marginalia || Ilustrado, by Miguel Syjuco

If our greatest fear is to sink away alone and unremembered, the brutality that time will inflict upon each of us will always run stronger than any river’s murky waves. This book therefore shoulders the weighty onus of replicating a man’s lost life and explores the possible temptations that death will always present. The facts, shattered, are gathered, for your deliberation, like a broken mirror whose final piece has been forced into place.

1 – Y’all know that while I was reading Ilustrado, by Miguel Syjuco, the national elections were on-going, and I was fretting. Before I do the unthinkable and lament on the dirty politics that have run my country to the ground [argh]—there, stop. I started reading the novel the night before the elections, I finished two days after. I’m not trying to push any parallelisms on anyone here, much less burden the book with it. I mean, in its very existence, Ilustrado has shouldered responsibilities left and right: a door to the future, dare we say the much-needed resuscitation of more ambitious Philippine Literature, kicked open; a role model, unwilling or otherwise, to a generation of Filipino writers, and possible coming ones; and, most pressing, perhaps, the responsibility to be good. It’s not common for a Filipino writer to get thrown into the literary melee overrun by the West. Come on, you know that. How many Filipino writers do you know? How many have you read? I, myself, am afraid to count.

2 – We need Ilustrado, I am sorry to say. It’s a terrible thing to assign a novel, minding its own business. Curse of the third world. Very much like pasalubong—an obligation to give something back, not unlike Prometheus and his fire [yes, I read that analogy somewhere]. Oh, the illustrious.

Modern Manila. She who once was the Pearl of the Orient is now a worn dowager, complete with the hump, the bunions, the memories of the Charleston stepped to the imported and flawlessly imitated melodies of King Oliver, the caked-on makeup and the lipstick smeared win thick stripes beyond the thin, pursed lips. She, the trusting daughter of East and West, lay down and was destroyed, her beauty carpet-bombed by her liberators, cautious of their own casualties, her ravishment making her kindred to Hiroshima, Stalingrad, Warsaw. And yet, from the air you think her peaceful and unflustered. On the ground is a place tangled with good intentions and a tyrannical will to live. Life works with the Lord’s benevolence and a generous application of duct tape and Filipino ingenuity. Five hundred years ago Spanish conquistadors sailed their wooden ships into the world’s most perfect harbor to begin their mission of, as historians say, God, gold, and guns; their walled fortress is still there, as is their religion and blood, but the gold they, and others, took with them, or apportioned among their few native deputies. Manila has changed much since. It’s changed so little. If you know where to look, this is the most exciting city in the world.

3 – I have to talk about the novel, dammit. And it’s been days since I finished it, and I’ve been thinking about this for days, too. I like it. Let’s get that out of the way. I liked it then, and I liked it even more once I gave it time to soak in. I like it because, well, because it was good. It was written audaciously. It was written well, much in the meanderingly manic manner of David Foster Wallace, the occasional intellectual chill of Paul Auster, and, well, Alfred A. Yuson. I don’t really have the appropriate adjectives for that last one. [Hi, Sir Krip.] As one of my friends observed, there’s a shamelessness to how the novel owned up to the title: Look, I am a novel, and here are the tricks I am going to pull to prove this, yes?

4 – You could say I like Ilustrado because I am a Filipino, and, possessed of the patriotic fanaticism particular to nations that has long lived with the image of being marginalized. I don’t deny that I got giddy with all the references. I’ve been there! I would squeal. I know exactly who you’re talking about, I’d mutter. See one of the excerpts from Crispin Salvador’s works:

Antonio checks his gun to see how many bullets he has left. “Santa Banana,” he says, “only one.” The two men are getting closer, screaming all the way . . . Antonio takes Dominador’s knife, grits his teeth, and pulls it out of his leg. Pain sears up the right side of his body. Gasping to stay awake, Antonio holds the blade in front of the barrel of his gun. He pulls the trigger. The two attackers clutch their chests, cry out in pain, then tumble head over heels down the hill. Their lifeless bodies roll up to Antonio’s feet. “Not today, boys,” he says. “I’ve got a headache.”

Points to anyone who figures out where Syjuco derives that scene—a Lito Lapid film, in which Lito Lapid [very nearly a Senator, goddamn this country] plays a Robin Hood-esque Julio Valiente. That was one of the best and kitschiest movies evahr. Just sayin’.

