The Meta-Fictions of Miguel Syjuco

Posted by sepoy on June 11, 2010 · 26 mins read

From a press-release by Asia House, UK, for Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco:

For decades, the Filipino community has watched the UK media perpetuate the negative stereotypes of the Philippines. After the latest PR beating, from BBC2's documentary 'Explore', many from the Filipino community in the U.K yearn for the 'other truths' of the Philippines to be revealed.

Now, Philippine Generations shines the spotlight on a gem of literary talent that has emerged in 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize winner, Miguel Syjuco. His manuscript “Ilustrado” is a semi-autobiographical novel about a couple of Filipino writers in New York who belong to the Ilustrado class.

With more Filipinos appearing in the media, such as Mutya Buena seen last month on 2009 Celebrity Big Brother, Manny Pacquiao defeating boxing legend Oscar Dela Hoya in December 2008 and Myleene Klass in every shop window for M&S and every T.V screen for Pantene, is it a sign of the Filipino widespread talent standing out from the cultural mix and a greater awareness to begin?

After the success of Philippine Cuisine in June 2008, Philippine Generations have been invited to collaborate once again with Asia House which is opening its doors on 11th March 2009 at 6.30pm inviting you to join the rising literary star as he talks about his story and reads excerpts from the Prize-winning manuscript.

This is an exceptional chance to see Syjuco discuss his work with Adrienne Loftus Parkins, Director of the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature. The talk will be followed by a reception sponsored by the Philippine Embassy, London.

Of course, this means we have to read the book! (And thanks to The Book Slut, I got a copy and Lapata got one on her own, and we read it, and exchanged a few emails, made a new friend and there is an amazing new painting as a result. Read on below the fold!)

From: Sepoy
Subject: Ilustrado
To: Lapata

Dear Lapata,

Some things we need to start talking about RIGHT AWAY. Did you know that Ilustrado means a mixture of the babu class and the sharif class? I didn't. Wikipedia told me. Did you know that Miguel Syjuco was "born to a political clan"? How does that happen? The only thing that springs to my mind is that sequence from Rosemary's Baby (like around 02:11). Can you believe that the first mention Syjuco makes to Imelda Marcos' shoes comes at page 196! And doing a search on Imelda Marcos Shoes Pakistan yields this statute as a result on Google? The world continues to amaze.

Ferdinand Marcos was huge in Pakistan when I was growing up - a genuine dictator to compare our Mard-e Momin Mard-e Haq Zia ul Haq Zia ul Haq with - all favorable comparisons both because he was often pictured wearing a Jinnah Cap and our own Mrs. Zia was such a total auntie that no one could even imagine her shoes. !

So, the book: Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke?


From: Lapata
Subject: Re: Ilustrado
To: Sepoy

Dear Sepoy,

I thought that ilustrado meant a (presumably upper middle class) Filipino person enlightened by education abroad, who ought to return to do good deeds in the homeland. This is what I learned from reviews of the book. Isn't that more like 'American (or Vilayat) Returned'? Now, as to being born into a political clan, as someone who was born into an artistic clan, I can confirm that the scene from Rosemary's Baby is entirely accurate. Not all mothers are quite so resistant to the calling of their children, however.

It's interesting you bring up the topic of Imelda Marcos' shoes. Did you know that David Byrne specifically wrote his
recently released disco opera on the subject of Imelda ji with absolutely NO MENTION of the shoes? And did you also know that it actually wasn't 3000 pairs, as originally reported, but more like 1060. Imelda herself has been very insistent on this point. And speaking of disco operas, did you notice that the fictional author in Ilustrado, Crispin Salvador, has also written a disco opera himself, based on the life of cartographer and translator Antonio Pigafetta, entitled All Around the World? Coincidence, or no? I say no. Here Lies Love (the Imelda discopera) was first performed in Australia in 2006. This book came out, like, yesterday. Here is a quote from the Crispin Salvador's discopera:

Magellan: Gimme, gimme, gimme some heathens for my Lord
Some bullets for our muskets and a whetstone for our swords
In ships we come, like a stroke of thunder
To live and die, for salvation and plunder
We name these lands for our king!

