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the complete review - fiction
The Revolution According to
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- With an Author's Note of the American Edition (2021); the text has apparently been (slightly ?) revised from the original
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B+ : a wild but fascinating ride
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "The deranged scholarly contours of the novel manifest as a short passage per page from Mata -- usually about his reading, his travels and his intrigues, political and romantic -- that is otherwise dominated by multiple, rivaling footnotes. The results can be both confidently obscure and also very, very funny (...) Vertiginously preoccupied with its own textual genealogy and with the Borgesian speculations that come of its frenzied notations (is Mata's memoir actually Rizal's unacknowledged final novel?), the book occasionally seems as if it might have been more fun to write than to read. But that's a minor footnote to this marvelous welter of Filipino storytelling." - Randy Boyagoda, The New York Times Book Review
- "Filipino writer Apostol revises her playful 2009 novel, winner of the Philippine National Book Award and appearing in the U.S. for the first time, to highly entertaining effect. (...) Apostol's unique perspective on facts versus fiction would make for a perfect Charlie Kaufman movie." - Publishers Weekly
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is, in the main, presented as an autobiographical account of 'The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata' ("by Raymundo Mata"), a memoir of sorts, in the form of journal entries, of a man involved in some of the events leading up to the Philippine Revolution that began in 1896, presented in forty-six entries (chapters).
The account does take up the most of the novel, but there is also a (fictional) scholarly/editorial apparatus attached.
'The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata' is presented as (for the most part) not having been written in English, and so the text here is a translation, by one (pseudonymous, as she admits) Mimi C. Magsalin; she offers a Translator's Note at the beginning of the novel, warning immediately that the text she dealt with is: "linguistically deranged".
Mata was a product of the polyglot Philippines, with his first language: "a curious variant of Tagalog", and from a first entry, apparently from his early childhood, "in gibberish" to a late one that seems like incoherent babbling (or is it code ?) -- "balimbing balanghoy baluno balete baloto balato bamboo banyan" etc. etc. -- to what Magsalin describes as a notebook: "in spastic code, squiggles and symbols that I think were Japanese characters", the writing itself poses considerable hurdles.
So: "the challenge was to translate the richness of Raymundo's tongues into singular, common English".
Even more so than with most translations, the question of how much has been re-shaped here is one the reader is constantly confronted with here -- while never being able to forget that Apostol did, in fact, write this novel(-as-a-whole) in English .....
Also involved in the making of the book was Estrella Espejo, the now-institutionalized editor of the translated text, who provides an Editor's Preface, an Afterword, and a piece on 'Reading and Writing: Some Notes on the Author's Patrimony'.
And among the introductory matter are also pieces by a scholar, Dr. Diwata Drake, including 'An Epitaph' at its conclusion.
(Magsalin also provides a helpful cast of characters-listing at the outset, 'Manila Characters: A Translator's Abecedary of the Revolution of 1896'.)
Already in their introductory texts, these three women comment on each other and their dealings with the text, with clearly little love being lost between them, and this continues in the text proper itself, as they continue their various arguments and disagreements in footnotes to Mata's writing.
There are a lot of these -- 530 -- with a footnote-comment on the text by one often leading to a counter-argument or comment by another; Apostol doesn't opt for footnotes-within-footnotes, but rather has them in the text itself -- so, for example, many sentences will conclude with not just a single footnote reference but several, though only the first directly refers to the text proper, while the remaining ones are then generally a sequence of comments on that first footnote comment.
(The longest chain of these I found was fn. 145 to 153, nine in a row.)
The footnotes make for an amusing secondary storyline of sorts -- down to Espejo being in one place the whole time (the Quezon Institute and Sanatorium), while Drake seems to constantly be crisscrossing the world, noting her many different locales in her footnotes.
They certainly express their frustration with one another -- and with their various interferences in the text; unsurprisingly, it comes to a point where they simply want to let the text get on with it, without yet more commentary ("347. Ssssh! (trans. Note)").
(The number of footnotes is less towards the end, but they do really make for a substantial secondary layer to the text proper.)
Magsalin warns already in her Translator's Note that: "From birth, Raymundo Mata was immersed in the world of make-believe", and we soon learn that his vision was badly impaired; in her Afterword Espejo will describe the manuscript as: "this blind man's history of the revolution".
From early on we realize that Mata literally does not see things very clearly.
He is also a great reader, happy to lose himself in fictional worlds (realizing, at one point, also: "I read books without thinking, only for the feeling"), and would-be writer: Espejo notes: "the young Raymundo was a mad scribbler at Ateneo -- he jotted juvenile sentiments in diaries, wrote bad plays, inscribed love letters to witchy women, and made tsimis -- puerile, unworthy gossip ! -- about his rabble-rousing male friends, in code".
