Like Lady Gaga, he holds them in shock & awe. An academic claps: “Bravo, Miguel!” The chair of an awards body enthuses: “Among the finest novels by a Filipino. Perhaps, even by any writer.”
Miguel Syjuco is virtually every local writer’s wet dream: Winner of the 2008 Man Asian & Palanca Awards, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York— & these accounted for the “large crowd” that attended the book launching at the Ateneo, his college turf.
His Ilustrado is also “a book full of names and things with a proper noun seemingly punctuating every other slot in the sentence: you’ll find everything from Schumann to Shoemart, from Thucydides to Tim Yap.”
But where do all these novelistic trivia—verisimilitude as trap for readerly response—lead to?
A media columnist offers her two-cents’ worth: “The end however proves that the joke’s on us, and we all know the punchline…Several devices…Syjuco employs to move his narrative forward, including lines of dialogue, excerpts from purported novels, blogs and e-mails, early transcripts of TV news shows.”
One who claims he’s not a “literary theorist” but is quick to commend anthologies, digresses: “There is no doubt however that Miguel Syjuco…is conversing with us, posing the age-old questions about who and what we are. Again the question may not be new, but rarely if ever if they have been dealt with stylistically.”
(George Lucas once said to a budding filmmaker: “There are only 32 plots. It is how you tell it that is important.”)
The non-theorist adds: “I am not going to spoil things for you about the ending; but let me just say that while I did labor at times through the jungle of books-within-books that crowd the landscape, the ending is brilliant & poignant and well worth the effort of expedition.”
We are at a loss as to what enchanting animal this is. Readers are stunned, as if unable to configure what the Syjuco truth is all about.
What does this novel signify, “this epistolary-style metafiction that uncannily mirrors Philippine culture, politics and society? This “pantheon of Syjuco’s literary and artistic influences—including Kurt Vonnegut, Roberto Bolano, Thomas Pynchon, Jose Rizal, Carlos Ruiz Rafon and many more—replete with references for those who can read between the lines and recognize them?”
In an interview with the International Herald Tribune, Syjuco says, “The novel was meant to indict not just [his] social class but even [his] family…Moreover [he] was [his] ‘Dad’s last hope’, since none of [his] older siblings wanted to join the family profession of lawyering and politicking. Instead [he] chose to write a scathing overview of Philippine history and society; a novel that [he] could only have written from the distance, physical and emotional, provided by life in exile.”
We are forced to ask: how did he manage to squirrel out of the paperback of his metahistory? How did he save himself?
The chair of the Palanca Awards is no help either: “In postmodern style, Ilustrado ends uncertainly, or perhaps ends in several contradictory ways. There are several scenes were Miguel takes alternative paths with vague results that are written in searing prose.” But he ends up like a runner limping towar the finish line: “The epilogue is a fitting ending to the chaos so ably rendered by the novel. It surprises, explains much but also further nuances the multiple visions that abound throughout the book…”
We’re told that style is all. But in the polyphony of visions, what will be the dominant voice & image that sum up all eventually? That the theorizing in history—a claim Syjuco himself brings to the table—is marked by a neutralizing ambiguity whose trajectory leads neither here nor there. Is this a judgment forever suspended, a cop-out for one who is on a textual mission to “change the world”?
We trace it to the post-modernism that deconstructs the grand narrative. It is defined as “a reaction against an ordered view of the world and therefore against fixed ideas about the form and meaning of texts. This reaction is reflected in eclectic styles of writing through the use of such devices as pastiche and parody as well as in the development of such concepts on the absurd, the anti-hero and the anti-novel, and magical realism.” (Readers’s Handbook) Moreover, modernist fiction, for Annie Dillard, “with its narrative collage and shifting points of view…enables [it] to make a rough literature of physics a better ‘science fiction’ which acknowledges the equality of all relative positions by assigning them equal values…” It likewise deals with “treatments of time and space.”
