February is the month of love.
Here are 5 classic must-read novels that you can read this month, whether you have a beau or not. If you have one, then perhaps a few pages can help put you in the mood. If not, then maybe reading can in-itself be a great activity in lieu of having a date.
These 5 books may even inspire you to think about the various conditions, relationships, and contexts of that thing called love that go beyond what’s dished out by the hundreds of romance and chicklit pocketbooks flooding your usual bookshops.
These 5 titles should also be readily available in most of the major bookstores in the Philippines:
- Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen.
Of course, no Valentine’s list is complete without the romance novel that may have started it all. A bestseller during Austen’s lifetime in the 19th Century Victorian England, Pride and Prejudice has set the benchmark on the romance genre long after her death. It has spawned a number of film adaptations including the one with Keira Knightly.
The famous opening lines can pretty much sum up the entire novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that, a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” But haters of the romance genre must not be fooled. While Pride and Prejudice may appear to be the epitome of the romantic fantasy, it is more than just about sexual tension culminating in marriage as happy ending.
Beneath the female protagonists and their family’s singular concern with marriage is the abject condition of economic dependence and oppression suffered by women during Austen’s era and even up to the present. Ultimately, the romantic convention pioneered by Austen and others like her might be a way of resolving contradictions that remain to be problematic in real life.
- Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy.
This is the only novel by a male author in this list and perhaps also the longest at around a thousand pages. But make no mistake. It may be a lengthy read, but it is also one of the most gripping love stories ever told. Besides, it was also first published as a serial from 1873 until its final installment in 1877 back in the days when there were no radio and television soap operas yet. So it really is manageable.
Anna Karenina may tic off some as explicitly moralistic: with its interrogations of the terms good-evil, proper-indecorous, and faith-infidelity mirrored in the distinction between the adulterous love triangle of the characters Anna-Karenin-Vronsky and the counterpoint of the parallel story of the successful marriage of Levin and Kitty.
Ultimately, the novel condemns the female adulteress to death. And yet, in spite of Tolstoy’s overtly patriarchal overtones, Tolstoy’s masterful rendition of Anna’s complex character allows readers to peer deeply into the sorry condition of women in 19th Century Russia. We are shown the double-standards and gender oppression of women – even those of noble standing like Anna – in Czarist Russia.
- The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula Le Guin.
I was actually surprised to find this gem in a bookstore in the mall. The title of this award-winning novel may sound intimidating, but the story is actually based on a simple premise: what if there was no gender? Le Guin depicts a world where humans are hermaphrodites that only assume male or female characteristics when they go to heat once a month.
The narrator is an emissary from the confederation of known worlds tasked with studying Geneth. A typical human who grew up in a gendered society, he characteristically brings with him some of the prejudices that go with such a world. Alongside the political squabbles in the story, the interrogation of cultural differences proves to be an easy source of tension that moves the novel forward.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction work and even involves an inter-species love story between the human emissary and a Genethian noble. But as Le Guin reminds us in her introduction to this thought-provoking novel, “the purpose of a thought-experiment . . . is not to predict the future . . . but to describe reality, the present world.” The book is ultimately about love inasmuch as it is about science, politics, and society.
- The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy.
Moving back to more familiar ground is Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize winning novel, which is set in the Southern Indian state of Kerala amidst the persistence of the oppressive caste system and growing social turmoil of the 1960s. This is no social realist novel, however, but a more modest story of a higher caste woman’s love affair with an untouchable in a predominantly patriarchal society. At the heart of the novel are the individual acts of defiance against the restrictions of an oppressive society.
Nevertheless, the political realities are smoothly embedded in the narrative. Roy, for example, exposes the hypocrisies of the ruling “communist” government in Kerala which perpetuate the caste system, patriarchy, and anti-worker schemes while mouthing radical slogans. The novel also gives cameo roles for the Naxalites which split from the mainstream communists, like in a powerful scene wherein the protagonists witnessed a workers rally while stuck on the road inside a car.
The God of Small Things is Roy’s first and only novel, after which she devoted herself mainly to writing about causes and political activism. Almost a decade after the publication of the novel, Roy herself would visit a Naxalite guerrilla camp and publish a series of essays under the collection Walking With the Comrades. The novel also has a version in Filipino as translated by historian Monico Atienza.
- Gapo (1988) by Lualhati Bautista.
Lualhati Bautista’s cast of characters include a half-white bastard of a United States serviceman, a prostitute who dreams of being saved from poverty by marrying an American and leaving for the states, an LGBT who is duped by his American lover who was only after his money, and a Filipino breadwinner stripped of his dignity while working inside the US military bases.
Gapo is not only about the failed love stories of these characters as they try to survive in the city of Olongapo, a red light haven frequented by American soldiers from the US military base in Subic. The protagonists’ individual sagas are themselves microcosms of the larger story of the unrequited love of a Philippines enamored by the American Dream.
The novel offers a lucid account of the political economy of the former US military bases and a sharp critique of the neocolonial relations between the Philippines and the US. More than three decades after it was written, Gapo remains surprisingly fresh in the wake of the US role in the Mamasapano massacre, Jennifer Laude, EDCA, VFA, and the continuing US domination over the country.