on? Can’t a sound technician do something before the next line? And, as Beverly’s conversation with Johnna Monevata (played by Angel Bayani) continued (those were a whole lot of lines sacrificed, by the way), the inevitable question of: Is this problem going to persist?


Minding the Gap

Technical difficulties aside, nothing could have prepared me for the lack of chemistry between the cast. In an ensemble, it is clear that there is no such thing as a solo act. While there may be instances that belongs to a particular character alone (a monologue, perhaps, or a pregnant pause), in such cases, the character must still draw from the energy of his or her fellow actors, thus feeding the power of the emotion. Or, if the character is drawing from something that hasn’t unfolded yet, still the revelation comes into the plot eventually, by which the audience then makes the connection between the character’s moment and the rest of the play.

But in Osage County, it seemed that every thespian was drawing emotion from oneself only, instead of drawing emotion from each other’s performances. Even when in dialogue with one another, while one over-acted, the other under-acted, and this was no means something that the script itself can be faulted with, either.  As a drama-comedy, Osage County only works if some of its characters refuse to be as histrionic as the other half. That is, after all, where tension lies. But here, the tension was not between the characters but between the cast members themselves. Case in point, whenever Barbara (eldest of the Weston sisters, played by Pinky Amador) was in a scene with her daughter Jean (Thea Gloria) and estranged husband Bill (Kenneth Moraleda), the level of energy was all over the place, but nowhere in sync.

Let’s take it apart. Gloria was clearly drawing from her role as gothic, rebellious teenage girl; Moraleda was playing the pacifist academic having an affair with a much younger woman; Amador was acting on anxiety as the frustrated eldest daughter fighting to keep her mother’s psychosis at bay while watching her husband and daughter drift away from her. But for all their heated exchanges onstage, there was no subtle inner working between their characters. In fact, I could only tell who they were because that is who the Internet told me they were going to play.

Cast and character descriptions aside, the modulation of their voices, how they reacted to each other’s lines, and their body language (Amador playing frantic, Moraleda doing frustrated, and Gloria struggling with angst) left little to arouse me emotionally. Certainly when one watches a play one expects theatrics, but the beauty of watching someone act also lies in the anticipation of the unsaid, of what is concealed by gestures as much as what is revealed by a stretched arm, the arch of an eyebrow, some distance in blocking.

In other words, the execution lacked fluidity, seamlessness, subtlety. Cues, in particular, should have been invisible to everyone but the actors themselves, but instead of the emotions from the script unfolding, what I witnessed that night was the clear revelation of stage direction and choreography, instead of the genuine emotion that comes from the carefully controlled craft of acting.


Loss of Character

Character, as a matter of course, is something internalized before it is brought out as a natural element in the setting of the play. As the overbearing matriarch of the family, the character of Violet Weston should have stood out from this setting, as she is the source of the very chaos that informs the plot. Vicious at the worst of times and resentful at best, Violet embodies the terror that is in each family, making us ask of ourselves when we consider ancestry: Is that what I am doomed to become? But in Repertory’s Osage County Violet stood out not because of her ferocity, but because Baby Barredo, who played her, played a faded version of her.

It wasn’t difficult to tell from the way the other characters moved around Violet that she was a force to be reckoned with, even as she was really a traumatized child in an old woman’s clothing. But after her fiery spiel in the second act (which I’ll discuss further), one just doesn’t know what to make of her. Here, too, in her character, the fiction is revealed because the technicalities are obvious. Her microphone was faulty, and a movement in a particular direction by her caused static.

This perennial technical problem aside, her lack of a Southern accent (despite the fact that this was one factor which the rest of the cast deliberately exerted effort to keep), also dampened what would have been the illusion of her character. Moreover, considering who she was playing, this took away from what should have been the driving force behind the play’s internal conflict. Although there were moments when she was funny as well as infuriating in her hobby of tearing into shreds every member of her family, in the end I didn’t know what to make of this character, because I wasn’t sure she was a character that had solid form at all.

