06 March 2011

Don Q, via Syjuco

Authorship and the self-determination of characters

At the start of Miguel Syjuco's puzzle novel Ilustrado, a character named Miguel Syjuco began investigating the mysterious death of his mentor, the writer Crispin Salvador. There's no shortage of possible motives to his death. Salvador blazed through the Philippine literary scene with a series of books that divided the critics and earned him a lot of enemies. The character Syjuco reflected on Salvador's career as he searched for papers left behind by the deceased in his apartment:

To end his own life, Salvador was neither courageous nor cowardly enough. The only explanation is that the Panther of Philippine Letters was murdered in midpounce. But no bloody candelabrum has been found. Only ambiguous hints in what remains of his manuscript. Among the two pages of notes, these names: the industrialist Dingdong Changco, Jr.; the literary critic Marcel Avellaneda; the first Muslim leader of the opposition, Nuredin Bansamoro; the charismatic preacher Reverend Martin; and a certain Dulcinea.

Dingdong Changco Jr, Nuredin Bansamoro, and Reverend Martin are not-so-veiled references to actual personalities in Philippine politics and church affairs. If they were not Danding Cojuangco, Nur Misuari, and Bro. Mike Velarde, then they were at least possible stand-ins or stereotypes of these recognizable personalities who continue to persist in Philippine society: the oligarch and Marcos crony, the Muslim separatist leader, and the fanatical preacher.

Two names are not readily identifiable: Dulcinea and Avellaneda. Who are they in Salvador's life? Avellanada is mentioned earlier on as Salvador's fiercest critic. And we learned later that Dulcinea's relation to Salvador is quite significant after all.

Syjuco's "quixotic" quest to find out the truth about Salvador's death brought him to unexpected places and enabled him to confront some of these characters. "Quixotic," along with "messianic," is a word that appears in page 21 of Ilustrado (via), mentioned in Salvador's Paris Review interview while he is discussing his current engagement in polemical writing.

Dulcinea is of course the name of Don Quixote's object of affection. Don Quixote, the messianic knight errant, is so enchanted with Lady Dulcinea of Toboso that she almost becomes his battle cry, the sole reason for his existence. She is a lady of incomparable beauty, peerless, the one and only muse that drives him to chastity, spurning the designs of other women. The only catch is that Sancho Panza also knew Dulcinea, the three of them being inhabitants of La Mancha, and if we are to believe Squire Sancho, then she is in reality a crude peasant woman, not a lady of noble birth, certainly a far cry from Don Quixote's idealization. (In some ways, what Dulcinea is for Don Quixote, is probably what "the Intended" is for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.) Cervantes's sharp irony is always in full effect as Don Quixote is to finally "meet" Lady Dulcinea later, but this time only in enchanted form.

To discuss the circumstances of the character Syjuco finally meeting the Dulcinea character in Ilustrado is to spoil a lot of things. Let me just say that it is one of the best parts of the book and completely overturns the whole puzzle, such that what one is looking at all along is not a completed jigsaw but the jigsaw turned upside down to reveal another puzzle.

At the start of the second part of the history of the ingenious knight Don Quixote, in its prologue, we are told that a "false" second part of the Quixote was published in 1614, a year before the actual second part by Cervantes came out. In one of the rare moments in the errant knight's history, the "real" author of the Quixote directly speaks to the reader of the book ("illustrious or perhaps plebeian reader") in a furious, or at least ambivalent, tone about certain licenses taken by another writer, a native of Tordesillas, to continue his history and to do so in very poor imitation. Cervantes's resentment is evident as he starts to refute and discuss the disagreeable personal attacks to his character in the spurious second part. The full title of this second part is Segundo tomo del ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha ... compuesto por el licenciado Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, natural de la villa de Tordesillas. Avellaneda is a pseudonym. The identity of the author was never known.

Yet another notable scene in Ilustrado is the character Syjuco's "confrontation" with the critic Avellaneda. This direct reference to the author of the false Quixote, in the guise of a literary critic, is a brilliant play on a book that is, like the true Quixote itself, concerned with truthful transcription of history and ultimately with the question of authorship.

