Ilaw Sa Hilaga (Lazaro Francisco, 1980)

Ilaw sa Hilaga by Lazaro Francisco, Published 1980 by The University of the Philippines Press (first published 1931)

The novel, Ilaw sa Hilaga (Northern Lights) was originally published  as “Bayang Nagpatiwakal” in 1931. It depicts the 1920s, during the American colonial period in the Philippines. By this time, the war for independence which started in 1896 had already subsided and the colony had entered into a delicate period of peace time. There is hardly any reference to the conflict aside from the mention of a revered “Heneral” who is said to have fought  in two wars, one against Spain and the other against America, and who stands as the foster father of the main protagonist.

This period also saw the struggle for independence move from the battlefields to parliament with the introduction of the Tydings-Mcduffie Act in the American Congress which would grant autonomy to the Philippines under a Commonwealth and subsequent independence. While the law guarantees self-governance, it also grants preferential rights to the Americans to continue to hold and conduct businesses within Philippine territory.

The novel’s premise is set in a rivalry in the transport business in the town of San Carlos (a fictionalized version of Cabanatuan in Nueva Ecija, described as a “Bangan ng Sangkapuluan/ Granary of the Islands”) , between a bus company set up by American Father and Son named Hansen and one set up by a Filipino colonial subject named Javier Santos (later Rei Vajt Ossan in disguise). The American is supported by the local aristocracy and this among many other things leads the Filipino’s enterprise to bankruptcy. He resolves to burn all his possession before mysteriously disappearing from the town only to return in the fashion of Jose Rizal’s “Simoun” in “El Filibusterismo” as Rei Vajt Ossan. He plots revenge against all foreign business, even against Chinese businessmen and plans to heighten the oppression against his countrymen as a devil’s advocate to catalyze their uprising. Javier succeeds in raising the consciousness and nationalist sentiments of the townsfolk but is haunted by his own transformation.

San Carlos as Place and Capital

The fictional town of San Carlos is said to be situated near Manila and can be reached back and forth within the day (magagawang lakbayin papunta-pabalik sa loob ng isang araw). As a provincial capital (pangulong bayan), it is physically, economically, and ideologically, related to Manila, the nation’s capital.  Most head offices of banks and government offices are located in Manila, and the daily busses that link both places represents and creates the meaning of being a “pangulong bayan/ capital”. San Carlos is a place apart from but at the same time inseperable in its existence to Manila. It receives and follows the economic and political practices of the center. The entrance of foreign business which is at the heart of the novel’s plot is a result of the signing into law of the Tydings-Mcduffie Act, one of the many terms that connect to America’s new colonial policy of “benevolent assimilation”, best encapsulated in Mark Twain’s satirical poem “White Man’s burden”. The novel illustrates the hierarchy of the imperial order in placing the characters within significant locations in the town: The heir to the old man Hansen’s fortune lurks in the richest aristocrat’s house. The hierarchy signifies that the Colonial is the highest in the order and the aristocrat sits between them and the workers and farmers. Lazaro seems a shy away from fully describing Marxian class theory.

As a “pangulong bayan/ capital” and because of American influence, the cultural archetypes within the town of San Carlos are also transformed. The town became a place for negotiation in both language and culture of the native Filipino. In one of Javier’s conversation with the younger Hansen, he describes the nature of two kinds of civilization in San Carlos. One was inherited from their ancestors and the other delivered to them by foreigners. He explains that the colonial lives with two identities and shifts between them in order to show that they have learned to become civilized:

Nagkaroon kami, Ginoong Hanzen, ng dalawang uri ng kabihasnan: ang kabihasnang pamana ng aming ninuno, at ang kabihasnang inihatid dito ng mga dayuhan! Salit na ginagamit namin ang bihisang sarili at ang bihisang dayuhan upang ipakilala lamang na natuto kaming mabuhay sa dalawang uri ng kabaihasnang iyan.

