Ilustrado: A Novel

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9780374174781: Ilustrado: A Novel

Garnering international prizes and acclaim before its publication, Ilustrado has been called “brilliantly conceived and stylishly executed . . .It is also ceaselessly entertaining, frequently raunchy, and effervescent with humor” (2008 Man Asian Literary Prize panel of judges).

It begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River—taken from the world is the controversial lion of Philippine literature. Gone, too, is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families. Miguel, his student and only remaining friend, sets out for Manila to investigate.

To understand the death, Miguel scours the life, piecing together Salvador’s story through his poetry, interviews, novels, polemics, and memoirs. The result is a rich and dramatic family saga of four generations, tracing 150 years of Philippine history forged under the Spanish, the Americans, and the Filipinos themselves. Finally, we are surprised to learn that this story belongs to young Miguel as much as to his lost mentor, and we are treated to an unhindered view of a society caught between reckless decay and hopeful progress.

Exuberant and wise, wildly funny and deeply moving, Ilustrado explores the hidden truths that haunt every family. It is a daring and inventive debut by a new writer of astonishing talent.

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About the Author:

Miguel Syjuco received the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and the Philippines’ highest literary honor, the Palanca Award, for the unpublished manuscript of Ilustrado. Born and raised in Manila, he currently lives in Montreal.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

A battered wooden chest in the bedroom, its inlay shedding, its key finally found in a locked desk drawer. Inside: A recent diary (orange suede cover, hand-burnished a smooth caramel [inside: translations, riddles, jokes, poems, notes, other]). First editions (Autoplagiarist, Red Earth, The Collected Fictions, The Enlightened, et cetera). A dilapidated overnight suitcase (white Bakelite handle; stickers from hotels long shuttered [the lock is forced open with a table knife: the scent of pencil shavings and binding glue, a sheaf of photographs {slouching at the edges}, his sister's childhood diaries held together by a crumbling rubber band, pregnant manila envelopes {transcripts, newspaper clippings, red-marked drafts of stories, official documents }, a canvas portfolio {charcoal, graphite, ink sketches }, a battered set of Russian nesting dolls {the innermost missing}, other assorted miscellany {a Parker Vacumatic fountain pen, inherited medals from the Second World War, a lock of amber hair, et cetera}]).

*

My friend and mentor was quite alive the night before. The door cracked open, only his nose and eye visible. "I'm sorry," he said. "Im sorry." The blue door clicked shut, unapologetically. The dead bolt slid in with a finality I did not at the time recognize. I left and had a bacon cheeseburger without him, irritated by his uncharacteristic rudeness.

What could I have said to him? Should I have forced open the door? Slapped him twice across the face and demanded he tell me what was wrong? Days, weeks later, all the fragments still would not click together. The events seemed unreal, confusing. Some nights I'd tiptoe quietly out of bed, cautious not to wake Madison and risk igniting her anger; I'd sit on the couch, deep in thought until the sky turned lilac. Both suicide and murder seemed like two sides of the same prime-time seduction. In retrospect, this was healthy for me to feel. Cliches remind and reassure us that we're not alone, that others have trod this ground long ago. Still, I could not understand why the world chose to take the easy way out: to write him off simply, then go home to watch TV shows with complicated plots. Maybe that's the habit of our age.

Then, at four weeks after Crispin's death, I was telephoned by his sister (her voice as thin and pale as a piece of string) and asked to divest his life's possessions; I entered his musty apartment as if it were a crypt.

At four months, I found myself unable to sleep at night; I'd sit and listen to Madison's breathing, thinking, for some reason, of the parents I never got to know, and how I missed Crispin, with his stupid fedora and strong opinions.

At six months, I began Crispin's biography; the long hours in the library, the idea that his life could help me with mine, somehow kept me sane.

At eight months and one week, Madison left me for good; I hoped she'd call but she didn't.

Late in the night of November 15, 2002, nine months to the day after Crispin's death, I was watching my in box for any e-mail from Madison. With a bing, three new messages appeared. The first was from Baako.Ainsworth@excite.com. It said, in part: "Sharpen your love-sword rubadub soundess. Help that breeds arousal victories. How to last longer making love and have more feelings." The second was from trancejfq22@skaza.wz.cz. It said, in part: "GET DIPLOMA TODAY!If you're looking for a fast way to next level,(non accredited) this is the way out for you." The third e-mail was about to be trashed when I noticed who sent it. The message said, in part: "Dear Sire/Madame . . . I was informed by our lawyer, Clupea Rubra, that my daddy, who at the time was government whistleblower and head of family fortune, called him, Clupea Rubra, and conducted him round his flat and show to him three black cardboard boxes. Along the line, my daddy died mysteriously, and Government has been after us, molesting, policing, and freezing our bank accounts. Your heroic assist is required in replenishing my father's legacy and masticating his despicable murderers. More information TBA." The sender was crispin1037@elsalvador.gob.sv. I brought up a blank message to respond. I wrote: "Crispin?" The cursor winked at me. I hit "send" and waited.

