In the Philippines, the caste of “untouchables” is not the impoverished peasant but the elite leadership, on which society depends so much for patronage, but from which the masses more commonly have received indifference, cruelty, and betrayal of purpose.
In the Bamboo Dancers... Gonzalez’s characters are discovered rather than explained. They present themselves without comment from the author. Such subtlety and disciplined self-restraint keep Gonzalez’s fiction far from the ordinary “literature of protest” ... Perhaps Gonzalez’s constant attentiveness to the manner of speech, and even to silence, owes much to his culture’s reliance, for unobtrusive communication, on courteous consideration of others... Gonzalez’s craft is perfectly expressive of these Asian aspects of Philippine folkways.- Leonard Casper, Critical Survey of Long Fiction
N. V. M. Gonzalez (Nestor Vicenti Madali Gonzalez) b. Romblon, Romblon 8 Sept 1915. Fictionist, poet, essayist. He was the son of Vicente Gonzalez, a school supervisor, and Pastora Madali, a teacher. He was married to Narita Manuel with whom he had four children. When he was four, his family migrated to Mindoro and settled in barrio of Wasig. Gonzalez had his early schooling in Romblon and later attended Mindoro High School. In 1930 he took the entrance examination to the University of the Philippines but failed. He went back to Mindoro and worked as a delivery boy in his father's slaughterhouse and meat stall in Calapan. During this time, he began contributing to the Graphic. For about a year, he would walk from Wasig to Mansalay for five hours to type his story at the municipal hall and post it to the magazine.
Gonzalez had his first literary break when he won in the students' literary contest sponsored by the Graphic for an essay in Theodore Roosevelt's visit to Calapan in 1934. He left for Manila, met Francisco Arcellana, and joined the Veronicans. He studied for two years at the National University and Manila Law College, but quit his college studies sometime in 1934. He joined the Graphic, working there until the outbreak of WWII. After the war and without a college degree, he was invited by the University of the Philippines (UP), to teach English and the short story from 1951 to 1967. He became the chairperson of the Second UP Writers Summer Workshop in Los Baños in 1967 and was twice chosen as the Workshop's writer-in-residence in 1978 and 1987. He received several Rockefeller grants which enabled him to take special studies in creative writing at Stanford University, the Kenyon School of English, and Columbia University, and to travel in Asia and Europe. In 1968, he went to the University of California in Santa Barbara as a visiting associate professor of English, and stayed there until 1983 as a professor of English and Asian American literature at the University of Washington from 1976 to 1979, and in 1986, artist-in-residence of the Djarassi Foundation in Woodside, California.
Gonzalez's published novels are the Winds of April , 1940; A Season of Grace , 1956; and The Bamboo Dancers , 1959; his published short story collections are Seven Hills Away , 1947; Children of the Ash Covered Loam and Other Stories , 1954; Look Stranger, On This Island Now , 1963; Selected Stories , 1964; and Mindoro and Beyond: Twenty-one Stories , 1979. His most recent published works are Kalutang: A Filipino in the World an autobiographical essay, 1990, and The Father and the Maid , a compilation of six lectures delivered under the sponsorship of the UP Creative Writing Center, 1990, He finished his final draft of a short novel called Kaingin Country and was working on a sheaf of poems, A Wander Through the Night of the World . Also in preparation is the Mother the Provider , a collection of stories.
Gonzalez received a special award in the 1940 Commonwealth Literary Contest for The Winds of April , the Philippine Republic Award of Merit for Literature in English in 1954, the Republic Cultural Heritage in 1960, the Jose Rizal Pro Patria Award in 1961, and the Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan ward in 1971 from the city government of Manila. Eight of his short stories were included in Jose Garcia Villa's honor roll in 1926 to 1940. His short stories, “On the Ferry” 1959 and “Serenade” in 1964, won third prize and first prize, respectively, in the Philippines Free Press literary contest. His short stories, which won in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, are: “Children of the Ash Covered Loam,” second prize in 1952; “Lupo and the River,” second prize in 1953; “On the Ferry,” third prize, 1959; and “Tomato Game,” first prize in 1972. In 1993, he received the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining in literature. He was conferred National Artist status in 1997. He passed away in 1999 due to kidney complica
The title The Bamboo Dancers refers to the national dance of the Philippines, the tinikling. In the dance, a pair of bamboo poles is placed on the ground. The ends of each pole are held by members of the troupe who slap the poles together in rhythm to the music. During the dance, the dancers hop in and out of the space between the clashing poles, avoiding getting their feet caught in between. The dance itself originates from the days when the Philippines was a Spanish colony. The Spanish would punish native workers by forcing them to stand in between two poles of sharp thorns while they slapped their feet with the poles. The workers started practising how to jump in and out of the poles safely and the dance evolved from there.