But the clear mismatch between the characters made itself most felt in the second act. At dinner, when all the characters have gathered, the script called for Violet to unleash her fury. It would have been both humorous and hurtful, a time for both Violet and her brother-in-law Charles Aiken to shine in their respective witticisms. Where one raised hell, the other pacified would have pacified with humor. Instead, this scene proved problematic in two ways: first, it meant trouble as all the characters were present–each being played, as aforesaid, from varying levels of performance. While players such as Sheila Francisco (who played Mattie Fae) and her onstage husband Richard Cunanan remained strong (it helped that they were lucky enough to have consistently functioning microphones), others were drowned in the mix, particularly Moraleda and Noel Rayos (who played Little Charles Aiken).


Matters of Space

Another problem was the blocking in the dinner scene. Logistically, of course, it is part of the creative struggle to make do with both a small stage and the specifications made in the original material. The dinner scene after Beverly’s funeral is important, but in the bigger picture, it only serves to anticipate how the rest of the family will react now that one source of conflict in the plot (Beverly’s disappearance) had already been resolved.

In this scene, only two characters are separated from the “adults” dining table: Johnna and Jean. The rest are seated at a long, rectangular table, set at an angle slightly diagonal from the audience, hence necessarily blocking many of the character’s faces.

The price of failing to manage this limited space creatively is, of course, paid for by the audience, who are made to feel as though they’re voyeurs craning their necks and cocking their heads this way and that just to see the facial expression of the character speaking or even to distinguish what is being said. This is all, of course, contrary to what an audience should feel.

As someone watching theater, I expect to be invisible. True, to some extent I am a voyeur to the unfolding events onstage, but the process of observing should be as smooth so as to seemnatural. Once I had to exert effort to actually understand what was going on onstage, I felt that I was removed from the experience, instead of part of it. Hence the failure to execute an important scene not only resulted in confusion, it also did the last thing a performance should do. It alienated its audience.


Some Bright Lights

There were, however, laudable performances that were a feast for the audience. Sheila Francisco, namely, and Richard Cunanan were fantastic. They drew the audience in, and in their performance, embodied the material enough to succeed in what most of the cast failed to do: to disappear completely behind their characters; to hold attention, suspend disbelief, and make the rage real, whether it was in criticizing Little Charles and coming to the defense of Violet (Francisco), or protecting and defying the same characters (Cunanan).

Liesl Batucan, who played the eccentric Weston sister Karen, also brightened up the stage. As with Francisco and Cunanan, the delivery of her lines spelled comic timing, and her scenes were some of the few in which the barrier between the audience and the unfolding scene became, as it should have been, permeable yet invisible.

In fact, I believe it was only in these three that the original material shone through, because it was in their performances that the audience caught a glimpse of the emotional puzzle that consists of a sprinkling of humor here, and some undisclosed rage there.


In Place of Pathos

I had gone in to watch this play expecting dysfunction, and I am certain that the rest of the audience also drew from some form of family dysfunction when they came to watch the play. In fact, that is exactly what I had expected would be revealed to me in Osage County: the assurance that someone else’s family, even onstage, fed and fell apart on this dysfunction, so that it could, ironically, make my own situation seem normal.

To  put it simply, if there was one thing I had wished for originally, walking into that theatre, it would have been to laugh a little, maybe even cry a lot inside. I had gone in looking forward to the pathos that everyone feels when faced with the reality of relatives and drama: that hopeful kind of heartbreak for the failures of family, and that is precisely what August: Osage County failed to inspire in me.

Instead, what I received was a clear disjuncture in the execution of drama. During a live stage performance, it is always a possibility and almost a probability that something will go wrong, technical or otherwise. But a constant failure to cope with inconveniences such as defective microphones, along with the continuous misalignment between one character and another, not to mention the lack of rapport between actors, not only results to an atmosphere of discomfort, but also fails to create any sense of pathos in the audience.