Javier’s use of a foreign language (he argues with Hansen in English) proves that in the colonial order, it is the native who needs to learn the foreigner’s language not only to understand them in conversation but in order to address anyone who uses that language, even fellow Filipinos who speak other languages and who shun the use of national language for being largely based on Tagalog during that time.

“…dito’y kailangang manghiram ng wikang dayuhan upang magkasundo ang lahat sa isang wikang pambansa at pampamahalaan! Makalilibong masarap sa amin ang mapailalim kaming lahat sa wikang banyaga kaysa masabing sinahis ng Tagalog ang Ilokano, ang Bisaya, ang Bikol, ang Kapampangan, at iba pa, o iyon kaya ng alin man sa mga ito!”

San Carlos becomes a hatchery of cultural kitsch, of imitation and appropriation. The main protagonist speaks of this cross as a fusion between Rizal’s Simoun and the betrayal of his own identity as a colonial by adopting the eccentric name “Ossan”. His foster father who was a General in the revolution takes the place of Rizal’s Pilosopong Tasyo, an elderly Illustrado deemed by everyone in the colony as a madman. The local aristocrats also approximate the fashion and behavior of the Americans. The mimicry often falls flat or results in farcical exaggeration– and this is where Lazaro pegs the changing Filipino identity.

Filipino Identity as an American colonial subject

Rei Vajt Ossan, Javier Santos’s nom de guerre, describes the new Filipino Identity that is dictated by the conditions of American colonial’s idea of place and time. Javier Santos’s identity belongs to the Spanish colonial past and his native culture, and it is this “nativeness” that seeks to restore the “ginhawa” (roughly, abundance and freedom from want) that was the nature of life before the Spanish colonization. This idea looms large in during the revolution and persisted even after the Americans hijacked Philippine independence.

The ‘native’ resurges and merges with the ‘Castilian’ identity in adapting their conservative morality and ethics to combat imperialist American assimilation. Inspite of this, Javier Santos’s traditionalism fails and he needed to reinvent himself in a previously unauthored identity, with a name that was created as a puzzle of his real name–’Rei Vaj’ is the reverse of ‘Javier’ and ‘Santos’ of ‘T Ossan’. The enigmatic and deceitful character of the colonizer is co-opted by the colonized native to face off with the foreigner Hansen. But the foreign sounding new name also speaks of the alienation of the character from his true self. In Japanese “Ossan” means an old person.

The act of adaptation and co-optation to defeat the foreigner results in a clumsy excess. Even if in the eyes of the people, Javier only sought equal footing by inducing foreign capital into his business, this resulted in the inevitable creation of a another self, one that has more similarities to his competitor than himself. This became apparent near the end of the story when Javier/Ossan becomes successful in merging the capital of both rich and poor in his desire to end the economic domination of foreign competitors.

About the novelist

Lazaro Francisco is an eminent Filipino novelist. Born on 22 February 1898 in Orani, Bataan to Eulogio Francisco and Clara Angeles before they moved to Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija. He studied at the Central Luzon Agricultural School and attended courses in English and bookkeeping. He worked as a clerk in provincial treasurer’s office. After passing the Civil Service Examination he became a provincial assessor until 1963. In 1958 he organized  the Kapatiran ng Alagad ng Wikang Pilipino (KAWIKA), an organization that advocated fro the advancement of the national language. . In 1970, he was honored with a Republic Cultural Heritage Award and elevated to the Order of National Artists in 2009.

