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Filipino Literature in Spanish (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Adam Lifshey. 2015.
Subversions of the American Century: Filipino Literature in Spanish and the Transpacific Transformation of the US
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
ISBN 9780472052936

Adam Lifshey’s latest scholarly publication is quite remarkable because it constitutes his second deep insight into a body of literary texts – Filipino literature in Spanish – which have, until quite recently, remained almost completely unexamined. As he states in the introduction, Subversions of the American Century must be read therefore “as a kind of sequel to its predecessor, The Magellan Fallacy” (8).[i] It was in that first work where he described his critical goal: “The goal (…) is not to reveal that a certain tradition and texts exists. It is to argue that such literature is imperative to altering our basic understandings of how marginalized arts refract modern power and recast it altogether” (4). In consequence, the main purpose of the critical work of Lifshey is neither literary nor aesthetic in nature, but rather ideological: he is not so interested in the literary texts per se, but in the underlying dynamics of power in which those were created and how such historical complexity is reflected in the texts.

The first two chapters are devoted to theatrical works by Pedro Paterno (1857-1911), La Alianza Soñada (1902) and Magdapio (1905). The third chapter deals with the short stories by Guillermo Gómez Wyndham (1880-1957), winner of the first Premio Zobel in 1924. Lifshey enlightens us about the curious and original novels by Mariano de la Rosa, Fíame (1951) and La Creación (1956), in chapters 4 and 6, while the fifth chapter analyzes Los pájaros de Fuego (1945) by Jesús Balmori (1887-1948).

The whole book can be read as an explicit attack on American imperialism and hegemony in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through the lenses of a Postcolonial critique on a group of Filipino authors in the period 1902-1961. Following this school of thought, Lifshey has a tendency to make some straightforward remarks within the framework of what is nowadays overwhelmingly accepted among scholars of Postcolonial Studies: “The story of the American century is the story of American power wherever and however it prevailed, but also wherever and however it failed in the attempt. For where there is empire, there is sedition. And so to leave out of the narrative of America the narratives of those gripped in its talons, struggling for freedom, is to misunderstand both America and the century. And that is to misunderstand the world.” (1) Lifshey, who teaches at a prestigious university in the US capital, feels quite comfortable in pointing out the evil of the interventionist enterprise of the US in foreign lands. According to Lifshey, that policy of intrusion and invasion started in the Philippines in 1898 – what about the incorporation of that mass of land from California until Texas a few decades before? – and, therefore, it shows us the modus operandi of subsequent strategies of dominance of America over the planet: “The Philippines, an archipelago that the United States wrested from independence-seeking revolutionaries after wresting it from Spain, is the birthplace of a new kind of America (…). This is not the story of America once upon a time, once upon a place. This is our World, the one we all inhabit today. This is our time. And begins in the Philippines (…). A war in which the United States decided, as it would be in Guantanamo a century later, that it was a good idea to torture perceived enemies with water. This is our World, our time. On whose hands is the blood?” (2).

Although I understand the intention of the author about bringing up and rehearsing certain sad events of the past in order to enhance the interest of the reader, I find these strong claims neither true nor false, but simply out of place. The value and the interest of the authors remains for him, mainly, in his capacity to create subversive literary texts. Hence, those Filipino authors are judged not for their intrinsic literary values, or for their creatively displayed themes, nor for their capacity to create intriguing characters or complex plots. Instead, the judgment is essentially moral: subversion against the hegemonic power is the feature that makes them good: Gayuma, for example, is not subversive enough, but the final cry for freedom “is revolutionary” (79), while “the rise and fall of Cándida does not appear at first particularly subversive” (85). Similar comments abound throughout the whole book.

There are two assumptions along Subversions that pervade the whole work which seem to this reader to be wrong. When reading the novels, Lifshey does not make any distinction between author and narrator. For him, there is no difference. Moreover, such a critical distinction would be disturbing for his purposes, because it would create a distance between the literary text and the historical context he wants to underline repeatedly. The second assumption is his treatment of the authors as “American”, a tag I find quite forced. It seems to me quite clear that the fact those authors were in an American colony, or that they wrote as American subjects against American colonization, or that they even enjoyed American citizenship, does not make them American authors. This is forcing them to be in a place for the pure purpose of serving Postcolonial Theory. Authors are defined more properly in literary history through their adherence to a certain literary tradition and, as I have highlighted elsewhere,[ii] Filipino writers in Spanish are better understood when compared to their Latin-American peers.