The next morning, I bought my plane ticket.

*

See the boy getting on an airplane. He's not a young boy, but a boyish man, as he would describe himself. He sits in his middle seat, notebook open, pen in hand, en route to Manila (I almost wrote "home," he thinks with a smile). It is a trip he hates, both the voyage and arrival. He writes at this moment, "the limbo between outposts of humanity."

As the airplane is towed backward, he thinks of what he is leaving. Thinks of his lost friend and mentor, seated at the typewriter, working away in a slow accrual of letters, words, sentences, puzzling together pieces shed like bread crumbs on the path behind him.

The boy will return, heartbroken, lonely, dejected. His three brothers and two sisters are all abroad, free from home--atop a hill in San Francisco, washed under the big Vancouver sky, hidden amid the joyful noise of New York City. His parents, whom he cannot remember, are in graves he cannot bring himself to visit because he knows their bodies are not there. The grandparents, who raised him as best they could, are in Manila, though he no longer has contact with them because of the emotional violence of their last departure. He is coming home, though he doesn't dare admit it. He knows well what empty houses are and the mischief memories can play when cast among unfamiliar echoes.

In the long hours spent in the airplane, he tries not to think about how his parents died, and therefore that is all he can think of. He flips through the Philippine newspapers, obsessively. He studies his files of notes, clippings, drafts. He unscrews the fountain pen he took from his dead friend's possessions. Tries to write the prologue for Eight Lives Lived, the biography he wants to write about his mentor. He fidgets. Thinks. Observes his fellow passengers. Judges everyone, in the traditional Filipino sport of justifying both personal and shared insecurities. He reads some more, searching for a point of reference in a world that has never felt entirely his. He writes some more, trying to explain things to himself. He scribbles an asterisk.

*

Salvador was born to Leonora Fidelia Salvador in a private room at the Mother of Perpetual Help Hospital in Bacolod. Present were his eight-year-old sister, Magdalena (nicknamed Lena), his six-year-old brother, Narciso the Third (shortened to Narcisito), and their yaya, Ursie (no record of her real name). Their father, Narciso Lupas Salvador II, known to family and friends as Junior, was aboard the De La Rama Steamship Company's M/V Don Esteban, en route from Manila, where he had been engaged with the Commonwealth Congress.

The newest Salvador came into the third generation of family wealth, acquired through a blend of enterprise, sugar, politics, and celebrated stinginess. The four years before the Japanese invaded would prove formative: throughout his life the familial roots in the Visayan region represented something promising and pure.

--from the biography in progress, Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived, by Miguel Syjuco

*

. . . eyewitnesses reported two explosions, the second occurring thirty seconds after the first, both on the third floor of McKinley Plaza Mall in Makati. According to a spokesperson for the Lupas Land Corporation, there were no fatalities. No group has claimed responsibility for the . . .

--from Philippine-Gazette.com.ph, November 19, 2002

*

INTERVIEWER:

You wrote in the late 1960s, "Filipino writing must be the conquest of our collective self divorced from those we fear are watching." Do you still think this true?

CS:

I used to believe authenticity could be achieved solely by describing, in our own words, one's own fragment of experience. This was of course predicated on the complete intellectual and aesthetic independence of the "I." One eventually realizes such intellectual isolationism promotes style, ego, awards. But not change. You see, I toiled, but saw so little improving around me. What were we sowing? I grew impatient with the social politics that literature could address and alter but had until that time been insufficient in so doing. I decided to actively solicit participation--you know, incite readers to action through my work. I think of the effect of Jose Rizal's books in our own revolution against Spain a century ago. I think of the poetry of Eman Lacaba, who traded his pen for a gun and lived and died in the jungles with the communists in the seventies. "The barefoot army in the wilderness," his famous poem called them. The epigraph of that piece was wonderful. Ho Chi Minh. "A poet must also learn how to lead an attack."

INTERVIEWER:

Was there something that made you want to lead that attack?

CS:

Pride and fear of death. Truly. You smile but I kid you not.

INTERVIEWER:

Your return to the polemical is a criticism often cited. Did you . . .

CS:

It's viewed as two steps backward. Erroneously. When you reach farther and farther, sometimes you come full circle. The task then becomes all the more difficult, false steps more likely--though the eventual outcome may become more pertinent. This of course opens you up to accusations of being quixotic or, worse--or perhaps better--messianic. Mind you, pretension and ambition are different words for the same thing. Truly, it's the artist's--the true artist's--desire for causality that trips critics up.

--from a 1991 interview in The Paris Review

*

Three more hours until I arrive. At Manila. I almost said "at home."

It's a trip I hate, both the voyage and the arrival, the...

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