Francisco’s literary output consists of 12 novels, seven short stories, and an essay written in the popular magazine, Liwayway. His first novella, Binhi at Bunga (Seed and Fruit, 1925) earned him critical acclaim. This was followed by three novels Cesar (1926), and the short story, Deo (1926). His novels, Ama (Father, 1927), Sa Sa Paanan ng Krus (At the foot of the cross, 1933) for which he garnered a Gold Medal from the group Ilaw at Panitik (Light and Letters), Pamana ng Pulubi (Inheritance of the Pauper, 1936), Bago Lumubog ang Araw (Before the Sun sets, 1938), and Singsing na Pangkasal (Wedding Ring, 1940) which was honored by  the Commonwealth Literary Awards in 1940, have been translated to different languages and adapted as plays and scripts for movies. Lazaro is best known today for his novels, Ilaw sa Hilaga (originally published as Bayang Nagpapatiwakal), Sugat ng Alaala, Maganda Pa ang Daigdig, at Daluyong which have been republished by the Ateneo De Manila University Press and the University of the Philipppines Press.

According to the critic Bienvinido Lumbera  Lazaro Francisco, “occupies an eminent position in the history of the Filipino novel”. After the war, he revised his Bayang Nagpatiwakal (1932) and released the book as Ilaw sa Hilaga (1948) as a reaction to the American economic dominance in the aftermath of the war. A string of novels: Sugat ng Alaala (1950) according to writer Francis Macasantos “reflects the horrors of the war experience as well as the human capacity for nobility, endurance and love under the most extreme circumstances.” Written almost four years apart from each other, his novels Maganda Pa Ang Daigdig (1956) deals with the agrarian issue, and Daluyong (1962) deals with the corruption bred by the American-style and American-educated pseudo-reformers. Soledad Reyes notes that Lazaro Francisco tackled issues in his novels which would only be fully assessed by social scientists a decade after during the outbreak of the First Quarter Storm and the subsequent declaration of Martial Law. Some of the issues discussed are the peasant movement and the imperialist neo-colonial policy of the United States towards the Philippines. “In the case of the Tagalog Novels of Francisco, he has often preceded history books.” His works, according to the writer Francisco Macasantos are realist novels infused “with social and moral ideals”.

Ilaw sa Hilaga by Lazaro Francisco, Published 1980 by The University of the Philippines Press (first published 1931)

Notes and Acknowledgements

  1. The main article above was translated to English from a review by John Barrios at November 2011.
  2. Francisco, Lazaro. In V. Almario (Ed.), Sagisag Kultura (Vol 1). Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Retrieved from March 2015
  3. Macasantos, Francisco. Philippine Literature in the post war and contemporary period. NCCA Website. April 2018.
  4. Reyes, Soledad. 2018 Adrian Cristobal Lecture Series on the Filipino Novel. Ateneo De Manila. March 2018


Piercing (Ryu Murakami, 2009)

Piercing by Ryū Murakami, Ralph McCarthy (Translator), Paperback, 192 pages Published March 27th 2007 by Penguin Books (first published 1994)
Piercing by Ryū Murakami, Ralph McCarthy (Translator), Paperback, 192 pages
Published March 27th 2007 by Penguin Books (first published 1994)

A novel about the interactions of sex that is powerfully repulsive and captivating at the same time

In Japan and the English-speaking world, Ryu Murakami first became known with his novel “Coin Locker Babies” (1980). In it he describes the life of two boys who were exposed in locker rooms in infancy and grew up to very different, albeit equally disturbed personalities. In 2006, the novel “In the Miso Soup” was published in English.

Murakami is not only a star in Japan as a novelist. He has also made a name for himself as a scriptwriter and director.  His film “Audition” from 1999 (directed by Takashi Miike) was very successful in Europe. In the movie, the gossip of potential actresses leads to a sadomasochistic torture scene.

Again and again, Murakami is asking the same questions. How does life work in a technocratic society, where there is hardly any room for personal freedom? What interactions exist between sex and power? What impact do deepest injuries have on human behavior? The film “Audition” was sometimes perceived by the audience as unbearably ice-cold, a story that dissects brutal torture scenes. Mechanisms are revealed that most people do not want to know more than necessary. Yet many are fascinated and repelled by their own fascination at the same time.

Similarly, the novel “Piercing”, which appeared in Japan in 1994, also did well with audiences. Again, the story is a game of sexuality and power that employs the author. Kawashima is a young graphic designer, married and a father of a daughter. At first glance, everything is fine. Kawashima loves his wife and child and is successful in his job. And yet something is wrong. Every night he stands with an ice pick on his daughter’s cot, places her sharp point on the soft skin and struggles with the urge to stab.

Where this obsession comes from becomes gradually clearer. Kawashima is deeply traumatized by his unfortunate childhood. Unwanted by the mother, beaten and finally given away, he suffers from his deep injuries. Again and again, the mother appears before his inner eye, she also attributes her split into two people. Because especially in moments of great tension, he has the feeling of being watched from above, hears voices and shares in a pain-feeling and a detached person.

Once again, Kawashima has given in to his predicament. His first relationship was with an elderly woman who worked as a prostitute. He stabbed her in the stomach. To get rid of the urge to kill his child, he forges a literal-battle plan. A prostitute should become his victim. With her, he hopes to kill the image of his mother and his own lust for murder. He plans his approach in detail: in a notebook he notes every single step: “Simple jeans and a sweater to change. Something as space-saving as possible. A sweater made of thin material. The same applies to the jeans. Two pairs of well-fitting leather gloves. Great mindfulness when using the gloves. ”

As disturbing as the theme, the desire to torture and kill, is the language in which this theme is presented. Completely emotionless, strategic and goal-oriented, the protagonist’s actions are like the narrator’s language, reminiscent of authors such as Bret Easton Ellis and Michel Houllebecq. Less convincing, however, is the psychological component of the novel. Again and again, the voices in the head of the protagonist speak out, again and again and all too clearly and one-dimensionally, the narrative makes it clear who blames these voices: the unloving mother.

To complete his plan, Kawashima takes a vacation, hires a hotel in the Tokyo City, and orders a prostitute. By the way, one learns irritating details, such as that in Japanese business hotels “erotic catalogs” with a wide range of women are out and that such a “holiday” is socially acceptable – Kawashima’s boss says goodbye to him with the recommendation not to catch HIV during his recovery time ,

Kawashima’s plan does not work out as he had imagined. Even Chiaki, the woman he has ordered, is suffering from her injuries. She was also abused as a child. The forerunners of the two injured are the result of a complicated network of misinterpretations and misinterpretations. Murakami blends her conversations and outward actions with her thoughts and voices in her mind. In addition to the extremely bloody plot-a bitten-out finger is still one of the more harmless details-Murakami tries to deal with the mental deformity of his protagonists.

Although “piercing” triggers disgust, but at the same time fascinating enough to be read in one go. Nevertheless, it remains a bad feeling. If social structures are to be criticized here, one crucial detail is missing: the view of the whole. Because shocking is not the fact that individual people are so hurt that they pass on their pain. Shockingly, the facts that only marginally interest Murakami-that “girls” are cataloged are that a receptionist responds to screams of pain from the hotel room with a request for “respect” for the neighbors.

Piercing by Ryū Murakami, Ralph McCarthy (Translator), Paperback, 192 pages
Published March 27th 2007 by Penguin Books (first published 1994)

The East-West Burlesque of Santiago Gamboa

“What is the actual situation of a secondary writer, if not on a single, huge drain?” When Santiago Gamboa, on the first page of his most recent novel with Gombrowicz’s voice, scoffs at the inferior writers, it is almost self-evident that he himself is not one of those pitiful creatures of the literary rearguard. For, as Gamboa quotes from “Ferdydurke”, the humiliation of the bad writer is threefold: through the public, through reality, and above all through art itself, “in which he sought refuge, but despised his inability and inadequacy “.