Lifshey is much better when offering a close-reading of the texts, an activity unfortunately which does not appear in every chapter, instead swinging back and forth from biography to historical context. Every chapter is also plagued with risky statements. Lifshey claims, that “Paterno probably did not understand much about his own production either” (17). This would place Paterno in a locus of self-ignorance, when historical evidence shows us that he knew the game he was playing in politics and what his chances were.[iii] The author romanticizes revolution, when he explains that Katipunan was “a Filipino revolutionary organization of lower urban class and peasant origins” (18); historical evidence shows the social class of the revolutionary was not that humble. Sometimes Lifshey is rather inaccurate, to say the least: Spain did not surrender to Americans rather than to Filipinos to save face (18), but because the Americans threatened to bombard Cádiz – a naval squadron was waiting instructions in the bay – if they did not do so. Paterno’s opera moreover is key, according to the author, in order to understand current events: “The American invasion and occupation of the Philippines is demonstrably what led to the American invasions and occupations of Vietnam and Iraq. Pedro Paterno is the clue to those Afghan authoring dramas of one kind or another day” (26). The connection is, however, never demonstrated, and not one Afghan author is mentioned in order to illustrate the claim. The first chapter deviates in the conclusion by desiring Paterno’s opera to be performed today in front of the American troops in the Philippines.

Lifshey seems to be unhappy about the fact that Paterno’s opera was not subversive enough – I rather tend to think he could not have made it more so, given that it was going to be performed in front of Taft – or for the personality of Paterno himself, a dexterous social climber. Moreover, in Manila society, there was and there is still a diglossia between the language used for everyday tasks (Tagalog) and the language used for serious matters like news, politics, or literature (English); Lifshey supposes on three occasions (pages 52, 63 and 74) that Paterno did not know their Tagalog language. Paterno clearly did not feel comfortable writing in Tagalog – like many upper-class students today! – but that does not mean he did not speak the language fluently.

Lifshey is right in calling attention to the existence of an original author, Mariano de la Rosa, whose literary career was relatively late. It has to be noted, however, that the author translated the title of one novel, Fíame, as ‘Trust me’, a translation that is inaccurate: the imperative ‘trust me’ would in Spanish be: confía en mí or fíate de mí, while simply fíame would be better translated as ‘lend to me’. The difference is not trivial, because the trust question of the supposed translation of the title is the axis of the whole fourth chapter.

Some of Lifshey’s strong claims seem to be, sometimes, apparent contradictions: for example, he claims Fíame is a novel of more lasting interest than Los Pájaros de Fuego (114), of which is said a few pages later to be “a landmark of world literature” (136). Lifshey’s book is also unfair when it comes to its judgments of the critical contributions of Andrea Gallo and the “Clásicos Hispanofilipinos” series launched by Instituto Cervantes. Gallo’s article, despite its apparent simplicity – biography, list of works, fragments – is extremely useful and it signifies a first approach to an author about whom almost nothing is known.[iv] In the case of the books presented in the series “Clásicos Hispanofilipinos”, these are intended to recover texts that otherwise are very difficult to reach. Each book – only four, so far – has been edited carefully, following philological criteria, with a critical introduction and explanatory footnotes. When it comes to studying a body of literary works whose availability is so difficult, the first task is precisely to present authors and texts in order to build a literary history, to build the knowledge about them. It is actually more urgent to rescue those texts from oblivion in decent modern editions than commenting and judging from an ideological point of view books whose texts are still being hidden from both common readers and scholars. It is true that the books are still unavailable to Filipino readers – translations are not cheap, sadly – but the sole fact of its publication already represents a critical step towards making those books available to potential Anglophone readers. Books do not belong only to the land where they were published.

Subversions of the American Century, finally, is determined to continually repeat that the analyzed literary texts belong to the American literature because those were written by American subjects dealing with American conflicts in an American possession. However, the author’s ideological reading and the constant search for subversions and challenges to the hegemonic power do not suffice to probe the main thesis of the book, which could have found more fertile ground – at least from the subversive point of view – had the author tackled the intellectual elite that relentlessly published articles and essays about the necessity of an independent Philippine nation in newspapers like El Renacimiento o La Vanguardia.

Despite his ideological biases and the commented shortcomings, Lifshey’s work should be welcomed by the small community of scholars working in the field of Spanish-Filipino literature. Calling attention to the existence of valuable unknown authors and providing meticulous close-readings of those works opens the path for new scholarly works which might contribute to shed light on one of the most neglected literatures in Spanish language.

[i] Adam Lifshey: The Magellan Fallacy. Globalization and the Emergence of Asian and African Literature in Spanish, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012.
[ii] Jorge Mojarro: “Rizal, beyond the gossip”, Business World, 15 June 2015.
[iii] Resil Mojares: Brains of the Nation, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2008.
[iv] Andrea Gallo: “Guillermo Gómez Wyndham. Líneas bio-bibliográficas y algunos poemas”, Humanities Diliman, vol. 8, 2010, pp. 1-33.

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