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Rivers run through it

Rivers run through it - REMOTE CONTROL | DANTON REMOTO
Posted at 07/23/2010 7:17 PM | Updated as of 07/23/2010 7:18 PM

Ilustrado means the enlightened ones, the indios during the dying days of the Spanish regime who could afford a European education. And in the true tradition of all colonials, they soaked up the education, filtered it, and then used it as a weapon against their colonial masters. They were the seeds that later bore fruit in the Philippine revolution of 1896.

The modern ilustrado is the subject matter, point of departure, and even the writer of this whirligig of a novel. Winner of the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel and the estimable Man Asian Literary Prize for the Asian Novel of the Year, this much-awaited book generally lives up to the raft of accolades and reviews it has received.

Full disclosure: the author, Miguel Syjuco, was my former student at the Ateneo de Manila University. I still remember well his hair dyed blue, his clipped and laconic words, his elliptical stories about love and life among the bored and the rich. I am even listed in the acknowledgement section, and thus I will try to maintain full journalistic objectivity.

The novel begins with a physical body and ends with a non-physical one. The corpse of Crispin Salvador is fished from the Hudson River. Obviously a take-off from National Artist for Literature Jose Garcia Villa, the hermit of Greenwich Village, who had a love-hate relationship with the Philippines. But unlike Villa who stopped publishing in 1958, this professor of literature and eccentric writer is supposed to have finished The Bridges Abalze (TBA), a novel that will restore him to the front ranks of Philippine writing. But alas, he is gone. So his student and remaining friend, named Miguel, goes back to Manila to, as they say, put the pieces of the puzzle together.

The missing novel is supposed to expose the horrendous crimes of the elite, the greedy ones who are responsible for the narcoleptic state of the country. Back in Manila, the capital of chaos, Miguel tries to tie the strings together by talking to Salvador’s few friends and his many, many enemies. He sifts through poems, interviews, novels, polemics and memoirs.

Thus, the novel Ilustrado begins to run on several tracks along with the other books of Crispin Salvador (Manila Noir, The Enlightened, Autoplagiarist, Kaputol Trilogy), the biography-in-progress, Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived by Miguel Syjuco, blog entries, and jokes, some of them salacious and scandalous.

The result is a novel that has at least three dimensions of reality, all going on at the same time: an angry and dizzying excoriation of how the Philippines ended up in this sinkhole.

Of course, this novel is not for everybody. I’ve met people — literate ones — who asked me, “What did you teach him that made him write like this?” Well, I would answer, I just taught him how to write sentences. The postmodernism he got from his teachers at Columbia.

But there is nothing wrong with postmodernism -- with its spirit of play and its self-consciousness -- especially if applied to a halo-halo, upside-down, horizontal-vertical culture and history like the Philippines’s.

Ilustrado is a brilliant performance, all right, but what remains with me are the small moments between lovers, between family members.
There is the lover’s quarrel between the narrator and Madison, his American girlfriend. “That was one of the lovers’ things Madison and I did, our own affectation of Atlantic academia: we referenced fictional characters as they were people we to learn from…

“It’s because for people who live in the mind, real people are blurred, not fully-fleshed out, compared to characters who come alive when read on the printed page.

There is the fleeting memory of his parents, a short sketch that is vividly drawn: “Both my parents dancing a waltz at a wedding in the garden of an ancestral home somewhere on this island, Dad whispering something in her ear, Mom pulling him close and laughing as the crowd behind them watched — this is how I best like to remember my parents.”

There is the quarrel between the narrator and his rich grandfather called Grapes, who sent him to Columbia and put him up in an expensive condominium. The old man is disappointed because his grandson is just an editorial assistant at a NY magazine.

“Grapes placed his seven-day pillbox in front of him, opened it to Tuesday, and began talking out tablets and capsules and arranging them on the tabletop. They looked like candies. He hadn’t even glanced at me since I walked in. Granma sat in the corner, looking at her hands. Grapes sighed. It was a brutal, crushing sigh. Like Acolus, the windwarden from Greek mythology, blowing down all too easily every wall I’d constructed within myself to contain my confidence and pride in the new life I’d just begun….”

The old man wants him to write “nice stories” and avoid stories about corruption. In fact, he wants his grandson to become a politician himself! Who would take over the, uh, mantle of leadership?
The lunacies of the rich are not spared. And what makes Syjuco different from you and me is that he writes about the milieu from the perspective of an insider. His strong suits are crisp dialogue and broad characterization. Here is an excerpt from a matron: “The poor girl died [in exile], while bicycling in Monaco. I’m convinced her hard life was because she was never baptized.”

Or the same matron who funds one of the cottage industry projects for the poor: “Weaving, that’s what they do. Remind me to give you one of the loincloths they make. They’re wonderful as table runners…”

Or the young, drug-addled set known by you and me, children of the famous and the rich, staples of the society pages: asleep by day and alive by night, like the social-climbing zombies that they are. Syjuco only has the harshest words for them.

Or the tiger — king of the jungle — who is terrified of the fried bacon Grapes threw at him for breakfast. And the Boy Bastos jokes that would make your neighborhood thugs hoot with laughter fired by liquor.

Or the merciless satire of the mad denizens of Philippine Literature. Good God thank you I was once this guy’s teacher, I was spared from his pen dripping with acid

Ilustrado begins with a cliffhanger at the Hudson River and ends with one at the Pasig River. Between these two rivers lies one of the best contemporary novels a Filipino has written. Glistening with style and wit and leavened by humor, this novel kicks open the door of global fiction for Filipino writers. We may do well to follow in his enlightened footsteps.


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