July 2021 (lockdown) reads

Another month, another list. Since my last catalogue, I’ve cleared another trio of reads. I started off with Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, which has been dubbed as the foremost Filipino novel. We studied this text in high school, although the English version is new to me. Upon cresting Mount Noli, I took my time with Project Hail Mary. Written by the author of The Martian, the book is the year’s most anticipated sci-fi read. Finally, I browsed through A Moveable Feast, which is a portrait of Ernest Hemingway’s youth. Posthumously published, the latter remains one of his most acclaimed works.  

  • Noli Me Tangere (Rizal). First published in 1887, the Noli was originally written in Spanish. Rizal had been studying in Europe, where he became an ophthalmologist. The Noli is a combination of things. On the surface, the work is an impassioned love story between the protagonists. The book is also a satire, a caricature of the Franciscan Friars who ruled the Spanish province. Furthermore, the novel is a time capsule of eighteenth-century Pinoy life. In addition, the volume also reads like a Shakespearean tragedy.

The Noli tells the story of Crisostomo Ibarra, a Spanish mestizo who had studied in Europe. He comes back to the Philippines, where the friars effectively killer his father, his graveyard ransacked, his bones thrown to the river. Regardless, he is betrothed to Maria Clara, daughter of Captain Tiago. They have been childhood sweethearts. During his welcome back dinner, Father Damaso becomes irate. ‘How a neck and wing in a friar’s plate of tinola can spoil the happiness of a celebration.’

Ibarra is the epitome of his country’s idealism. He tries to build a school so that kids can learn Spanish. He acts as a bridge between his countrymen and the ruling elite. He has a good relationship with the captain-general, who oversees the territory. However, Father Damaso meets him only with insults and ultimately excommunicates him. What ensues gives Romeo and Juliet a run for their money. Though Ibarra is the axis, the other characters prove the flaws of the system. Elias, the anti-hero, has his family savaged and vows revenge against the establishment. ‘Enmity is the law of life.’ He endeavours to open Crisostomo’s eyes: ‘I want to life the scales from your eyes, senor, and help you avoid a sad future.’

Sisa is the exemplary parent, always looking out for her boys. Instead, she is met with contempt, her boys labelled as thieves. This proves too much for her. Meanwhile, the philosopher Tasio is deemed too loony. He writes in hieroglyphics because he believes the future would better understand them. Interestingly, none of these characters would endure. There are various Pinoys who come off as social climbers, bastardising Spanish to comic effect. The friars are sketched as power-hungry and lascivious, too quick in judging and insulting their subjects. The plebs are unimaginative and inveterate gamblers.

Being excommunicated is not enough. Just like Rizal in real life, Ibarra is alleged as a filibuster. The wrath of the entire church is heaped on him. He becomes the archenemy of the very people he tries to save. He loses everything barely two months after arriving home. A final twist: who is Maria Clara’s real father? There is a lot of intertextualities, reinforcing Rizal’s genius and cognizance of his time. Being a classic, this is not the easiest read. At times, the prose could be taxing. Yet the time you’d invest in this gem is well worth it. ‘I die without seeing the dawn’s light shine on my country…You, who will see it, welcome it for me…don’t forget those who fell during the night-time.’

Rating: 4.25/5

  • Project Hail Mary (Andy Weir). As above, the scribbler entered the scene with The Martian, which was made into a Hollywood blockbuster. This time, the world is under threat and only has a few decades left. The sun is losing its lustre, spelling doom for our planet. Ryland Grace, a science teacher, is recruited by Stratt. The latter oversees the international rescue mission. Grace’s expertise on the offending substance – astrophage – is maximised. He gets to attend important board meetings and goes aboard aircraft carriers. He works together with the world’s finest scientist in analysing the astrophage. The top nations would throw everything at a mission that would extend our globe’s expiry date.

At the onset, he wakes up after years of being in a coma. He finds his two fellow travellers as corpses beside him, unable to surpass the coma. Slowly but surely, the memories come flooding back to him. For much of the book, we alternate between a desperate past and a hopeful present. He contacts an alien, Rocky, from the planet Erid. He is the lone survivor on Blip-A, a high-tech ship. Their species are intelligent and live in xenonite. Their atmosphere is a lot denser than ours, and they have five legs. Theirs is a different conception of time, sleep, and food. For instance, Eridians like to repeat words three times when they’re happy or for emphasis. They also have the creepy habit of watching their companion sleep. However, Grace manages to communicate with Rocky through utilisation of wizard technology.  

International Space Station (ISS)

Grace realises that they both want the same thing. Astrophage in their suns has threatened life on their planets. Though they have their differences, they join forces. Rocky is a highly skilled engineer who can make and fix practically anything. When the taumoeba eats all the fuel, Rocky’s mad skills come to the rescue. His surfeit of astrophage proves a game changer. Apart from bailing out Grace, he even saves his life. Rocky is amazed at how technologically advanced earthlings are.

Meanwhile, Grace proves that he is up to the task. He goes on spacewalks, gathers samples, and makes decisions that would shape our world. When they go their separate ways, he must make a tough choice between his own desires and the fate of his friend and Erid. There are shades of The Martian in that Grace is the lone human ‘in a galaxy far, far away.’ Thirteen earth years is the distance between the two points. At 476 dense pages, I must admit that this was not the lightest read. Certainly, it’s very original. Upon perusing this, I am convinced that Weir knows his astronautics.

Rating: 4.1/5

  • A Moveable Feast (Hemingway). This memoir, a treat for Hemingway fans, represents the third leg of the tripod. The book is based on some writings that the author left in two trunks at a Parisian hotel. Upon retrieving them decades later, he worked on the handwritten gems on and off during his last years of his life. The title tells of his life as a struggling expatriate writer in Paris. He lived in a shabby complex together with his young wife Hadley and Jack, his firstborn. He writes of his love for bullfighting and his wins at the races. He details his wine consumption, which is ordinary in Europe. He recalls the many city spots where he would get his writing done, including cafes, parks, and hotels. He relates the winters when they would swap Paris for skiing at Schruns.

Most importantly, he shares the thriving American expatriate community in Paris. He met other literary titans during the so-called lost generation: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce (who was Irish), and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Through the help of this cluster, he was able to jumpstart his literary career. He remembers Stein labelling one of his tales as ‘inaccrochable’ and that he should stick to what would sell. He recalls how Pound admitted not reading any Russian writers, which was a shame. Hemingway had looked forward to debating said literature with Pound. He thought Fitzgerald was not maximising his talent and that his wife, Zelda, was very envious of his work. Once, the pair went on a trip to Lyon. He painted Fitzgerald as an inveterate hypochondriac with occasional fainting spells. He was always a doubting Thomas.

The scribbler talks of his craft, how writing did not come easy. He would take hours just to get a paragraph down and had to skip meals due to meagre funds. He touches on his jaunts through the Champs-Elysees. and the Siene. Moreover, he borrowed books from Sylvia Beach, an American who established a library. Before she published Joyce’s Ulysses, she was an early advocate. A Moveable Feast is all of 165 pages, including an introduction by the grandson. Apart from a long chapter on Fitzgerald, the biography is composed of eighteen other (mostly) brief chapters. Originally published in 1964 by Hemingway’s widow, many of the Parisian spots mentioned in the book could still be found. The title was supplied by his biographer, A.E. Hotchner. Apparently, Hemingway had mentioned the phrase before.

‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’

Rating: 4.3/5

Rizal Park, Manila
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