Pigafetta: Gimme, gimme, gimme my parchment and my quill
The story I have, I know is sure to thrill
I'll record our myths and make you a legend
Our faith in God's empire nothing could rend
We name these lands for our king! (p. 258)

As to your question about Hamid's Moth Smoke. Well, frankly, I think this one is way better. Much more literary, more thought-provoking, more more more more! You?



From: Sepoy
Subject: Re: Re: Ilustrado
To: Lapata

Dear Lapata,

Your sleuthing on Syjuco's pimping off Byrne's discopera is to be applauded. It is this type of attention to detail that they no longer cultivate in PhD programs. Speaking of which, our friend Miguel (I kinda want him to be my friend because A) he is very Tony Leung circa Chungking Express and B) I think we both enjoy writing about people bumping off keys or whatever it is they do in fancy bathrooms. I do believe A) makes me tiny bit of a Orientalist and B) pegs my class since I really only know about rocks and not lines. ANYWAYS) is also a PhD student, according to this, which gave us this quote:

Abroad, he was a blank slate, scrabbling without the built-in perks of his own ilustrado roots. Dad Augusto “Buboy” Syjuco is director general of Technical Education and Skills Development Authority. Mom Judy Syjuco was a rep from the 2nd District of Iloilo (a position held earlier for two terms by his dad.) Artist and writer Caesar Syjuco is his uncle and Caesar's children are musicians and poets.

“Nobody asks me what school I came from, what my last name is; I'm just this guy who writes. And I'm judged on my personality and how I am with other people. And I like that. The anonymity, yeah and also the idea that I have to prove myself in other ways.”

Syjuco is wan and slight and looks preternaturally adolescent. His hair is slicked to the side in the manner prescribed for grade school grad photos. His demeanor is as gentle (and gently impish) as the especially Biblical tattoo of St. Michael on his right arm isn't.

Which reads a lot like Arvind Adiga - who on first read, was really Mohsin Hamid part 2 but ok, I will drop this.

Going back to the Amazing Discopera That Is Imelda, I found that the many voices also turn in nicely to the "many voices" in the book which is its claim to "meta fiction". Now, I will confess that there are times when this conceit wore thin for me. The best sequence are the jokes, of course. Here is one I found online which sounds hilarious:

Prof: ano ang pagkakaiba ng adultery at fornification
Girl: nasubukan ko na pareho yan eh. parang wala namang diferrence

Which leads me to, and really, I did not want to come to this so quickly, the exposition on pg. 207:

Listen, you - we - shouldn't foster a tradition of nostalgia, as we have. A retrospective of all the past frustrations. Forget it - it's gone, it's history. Pun intended. Haha! We have to change our country by changing its representation. What is Filipino writing? Living on the margins, a bygone era, loss, exile, poor-me angst, postcolonial identity theft. Tagalog words intermittently scattered around for local color, exotically italicized. Run-on sentences and facsimiles of Magical Realism, hiding behind the disclaimer that we Pinoys were doing it years before the South Americans. ... Our heartache for home is so profound we can't get over it, even when we're home and never left. Our imaginations grow moss. So every Filipino novel has a scene about the glory of cooking rice, or the sensuality of tropical fruit. And every short story seems to end with misery or redemptive epiphanies. And variations thereof. An underlying cultural faith in deus ex machina. God coming from the sky to make things right or more wrong.

Both funny ha-ha and funny sad, but it gave me one thing to ponder: what if the imagined audience of postcolonial nations is always outside the nation, always outside the language, always imagining the inside through the out? even in urdu or in tagalog or in pinoy or in hindi. I am unsure as to where I am going with this, at the moment, but the deus ex machina is not God but the Colonial. Maybe the same?

