20 February 2011

Call Me by Your Name

If youth must canter, then who’ll do the galloping?
From Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman.
  • Not long ago I found the courage to look for André Aciman on Facebook and send him a friend request. Fortunately, certainly surprisingly, he accepted. Unfortunately, at least for him, the connection gave me a remarkable opportunity to write to him directly, even if writing to him directly didn’t necessarily mean that I should expect in any way to hear back from him.
  • As though the opportunity to receive and read a signed copy of his book isn’t remarkable enough! Yes, there’s Mr. Aciman’s name, right on one of the pages. The book was sent by a friend in New York and I couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be more spoiled.
  • So I wrote to Mr. Aciman to say, your novel is very beautiful, but it's also very sad. I almost cannot bear how sad it is, and I cannot imagine such a story happening to me, and I cannot imagine it because I won’t let myself imagine it. This story of love and desire — it isn’t merely of a “summer romance” — shows how difficult it is to revisit fond memories of love without the disenchantment of having lost it (if one has indeed lost it). In any event, at the end of my letter, I thanked Mr. Aciman for a book that I will always keep close to my heart. I think it’s so much better than The Line of Beauty, or Like People in History.
  • Mr. Aciman, who comes from a Sephardic Jewish family in Alexandria (a good friend from Switzerland and Philip Roth fan commented, “How much poorer would the world of literature be without the Jews!”), and is known for his many reviews and essays on Marcel Proust, luckily did not have to read my ignorant views on whom I presume is his favorite author, and about whom I am under no authority to speak. But if I must go Proustian on you, I’ll say that Call Me by Your Name, in a way, makes me want to grow old as quickly as possible, if only to be able to look at the experience of youth more clearly, more fearlessly, than the young are actually equipped to do.

18 February 2011

The Big House

Up and down, up and down, goes one of my first memories of grandmother’s house on Labo Street. I was at that young age when I could predictably be bribed with cookies. Mother used to say, go play with Eugene at the Big House, Lola would have plenty of Chips Ahoy for you if only you’d come visit her. My cousin and I ran from our apartments at the back of the family compound to where Lola Auring — our mothers' mother — spent evenings praying the Rosary and decorating the altar table. We had little idea of her unvisited loneliness. After grandfather died she lived alone in her “unit”, which was called the Big House, for it covered half of our land’s 240 square meters, with a balcony, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, built-in closets, and various sorts of colonial-looking furniture. Outside her window a lovely tamarind tree stood, in sunny days looking somewhat like out of a painting. There was also a mirror at the old-fashioned dressing table in her room that spooked us, for it was old and dirty and it turned our faces into faces we didn’t recognize, but we raced up the stairs anyway to take our grandmother’s hand and bless our foreheads with it. We eyed the little glass jar in which she had kept the cookies, and we stuck our little five-, six-, seven-year-old hands into the bottom of the jar where bits and chips of sweet chocolatey bribery had eroded. Then we climbed grandmother’s warm bed and jumped, up and down, up and down, the lace curtain swaying to the slow, lazy orchestra of summer afternoons.

13 February 2011


"World is suddener than we fancy it."
From Room, by Emma Donoghue, in reference to a poem by Irish poet Dónall Dempsey.
  • Of the book itself I’m not sure what to think. It is at once gently written and surprisingly funny, but it must be a case of me having a taste for something else other than three hundred pages of narration by a five-year-old boy (with a five-year-old boy’s vocabulary) that I didn’t get to enjoy the novel as much I expected I would. Okay: I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if there’s anything I can take from it.
  • Which isn’t to say that Room isn’t a book worth reading, because it is. Jack, the narrator, is adorable. That he presents a “captive’s view of life” (NYT), and that this life is determined by a soundproofed, foam-insulated, 11-by-11-foot room — or dungeon, really (the story is inspired by the Elisabeth Fritzl case) — do not mean that Ms. Donoghue’s storytelling is in any way limited in its ambition. Or imagination. “I remember that story about the Nazi camp,” Jack says, “not a summer one with marshmallows but in winter with millions of persons drinking maggot soup. The Allies burst open the gates and everybody ran out, I think Allies are angels like Saint Peter’s one.”
  • There is also a very brief, very easy-to-miss gay kiss scene near the end of the novel — at a public library! — and of course Jack’s mother’s mother, or his grandmother, looks rather confused. Meanwhile the scene rolls right off Jack. Indeed, the world is suddener than we fancy it.

10 February 2011

End of the World

Not long ago I was simply minding my own business at the computer table. But we all know, thanks to the Internet, that to mind our own businesses is not quite the same as it used to be; we may find ourselves instantly under barrage. This was exactly what happened: a new “tweet” arrived. In what I like to think of as the same manner we open mysterious doors (pushing them open, not often mindful of the consequences), I clicked and clicked, and finally I arrived on a YouTube video.

Mr. Matt Alber was singing “End of the World”.

I wish I didn’t have to talk about music in writing, or I wish I was knowledgeable enough in music to be able to talk about it in writing. If I say that Mr. Alber’s music is “beautiful”, you may think I'm just being agreeable, that I'm just exaggerating, which most people on the Internet are prone to doing. But I don’t exaggerate. No one has asked me for my opinion, besides.

