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Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘R.U.R’ in Filipino, ‘Marcospunk,’ and a precolonial tale for kids

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With classes having started for many, it’s the perfect time to buy books for leisure reading after hours of studying. Here for your consideration are three interesting works that cover a gamut of settings, from precolonial Philippines to a robot factory to worlds of alternate reality peopled by the familiar and the uncanny. 

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One interesting release from 2020 that’s gone under the radar is Rogelio Sicat’s translation into Filipino of Czech writer Karel Čapek’s 1920 science fiction play R.U.R., which stands for “Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti,” rendered by Sicat as Robot Unibersal ni Rossum.

 In her foreword to the book, Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Jana Šedivá called R.U.R. “one of the few Czech books that [is] world-renowned,” adding that she was “happy that Filipino readers can now read this extraordinary book in Filipino.”

Rogelio Sicat’s translation into Filipino of Czech writer Karel Čapek’s 1920 science fiction play ‘R.U.R.

She also said their embassy in Manila promotes the “usage of mother tongue in the Philippines” and thus coordinates the translation of “masterpieces of Czech language” into local languages, a practice begun by her predecessor, former ambassador Jaroslav Olša, Jr.

Čapek’s play introduced the word ‘robot’ to the world, a coinage from the Slavic ‘robota’ meaning the sort of forced labor done by serfs. To mark the centennial of the play, the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Manila partnered with Ateneo de Naga University Press to produce the book, which was launched virtually in May 2021.

The play recounts how a scientist creates robotic creatures from organic materials (like the Replicants in Blade Runner). At first, they are willing to work for humans, but after some time they revolt and kill everyone except for one engineer, and take over the world.

Sicat’s translation is spare and elegant: “Mahabaging langit, dumarami pa sila,” says Dr. Gall, as the robots surround the hiding place of the few remaining humans. “Nakatayo silang parang pader na rehas ng garden. Bakit napakatahimik? Nakakatakot mapaligiran ng katahimikan.” It would be wonderful to see this staged; I haven’t heard that it has been yet.

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Another work that should be given more attention is Lapat: Antolohiya ng mga Kontemporaneong Kuwento, edited by Luna Sicat-Cleto and associate editors Romulo P. Baquiran, Jr. and Francis Paolo Quina.

‘Lapat: Antolohiya ng mga Kontemporaneong Kuwento’ is a powerhouse collection of 17 short fiction from some of the country’s finest writers

It’s a powerhouse collection of 17 short fiction from some of the country’s finest writers, among them Dean Francis Alfar (East of the Sun), Allan N. Derain (Hilaw at Luto sa Bangkete ni Kapitan Gimo), Charlson Ong (Widow), Chuckberry Pascual (Pusóng), Rolando B. Tolentino (WHO (FACEPALM)), and Eliza Victoria (Blessed are Those Who Suffer).

Widow, in particular, is a spectacular addition to a genre I call, for lack of an existing term or any that I am aware of, “Marcospunk” – speculative fiction about the Marcoses or the Martial Law era. (I was also thinking of “dictatorpunk,” but that would be a general term encompassing Mussolini, Franco, and other fascists).

In this story, Ong created a mythical world where resurrection is a power held by an embalmer who uses traditional, natural methods. So skilled is he at his craft that he is approached by a black-dressed widow possessing the beauty of an “otherworldly angel;” weeping, she asks him to refresh the decaying corpse of her late husband, Apo Supremo. He tries, but fate intervenes at the turning point.

Ong deftly explores themes of worship and rejection in conjunction with the mythical and historical. The prose is eloquent, the insight penetrating: “His widow has finally brought home the corpse[…]She wants him buried in his old palace, but the new rulers have refused. She wants to show his remains before his people, the mountain people, they said. And they must see how vital he remains in death, how powerful! How he mocks his enemies!”

Space limitations prevent me from discussing the other stories, but they are all just as engrossing. This is a must-have, particularly for short story enthusiasts.

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Cristina A. Montes offers younger readers a pre-Hispanic adventure story blending fantasy and history in Amihan: A Novelette. The titular character is a young girl who is given as a slave to Rajah Humabon’s wife Hara (Queen) Humanay. Around that time, white men in large ships visit their island of Sugbu. Their leader, Fernando Magayanes, is looking for spices, gold, and other valuable things.

Cristina A. Montes offers younger readers a pre-Hispanic adventure story blending fantasy and history in ‘Amihan: A Novelette.’

With him is a man dressed in a brown robe that looks heavy and hot – this is Father Valderrama, who teaches the Sugbuanons about his god “Dyos” and his son “Hesus.” Amihan and her uncle Layag are among those who accept the new faith.

 After the preliminaries that set the stage, the rest of the story imagines how Christianity might have spread among the inhabitants of the island in 1521. The usual narrative, writes Montes in her afterword, is that “heavy-handed” tactics were used to impose the new religion. But what if the early Visayans “actually found something attractive in Christianity, such that they freely accepted it for its intrinsic worth?”

Readers will be beguiled not only by the story, but also by the vibrant and energetic illustrations that adorn the pages of Amihan. 

RUR: Robot Unibersal ni Rossum
By Karel Čapek, transl. by Rogelio Sicat
2020, 126 pgs, pb, Ateneo de Naga University Press
Lapat: Antolohiya ng mga Kontemporaneong Kuwento
Edited by Luna Sicat-Cleto
2019, 240 pgs, pb, Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, Pambansang Komisyon para sa Kultura at Sining
Amihan: A Novelette
Written by Cristina A. Montes, illustrated by Richard R. Smith
2021, 88 pgs, hb, Central Book Supply, Inc.
For comments and feedback, you may reach the author on Facebook and Twitter: @DrJennyO.


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