‘No lyric has ever stopped a tank,' so said Seamus Heaney. Auden said that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.' Bullshit! I reject all that wholeheartedly! What do they know about the mechanics of tanks? How can anyone estimate the ballistic qualities of words? Invisible things happen in intangible moments. What should keep us writing is precisely that possibility of explosions.
—Crispin Salvador, in conversation with Miguel Syjuco
Ambitious work doesn't resolve contradictions in a spurious harmony but instead embodies the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.
—David Shields, plagiarizing Theodor Adorno
Adorno, Shields, Salvador, and Syjuco speak of literary ambition — Adorno directly, Shields similarly, Salvador forcefully, and Syjuco silently. For there is no Salvador, and Syjuco is his prophet.
Miguel Syjuco's debut novel Ilustrado concerns itself precisely with questions of literary ambition: how should a writer live, what must a writer do, where should a writer stand, what role can literature usefully play in one's life, and in politics, and what importance does literature have in our societies?
More narrowly: what happened to Crispin Salvador, once the brightest star of Philippine literature, now fallen? As Syjuco explains, “[t]hat you may not remember Salvador's name attests to the degree of his abysmal nadir” (6). The novel begins by announcing Salvador's death, just as “he was close to completing the controversial book we'd all been waiting for” (3) — The Bridges Ablaze (often cleverly referred to by the acronym TBA), “the masterpiece that would return him to the pantheon” (5).
This book, rumoured to be a scandalous exposé, is missing, and Salvador's death ruled a suicide, though his friend and protégé, Miguel Syjuco, believes that “the Panther of Philippine Letters was murdered in midpounce” (6).
Thus the book begins as a murder mystery, but as Miguel returns to the Philippines in order to investigate Salvador's death and collect information so that Miguel might write Salvador's biography, it becomes more and more the story of Miguel's own literary ambitions, personal failures, and attempts at reinvention.
Central to Miguel's fumbling after himself, the problem of how to conduct a literary life — how to live well, and fruitfully, while viewing literary work as one's calling — occupies much of the novel, from Miguel's own musings to Salvador's proclamations.
Ilustrado is at its heart a writer's novel, and cuts to the bone of the writing life, slicing through quasi-Romantic pretension (though Miguel himself, as a character, is quite pretentious) to run up against the tension between the diminishing social importance of literary work and the felt importance of that work for the writer.
Even as he pays homage to an art that holds true, if somewhat dormant, revolutionary potential, Syjuco pokes fun at such idealizations and highlights the disparity between the potential grandeur of art and the innately pathetic lives of insular artistes. At one point, Miguel researches crucifixions “for a short story” and runs across an example from 1920, that of Archbishop Joachim of Nizhny-Novgorod:
Intrigued by its recentness, he checks Wikipedia, only to find the entry reads, “He was a big fat guy who was the best friwnd of Satanand he easts babys, so he was crucified by monkeys.” Further research proves this inaccurate. (155, italicized in the original)
Though silly, it's also the most realistic portrayal of a (so-called) writing session I've seen in a novel. (I recall once checking the Wikipedia page for crows and discovering, in the section on crow behaviour, that “mariah bowles wants to have lesbian sex with bunch of 300 pound whores from antartica.” A lofty goal!) Like any true writer, Syjuco procrastinates heroically, justifying the wasted time to himself by incorporating it into the book he's writing.
The Wikipedia joke also alludes to Syjuco's real-life creation of a Wikipedia page for the fictional Crispin Salvador (now edited to indicate his fictional status). The metafictional structure doesn't begin and end with Miguel Syjuco writing about a writer called Miguel Syjuco, nor with the creation of a fictional author and the inclusion of fragments from his imaginary publications.
Such postmodern gestures are so commonplace that they've lost any radicality they once had, though perfectly legitimate and appropriate inclusions. Unlike so many other novels, Ilustrado‘s metafictional flourishes are necessary and vital elements of its structure — a structure that only becomes fully apparent in its paradoxes and complexities in the novel's final chapters, through smart, inventive reversals.
Ilustrado‘s form first seems a slapdash pastiche, combining first-person narration by “Miguel Syjuco” with excerpts from the biography of Salvador he's writing, excerpts from Salvador's own writings, racist jokes poking fun at Filipinos (which develop, brilliantly, into a sometimes affecting multi-generational family narrative), and third-person supplementations, corrections, and reiterations of Miguel's first-person accounts by a mysterious authorial narrator.
As the novel progresses and its structure becomes clear, these parts cohere as Adorno/Shields demands, to lay bare the frame of this collage.
Thus Syjuco combines the realist's eye for details and convincing character motivations with the bold inventiveness of the experimentalist unconcerned with reality. Early in the novel, Miguel learns that Crispin has an estranged daughter, as does Miguel, and we see how his initial obsession with finding an extant copy of The Bridges Ablaze dovetails with and develops into an obsession with finding Crispin's daughter, as a rehearsal for later connecting with his own (or giving up on this notion).
Later, our mysterious authorial narrator drags Miguel out of his apparent reality, however briefly, into a dreamlike realm where “the light is a rectangle like the corona of an eclipse. The knob is wet in his hand . . . In the hallway mirror, he is naked. He leans toward his reflection . . . The mirror ripples” (283). Such breaks develop the main narrative, rather than interrupting it, so never descend to the level of bland postmodern ironizing.
Elsewhere, Syjuco flaunts convention, but such moments are not heavy-handed but humorous, and this comedic undercutting prevents them from seeming self-congratulatory. After noticing a “disassembled Glock” in the bedroom of young Sadie, Miguel states, “You know, Chekhov said that if a gun appears in a story, by the conclusion it has to have gone off” (177).
The reader knows, instantly, that this gun will not go off — and through such light, comic moments, Syjuco establishes his story's distance from worn-out conventions while including the gun in a list of items in Sadie's room — “brass bed . . . stuffed animals . . . [posters of] Steely Dan, the Spiders from Mars, and a sweat-drenched Neil Diamond . . . a Hello Kitty diary, a sketchbook . . .” (177) — perhaps the most common, conventional way to build a character and setting in conventional fiction.
Does this make Syjuco a hypocrite? No, it simply establishes his confidence and willingness to engage with both the traditions of conventional literary realism and experimental non-realism without setting the two into a false, simplistic opposition and “striking camp,” as so many less self-assured authors are wont to do.
Though ambition has become a dirty word in the postmodern world, and in Canada seems a vice on the level of rudeness, Syjuco's Ilustrado does precisely what a stellar debut should do — announce the author's presence, in a volley of gunfire, without pandering to any camp or taking heed of the reader's expectations.
What should keep us reading, what we should demand more often of this nation's authors, is precisely that possibility of explosions.