FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Not the Great Philippine Novel?

by CHARLES R. LARSON

The narrator of Miguel Syjuco’s novel, Ilustrado, is also named Miguel Syjuco, doubling as one of the novel’s two main characters while purporting to locate the manuscript of his dead mentor’s unfinished manuscript. Both the real Miguel Syjuco and his mentor, Crispin Salvador, are Filipinos, living in New York City, where Crispin has also been a university professor—in addition to writer in exile—supposedly encountering Syjuco in one of his graduate creative writing workshops. Since they share a Filipino heritage, when Crispin’s body is discovered in the Hudson River in the middle of winter, Miguel decides to write his mentor’s biography and also—perhaps more importantly—explain why the older man committed suicide.

“Ilustrado” is a word that was used to describe the elite Filipino class, enlightened because of their education, especially during the colonial era. What Ilustrado, the novel, makes immediately apparent is the continuation of privilege in Philippine society into more recent times, not simply because of economics but also because of education. These elite families, including the author’s, have typically been involved in the country’s politics. In a recent article about Syjuco in The New York Times, the author remarks, “My family, my friends, my colleagues—we are the elites… We are a wealthy, beautiful country, and we’ve screwed it up so badly. The majority of wealth is controlled by a minority. And we don’t know when enough is enough. The elite don’t want one mansion; they want three.” Think of Imelda Marcos’ 6000 pairs of shoes.

Syjuco further notes of his own family, “My dad wanted me to be a lawyer, a politician, the president of his country.” But Syjuco, thirty-three years old, has wisely chosen writing instead. While still in manuscript form, Ilustrado won the Man Asian Literary Prize. Syjuco has remarked of his book, it is “not the Great Philippine Novel,” ironically adding, “I don’t have all the answers. If I did, I’d be running for president.”

If Syjuco doesn’t have all of the political answers, he certainly has many of the artistic ones. Ilustrado is a glorious feast, a literary explosion, a dazzling accomplishment for any first novel—literally from the opening paragraphs of the story. Ransacking his mentor’s apartment for the manuscript to The Bridges Ablaze—often humorously referred to as TBA—Syjuco describes the book as “twenty years of work—a glacial accretion of research and writing—unknotting and unraveling the generations-long ties of the Filipino elite to cronyism, illegal logging, gambling, kidnapping, corruption, along with their related component sins. ‘All of humanity’s crimes,’ Salvador said, ‘…are only degrees of theft.’”

If this is true, what’s a writer—a real writer like Syjuco, instead of his faux writer named Salvador Crispin–to do? The answer is, of course, Ilustrado, replete with literary pyrotechnics that will give most other first novelists an inferiority complex. There is not simply the outer narrative of the young writer named Miguel Syjuco flying to the Philippines in search of clues that may unravel his mentor’s death and hopefully locate a copy of The Bridges Ablaze sent to his daughter, but an entire panoply of faux documents attributed to the deceased writer.

Thus, there are excerpts from Crispin’s greatest work, Autoplagiaris, as well as numerous lesser ones. There are passages from Syjukco’s biography-in-progress: Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived. There’s a fabulous 1991 Paris Review interview with the great author, filled with juicy observations about the writer’s worldview (“When who you are includes what you hate, you carry around your neck a daily reminder of what must be changed in the world.” Or, from the same interview, “Democracy is but an experimental system complete with its flaws.”) There are first person and third-person accounts of Syjuco’s movements around the Philippines in search of his dual quests. And, finally, an astonishing conflagration of characters and their quests in the novel’s brilliant ending.

Sprinkled throughout the narrative are the observations of a wit with remarkable charm, whether they relate short humorous incidents supposedly involving many of the novel’s minor characters, or—more frequently—one-line gags that take on the semblance of leitmotifs, especially when they are connected to historical figures: “The woman looks like an ugly version of Alice B. Toklas.” A poem called “Borges Disappointed by the Internet.” “A writer writing about sex won’t get anyone pregnant.” “As soon as the hit man got to the U.S. he’d be dazzled by the factory outlet sales and disappear.” “Pray tonight for a coup if you don’t want to go to school.”