But for J.C. Myers, this is merely reflective of the convergence between the “intellectual avant -garde and the “stockbroker”, who now “believe that the best of possible worlds would be a flowering of individual subjectivity”, which the “market alone could provide.” The individual or novelistic character is determined by market forces—ergo, hybridized, contaminated by the systemic values, & we are constantly made clueless as to their mode of action.
Also in this context, according to Fredric Jameson, we “would expect a term drawn from the typology of political ideologies” [if we are to reformulate the orthodoxy of old terms] “to undergo basic semantic readjustment when its initial referent (that popular-front class coalition of workers, peasants and petty bourgeoisie generally labeled ‘the people’) has disappeared.”
But Ilustrado fails to shift the burden of categories. Classes are still implicated in the sociality of individual characters, which post-modernism must steer clear of so as to insist on the parity & violence of speaking voices.
Of course, Neferti Tadiar, taking off from the postulate of Hayden White, points out “the tragic world historical narrative at the end of the twentieth century as being founded on the belief in the triumph of global capitalism in the wake of the putative failure of revolutions everywhere,” this view, almost a fossilized dogma, is still alive & kicking in this neck of the woods. She cautions against the affirmation of such line. Rather “we must [be] able to consider the possibility that the era of revolutionary movements has not fully passed and that we are living with the inventions of the time, undercurrents of social experience and feeling that have continued to move beyond the dates of a widely assumed historical closure.”
This places post-modernism under “Derridean erasure”.
Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, to note further, denounces an elite to which he belongs, but humanizes its members as victims of historical flux. But does he measure up to the task of imagining them in a new light, far from the Stalinist archaism of the proletkult?
Through his alter-ego’s text (Crispin Salvador) he states his ideological position: “In any of the predestination of fate, there exist complex, unexplored dramas. Pity not the elite, but do not condemn them all…The slaves of today will become the tyrants of tomorrow—the proletariat overthrows the hegemon to become the hegemon itself, only to be overthrown by a proto hegemon that will in turn lose its position. It is their dizzying cycle that keeps humanity chasing the tale it lost millennia ago.” [This is, of course, contrary to Ernst Bloch’s view that utopia lies in the future, not in the past.]
The social revolution has turned metaphysical, nature duplicating its own rhythm in the affairs of the state: a virtual reprise of Danton-Robespierre’s antagonism that neo-liberals charge against Marxist class struggle. In short, the Second Louis Bonaparte is a farce. Any return of Edsa, or series of it in his novel, is therefore inauthentic, redundant (i.e., Girlie Arrayko becoming President).
Let us visit his projection of how the NPAs conduct their business: (Crispin Salvador text)
“The Communist party of the Philippines has a very strict agenda, which Salvador quickly learned was vastly different from that of the foot soldiers actually waging the protracted people’s war! The time in the hills was, as he called it, my schooling in the best and the worst of humanity.
“From Ka Arsenio, Salvador learned the skills he needed to survive: how to care for and fire his locally made Kalashnikov, which plants were edible, how to navigate by the stars, where to place the butterfly knife between the ribs to punctuate the enemy’s lung, how to leap through an open window using the Flying Panther technique—In return, Ka Arsenio learned from Salvador how to read and write…
“One moonless evening in December, their Sparrow Unit was walking single file between two dried-out paddies, sneaking home from a meeting with government soldiers. The rebels had just purchased crates of ammunition from their foes—Philippine Army Offices who needed money fro the Christmas season. Feeling satisfied and safe after the amiable transaction—and tipsy from the Red Horse beer the soldiers drank with them—the comrades walked quickly but slowly, intent on enjoying the night air. They carried the boxes on their shoulders while one woman among them, Ka Helen, balanced hers on her head. When Salvador tried to do the same, his fell and clattered into the paddy.
“Shots rang out from across the open space, bursts of bright lights bloomed along the far embankment of the paddy…
“Ka Artemio hissed in his ear: Did you tip them off?”