5 – Crap. I almost forgot to tell you what the book is about. The author Miguel Syjuco has written a novel in which the young protagonist—a young expat Filipino writer named Miguel Syjuco—is investigating the death [murder? suicide?] of his mentor Crispin Salvador, the Panther of Filipino Literature, controversial-sensational. There is a missing manuscript, a quest within Manila, the country’s capital. There are also sex tapes, charismatic religious cults, hostage takings, bombings, cocaine, a dance craze, your obligatory Boy & Girl Meet In A Bookstore, corrupt dunderhead politicians. It’s National Enquirer, it’s Bulgar, it’s The Buzz, it’s TMZ. In my head, I am squeezing the book and it’s firm and lush, not unlike, erm, those dense corn muffins at Kenny Rogers. Yeah.

6 – If I would be asked to point out flaws, it would be:

  • The dialogue is, at times, wooden. Yes, I am aware that in some places, they are meant to be so. But give me the credit of being able to pinpoint which parts shouldn’t have meant to do that.
  • The novel is sadly lacking of female characters that transcend clichés. [Best end there, because this hurts me more than you think.]
  • You need to be prepared for an eventual Book Loses Its Steam right before the coming of that Hey What Now? ending.

There, I said it. I am not going to say anymore because they don’t really matter. That is, I got over them soon enough. Har.

7 – Oh, and I like the literary references. Some of the people mentioned I actually know. Some of the people mentioned, I suspect I know. And the scenes where artistes mill around blithely talking about their poetics? All too familiar. It was gleeful for me, lemme tell you. Yes, it felt incredibly satisfying, being in on some inside joke. Heh.

Rita (glaring at Furio): “I hate to be the one to put it so bluntly, but those two were the last advocates. I shudder hearing myself say it. But sitting at home, writing stories…” (She raises her eyebrow.) “…that’s a luxury! And to write in English…” (She shakes her head dismissively.) “…that’s the height of luxuriating arrogance! But to sit at home in you Greenwich Village penthouse, living off the Salvador family inheritance, writing in English about the Philippines for the entertainment of foreigners…” (She rolls her eyes.) “…well, even the young writers here haven’t yet invented a slur for someone as heinous as that.”

I also have to mention that while I do not know Miguel Syjuco personally, a lot of people I know know him. See:

By the dais set up in a corner, I spot a writer who ha years ago, at my first workshop in college, dismissed my story as “bourgeois angst” . . .

I giggled—a former professor of mine, Rofel G. Brion, had given us that anecdote in one of his classes. I remember his voice was low but soft, that baritone that all us students would remember for years to come. He sat, intimidating, in front of about fifteen of us Creative Writing sophomores, and he said something like, “I had this student. His name was Miguel. [Blankity-blank] called one of his stories burgis angst.” I remember Sir Rofel chuckling, and the sound was as low and soft as his voice. “Avoid that. Or try to work your way around it.”

8 – Putangina, I really liked this novel, hokee?

9 – I am waiting for a lot of my friends to finish reading this novel. Because I need to drag them all to some café—or bar—and talk about it. And, perhaps, to send Miguel Syjuco one of those big-ass cards with something cutesy in front and a barrage of little notes and signatures inside, some of them saying Congratulations! Good job! Others, Could you explain the following pages for me…? And one, or two, perhaps, This is awesome. But you do realize you’ve got a lot now on your plate? And several saying, simply, Thank you.

10 – I am giving away two copies of this book–and I would like to thank my boss for giving me the sweldo for this, haha. One shall be sent to the commenter who lives in the Philippines. One shall be sent to the commenter who lives, erm, elsewhere. So, please specify. That’s it, just comment. Hopefully, comment something, erm, relevant, haha. Random drawing, contest ends on the 12th of June. I just want a lot of people to read this. There.

40 thoughts on “marginalia || Ilustrado, by Miguel Syjuco

  1. 8 – Putangina, I really liked this novel, hokee?

    That made me smile! :)

    I’m looking forward to read this book, soon. Thank you for this! :)

  2. Add me to the list of people who want to read this novel (it’d be great to win it, but thankfully, I’m gainfully employed again and can purchase it if I don’t).

    This book sounds amazing. And of course, as soon as I read your review, I went to GoodReads and started reading other reviews. And this needs to happen.

    I know I don’t live nearby, but hell, once I finish, we could discuss.

    1. It’s a book that really needs a discussion. There’s nothing wrong with communal devouring when its applies to this book. Well, I mean, I need to talk to someone about it, haha.