Difficulties with Self, and Calvino’s Adam

My body, along with my mind, hasn’t gotten used to my new schedule.

This isn’t as simple as it sounds. I am thankful for the mornings-off, which is the immediate advantage to having a part-time job, even if the financial side isn’t as bright as it used to be. It’s still decent, however, so I know where my gratitude lies. The real problem for me is that I can’t quite shape my productivity curve around coming home a little past dinner time and waking up two hours before noon.

The struggle is really in being a creature of habit. These days I wrestle with my body: late nights and late mornings, work in the afternoon till evening, productivity down to so little I have to convince myself I actually accomplished anything.

But I’m working my way around it. Through it. I think that might be important.

Speaking of which:

Pursuing new endeavors has led me, curiously, back to old habits. These days when I have to take more rides from public transportation, a stored value card for the MRT isn’t enough. I must have coins with me, as plenty as possible, and to count them out quickly over the counter, lest the person in line behind me pushes me out of the way. Rush hour does that to people, turns them rabid.

Coin purse as necessity.

Coin purse as necessity.

In any case, this is an interesting time for me. I’m sorry in a not-sorry kind of way to have to say that, I truly am. But I haven’t taken such important steps in a long time, and while I’m also reading new kinds of books and trying to look at things a new way, I’m also learning that the best object of study (slathered in subjectivity, of course), is myself.


Which brings me to the second installment of my musings on Italo Calvino’s Difficult Loves.

“Adam, One Afternoon” is the first story in my Harvest Book copy of this short story collection. I was enthusiastic about my first Calvino story, so even if the first few sentences failed to reel me in, I kept going.

The new gardener’s boy had long hair kept in place by a piece of cloth tied around his head with a little bow. He was walking along the path with his watering can filled to the brim and his other arm stretched out to balance the load. Slowly, carefully, he watered the nasturtiums as if pouring out coffee and milk, until the earth at the foot of each plant dissolved into a soft black patch; when it was large and moist enough he lifted the watering can and passed on to the next plant.

To be honest, it’s probably my aversion to long descriptions of natural life that quickly turned me off. Sea creatures, I can stand much better, although I’m quickly bored by that, too. This story was just that much more difficult because it’s about the young gardener, Libreso, showing Maria-nunziata, the kitchen girl, around. He keeps telling her that he has something for her and, though she always hesitates at first, her curiosity always gets the best of her.

But when the surprise is over, again and again she shrieks at the gifts that are gold to a gardener’s son: a toad, a lizard, a snail, a snake, a lonely goldfish, a colony of ants.

All of Libreso’s gifts are, on the surface, difficult to love.

Then again, not everything in the world was created to be easily appreciated. Not even those that are written down.

I get bored by long descriptions of rivers and lakes and how the valley stretches over the horizon, can’t even tell a creek from a stream at gunpoint, but I long for time away from the city. Anywhere green, or blue, away from all the concrete. Anywhere pretty.

But can anything deeper than the visual be loved?

The answer, of course, is yes. But it takes a gardener’s boy, on paper, to tell me that. If the story cannot interest me in his gifts, it can at least remind me of simpler days when, like Maria-nunziata, I would have followed anyone anywhere, to escape dimness, dullness, the utter null of younger days when nothing seems to happen you.

And really, what is more difficult to come to terms with but which you long most to return to, if not your childhood?

Especially when, these days, you are uncertain about where you’re going.



The First of Many Difficult Loves

It’s been a tough two weeks. No, months. Two months. Fun, full of learning, happiness, and self. But still tough.

One down.

One down.

I wanted to begin my series of reflections on Italo Calvino with a story I like, but I realized that it doesn’t suit my current  mindset. Maybe it’s just because I believe that there are some things that should never be easy, even though I can’t name them yet.

But that’s another essay for another time.

Of course, it’s not that no one has ever heard the name Italo Calvino before. I’d read about him, in passing, or heard people mention his literature. I’m certain that I have nothing original that I have to say about his writing style, or whatever truths he might offer in his works.