But we note:
1. Are the NPA cadres trained from purely military purposes? Is this not reminiscent of Rambo movies & Kung Fu action films? Is this not recreating jungle warfare training for American marines by indigenous tribes?
2. Are Kalashnikov rifles locally produced? Does it not remind the reader of Taliban insurgents in their CNN visual landscape?
3. Does the Sparrow Unit operate as a separate command & in the countryside yet?
4. Is the transaction done by the soldiers themselves, or through civilian conduits? Do Red fighters get to drink with the military, like some bandit-guerillas in a Hollywood setting?
5. In the heat of battle, is the blame game already in play? Shouldn’t there be an investigation?
6. Is the Party alienated from its mass base?
As a counterpoint, we refer to a biographical novel, Agaw-Dilim, Agaw-Liwanag by Lualhati Milan Abreu which was honored by a UP Centennial Award. We quote an episode about arms transport in Mindanao:
“Muli akong inatasan patungong syudad:
“May nakumpiska silang armalayt sa Davao. Dito raw ipapasok. Pag nagkataon, ‘yan ang una nating armalayt dito. Sa sulat ni Noli, ikaw daw ang palabasin para kunin ‘yon. Ikaw kasi ang may network sa Davao. May bagong butas na daan palabas sa haywey. Mas malapit daw kaysa pinasukan nyo. May dalawang gabi lang paglalakad.
“Sasamahan ka ng isang team. Hihintayin ka sa haywey nang may dalawang araw. Anuman ang resulta bumalik ka sa pinagkasunduan ninyong araw at gabi.
‘Pinik-ap namin sa bahay ang isa pang alyado, malapit sa gasolinahan, ang isang matabang karton na pinaglagyan ng armalayt at mga bala. Sumama sa amin ang isang maskuladong lalaki na idinemploy sa sona.
“Pagbukas sa pak ng mga boyscout na pinaglagyan ng bala, nahilaw ang tuwa sa kanyang mukha. May hinahanap siyang wala roon. Ang magasin! Walang magasin…
“Ewan. Pinik-ap lang naming ‘yan. Ibinigay lang sa akin bago kami lumakad,” pangangatwiran ni Celing.
“Sige, lakad na tayo. Hindi tayo dapat magtagal dito.”
“O mayroon na tayong malalakas na armas ngayon. Armalayt, garand…”
Abreu’s work is touted to be the movement’s answer to Francis Garcia’s Suffer Thy Comrades, a repudation of Operation Ahos, ergo the Marxist struggle itself. [For the critique of the latter, please read Caroline Hau’s “Revolutionary Excesses” On the Subject of the Nation.]
Syjuco’s projected imaging of an underground scene sublimates his disavowal of the movement itself; Abreu’s concedes to the complexity of the purges brought about by policy interpretation, yet comes to terms “with the purges (excesses) as a testing ground of the [movement’s] flexibility, its capacity for self-criticism, acknowledging its errors and learning from its mistakes”.
To wit, applauding fiction by a writer who imagines probable scenarios from a distance (Mao would empirically say, “no investigation, no right to speak”) & ignoring that of a participant-observer’s ‘mission impossible” yet lacking in cinematic flair & melodrama, only stresses the dominance of formalist hermeneutics, whose prime consideration is style (language bravura & organic unity). It allows suspension of disbelief so the narrative can flow uninhibitedly & the truth borne of private fantasy, no matter how asymptotic empirically, can be sutured, almost made realistically.
This mode of imagining that dares to pursue the so-called infinity of meanings—in postmodernism, singularity is almost a fallacy—& skirts the abyss like Nijinsky patrolling the mid-air, inspires local writers to lay claim even to approximating events [for instance, the underground in the Philippines but visualized from the vantage of Columbia University] outside their own knowledge, actualizing on their pages what could be superfluously concocted.