Need a drink,


From: Lapata
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Ilustrado
To: Sepoy

Dearest Sepoy,

As much as I'd like to think of you as an orientalist, a different word comes to mind when you describe Syjuco as "very Tony Leung circa Chungking Express," and then I compare that to your other quote: "Syjuco is wan and slight and looks preternaturally adolescent. His hair is slicked to the side in the manner prescribed for grade school grad photos." And do we really think he will see grad school through if he is to become the next IT writer? I say not, especially if his real grandparents are willing to give him back that apartment in Trump Tower. Either way though, I kinda want to be his friend too. I found his facebook page! I wonder if he has reached the limit of 5000 friends yet? I'm betting not.

I also found that the 'many voices' conceit wore thin in Ilustrado. There are all those excerpts from the collected writings of Crispin Salvador (which are eclectic, and in theory, very interesting. My favorite being his autobiography The Autoplagiarist, with Manila Noir a close second). And then all the first person narrations, that get to be longer and longer toward the end, possibly in direct proportion to the quantity of cocaine being inhaled in nightclub bathrooms, and then the mysterious third person omniscient narrator bits in italics. I have never been a fan of the insertion of fictional authors' fictional writings in works of fiction (cf. AS Byatt, esp. Babel Tower...ack!). The 'quotations,' being as they are pastiche, are usually not as high quality as they are said to be by the characters who admire them so much. I recently had occasion to read Henry James' excellent novella, The Aspern Papers, in which the fictional author, the poet Jeffrey Aspern, is spoken of with great reverence, but his work is never quoted. One gets the sense from conversations and the narrator's voice of what kind of poet he was, but James does not subject us to a reconstruction of his oeuvre (at which point it would no longer be a novella, would it?).

In Ilustrado, the character Crispin Salvador is meant to be an author of international stature who was passed over for the Nobel. I must admit I wasn't feeling the greatness from all the passages quoting his writings. I thought the strongest bits were his interviews with the Paris Review, and the like (no surprise that Syjuco used to work for the Paris Review, and got a lot of his ideas for this novel from his job fact-checking). I was least interested in the quotations from the Kaputol Trilogy, which starts off seeming like a sort of Filipino version of Peter Pan ("you can fly if you really believe!"), and then devolves into that episode of Buffy where she hallucinates that her super powers are all a psychiatric ailment, that she is...hallucinating the reality that we've come to know, love and accept (trippy!). This of course is a foreshadowing to the end of the novel [SPOILERS EDITED]... (or is it??).

Of course, to be fair, part of the reason our close friend Miguel S. includes all this writing is because none of these genres exist in the Philippines:

"I wanted him to write the books I wish I had written," Syjuco explained. "In the Philippines, we don't have pulp fiction, like [Crispin Salvador's] 'Manila Noir'...We don't have seafaring novels. We don't have crime writing. We don't have a lot of the stuff Crispin actually ostensibly wrote. I wanted to put those out there -- finally, a writer who did that. Hopefully, that would give Filipino writers the idea, 'Hey, why don't I be that writer?"

I think that quote makes the conceit more interesting again.

Now, turning to your question about the deus ex machina being the colonial. Gosh, I don't know about that. What I do think, however, is that all those things he's complaining about, in terms of style, are just that. Blame it on the markets, on the authors that have come before you. But I don't think that all those stylistic ills are a necessary by-product of writing post-colonial literature (are the Philippines really entirely post-?).

Well, ta ta. Off to get my nails done and take the poodle to his topiary appointment,

ever yours,


From: Sepoy
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Ilustrado
To: Lapata

Dear Lapata,

The other word, what is it? After we are done talking about him, we certainly need to invite him to the conversation. Being debt free, I am sure he has need to make friends. (I have been reading all of his interviews/snippets in .ph domains and they are very explicit in pointing out that he is debt free - which is odd).

