04 June 2010

Prologue to Ilustrado (Miguel Syjuco)

A review of the prologue, not the entire book.

1. Rizal

Early on in this award-winning Filipino novel, Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco (the novel's author and the writer of the prologue) announced its high ambitions by echoing the words of national hero José Rizal in one of his two quintessential Filipino novels in Spanish, Noli Me Tangere (1887). This is Crispin Salvador talking to Syjuco, his protégé:

“The reason for my long exile is so that I could be free to write TBA [The Bridges Ablaze],” Salvador had said, that first time, spitting out the bones of chicken feet we were eating in a subterranean Mott restaurant. “Don’t you think there are things that need to be finally said? I want to lift the veil that conceals the evil. Expose them on the steps of the temple. Truly all those responsible. The pork-barrel trad-pols. The air-conditioned Forbes Park aristocracy. The aspirational kleptocrats who forget their origins. The bishopricks and their canting church. Even you and me. Let’s all eat that cake.”

This has the tone of satire. The relevant passage in the Noli appears in the dedication of Rizal, “To My Motherland” (Europe, 1886):

Desiring your well-being, which is our own, and searching for the best cure, I will do with you as the ancients of old did with their afflicted: expose them on the steps of the temple so that each one who would come to invoke the Divine, would propose a cure for them.

And to this end, I will attempt to faithfully reproduce your condition without much ado. I will lift part of the shroud that conceals your illness, sacrificing to the truth everything, even my own self-respect, for, as your son, I also suffer your defects and failings.” [translation by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin]

The epigraph of the same novel by Rizal is taken from Schiller’s “Shakespeare’s Ghost,” containing the lines condemning the “laughable medley” of “priests and shrewd commercial attachés, / ‘Subalterns and scribes, majors enough of hussars.’ ” The very personalities that Rizal also skewered in his novel – the people in the halls of power – are also the figures that correspond to Salvador’s targets in his final book: the traditional politicians, the aristocracy, the kleptocrats, the bishops and the church.

The novels of Rizal, the Noli Me Tangere and its sequel El Filibusterismo, are the formative documents in the securing of Philippine independence from the Spanish government before the turn of the twentieth century. The tinder that set on fire the hearts and spirits of Filipino freedom fighters, they inspired the revolutionaries to fight for their own independence. The Noli and the Fili were written, like Salvador’s purported book, when the author was studying abroad, in a sort of exile.

By invoking Rizal, the most illustrious Filipino ilustrado there ever was, even if in a tone of parody, Syjuco is drawing on the tradition of political Filipino novels, the tradition of social realism and protest.

2. Bulosan

It seems that Ilustrado is surveying the accomplishments of its predecessors. A reference to Carlos Bulosan’s publication of a story in The New Yorker reflects an awareness of the literary achievements of Filipinos abroad. A footnote, referring to Crispin Salvador’s short story (“Matador”) published in the same magazine, mentions that Salvador’s fiercest critic Marcel Avellaneda dismissed the story as being sourced out from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. What the footnote does not say is that the same accusation of plagiarism was leveled against Bulosan. This rather ugly affair was detailed in the introduction by Carey McWilliams to Bulosan’s autobiography America Is in the Heart, a work of profound testimony against racism and poverty of the spirit. Syjuco is hinting at the challenges and anxieties faced by the previous generation of Filipino writers, migrants, and expatriates, men whose experiences became a catalyst for their written works. Behind any form of literary success in another country is the struggle to be recognized on their own terms, to dispel the anxieties and insecurities of being in a foreign land. This bookish book knows and is paying homage to its antecedents.

3. Silver Swan Soy Sauce

And it is very funny in parts. The parade of the who’s who in international and local publishing, one by one bringing out Salvador’s books, is enough to make us question his erudition (and that of Sjyuco, the novelist, himself). A worldly writer is being produced right before our eyes, and we are reading him with a smirk. Do we really have here the ring bearer of Philippine writing out to conquer the international literary scene? Aren’t the self-awareness and self-reference too much of a farce? The Enlightened (which is but another term for Ilustrado), Salvador’s first novel, “won prizes before it was published but could not live up to the fairy-tale hype.” Why do I think that this self-mockery is inserted for its own good? The book is alive with comedy. Plausibility and possibility merging into a kind of hysteria.