Few pieces of music have touched me in this way. I mean I like to sing and play guitar, but there's an infinite number of things I know I am definitely not capable of. One of these things is the beauty of “End of the World”. It is a perfectly wonderful song.

You can go ahead and watch it on YouTube, but, in my case, it was listening to it that made me grab a Kleenex. (You can also press the Play button, in which case I shall claim no right whatsoever to the embedded audio content.)

“End of the World” was written on a bank statement envelope about seven years ago on San Francisco bus rides. Mr. Alber was working at the time as a performer in the musical revue, Beach Blanket Babylon. “Somehow,” he said, “that crumpled envelope made it to a piano at the theater before I had to be upstairs getting into costume.”

I wrote to a friend in New York about this discovery right after making it, keenly aware that I’d be listening to the song over and over, and watching the video over and over, probably until I had myself spent or I had expended it out of my system. But songs don’t seem to work that way. Or they don’t let us work that way.

“It’s such a shame,” I said to my friend, “Mr. Alber would be the complete package, except that he kind of looks rough on the eyes.” Ah, it's true all right: the Internet makes us prone to exaggeration, or sometimes bold-faced lying.

09 February 2011

Black Swan

A friend of mine had advised me not to watch Black Swan. He said he hated it. We are still good friends, but I have learned to no longer take movie advice from anyone.

Because what an awesome movie. It’s a Joycean portrait of the artist as a ballerina. Or a neurotic. And if I say that I’d love it if Black Swan upsets The Social Network at the Academy Awards, then will that affirm the full extent of my dilettantism?

(Not that I care about the Academy Awards, which I think is too American for its own good.)

02 February 2011


(I wrote this October 2009 as an exercise on playful first-person / second-person; and, after having closed the old blog, I thought of publishing the piece here. So.)

Will you kindly get me a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections? I’d be ever so glad. That’s a classic book; my friends tell me so. If you could just visit a bookshop while you’re there, ask the lady at the counter for the title, which, in case you forget it, I wrote on the back of a business card that you will find tucked in your wallet. I also wrote ‘horseradish’, which tastes very nice and which I have come to like almost as much as I do wasabi.

One thing I did not tell you: there’s a paperback copy of the Franzen at the impressive four-storey, energy-efficient, budget-breaking Fully Booked in highly societal Bonifacio High Street. We went there last August, and thus began my dilettantish search. On the first floor I found it, held it, opened and closed and reopened it, almost performed on it my fetishistic sniffing of the page; poor thing, I should have rescued it too and dug it out from the Fiction shelves, which was packed full with books crowded tightly together in alphabetical order and pressed hard one upon the other, each of them looking so very helpless and lonely. A most awful burial, since there wasn’t any room for breathing. I thought at the time, but you’re going back to London, I might as well send you on a fun assignment, which I hasten to remind you cannot be carried out online. (If I should watch Dr. Who with you, then so should you appreciate the curious, fanciful, uncertain, and, most important of all, deeply personal experience of wandering through bookstore aisles.) I also thought, while then contemplating a purchase, what the heck; waiting a few weeks will not matter much in terms of having an effect on my already direly outdated literary sensibilities, which — okay, I know this for a fact — bores you utterly and stupidly whenever I begin to talk about it.

You are none the less missed. I could not help it when, a few days ago, I replayed a video from that night when I introduced you to my friend D in a karaoke joint in Malate, and you sang “Delilah”. Lord Almighty. And such a firm grip on the microphone, too, as though you were the sole custodian of ancient, ready-to-be-bastardized music. I had laughed then, laughed and cheered, but I smiled — smiled true — while I was watching the footage, the reddish light and the fluid dark shadows of the room trembling according to the heady irregular movements of my hand, the audio sharp and loud, almost piercing, and your cradling — your rocking gently along to the song — suggestive of something milder and kinder. Forgive me: more than once I had barked, “How embarrassing!”; of course, it was in jest; it must have been the alcohol, it must have been the cozy, ethereal sight and scent of smoke coming out of the nostrils of the people in the bar, it must have been the knowledge, the desperation, the urgent joy of spending those beloved moments with someone who will be gone for awhile.

In the meantime, enjoy your stay there. You wouldn’t want to be here in Manila, not at this moment. Villages and barangays are still trying to recover from the wrath of tropical storm Ondoy, which left the streets flooded like you wouldn’t believe. Where there’s little flood left, lots of literal muckraking (not the Mitford kind). Gunshots at night in unsecured neighborhoods. Politicians are plastering their names on food packs. There’s looting among the homeless, too. The pictures are depressing, even apocalyptic; nothing feels normal. I thank the heavens for having spared my family from the indiscriminate disaster. Still, it’s like everyone has changed after this rather historic experience, and yet we — well, at least me — I have to go on with life as I know it, back to work, write for clients, earn, eat, read, sleep, constantly with a terrible new unease caused by the knowledge that carrying on such business is nothing close to heroic, and can be considered putrid and apathetic in light of people I know spending hours packing canned goods or deploying their vehicles for relief operations or using personal funds to finance volunteer efforts, all jolted after the calamity by conscience and community. “Where I came from,” a volunteer campaign poster reads, “everyone’s a hero.” But I’d done very little to help, I am sorry to say. I had done very little, period, except for miss and love and demand and disappoint, and write this letter that asks, will you be kind enough to get me the Franzen.