I too liked the bits from Autoplagiarist best (and the jokes - which hello from 2006!) but does he mean that those genres are absent from Filipino/Tagalog fictions altogether - or just from English fiction in Philippines? Since, Imran Series is the greatest thing ever happened to Urdu - and it is there in Spanish/Arabic, I am not sure why "pulp fiction" is absent in Philippines. Lino Brocka, anybody? Ok, that ends my knowledge of Filipino cinema.

I will resist your blatant move to class-up this discussion by invoking how Henry James did it - and instead ask: Why are the Philippines the forgotten colony? And where is the colonial guilt in the New Yorker's top 20 under 40?

More importantly: What did you love about this book? I loved the humor - esp. in the details of his relationship with Madison, that whole dinner scene with Dr. and Mrs. Effy culminating in the mango serving (ahem). It made me laugh. Which I admire.




From: Lapata
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Ilustrado
To: Sepoy

Dear Sepoy,

How like you to steer the conversation away from ponderous scholarly musing and nattering negativity. Indeed, let us embrace the positive. One of my favorite passages was Miguel's interview with Crispin's sister Lena, her deafness, and the deft descriptions of the slatternly maid who was occupied with fanning her all the while. That part was brazilliant. I was also amused with the biographical descriptions of Crispin, a kind of crazy quilt of details of life of an eminent litterateur that includes all the sort of tidbits one expects to find in the history of an Important Author ("He drunkenly, though surreptitiously, vomited into the seafood chowder bowl at a George Plimpton garden party in East Hampton"). And though you will tsk tsk at references to Proust possibly even more than those to James, I'd also like to point out that when one is in the midst of the book, wondering if this Crispin Salvador guy is based on someone real (or maybe he IS real?), our narrator mentions that he and his girlfriend Madison used to take bong hits before sneaking into classical music concerts at Lincoln Center, such as a performance of Vinteuil's Septet. Vinteuil (as we all know!) is the fictional composer in Remembrance of Things Past and his Septet, a brilliant posthumous work. Proust created three fictional artists: Vinteuil, the composer, Elstir, the painter and Bergotte, the novelist. I felt from that 'little phrase' about the Septet that Syjuco drops into the novel, that this work can be seen, in part, as an homage to Proust: the return to an abandoned social scene; the increasing bizarreness and elasticity of time as the book draws to a close; and the first person narrator with the same name as the author, whose life and faults are only obliquely related to those of their creator. In that sense, it is an ambitious book that nonetheless does not overshoot its target. I felt that Syjuco really kept control of the narrative nicely and didn't succumb to the obvious temptation of turning his book into a sprawling intergenerational geopolitical epic.

I also liked the comments sections in the blog post passages. Especially the spammed comments.

In closing, "a rose, for you: @}--;------ " (from a text message, Ilustrado, p. 268).



From: Sepoy
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Ilustrado
To: Lapata

Dear Lapata,

Proust Shmroust. Yes, I enjoyed those (e)lusions but I would also tip a hat to the "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," by the Bombay lawyer Mir Bahadur Ali which our author humbly drops into the narrative - a beautifully wrought tale by Jorge Louis Borges which concerns "a review" by Borges of "The Conversation with the Man Called Al-Mu'tasim" a book starring a law student on a search mission!.

The end does seem a bit harried, but I think the unravelling of the narrative voice works well within that.

Why are you, dearest Lapata, avoiding any discussion of Ilustrado as a poco novel? Hmm?

with hopes,


From: Lapata
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Ilustrado
To: Sepoy


I've suffered from a mild stroke, which has directly affected the poco sector of my brain. I'm convalescing in a lovely sanatorium in upstate New York. Please send sweets, and Journey: Escape (cassette only, plz).



From: Sepoy
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Ilustrado
To: Lapata


Lay off the cocaine.


And now, behold the amazing new artwork by Lapata, The Rose of Tacloban


biryanilady | June 14, 2010

Byrne's got his new album cover. Stellar painting.