The last chapters of the Quixote are almost devoted in fact to the question of authorship and of Avellaneda's poor depiction and appropriation of the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. What better way to demonstrate the falsity of Avellaneda's version than to point out that Don Quixote is "no longer in love with Dulcinea del Toboso" and that Sancho Panza's wife is not given the same name she had in the first part (Part II, Chapter LIX). It is understandable that Don Quixote flared up whenever mention of this second part reaches him.

It is almost as if the whole conception of the "real and truthful" second part of the Quixote is but a kind of direct response or reaction to Avellaneda's book. In any case, Cervantes has given Cide Hamete Benengeli enough leeway to write and publish the continuation and to faithfully incorporate what happened outside in his history. As the events in real life directly impinge on the fictional, the extra-literary is given a life of its own.

The Avellaneda affair has so consumed Don Quixote that, on his own initiative (yes, possibly without any intervention from any author, real or imagined), he intentionally changed his itinerary just to prove that he is the authentic character, to assert his own palpable existence. Here he and Sancho are speaking to a certain Don Álvaro Tarfe, a character from the false Quixote(!), who they "accidentally" met at a village inn. They were able to persuade Don Álvaro Tarfe that they were the real characters (Part II, Chapter LXXII, tr. John Rutherford):

   'I do not know,' said Don Quixote, 'whether I am good, but I do know that I am not the bad Quixote, as proof of which I should like you to know, Don Álvaro Tarfe sir, that I have never in my life set foot in Saragossa; on the contrary, having been told that the fantasy Don Quixote had taken part in the jousts in that city, I refused to go there, to prove to all the world that he is a fraud; and so I went straight on to Barcelona ... And although what happened to me there was not very pleasant, indeed was most disagreeable, I can bear it all without heaviness of heart, just for the sake of having seen Barcelona. In short, Don Álvaro Tarfe sir, I am the Don Quixote de la Mancha of whom fame speaks - not that wretch who sought to usurp my name and exalt himself with my thoughts. I entreat you, sir, as you are a gentleman, to be so kind as to make a formal declaration before the mayor of this village to the effect that you have never in all the days of your life seen me until now, and that I am not the Don Quixote who appears in the second part [by Avellaneda], nor is this squire of mine Sancho Panza the man whom you knew.

Don Álvaro Tarfe was convinced and subsequently executed an affidavit in front of the village mayor and the notary (both of whom, as it happened, conveniently entered the very same village inn they were eating in) to the effect that "Don Quixote was not the man who appeared in print in a history entitled The Second Part of Don Quixote de la Mancha written by one Avellaneda, from Tordesillas." De facto and de jure then, Don Quixote's authenticity was validated beyond reasonable doubt.

Don Quixote's reactions to the spurious sequel and the actions he took to uphold the truth demonstrate the freedom granted by the storyteller to his own characters, such that the character is given complete power to set the record straight in the story he found himself in. The storyteller has transferred to the character his right to self-determination, to speak for himself, to chart his own plot in his own story. Right up to his own death, Don Quixote was so affected by the false character impersonating him that the author of the false history, Avellaneda, even featured in his last will and testament, albeit in a tone of reconciliation.

The author Syjuco, in the spirit of granting his characters the same freedom and right to self-determination, has produced Ilustrado. It is a novel that is a fitting tribute to what is authentic and original in books.

Related post:

Don Q, via M. Menard


  1. There is a series of jigsaw puzzles called Wasjig, and the puzzle you complete is what the image on the box sees, not the image on the box itself.Which is a valid description of one of my favourite books last year. love your breakdown of it and quixote, and am pleased you also liked it.

  2. Any book which spawns its own adjective such as 'quixotic' can truly be said to be seminal.

  3. Thanks, parrish. Didn't know there's a jigsaw puzzle like that. And indeed it perfectly describes Ilustrado's structure. Brilliant really.

    Kevin, it invents its own quixoticization. :p