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
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.
Essay 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,
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.
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

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
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

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

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Essay published August 23, 2011
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense

Further Clues:

Q&A with Miguel Syjuco

"Manila Vice" by Raymond Bonner in The New York

"An Expatriate Filipino Writes of a Parallel Life" from
The New York Times
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