Ilustrado is great fun, a literary cornucopia overflowing with delicious scenes, memorable characters, and dazzling language.

Ilustrado
By Miguel Syjuco
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 306 pp., $26

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.

 

WORDS THAT STICK

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 30, 2016
Russell Mokhiber
Matt Funiciello and the Giant Sucking Sound Coming Off Lake Champlain
Mike Whitney
Three Cheers for Kaepernick: Is Sitting During the National Anthem an Acceptable Form of Protest?
Alice Bach
Sorrow and Grace in Palestine
Richard Moser
Transformative Movement Culture and the Inside/Outside Strategy: Do We Want to Win the Argument or Build the Movement?
Nozomi Hayase
Pathology, Incorporated: the Facade of American Democracy
David Swanson
Fredric Jameson’s War Machine
Jan Oberg
How Did the West Survive a Much Stronger Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact?
Linda Gunter
The Racism of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima Bombings
Dmitry Kovalevich
In Ukraine: Independence From the People
Omar Kassem
Turkey Breaks Out in Jarablus as Fear and Loathing Grip Europe
George Wuerthner
A Birthday Gift to the National Parks: the Maine Woods National Monument
Logan Glitterbomb
Indigenous Property Rights and the Dakota Access Pipeline
National Lawyers Guild
Solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against Dakota Access Pipeline
Paul Messersmith-Glavin
100 in Anarchist Years
August 29, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary and the Clinton Foundation: Exemplars of America’s Political Rot
Patrick Timmons
Dildos on Campus, Gun in the Library: the New York Times and the Texas Gun War
Jack Rasmus
Bernie Sanders ‘OR’ Revolution: a Statement or a Question?
Richard Moser
Strategic Choreography and Inside/Outside Organizers
Nigel Clarke
President Obama’s “Now Watch This Drive” Moment
Robert Fisk
Iraq’s Willing Executioners
Wahid Azal
The Banality of Evil and the Ivory Tower Masterminds of the 1953 Coup d’Etat in Iran
Farzana Versey
Romancing the Activist
Frances Madeson
Meet the Geronimos: Apache Leader’s Descendants Talk About Living With the Legacy
Nauman Sadiq
The War on Terror and the Carter Doctrine
Lawrence Wittner
Does the Democratic Party Have a Progressive Platform–and Does It Matter?
Marjorie Cohn
Death to the Death Penalty in California
Winslow Myers
Asking the Right Questions
Rivera Sun
The Sane Candidate: Which Representatives Will End the Endless Wars?
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia District Attorney Hammered for Hypocrisy
Binoy Kampmark
Banning Burkinis: the Politics of Beachwear
Weekend Edition
August 26, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Louisa Willcox
The Unbearable Killing of Yellowstone’s Grizzlies: 2015 Shatters Records for Bear Deaths
Paul Buhle
In the Shadow of the CIA: Liberalism’s Big Embarrassing Moment
Rob Urie
Crisis and Opportunity
Charles Pierson
Wedding Crashers Who Kill
Richard Moser
What is the Inside/Outside Strategy?
Dirk Bezemer – Michael Hudson
Finance is Not the Economy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Bernie’s Used Cars
Margaret Kimberley
Hillary and Colin: the War Criminal Charade
Patrick Cockburn
Turkey’s Foray into Syria: a Gamble in a Very Dangerous Game
Ishmael Reed
Birther Tries to Flim Flam Blacks  
Brian Terrell
What Makes a Hate Group?
Andrew Levine
How Donald Trump Can Still be a Hero: Force the Guardians of the Duopoly to Open Up the Debates
Howard Lisnoff
Trouble in Political Paradise
Terry Tempest Williams
Will Our National Parks Survive the Next 100 Years?
Ben Debney
The Swimsuit that Overthrew the State
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail