Ilustrado
by Miguel Syjuco
Don’t be fooled by Miguel Syjuco's MFA
from Columbia University, which may be just
a convenient cover.  He also worked as
assistant to a bookie at a race track. He was a
power seller of ladies handbags on eBay.  He
worked as paid volunteer for medical
experiments.  He mixed
drinks as a bartender.  He
painted apartments.  Along
the way, he followed his
girlfriend to Australia and
Canada. Of course, none of
this fit with the expectations
of Miguel Syjuco's parents,
who hoped to groom him
for high political office in
the Philippines.  Who says writers from MFA
programs lack sufficient real world
experiences to draw on in their writing?   In
his book
Ilustrado, Syjuco claims that his
protagonist, Crispin Salvador, has lived eight
lives—one short of the nine enjoyed by the
proverbial cat—but our author, as we have
seen, is not far behind in racking up formative
experiences.  As if these diary entries were not
enough, he shows up as a character in his own
book, and the fictional Miguel adds a few new
activities to the mix.  Then again, Syjuco's
writing technique was as unconventional as his
CV—while his peers wrestled with Microsoft
Word, he relied on color coding systems,
Velcro and scissors to put his book together;  
and he eventually discarded 90% of what he
wrote.  But what remained was an eccentric
and endearing debut novel that earned the
Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 and the
Palanca Award.   I lack Syjuco’s background
as a racetrack bookie, but I say this one-time
longshot is now an odds-on favorite for
literary stardom.
ROGUES GALLERY:
MIGUEL SYJUCO
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The body of author Crispin Salvador is fished out
of the Hudson River on a cold winter morning in
2002.    Police find no evidence of foul play, and
most observers conclude that
the writer took his own life.  
Yet Salvador had been working
on a controversial book,
The
Bridges Ablaze
, an exposé that
promised to embarrass many
powerful people in his native
Philippines.   The manuscript is
missing in the aftermath of the
author’s death, and it alone may
hold the key to the mystery of
Crispin’s demise, perhaps also
to the feuds, rivalries and broken
relationships he left behind, or
even to bigger scandals back home.   

In the inward-turning world of the postmodern mystery,
the dead body often serves as a pretext to discover or
decipher a text.  Who needs an autopsy report and
fingerprints, when epistemes await explication,
discourses demand deconstruction, referents require
reframing?  Even before Derrida and Lacan uttered their
first signifier, indeed ever since Poe’s "The Purloined
Letter," fictional detectives have often forgotten about
murderers and thieves, opting instead to hunt down a
maguffinish document.   In
Ilustrado, the investigator
turns out to be a student and friend of the dead author, a
fellow Filipino who wants both to unravel the mystery
of Salvador's death and deal with issues from his own
life that eerily resemble key details from deceased's
biography.

The student’s name is Miguel Syjuco, not coincidentally
also the name of the author of
Ilustrado.   The CV of the
fictional character and that of the real-life writer diverge
on many counts, but the flesh-and-blood Syjuco shares
his protagonist’s family ties with high level politics in the
Philippines.  His father Augusto Syjuco Jr. is a Wharton
MBA twice elected as Representative and former cabinet
member in the administration of President Gloria
Macapagal Arroyo.   In the novel, Syjuco is an orphan
raised by his grandfather, a well-connected businessman
and government insider whose pragmatism and
realpolitik
stances set him at odds with his idealistic grandson.  

Syjuco begins work on a biography, entitled
Crispin
Salvador: Eight Lives Lived
, which will chronicle the
abbreviated career of his dead teacher and mentor.  
Extracts of this work-in-progress appear every few pages
in
Ilustrado.  But in true postmodern fashion, almost
every other kind of text also finds its way into this book.  
The story is told via blog entries, text messages, extracts
from novels, jokes, news stories, emails, passages from
Salvador's memoir, and other documents.  Syjuco
sometimes presents a first person account of a situation
and then juxtaposes it with a description of the exact
same incident told in a literary third person style by a
quasi-omniscient narrator.   The larger story, as it
unfolds in these pages, is splintered, fragmentary,
episodic.  

But don’t be fooled by the haphazard structure of the
text—which Syjuco reportedly put together with
scissors, snippets of color-coded papers, and Velcro.  As
becomes clear in the final pages,
Ilustrado is far more
tightly controlled than it appears in the early going.    A
plot that initially seems ambiguously multilayered
suddenly becomes tautly constructed and razor sharp in
its implications.   Even more, Syjuco dares to seek clarity
on the big issues—moral, familial, social, political—that
are usually left messy and unresolved in virtually every
other postmodern novel, especially ones as openly
disjunctive in structure and style as this book.   Where
other writers would supply irony and disdain, Syjuco
reaches deep inside his own psyche and comes back,
instead, with compassion and forgiveness.   

Some of the finest passages here could work as stand-
alone pieces—and not necessarily fictional ones.  Two
hundred pages into the book, character Salvador delivers
a long monologue on the dilemmas facing the modern
Filipino writer, and offers advice and guidance that is so
smartly articulated that the you will suspect Syjuco is
presenting his own personal philosophy.   Here as
elsewhere in this book, he does not dance around the
tough issues.   Is it a sell-out to write in English?   
Should writing be a vehicle of social change?  Or a
celebration of indigenous culture?  Or a personal
expression judged on aesthetic, not political, standards?  
These are complex, seemingly intractable issues, and I
found myself admiring an author who dares reach for—
and find—firm ground.  Here is a brief taste:

Your real home country will be that common ground your work
plows between you and your reader.  Truly, who wants to read
about the angst of a remote tropical nation?  Everyone’s got
enough of their own, thank you very much.  Angst is not the
human condition, it’s the purgatory between what we have and
what we want and can’t get.  Write what you know exists beyond
that limited obsession.  For now that may include the diaspora, the
Great Filipino Floorshow.  Fine.  But listen, of all those things
we Pinoys try so hard to remember, what are those other things
that we've tried successfully to forget?  Figure that out and write
about that.  Quit hiding behind our strengths and stand beside our
weaknesses and say, These are mine!  That’s what I’m working to
fix!  Learn to be completely honest.   Then your work will
transcend calendars and borders.  Goethe called it World
Literature….Or, coming full circle, now take Mr. Auden’s advice:
be ‘'like some valley cheese, local but prized everywhere.'

This passage conveys the very best quality of Ilustrado,
and one that defines in particular the final stages of the
book:  namely, its ability to rise out of the muddle and
stand for something meaningful, something more than
the relativistic soup of day-to-day life or the fashionably
facile aphorisms and slogans of our time.   From that
perspective, this book ultimately defies its postmodern
appearance.  Instead of deconstruction, this author has
come full circle back to the construction phase.  I’m not
sure where that process may lead, but I’m convinced that
Miguel Syjuco has the talent and vision to take it some
distance.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
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Further Clues:

Q&A with Miguel Syjuco

"Manila Vice" by Raymond Bonner in The New York
Times

"An Expatriate Filipino Writes of a Parallel Life" from
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