In fact, the young successful author from Colombia had little reason to complain about such abductions. Since his literary debut, he has become Bogotá’s first city-wide metropolitan known across the country’s borders.emblematic representative of a rebellious “Generation McOndo” who escaped from the cult site of “Magic Realism”: the village of Macondo from the novels of the all-shades García Márquez. Also with his third published in German novel “The Blender” Gamboa dwells on the neon-lit paths of the big city literature. Of course, under the pen of the now mature novelist, this genre has a multi-colored nuance. Gamboa transfers the scene of his book from the urban jungle of Bogotá to that of post-socialist Beijing. He strives to prove his mastery in all genres, cultures and traditions at the same time. 

The heroes of the novel are scrambled out of various facets of globalized promiscuity: the literary scholar Nelson Chouchén Otálora, Peruvian in the professorial services of an over-funded North American university;Serafín Suárez Salcedo, frustrated Colombian radio journalist in French public services; and the equally foamy and far-east addicted sinologist dr. Gisbert Klauss from the University of Hamburg, who has never left his home office. These three unequal figures converge in the booming megalopolis of the Far East, albeit not to chase after the recent economic summits of the Middle Kingdom, but to an esoteric manuscript. “Wide transparencies of the air” is the name of the typeface which tragically combines the fates of the three continents of Asia, Europe and America. Its author is Wang Mian, a forgotten Chinese classic. His handwriting, lost for a hundred years, is at the same time the sacred code of the anti-Western “sect of the strong fist”, which in 1900 initiated the Boxer Rebellion. 

From such disparate elements, the novel weaves a web of spying angles, confusion and paranoia, which Graham Greene, Gamboa’s professed role model, did all honor. Agents reluctant and yet delighted at their new surprise role, the title heroes stumble between alcoholism and anachronism through luxury hotels, conspiratorial bookstores and warehouses, accompanied by Catholic-Stalinist monks, Russian prostitutes and participants in an international Proctologists’ Congress: three “Blender” rummaging about Wang Mian’s text finally hoped for the big coup that was denied them in the past life. For each of them is one of those abusive writers’ passions mentioned above, who are reluctant to admit their failure. Even if the narrator, in true Nathanian wisdom, succeeds in giving each of the three dazzling heroes the desired good in equivalent form, there remains nothing more than what the title promised: the vast transparencies of an air, which, though circulated several times by three impostors, does not want to leave behind any solid substance. 

With all the tricks and pitfalls of the literary craft, the novelist seeks to spin his readers and protagonists into his network. But after he had succeeded with a dreamlike certainty in his last novel “The happy life of the young Esteban” to move quite calmly between the cities of Bogotá, Rome and Paris – certainly not least because these cities landmarks of his own apprenticeship as a writer At times, in the West-Eastern scenario of his Beijing, he sometimes seems to get tangled up in the pitfalls he has designed. Gamboa’s novel accurately reflects the misery of today’s virtual world citizens, who have been everywhere yet are nowhere at home: the constant odium of half-knowledge. Professor Klauss, born in a “nest called Bielefeld”, continues to drink his King Pilsener all over the world and muses with embassy officials about persistent Franco-German tensions despite all Maastricht contracts. The Cuban proctologist Omaira, projection surface of erotic fantasies of the title heroes, comes from a “province of Oriente”, which has not been found on any map for half a century, and moans in asteroid manner during intercourse: “By Ochún and Yemayá” – quite the opposite to Americanized Puerto Rican student whimpering before orgasm with Professor Chouchén Otálora: “Dad, put your load on me.” 

All these are deliberately used clichés, collected from novels, films and travel guides. In the absence of an essence that goes beyond irony, however, they do not lose their prowess in their exaggerated use of the comic.Therefore, Gamboa is bad at his mockery of the bad writers. After the simple stylistic certainty of his last novels, he, in his new self-confidence as sovereign master of the set pieces, sometimes makes honest effort to compete with his “dazzlers”: as a new contender for a place in the Round Table of the Knights of the High Stack.


Santiago Gamboa: “The Blender”. Novel. Translated from Colombian Spanish