The last day of the first ever European Literature Fair by National Bookstore has coincided this year’s Dia Del Libro. Both events highlighted the strong literary diplomacy of the Philippines and the Western world, and how such relationship continues to shape the history of arts and letters here in our country.
With the principal aim of introducing the great literary works from Europe, the European Literature Fair also explores the transnational circulation of literature. Over the last three weeks, the fair showcased both the established names of European writing and those who are emerging to fame with their groundbreaking contemporary works. Some authors featured in the fair include Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, and Hans Christian Andersen. When asked about his thoughts on the Philippines’ first European Literature Fair, Czech Ambassador Jaroslav Olsa Jr. said it is a unique opportunity for him to exemplify the awe-inspiring assortment of the European literary scene, and show that European authors cater to a multitude of literary tastes, and a variety of genres covering many literary styles.
Meanwhile, Dia Del Libro is a literary celebration which has quickly become a tradition for Filipino book lovers since it was first launched in April 2006. The event is inspired by a Spanish festival of the same name where women and men exchange books and roses on St George’s Day. This year is actually my second Dia Del Libro experience and I can only say all the best things about it. You can read my article about last year’s festival here.
Even though language can be a crucial factor in creating an inclusive environment for the literatures of the Philippines and European countries, the process of translation has been instrumental in bringing great literary works of our friends from the other side of the Atlantic to Filipino shelves. With the zealous effort of the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) and other European embassies and cultural institutes in Manila, they have delivered innumerable translated works which helped Filipinos understand more the heritage and culture of countries like France, Great Britain, Russia, and Spain.
Layag and Agos
The Czech Embassy in Manila is one of the countless institutions which are making sure that European books have a significant presence in our local bookstores. Ambassador Olsa Jr., along with EUNIC, launched last year the first volume in the European Anthology series called Layag: European Classics in Filipino. It is a particularly unique literary work because not only does it offer one of the best collections of classic European stories, it is also translated in Filipino making it accessible for wider readership. Layag first hit bookstores last year when it was launched at Dia Del Libro 2017.
Fresh off from the success of Layag, EUNIC has this year introduced the new addition to the anthology called Agos: Modern European Writers in Filipino. The book celebrates the works of contemporary authors from different parts of Europe, some of whom are Alois Hotschnig of Austria, Garry Kilworth of Britain, and Veronika Santo of Croatia.
Since I have not yet read Layag, I decided to get a copy of it at this year’s Dia Del Libro. It was a complete pleasure to meet Ambassador Olsa Jr. at the event who was generous enough to sign my book. I told him I was worried I’d might miss his book signing event since I needed to drop by at the NBS Glorietta Branch for the European Literature Fair. Overwhelmed with my dedication to both events, he placed a note on my book to express his gratitude for my support.
Why I am Obsessed with European Literature [and trust me, I’m not the only one]
The late Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago is one of the strong figures I look up to, and anyone who knows her accomplishments in life will not find it difficult to see why. Every time I watch the filed interview of her where she said her favourite books are those written by Russian authors like Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, I simply can’t help but swoon over the subject. Like Senator Santiago, I admire Tolstoy’s works. It triggers a sentimental attachment to know that the person whom you have so much respect for had read the same books as you did. But Senator Santiago is just one of the many great Filipino thinkers who were influenced by Western philosophy through great European literary works. Historian Ambeth Ocampo has unveiled the books that Andres Bonifacio read during his time. It is said that Bonifacio read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a substantial French novel which possibly inspired the Great Pelbeian to stage the Philippine revolution. Even Ninoy Aquino himself read Tolstoy during his exile. These fragments of information only suggest how deeply embedded European Literature is in the DNA of Filipino readers.
My deep-seated affair with classical European novels started when I was in college. The first classical novel I read by a European author was Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy). I was only inspired to read the Russian novel after watching its movie adaptation starring Keira Knightly and was directed by Joe Wright. It was a downright moving experience to see the controversial struggles of Anna, which more than a century later, continue to represent the frailty of human society.
Soon after reading Anna Karenina, my bookshelf became home for European authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Miguel de Cervantes, and Charlotte Bronte. Nineteenth Century is my favourite era to read from because I consider it as the golden age of European literature where at least six major literary movements have emerged including Romanticism, Existentialism, Realism, and Naturalism. The century was teeming with groundbreaking achievements both in science and philosophy. But I think what really developed my keen attachment is the sophisticated lifestyle during the said period. It is the age of soirees, operas, excessively complicated dresses, and systematic nights of matchmaking. The 1800s is also abundant in events that shaped the history of mankind, and through the works of great authors, I was able to be inside the room where it all happened. I always believe the prime function of literature is to make fiction not an imitation of life but an extension of it. By reading classical European novels, I met interesting people from ages ago and felt emotions that I could not have otherwise experienced. My bookshelf contains books which also act as badges of adventures I have taken as a reader and as a human being. I was there when Anna took her last train trip, I witnessed the fall of Napoleon in the great Battle of Waterloo, I wept with Natasha right next to the deathbed of Prince Andrei, and I fought with Don Quixote against the vicious windmills.
As much as I subscribe to the school of thought of Professor Harold Bloom, I am not writing this article to defend the Western Canon. It is part of my creed as a literary essayist to appreciate the aesthetic value of every single literary work, regardless of race, language, or culture. Maybe I will soon find my position in the great debate of multiculturalism and inclusiveness. But right now, I want to focus on the importance of harnessing the wisdom of the literatures of the world in order to help the growth of our own arts and culture. Efforts to strengthen the Philippines’ literary ties with the Western region is proving to be an effective way to abolish barriers in our increasingly borderless world. The exchange of narratives across the Atlantic will reduce the level of differences and will breed an understanding that no race or colour can disturb.
As Filipinos explore the colourful panorama of European Literature, we are also becoming more active in the global circulation of literary works. National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin was last year honoured by Penguin Classics through the publication of a paperback called The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic. This opened an opportunity for readers across the globe to appreciate more the works of Filipino authors. It also celebrates the fact that all countries, irrespective of continent and region, have their own stories to tell.