Salvador’s fastidiousness of manner also opened him to rumors of homosexuality, yet he was criticized for being a womanizer “with the lascivious energy usually found in defrocked clergymen.” And he could never live down his 1991 TV commercial which showed him being served lunch in a book-lined study, shaking a cruet over his food before turning to the camera to deliver the now immortal words …

Okay, that was funny. I didn’t even need to hear the punch line to rofl and lol. But another layer of funny here is the word association buried between the “defrocked clergymen” and the “cruet” of condiment. Don’t priests shake their small bottles of wine too, especially the renegade drunken ones? It appears as an uncalculated association of ecclesiastical terms but it is funny, period.

4. Sionil José

Literature is an ethical leap, says Crispin Salvador in his unfinished speech. It is a dictum he shared with F. Sionil José, the only Filipino writer, save for Salvador in this book, who has been constantly rumored to be a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I’m reminded of Sionil José here because he and Salvador seem to share the same grim view about the social ills of the country. Sionil José’s greatest shame, according to his double platinum essay collections Why We Are Poor and Why We Are Hungry, is that he did not shout loud enough, loud to the point of hoarseness and breathlessness. The angst of youth is potent indeed, but the protestations of an old writer – Sionil José is in his mid-eighties – are more scathing, more wounding, and more irreproachable.

The experience of eight decades in the Philippines is history lived. For the old writer, hostage to the plethora of world-changing events, events that shape and destroy a nation, the Philippines, with its corrupt system of government and its people shackled by the colonized mind, is still a place of hope. In his essays, he described in sometimes harsh and harrowing details the naked truth, the essence of his life-witness. From the second world war, to the various uprisings besetting the country, to the dark years of Marcos dictatorship, to the people power revolution, right up to the ongoing era of corruption and thievery, Sionil José lambasted everyone who has a contributed to the economic, moral, ethical, and cultural decline of this country. His primary target: the elite of this country who formed a self-serving oligarchy.

With his repetitive tirades and exhortations, Sionil José is the closest thing we have to a living conscience of the nation. We have yet to see whether Salvador’s missing manuscript will carve out a national story with the same earth-shaking force, albeit posthumously. It’s not that I’m seeing here, in the book's opening, a passing of torch from Sionil José to Syjuco. I am just reminded of the way Syjuco framed Salvador’s convictions in terms of “literature as ethics.” I am also reminded of the evil band that the two writers are bent on demolishing with their letters: Sionil José’s oligarchy and Salvador’s kleptocracy-aristocracy. Both are concerned with the pricking of the dying conscience.

5. Salvador

The writer Crispin Salvador was pronounced dead by a news obituary, even before he was dead. Part of the obituary is in the prologue’s epigraph. The prologue then has an epitaph for an epigraph, one that merely described the writer’s name: Crispin Salvador. The prefabricated death sentence did not mention the manner of his death, but the post-newspaper truth is that he died and was fished out of the Hudson River. Possibly a murder, possibly a suicide. This is the narrative frame from which Salvador's tale unfolds, a writer grappling not only with his own writer’s block demons but also with an enlightened readership. The government of the few and the church are shaping up to be the formidable enemies of Salvador and Syjuco. The media, the literary establishment as well, is equally heinous in its shallow beats. Salvador before his unscheduled death is already in the throes of an epiphany. But Salvador in his death is still waiting for his break, struggling for a proper context to detonate the time bomb, the exposé, the whatever that will allow him to fish out the truth from the blue river. Now that his time is up, it remains for his story to be pieced together, as told by Syjuco.

6. Syjuco

The prologue to Syjuco’s Ilustrado is one of the excellent openings I have ever read in a novel. To some extent, it reminds me of the way Rizal masterly painted the opening of El Filibusterismo, with the cast of characters shuttling between the upper and lower decks of a steamer. Here, the cast of characters are the books in Salvador’s résumé, shuttling past each other with the speed of a writer’s aborted lifetime. As described by Syjuco on his way to Manila, the opening is a biting literary biography, with too many questions hanging in the air, too much anger served on the plate.

My expectations are set. I hope to be able to read a Filipino novel that kicks some ass. Not for a desire to be liberated by the truth. That is too salty. But rather to watch a first writer enact his “freedom to write.” To try to be a free reader.

Now on to the jigsaw proper.


  1. Love your prologue! Excited to read your review.

  2. Thanks, Blooey. I'm one-fourth of the way through it. But reading it alongside others, it could be sometime before I finish. I'm quite having fun with it.

  3. Hmmmm. Normally, I would permanently delete the above NorrisBradwell04張's message. But since it happily reminds me of spamming in The Burly Raconteur's blog. So it remains.