The book’s title refers to the dance because of the way its characters – educated, middle-class Filipinos – have to deftly navigate their way between their feelings for two clashing worlds: America and the Philippines. For the main character, Ernie, and his Filipino friends, the clash is finding themselves caught in a love-hate relationship with the US -- seen both as a land of freedom, and a land where they are nevertheless treated with condescension – and as equally a love-hate relationship with their own country – a beloved home that is poorer and less rich in opportunity than the US.
It is easy to forget, now, that the Philippines too was once a US colony – one that had seen brutal oppression of the local population, including torture of Filipino children by the US military, in the early 1900s. This is not something that Gonzalez's Filipino readers would have been unaware of. So, it is interesting and significant that Gonzalez has the main character, Ernie, visit both Japan and Taiwan at the time. The continued dying and suffering of the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from radiation sickness figures prominently in the Japan sections of the novel. Gonzalez also emphasizes the US military presence in both countries and the then current anti-US student movements in these countries. And of course at that time Japan was under direct US occupation -- just like the Philippines had once been -- while Taiwan was under the grip of the military dictator and US ally, Chiang Kai-Shek.
Gonzalez is remarkable in how deftly and sympathetically he narrates Ernie's barely stated emotions. Written in a highly low-key manner, where he shows and never ever tells, it can be hard for the reader to come to grips with what the characters are feeling, largely because what they feel is barely understood, admitted or even visible to themselves. This condition is, of course, more familiar to those struggling with post-colonial mindsets: where you struggle with the love you have been taught for your brutaliser. Highly recommended.
This work is so simple, it's easy to dismiss by a non-careful reader. On an action-level, it's not lively, but if one is knowledgeable of the historical and cultural contexts its stark metaphors allude to and, in some ways, illuminate, a very subtle brilliance can be gleaned. It's a more laid-back book than most, and lives more in the gentle surprise of lovely language and concepts than go-go plot or quirky characters. Probably a book more for the mind and a creative heart (the protagonist is a sculptor) than a "bruising good read," per se. Probably not for everyone, this novel still remains one of my all-time favorites.
Well, the book is good, with much subtleties, but I have given it three stars for the following reasons:
1. I did not relate the relationship between the prologue and the main story; 2. My interpretation, I think, in the Japan trip, is the horrors of nuclear warfare. Again, it does not have a relation with the main story; 3. I did not get why Ernie was in the US.
The Bamboo Dancers, as the title suggests, is the Tinikling, which many Filipinos overseas can be related into. The Filipino overseas, in turn, have the nostalgia of home, just like Ernie feel. This is my first NVM Gonzalez book, and I hope his other works will be as subtle as this one.
Reading this book I felt constantly that I was missing something. Very little exegesis is given; it reads as if we are dropped into the middle of conversations full of significance and history and we have to try to figure it out (I felt this way reading Hills Like White Elephants when I was in middle school, so maybe I need to wait twenty years or so and read this again). I like it, but I’m not sure I get it. There's this sort of affectless narrator, traveling around the world seemingly at random (New York-Vermont-New York-San Francisco-Tokyo-Kyoto-Hiroshima), existing at a remove from all those he encounters, even his lovers and family. It reads like a lot of your favorite manly midcentury writers—Hemingway, Kerouac, Salinger (if I were going to be cruel I might describe it as Salinger without the heart, Kerouac without the enthusiasm, and Hemingway with more sensitivity...but it's better than that makes it sound). The Hemingway influence is perhaps intentional (at one point he tells his lover she looks like Lady Brett Ashley) but there is slightly too much emotion and too much exuberance for Hemingway. Slightly. Not that I would describe the work as exuberant (it’s fairly flat) but not quite as flat as Hemingway.
There's a lot I don't remember about this book, but one of the few scenes that really stands out in my mind is when the narrator, Ernie, is invited to dinner at a Filipino couple's house in the US, and the way the smell of the food cooking reminds him of home. It is perhaps the most emotion we see from him, even in a book that involves a senseless hit-and-run killing and a tour of post-nuclear Hiroshima. It captured, for me, the feeling of constant tension that comes with living in a foreign country, the way that things are always just a little bit different from what you grew up with. Sometimes you're not even aware of the ways it wears you down until you are presented with something you didn't even know you were missing, like a home-cooked meal with ingredients from your childhood. I very much doubt this was the point of the book, but two years out that is my major takeaway.