Much of this writing then also forms parts of his very varied account, and while many of the entries seems straightforward enough (albeit also with a variety of contortions, linguistic and otherwise), it's hard to consider Mata a truly reliable narrator.
(Magsalin's questions and issues with what she is translating compound the sense of an unreliable text -- only a very small part of which is, after all, presented in the original (i..e not a translation).)
Just how much Mata sees, and has lived, the world through literature also becomes clear when he's called upon to join the revolutionary forces, as he understandably questions his qualifications:
I cannot kill a fly much less capture a man from the Spaniards.
They have guns and cannons.
I've never even caught a moth.
Of course, you can, Raymundo: did I not read The Man in the Iron Mask ?
Did I not devour the Lives of the Presidents of the United States, in translation, but hey, I know what they did to the British.
Still, he realizes that, no matter how great the cause, his essence -- if not heart -- just isn't really in it:
But really, I was no rebel, no man of arms.
Looming over the story is also a man who was involved in much of the activity leading up to 1896, the great Philippine writer -- and Mata's idol -- José Rizal.
When he first comes across the classic Noli Me Tangere Mata is overwhelmed:
I was a distracted bookworm, who would much rather be sailing off to Parma, wherever that was, to drink absinthe, whatever that is, in a derelict abbey of alcoholic Carthusians, whoever those damned fools are.
It was a bolt -- a thunder bolt.
A rain of bricks, a lightning zap.
A pummeling of mountains, a heaving, violent storm at sea -- a whiplash.
A typhoon, an earthquake.
The end of a world.
And I was in ruins.
It struck me dumb.
It changed my life and the world was new when I was done.
(The footnoters initially engage in some debate as to whether the book he is writing about is, indeed, Noli Me Tangere but soon conclude that it obviously is.)
Of course, while one of his friends emphasizes the political significance of the novel -- "He wrote the novel to free us from our bondage to superstition and show us the truth: how to correct our society" -- Mata can't help but be more entranced by the novel's literary qualities:
You can't pulverize a novel to that base reduction.
It's not only about correcting society.
What about the jokes, the ironical asides, the living grotesques of his human comedy ?
The beautiful absurdity of Doña Victorina and her crippled husband ?
The truthful laughter of his pen ?
It is a defense for, and explanation of what Apostol is doing as well, of course: her The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata does seriously engage with the Philippine struggle against the Spanish at the end of the nineteenth century, but the fiction she spins around it is meant to please (and challenge) as literary text as well: whatever the value of dry, factual record, she understands that artistic transformation can be equally -- or more -- effective; certainly Rizal's classic, the great Philippine novel, proved that point.
Rizal figures quite prominently in the text, along with his writings, though more off-scene than on.
But he and Mata do also meet -- notably when Rizal, who had studied ophthalmology, examines the vision-impaired Mata, diagnosing: "You have a dark, empty area in the center of your vision".
Readers have long known as much -- about both Mata's physical and figurative blindness -- but it's a useful reminder, a nudge that there might be more hiding in (or to ...) the text than is, at first sight, apparent .....
Rizal's great literary legacy rests on his two completed novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, but he also worked on a third one, Makamisa, and Apostol cleverly ties that into this work as well, all part of the playful fun.
Mata's account does take readers into some of the significant events in the Philippines leading up to and during 1896, notably around the Katipunan -- the "revolutionary secret society" (with the unfortunate acronym of 'KKK') into which Mata too is inducted; Apostol also gives him a pivotal role in some of what went wrong when it was discovered.
Particularly the latter parts of Mata's story do closely follow actual events in the Philippines in 1896, though those not familiar with its history likely will be hard pressed to keep complete track of everything; Apostol does write very knowingly -- appropriately enough, since Mata was very much in the middle of much of this.
The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is certainly a wild ride, playful without let-up but often to serious purpose.
The several voices always hanging over the text -- translator, editor, and scholar -- contribute to the reader's sense of having to question every aspect of the novel (including those three voices' contributions ...), making for a text that is intentionally difficult to grab comfortable hold of.
Much of this is good fun, while quite a bit can or at least might seem rather baffling; still, overall it's a fascinating take on presenting and engaging with history.
- M.A.Orthofer, 10 January 2021
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The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata:
Other books by Gina Apostol under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Filipino author Gina Apostol was born in 1963.
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© 2021-2022 the complete review
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