Penman No. 319: A Priceless Literary Treasure

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Penman for Monday, September 17, 2018

 

SINCE I seriously got into antiquarian book collecting not too long ago, I’ve picked up quite a few books that have required the services of a professional book restorer. Surprisingly for most people (but not to bibliophiles who know the history of papermaking and publishing), the books most in need of help often turn out to be the newer ones—and by “newer” I mean a hundred years old or so, books published in the early to mid-1900s.

My oldest book dates back to 1551, an abridged volume in English on the history of institutions. I found it in, of all places, Cubao via an OFW who received it from her employer in Paris and sent it on to her son, who thankfully for me had little use for it and advertised it online. It’s amazingly robust for its age, still tightly bound in its original leather covers, the paper crisp and the printing sharp and clear, annotated here and there by the hand of its various owners down the centuries. (I was tempted, but I didn’t dare inscribe my name on it.)

That’s also true for relatively more recent books from the 1700s and 1800s, some of which look and feel like they rolled off the press yesterday. (I first fell in love with old books as a graduate student of Renaissance drama at the University of Michigan, which kept books from the 1600s on the regular shelves of the library, fascinating me with the stiffness of their paper and the tactile feedback of the letters). I often treat visitors to my office with a whiff of centuries past, ruffling the pages of, say, a Jesuit history from 1706 beneath their noses.

But books from the 1900s and later typically turn yellow and crumbly. The culprit, of course, is the acid that forms in modern, wood-based paper because of a number of both internal and external factors.

This was certainly true of a recent batch of books that I got back from my favorite book restorer (who shall remain unnamed for now lest she be deluged with requests, given that she has a full-time day job to mind). They included no book older than 1853 (a coverless edition of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines) and 1860 (a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, which I didn’t even realize was a first edition until I noted the bookseller’s penciled notation 20 years after I’d bought it).

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The prize in the pile was a thick clothbound book titled Filipino Attempts at Literature in English, Vol. 1 (Manila: J.S. Agustin & Sons, 1924). The volume is a compilation of smaller books from the 1920s to the 1930s, put together by the legendary professor and anthologist Dean Leopoldo Y. Yabes (1912-1986), who was scarcely in his twenties when he assembled and bound this compendium (signed “Bibliotheque Particuliere de Leopoldo Y. Yabes No. 118).

It’s an outstandingly rare collection, because it contains the only extant copy, as far as we know, of Rodolfo Dato’s landmark Filipino Poetry—the first major collection of Filipino poems in English. In the florid prose typical of the time, Dato prefaces his book by describing it as “a collection of the maiden songs of our native bards warbling in borrowed language,” acknowledging that “the full flowering of our poetic art has not yet come, but the fertile field smiles abundant growth and gives promise of a rich and bountiful harvest in a day not far distant.” In various pieces rhymed and metered, writers like Maximo M. Kalaw, Fernando Maramag, Procopio Solidum, and Maria Agoncillo give praise to mayas, moonlight, sampaguitas, and Motherland.

I had long been searching for the Dato book in the usual places online, for naught; but one day, at a committee meeting, my dear friend Jimmy Abad—the poet and anthologist—slipped it over to me, with the note “Priceless!” And indeed it was. Dean Yabes had gifted it to Prof. Abad, who was now passing it on to me in that timeless ritual that exalts and humbles writers and teachers who know exactly what they are receiving.

The compendium also contains an English-German Anthology of Filipino Poets  translated and edited by Pablo Laslo, with a preface by Salvador P. Lopez (Libreria Manila Filatelica, 1934); Dear Devices, Being a First Volume of Familiar Essays in Englishby Certain Filipinos (N. p., 1933); and the 1935 Quill, the Literary Yearbook of the University of Sto. Tomas, edited by Narciso G. Reyes. I’ll say more about these other seminal works later, as they’re truly invaluable glimpses into our earliest impulses as writers in English (and I have to wonder, if this was just Vol. 1, what Vol. 2 was like, if any).

Friendship aside, Jimmy must also have known that I was in a better position to take care of the volume, whose first 80 pages or so—almost the entire Dato book—had been torn, not just detached, from the spine by that infernal chemistry I described earlier. So I sent it to my restorer, who patiently mended each torn and fragile page with Japanese paper. Like my other jewels, this book will find its way to the UP Library at some point, now renewed for another generation of readers and scholars.

