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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado



I am currently reading Ilustrado, a book by Filipino (and now Filipino-Canadian) writer Miguel Syjuco. His unpublished work was the recipient of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. I must say that I am impressed at the breadth of Syjuco's literary vision and I am also quite shocked that a Filipino can write like this. There are a lot of meta-fictions in the piece injected with humor, unrelenting eagle-eyed observations of humanity and "Filipino-ness" (or lack thereof) of being Filipino or being in Filipino politics. Though, in Syjuco's case, it's not surprising that he is intimately aware of politics in the region since he is a son of a politically-involved (aka rich) family. My own prejudice and bias against Filipino writers comes from my lack of exposure to this group of writers. I've read Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters but it did not explode in the chest as this book has. I haven't read Ninotchka Rosca, Carlos Bulosan and other major or minor Filipino or Filipino hyphenated writers. But perhaps there is a cause far deeper in the psyche. I'll leave it at that...

Anyway, I'll hold off on my own opinion until I read the entirety of the book. For now, the NY Times article should suffice. But here is a brief passage from the book where the reader gets a taste of Syjuco's writing:

The boy had always been quickly on his way to becoming a character misled by his own good intentions and assurances of self, and perhaps interesting in that way.
And so, this is where he is declared a protagonist. The dramatic angle to his story begins with recurring images of him fidgeting in his own silence, in deserted subway stations, in classrooms surrounded by schoolmates, in a forenoon queue at MoMA. You can see in his face he is searching, hoping to dispel those things that nettle and diminish him, finding purpose in the conceit of himself as a modern-day member of the ilustrados - a potentiality owned by every expatriate today, a precedent granted by those first Enlightened Ones of the late nineteenth century. Those young Filipino bodhisattvas had returned from abroad to dedicate their perfumed bodies, melliflous rhetoric, Latinate ideas, and tailored educations to the ultimate cause. Revolution. Many dying of bullets, some inextricable exile, others subsumed and mellowed and then forgotten, more than a few later learning, with surprising facility, to live with enforced compromise. What's the difference between them and him and all the other peripatetics, except that the ancestors had already returned? His thick, furled intentions and rolled-up plans would also be shaken out to flap alongside our national flag, one day. So he waited, just as they did, collecting himself into integrity, just as they had, anticipating the final magnetism of native shores.
Now, having come home, we see him, our patriotic protagonist, sitting in bed, wondering. Where are the trumpets?


This passage reflects preoccupations of the "ilustrados" according to Syjuco's interpretation. The boy who is the protagonist might be the character who mysteriously died, Crispin Salvador or perhaps it is the protagonist of the supposed magnum opus of Cripin's - Cristo. Or perhaps Miguel Syjuco is also (or merely) writing about himself.

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