Like I said before, I’m never a steady reader of short story collections. I find it tedious to leave one short adventure for another. At every tale’s end I feel as though the rug’s being pulled out from under my feet. But (or so) this time, for Italo Calvino’s Difficult Loves, I find that perhaps it’s best to decompartmentalize.

It’s quite vain, isn’t it? I’m just recording my thoughts on every story (or every couple of stories), for some future recollection. God knows if there’s even any use to this. But I don’t deem things worthy of being done simply for their ease or usefulness, apparently.


“Big Fish, Little Fish” is like the first disappointment of the school year. Do you remember coming in for school, everything shiny and new, all your materials ready, thinking it’s going to be a great day? Then the teacher gives you homework and it’s not the kind of thing you can sink your teeth into at all: it’s dry and boring; or it seems interesting. Off the top of your head you can easily name five people who’ll take an interest in it, but none of them’s you.

But you know what, I like this story. What a plot twist, huh? Ah, but like a good, long story, this one is natural. It’s the kind of writing I long for: the fiction laid out, complete but slow in its undertaking, language precise yet so novel I can hardly imagine daring to use the same vocabulary for things I want to say.

The premise of the story? Simple, and the title enough to put me off. The elements, nothing special. A boy loves to fish, has talent with a spear gun. There’s a bigger fish in the story, but she’s a woman: large in flesh and emotion. And I think she is the story. Probably. Actually, I don’t know. The reason–the exact reason, the specific man, the actual heartbreak–behind this woman’s tears are never revealed. But there’s a nice contrast there, I think. Once I got past the rigorous reading, just pushing myself one word after another, the story’s not really difficult to like. It’s just difficult to get used to.

A sea bed seems beautiful the first time, when you discover it; but, as with all things, the really beautiful part comes later, when you learn everything, stroke by stroke. You feel as if you were drinking them in, the aquatic trails: you go on and on and never want to stop (Calvino 38).

(Whether or not that’s because I’m a city girl who hasn’t quite loved the sea as much as I want to, is something I’m not really sure of. Frankly, start describing sea creatures and instantly, you lose me.)

Then, the unexpected. Yes, I had thought that the character of Signora De Magistris had been added in for some color (though her introduction is so seamless I can hardly point out the knots), but what surprises is her embarrassment, and how, though near-death by octopus sounds funny enough outside a book, on paper, by Calvino, it seems as natural as a comma on a page. Or a boy out for fishing.

Today, a coincidence: I watched a security guard shining his shoes with the palm of his hand: otherwise perfectly shiny shoes, but I suppose that’s exactly why the merest dust or scratch or dirt can be so conspicuous. It was ridiculous but significant: most of us will think that security guards in our buildings are more formality than for safety; they hardly do more than stand around or open doors or ask for IDs. But when this man in uniform puts his foot up, one after the other, on a plant box to shine clean, stubbornly, whatever stain he sees on his shoes (and you wonder too, how many pairs he’s got, with what meticulous attention he must care for such shiny shoes, if day in day out he has to wear them to the same monotonous job), you begin to see what really matters, and for whom. It’s a little happy, but also a lot sad.

But last:

Funny, too, how these days when I think of conflict (brought about, no doubt, by endless fantasy novels and addictive television shows), I think of secret plots, undercover things, strange names. And here’s a story, plain as day, and it’s all the little anxieties I can’t explain, because they are as significant as they are minute.

Zeffirino  didn’t know quite what to think. Seeing a lady cry was a thing that made your heart ache. But how could anyone be sad in this enclosure of sea crammed with every variety of fish to fill the heart with desire and joy? And how could you dive into that greenness and pursue fish when there was a grown-up person nearby dissolved in tears? At the same moment, in the same place, two yearnings existed, opposed and unreconcilable, but Zeffirino could neither conceive of them together, nor surrender to the one or to the other (Calvino 41).