 

Penman No. 318: Mysteries of Fish

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Penman for Monday, September 10, 2018

 

I’VE OFTEN written and spoken about how—despite the fact that we inhabit an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, bordered on all sides by the sea, and comprising one of the longest coastlines in the world—we seem to have very little by way of a maritime literature. By this I mean novels, stories, poems, and plays that have the sea as a central element, beyond serving as a romantic backdrop.

There’s a whole economy and culture to be found in our relationship with the sea, but much of this has been lost to a metropolitan generation bred on canned tuna and Starbucks coffee. Even among my students, I can count on my fingers the number of people who’ve taken a boat ride longer than a spin around a lake or the short hop from Caticlan to Boracay.

I myself was born in a house a stone’s throw from the beach, in a village on an island far from Manila, so the sea has never been far from my mind and imagination. I dream about it constantly, with recurrent images of huge waves rolling and breaking on the shore, and I as a boy walking on the sand with my father, now long gone.

But I too have to admit that save for a few scenes and the opening chapter of my novel in progress, the sea has figured minimally in my fiction. That’s probably because I feel responsible for creating credible characters whose lives are inextricably waterbound, and haven’t felt confident enough to do justice to the task. The fact is, we’ve lost touch with our marine heritage, which is supremely ironic given how Filipinos have distinguished themselves as seafarers, and how many Filipinos depend on the sea for a living.

This was much on my mind two weeks ago when I flew to Iloilo to attend the formal investiture of Dr. Ricardo P. Babaran as the tenth Chancellor of the University of the Philippines-Visayas. A fisheries expert and nautical engineer, Ric recounted how, as a young boy far up north in Cagayan, he enjoyed going out to sea and to the river to fish.

“My fishing buddies generally used earthworms as bait, but they sometimes used live crickets using different fishing gear. As a young fisher, I observed that using either crickets or earthworms yielded different outcomes—certain fish seemed to prefer one or the other—but my fisher friends were never able to explain to me why. This mystery bothered me for a long time,” he told us.

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Ric left Cagayan to study Fisheries in UP Diliman, and had to deal with the derision of other people who wondered “why Fisheries students needed four years just to learn how to capture fish with hook and line.” Even now, he says, this misappreciation of Fisheries partly explains why “fish-based industries are faring poorly in the Philippines.” (Indeed, an economist I know has pointed out that the recent spike in prices can be traced to some degree to a shortage of fish.)

Ric went on to take an MS in naval architecture and ocean engineering at the University of Washington, and then his PhD in Fisheries Science at Kagoshima University. It was in Japan where, Ric says, he finally found the answer to his childhood mystery: “I learned that catfish and mudfish responded differently to earthworms and crickets because of a process called chemo-reception.”

Dr. Babaran’s investiture was attended by many guests, including many academic officials and luminaries, but several of them stood out, for different reasons. Among them was Dr.  Loel Losanes, a UPV alumnus and the Filipino head of Japan’s Hikari Corporation, probably the largest producer of South Sea pearls in the world.

Just as significant was the presence of members of the Kamamado fishers group from Guimaras, many of them elderly women who, Ric noted, “supplement their daily income with the P40 they get from selling the equivalent of two-liter-sized containers of captured cardinal fish. Through this group, we will undertake a program that will promote responsible fisheries, which I believe will position the Philippines more strategically in the relation to the ornamental fish industry that generates $7 to 8 billion annually.”

I’m confident that the programs of Chancellor Babaran and UPV will improve the livelihoods of millions of our shore-dwelling countrymen, but I’m even more hopeful that a deeper and broader awareness of the importance of the sea in our lives will soon emerge, if only because of the crisis now roiling in the waters around us. (“About a third of our fish catch comes from the West Philippine Sea,” Ric told me.)

And I’m especially happy that a place like UPV exists to mind our waters. A young PhD in UPV, Noel Ferriols, recalled how he was convinced to study in UPV instead of Manila when he and his mother visited the campus in Miag-ao, which specializes in fisheries. “I was amazed when the security guard told me the scientific name of a certain kind of fish,” Noel said. “I thought to myself, if this is a place where even security guards can recite the genus and species of a fish, then it’s where I want to be.”