This is however not only an aesthetic but a political problematic: as in the hermeneutic parallax of Ambeth Ocampo saying, “I have my doubts knowing how difficult it is to tread the line between historical accuracy and the imagination.”
For instance, professors are quick to recommend Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundered Years of Solitude, because, it is unofficially argued, Philippine folklore conjures hidden reality that way. The natively fantastic is the very essence of Latin American secret history. Nadine Gordimer however qualifies such shift in cultural coding. Says she:
“In Africa, and many places elsewhere, John Updike’s beautifully written genre stories of pre-occupation with divorces and adulterers “could touch off no referential responses in readers for whom sexual and family life are determined by circumstances of law and conflict that have no referents in the professional class of North America.
“The domestic traumas of black South Africa are children imprisoned in detention, lovers fleeing the country from security police, plastic shelters demolished by the authorities and patched together again by husband and wife. The novel of Gabriel Marquez, himself a socialist, presupposes an answering delight in the larger-than-life that can find little response in those whose own real experience outdoes all extremes, the solitudes of apartheid surprising any hundred years of solitude. The marvelous fantasies of Italo Calvino require givens between writer and reader that are not merely a matter of sophistication.
“Life is not like that for their readership…Books are not [Barthes] made of other books, for them. Furthermore, the imaginative projection of what life might be like is not like that.”
“White writers, living as an over-privileged minority, are worlds away from those of a migratory miner living in a single-sex hostel, a black schoolteacher grappling with pupils who risk their lives as revolutionaries, black journalists, doctors, clerks, harassed by the police and vigilantes round their homes. The gap sometimes seems too great to read across for even the most talented and sensitive power of empathy and imaginative projection.”
We take with a grain of salt Ilustrado’s kaleidoscopic rendition of the elite & upper middleclass history, but to effect a fishlens view to include the diorama of the downtrodden, the peasants, etc. as if their moments can be easily dissected from the exilic distance of Canada & New York [Syjuco’s good intentions, bordering on the naïve, to be able to see things clearly, notwithstanding] is to accept the fallacy of his miscognition, his blindness that has become normative to the common eye.
Every thematic position is an ideological standpoint. [Criticism itself, according to Raymond Williams, “becomes ideological not only when it assumes the position of the consumer but also when it masks this position by a succession of abstraction of its real terms of response (as judgment, taste, cultivation, discrimination, sensibility, disinterested, qualified, rigorous and so on.”)
It would appear, to quote Fredric Jameson, that Ilustrado, despite its desired target of pro-active readers, was written “for the comfortable after-dinner audience taking in an anecdote along with their cigars and brandy.”
This is almost kindred to racialism, “whose ideological dependence,” according to Toni Morrision, in her study of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, “is intact and like its metaphysical existence, offers in historical, political and literary discourse a safe route into mediation on morality and ethics; a way of examining the mind-body dichotomy; a way of thinking about justice; a way of contemplating the modern world.”
Jonathan Beller has a parallel take on this avant-gardist text: “In the most pernicious (widespread) forms of post-modernism in media culture, democracy is everywhere proclaimed and class struggle everywhere submerged because the representatives of representation claim (under their breath) a partial truth as total truth.”
Moreover, if “the current global crisis is a postmodern one,” according to Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former foreign minister and vice chancellor, “and [that] does not make it less dangerous [even if] it entails [however] postmodern risks, resulting in disintegration and implosion of power vacuum, nor the danger of classical wars,” [must] he not ask if “these governments have any inkling of what is at stake at the table where they sit playing roulette with history?”
Syjuco’s novel implicates him thus, since he humbly declares [he’s] “not going to change the country writing literary fiction in English, but this is what [he] can do and [he] will try [his] best to do so if [he] affects a little ripple.” What must we do then with his “vision”, which is peculiar [Annie Dillard] “with artists and writers…who as a ‘class’ have often been dedicated to private vision of the world as a storehouse of manipulable ideas and things?”