  3. I WANT IT. Or, if you don’t want to give it to me, give it to Aphazia, because I know where she lives and I can get the book away from her at gunp –

    I’ll just give Aphazia cookies so I can borrow it. :] ARE YOU HAPPY NOW SASHA? Lolz.

  4. No need to enter me, I’m waiting for the paperback. Although dyiiing to read this! Lito Lapid in a novel? Yes! You had me laughing in stitches reading this review.

  5. I can hardly wait to read Ilustrado. Your review made me even more eager to get my hands on a copy. Please enter me as one of the “elsewhere” contenders; from the U.S.

  6. “8 – Putangina, I really liked this novel, hokee?”

    That really cracked me up when I read that.

    I used to go to high school with Miguel Syjuco (back then we called him Chuck), and was impressed by all of the accolades he has been receiving, from here in America and everywhere else in the world. He’s been getting compared to writers such as Haruki Murakami & Junot Diaz, both of whom I admire.

    BTW, is it just me or is he using J.S. Foer’s technique of using his own name in the novel, a la “Everything is Illuminated?”

    So please count me in as “elsewhere,” I am in the U.S.


    1. Yes, everyone I know who knows him calls him Chuck, haha. He really is someone to be proud of. :]

      Anyhoo, though I’m yet to read Everything Is Illuminated, I’ve read a couple of other authors who use “themselves” as protagonists in their own books. Though at the moment, I can’t think of anyone but Borges, haha.

    1. Nope, BFA Creative Writing. :]
      PS – So you know what I mean about that awesome voice of his, haha. He can read the phonebook, and it’d be gripping, hehe.

  7. Please enter me in the giveaway. I’m a Filipino, but living in Canada. I haven’t read Philippine literature in a long time (I think the last one was a story for school?), & I’d love to read this. (I’d read it anyway if I won’t win. But keeping fingers crossed!)

  8. I think the people at National Bookstore already know me by now. Aside from taking refuge from the ungodly heat, I browse books and take in the familiar smell of print on paper. Sometimes, I place random notes in between pages, scribbling stuff like “I’ll be back with enough money to buy you..yadda yadda.” Sadly from all the visits I had, I only managed to bring back five (out of thirty or more love letters). Screw unemployment. So I beg for mercy, understanding, and Miguel Syjuco. And Illustrado. :)

    And oh, I live in Cavite!

    1. Hi, Denise. :] We all have those bookstores, I think, where the clerks–though glad to see us–have to mutter, “Oh, she’s here again,” :] There’s a BookSale around these parts whose clerks know me by name, haha.

  9. This has to be the funniest review of this book I have ever read. And trust me, ever since I found out about it accidentally online, I went on a bit of a craze trying to read as many articles about it as I could find. I kept thinking, “How have I not known about this earlier? Why didn’t anyone tell me about it?” I got so excited about it that I just coughed up more than $25.00 for a new hardbound copy from a local chain bookstore. I asked a sales clerk when paperback copies of new books arrive, and she said after a year. I just couldn’t wait that long…

    Anyway, the point of my rambling is that I would’ve been more excited for the book giveaway if I had not already purchased a copy just last week. Still, I wouldn’t mind getting another. I could always return the one I bought. Hey, I still have the receipt! ;)

    Btw, #8 really cracked me up. When I finish the book, as I’m more than halfway through, I’d like to sign that card you mentioned in #9. Sure, I’m in the US, but you could always sign my name on my behalf, right? ;)

  10. Please enter me in the giveaway! I live in Makati! It’s so rare that I read Filipino literature & I can’t help but be proud of him. You make it sound like a very intriguing read.

  11. Thank you to everyone who entered. :) According to a cut-throat selection process that was a tiny purse and several pieces of paper, the winners are — Piper and Jenna. YAY. Aherm. Am emailing you right now. Enjoy the novel. :)

  12. its a dragging read all in all,the essence made ambiguous in the effort to display technique, – dense with the pretentiousness of the traditionally insecure & ( therefore ) occasionally “try hard” filipino intellectual elite….there is a better writer of filipino descent i know least in my opinion..his work can be found in the smoking monk page on facebook..clear simple lines but whats in between is left solely to sentimental intuition, his stories strength of meaning is understated but when he flies, he flies like a hummingbird. Illustrado is over carved wood, beautiful wood but too crafted all the same & the plot i find convoluted to the extent that i have to say part of its potential was drowned in a peculiar style of self affection, an academic form of vanity with a few broken mirrors thrown in. anyway thats my opinion & more power any which way to the sincere novelist, filipino or otherwise. we need them all the time.


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