18 August 2011

Littérature Engagée

Dear Mr. J.M. Coetzee,

I just finished reading Diary of a Bad Year. It's the first novel of yours that I've read; it certainly won't be the last. (Promise.) Also, while it hasn't, according to the Internet, generated as many good reviews as, say, Disgrace, I'll likely think of my first Coetzee as more meaningful than whatever will come next. And not just because you had rather accurately written up a Filipina character; but also because Diary exampled the kind of novel that I think the world sorely needs today. Never mind the reviews; never mind the critics.

"And one is thankful to Russia too, Mother Russia, for setting before us with such indisputable certainty the standards toward which any serious novelist must toil, even if without the faintest chance of getting there: the standard of the master Tolstoy on the one hand and of the master Dostoevsky on the other. By their example one becomes a better artist; and by better I do not mean more skilful but ethically better. They annihilate one's impurer pretensions; they clean one's eyesight; they fortify one's arm."

Of course, it isn't only at this latter passage that I'd nodded my head. (And that's all I can do! Part of my agreeing with the opinions in your book is recognizing my inability to come up with similarly intelligent ones.) An earlier one ("On universities") just went straight to the point. "The real university," it read, "may have to move into people's homes and grant degrees for which the sole backing will be the names of the scholars who sign the certificates."

This cannot be emphasized enough. I myself come from a university here in Manila that, from the looks of it, is being turned, slowly but surely, into a business enterprise: buildings being named after entrepreneurs; programs and premises being vested by moguls; professors struggling to fulfill quotas. It's the sort of system in which money so often changes hands; the sort of system, therefore, wherein gaps in learning can occur. Well, yes, but who am I to underscore the problem? No one; I am one of the damaged goods, in fact. But this doesn't make the task of restoring our learning institutions to its purest form any less urgent indeed. Otherwise, the whole freaking undergraduate bulletin will soon turn into a press release, or a sort of marketing kit. And more students will be mined ("mine!") instead of instructed.

Anyway, enough of that rant. I do hope you appreciate the fact that your books are actually widely available here, in terms of shelf presence in bookstores. (I know I do! And while I understand your fundamental aversion to the ceremonies, the prizes do help.) I'm probably going to read The Master of Petersburg next, since I see copies of it everywhere I look. This is not to mention my terrible interest in seeing how you had reimagined the life of a Russian novelist who also happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers. 

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