Ilustrado ends with the boxes empty of imagined manuscript of his literary gadfly, much like Henry James’ hero, a painter, in the Portrait of the Madonna, whose canvas, after his death, turns out to be blank.
What is there for us here? We cannot be satisfied with his allegedly brilliant language & style alone [you think however of Nabokov, & you realize what brilliance is] that puts to shame the writerly flock. Is this a case of unexamined fetishism in academe? Is this the obfuscating hedging of scribblers who drum up dead-ends & metaphysical obscurantism? & leap beyond class, even beyond textuality itself? Should we be left holding an empty bag? Or, must we resign ourselves to Terry Eagleton’s commentary that “the truth is, quite a few teachers of literature nowadays do not practice literary criticism either, since they, in turn, were never taught to do so.”
Ilustrado is a short story—despite its 306 pages—hinting at the epical, & meeting the rules & procedures prescribed in writing centers, as well as the cosmopolitan “taste” of pedagogues.
& there is the rub.
(Mentors can be censors too. After the fall of apartheid in South Africa, author J.M. Coetzee was told by an “academic researcher” that the former was placed under “ambiguous surveillance” for his three novels. The secret readers were “academic peers” who listened to Mozart on the stereo as they read Austen and Trollope at home and thought of themselves ‘as doing a good job.’”
As a caveat, have we become post-political? Are we post-colonial?
One thing is sure though: we are now, according to Paul Krugman, in the “early stages of…Long Depression…” whose “cost—the world economy, and above all, to millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs—will be immense.” The bankers, in brief, have recovered lost ground in the financial market, & the tragedy that is Greece may yet dawn on the Philippines, whose weak economy is susceptible to capital domination by even recessionary First World countries.
Besides, it is said that after the failure to actualize world-wide the socialist agenda in the wake of colonial liberation, the local leadership responded positively to capitalist restoration; & post-colonial theorizing swept the discursive field. The shift from “liberation” to “reformism” putatively validated the fracturing of the traditional left. Class & nation were jettisoned, the mode of analysis turned to cultural studies minus the politics [Eagleton].
Syjuco’s Ilustrado affirms the retreat from the historic trajectory of “emancipation” with its narrative of socio-cultural chaos. [Today, progress is to be based on the numerical GNP] & this, ideological “deadlock” should have instructed him [a point sorely missed by his admiring critics] of the lesson of Lenin [literary academics steer clear of him], whose salutary act Slavoj Zizek praises: “When everything was wrong [and] all of the social democratic parties outside Russia supported the war, and there was mass outbreak of patriotism “(to a lesser degree, note the Noynoy phenomenon in which party radicals tinkered with the idea of parliamentarism) “ Lenin had to think about a radical revolutionary politics in this situation of total breakdown.”
He adds: “What I like in Lenin is precisely what scares people about him – the ruthless will to discard all prejudices. Why not violence? Horrible as it may seem , I think it’s a useful antidote to all the aseptic, frustrating, politically correct pacifism.”
But doesn’t Syjuco, as mentioned earlier, dismiss the proletarian “hegemon”, proposing instead the enlightened ilustrado?
Rizal (iconic by orthodox historical interpretation) killed the character Elias to sidestep an issue; Syjuco (iconic among creative writing majors) came up with a deal Crispin to ambiguate an argument.
Syjuco, of course, like any crusading writer, wants “to create a social revolution. That’s what an ilustrado can be. It’s an attitude against the hopelessness in the Philippines that we can’t.” So grandiose a plan, the dream-stuff of collective salvagers. The Revolution, whatever it means, starts at the top & the enlightened class of Rizal clones must lead the way.
He says he’s into the draft of a second novel (possibly the Fili to his Noli).
I must end here.
Edel E. Garcellano
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Rina Jimenez-David, “From a Distance”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 1, 2010.
Joschka Fischer, “Worldview,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 2010.
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Ronald S. Lim, “The Year of the Ilustrado,” Manila Bulletin, April 17, 2010
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