Cosmopolitan vs. multilingual novels

2 August 2009 at 4:40 AM | Posted in News | 1 Comment

In Multilingual America (1998), Werner Sollors writes:

“As a polyglot critic, obsessed with the relations among languages and among dialects, I can find a social utopia in any cosmopolitan city: Luxembourg, Jerusalem, Montreal, New York, or the Rustchuk Elias Canetti vividly describes in the early pages of Die gerettete Zunge. I find a domestic utopia in any good polyglot conversation, in which every participant is perpetually and expertly switching codes, and every other participant understands the switches. It is surprisingly hard, though, to name a literary utopia. There are great multidialectal novels like Moby-Dick or Huck Finn, or Berlin: Alexanderplatz, or practically anything by Dickens or Scott. But it is harder to name a great multilingual text. The authors who come to mind, like Rabelais or Mann or Nabokov or Canetti himself, are really writing not multilingual novels but cosmopolitan ones, unilingual puddings with lots of multilingual plums. No novel that I know is in this sense as linguistically complex as the ordinary conversation at any Cuban-Chinese restaurant in New York.” (p. 345)

May I suggest to Sollors that he look into novels written by Filipinos and Filipino-Americans? All Filipinos (not just Filipino writers), without exception, are at least bilinguals; most are polyglots. Filipinos learn their mother tongue at birth, the national language (Filipino) when they go to market, and English when they go to school (if their mother tongue is Tagalog, which is close but not identical to Filipino, they would be mere bilinguals). If they live in a town where one of the three national lingua francas is spoken (Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano), that would be the fourth language. If they have Chinese ancestry, they speak Fookien Chinese with their parents and learn Mandarin Chinese in Chinese school. If they are Muslim, they learn to read Arabic. If they migrate to another island (which often happens), they learn the vernacular of that island. If they are very rich (very few are), they speak Spanish. If they live or work outside the country (a full 10% of the population do), they learn whatever is the language of that country. It is the rule, therefore, rather than the exception, whether s/he lives in the city or not, that the Filipino writer writes in more than one language. There is no such thing as a cosmopolitan Filipino novel, because every Filipino novel written in any language is necessarily a multilingual one.

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  1. Hi, Isagani! I'm the person who wrote the passage you're commenting on (though it appears in a collection of essays edited by Werner Sollors, who told me about your comment). Do you have any particular novels to recommend? I'd be most interested in having a look at them.
    There's a difference, in my view, between being a richly cosmopolitan and multilingual person of the sort you describe in your comment, and choosing as a writer one strategy or another for representing (or not representing) that aspect of one's identity and community.
    Best, Larry Rosenwald (lrosenwald@wellesley.edu)


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