Monday, October 17, 2016

El Folk-Lore Filipino by Isabelo de los Reyes - an early instance of the encyclopedia novel, a compendium of worldview.

The great Caravana de Recuerdos, as part of Spanish Literature month, asked me to recommend criminally overlooked Spanish-language works.  I gestured towards medieval and early modern literature, which would be my answer for Italian, French, and English literature, too.  I don’t remember writing the answers to Ricardo’s questions, but they sound plausibly like me.

Of course no actual crime is involved.  That is a rhetorical device.

Rise, author of the extraordinary In lieu of a field guide, offered El Folk-Lore Filipino (1889) by Isabelo de los Reyes:

It may be a "folklore novel" and perhaps an early instance of the encyclopedia novel.  It is revisionary and revolutionary in intent, a compendium of local fables, customs, and traditions set off against Spanish colonialism.  More than a sociological and cultural curiosity, it is a compendium of worldview.

The first half of the book has been translated by Salud C. Dixon and Maria Elinora Peralta-Imson – university of the Philippines Press, 1994 – and the university library on which I lean impressed me by owning a copy.  So I can take one small step towards rectifying the crime.

The book is both what it says it is, an early work of anthropology, and something else.  Isabelo is collecting folklore, mostly from the northern region of Ilocos, the home of his family, but he also wanders in other directions.  The folklore is interesting, but I began to look forward to the digressions.  Most charming is a long section devoted to the poetry of the author’s mother, who was a master of the occasional poem.

Often the folklore is more than interesting.  A demon, the “pugot,” is described as a cat or dog or black giant:

Imagine him, my dear readers, seated on the window sill of a house, 18 meters high, his feet touching the ground. The common people say the pugot smokes giant-sized cigars.  (57)

The author is more hard-headed, a skeptic about the supernatural.  But he reports it all with enthusiasm.  It was odd, and enjoyable, reading Folk-Lore Filipino while reading about Dada.  The riddles, for example:

What cake cannot be sliced with a knife? – Water on a plate.

What well is deep and strewn with sharp weapons? – The mouth and teeth.  (491)

The riddles of my culture are amusing kid’s stuff; everyone else’s riddles are surrealist weirdness.  Maybe even stranger, because it is given as ordinary behavior of the Ilocanos:

They have dreams, even ridiculous ones like wishing they were taller but realizing the hopelessness of this, they discard the idea.  (197)

Running through, or underneath, the folklore is the Spanish culture that is after hundreds of years of colonial governance deeply tangled with older Philippine traditions.  It is startling to see a supernatural guardian described only as “like a European” (115) or that certain illnesses during pregnancy are “a sign that an anti-Christ will be born” (113).

Most surprising was the short story that ends the English volume, and is thus in the middle of the Spanish, a piece of “Administrative Folklore?” (question mark in the original) that describes an honest man’s journey through corruption, political power, mysticism, godhood, and revolution.  It’s the Philippine version of “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888).  As it ends, it seems to slip backwards in time, into history, concluding with this footnote:

Since these names and dates have no bearing on the administrative problems that are the concern of this article, we would appreciate it if our readers do not try to check their veracity, because they may have been distorted by my imagination.  (615)

Yes, what exactly is this book?

Rise’s essays on Philippine literature – see this annotated list of books that have made it into English – are like a glimpse of another world.


  1. This was written in Spanish rather than Tagalog? Interesting. I can vouch for the impression that the Philippines is "another world" (i.e., that was impression during my several visits in the 80s); it is such a mixed culture because of colonial intrusions and dominance over the centuries, which is why I'm surprised (but not surprised) about the book in Spanish rather than Tagalog. If you ever get a chance to visit there, avoid the cities and head for the hills, but be careful (i.e., it has become a dangerous "another world").

  2. Yes, that's right, the author was educated and urbanized, a Manila writer, so he wrote in Spanish.

    Isabelo's family language - the language of his mother's poetry - was Ilocano. The linguistic variety of the literature Rise writes about is by itself pretty interesting. When Isabelo was writing, the colonial language was inescapable for the educated class. Over time, literature in other languages begins to appear.

    How fortunate you were to visit the Philippines. I would love to go on a culinary tour of the country.

  3. Culinary tour? Wonderful! But be careful. Be very careful!

  4. You're off the hook, Tom. From a "criminal" to detective.

    Up to the 1980s, a certain proportion of Filipinos are readers/speakers in Spanish since the language was required course in college. But the course became optional, and nowadays the speakers in Spanish are fast disappearing. I learned many words by reading my mother's textbook but did not keep at it.

    The second riddle has a counterpart in Tagalog and is probably an adaptation.

    The digressional quotes and amusing asides are perhaps part of what makes it genre-defying.

  5. The digressions and other violations of what would now be standard anthropological practice make the book into whatever it is, into literature. Thanks for pointing it out so forcefully.

  6. What a curious discovery. No doubt because I've just read another of Sicilian writer Giuseppe Bonaviri's works, I'm reminded of the way Bonaviri melds folklore and ethnography with fiction, using the device of an investigation as a vehicle for revealing the region's culture, with no small amount of wit and irony involved. Anyway, this sounds like a joy; I'll see if the library here has a copy.

  7. How curious. Bonaviri is in English, but just barely.

    Yes, you should take a look at this book. It is the thing that it looks like it is, but also something else, or perhaps a number of other things.