Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

Nov 2010

(Novel) Ilustrado by: Miguel Syjuco

(Reaction) You Can Go Home Again by: Antonio Conejos

There are generally two types of journeys. The first type traces the arc of a boomerang, edging away and then suddenly curving towards home. It is a gathering, of going forth into the world to find out what one can and then returning to share these wonders from the outside. The second type of journey is the flight of an arrow, shot far and true, never to return. One leaves his birthplace to find a new home under foreign skies and inhospitable climes. Idealistic Filipino expatriates often leave with the former in mind but end up living with the latter.

Ilustrado deals with the tension of returning after a lifetime of being away. Early on the novel affirms that the worth of a balikbayan (the Filipino term for those who have lived abroad and then return to the Philippines) is in what he brings back, "our hand-carries bulging with items that wouldn't fit in overweight luggage, all the countless gifts for countless relatives - proof that our time away has not been wasted."

The narrator (who speaks in italics throughout the novel and who the reader belatedly discovers is the reportedly deceased Crispin Salvador) explicitly identifies Miguel, "he is declared our protagonist", as "finding purpose in the conceit of himself as a modern-day member of the ilustrados... Those young Filipino bodhisattvas had returned home from abroad to dedicate their perfumed bodies, mellifluous rhetoric, Latinate ideas, and tailored educations to the ultimate cause. Revolution." For the balikbayan, the return home is a culmination, an end to the long journey. This is Crispin's attitude in his letter at the end of the novel as well as Miguel's views as a young man, "So he waited... anticipating the final magnetism of native shores."

Yet the journey takes a toll on the balikbayan. Every moment he spends away is another moment which frays the cord binding him to hearth and heart. Thus the balikbayan has to insist, sometimes courageously and sometimes pitifully, that there is still has a connection, however tenuous to his home, "There's the shadow of our plane. Why is that still a thrill to spot? Maybe it confirms that we're still tethered to home, even if only by shadows."

This is the conundrum faced by Miguel. Upon returning he discovers that he is neither foreign nor native. He is at a loss as to where he belongs. He is a balikbayan returned home but what gifts does he bring and to whom and how must he offer them? The narrator taunts Miguel, insisting that his protagonist must decide, "Poor little rich boy. A side must be taken... Something to be done, Pozzo. You cannot sit this out. The airplane has landed. The people have clapped. Take a last breath. You're on the stage."

Faced with the question of what does he bring back, Miguel offer up his words, literature, as his offering to the nation. He returns to find Crispin's The Bridges Ablaze (TBA) as well as to do research for his own biography on Crispin. (The biography is entitled, "Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived." The title is a not too subtle hint which lays the groundwork for Crispin's "resurrection" at the end of the novel; cats after all have nine lives.) Ideas - from propaganda to literature - have been the traditional "pasalubong" (the Filipino term for the gifts brought by a balikbayan) of the ilustrados since the days when Filipinos went to Europe for further education and returned with liberal ideas of reform.

Literature appeals to the ilustrado because it offers a vision of what could be, an experimental canvas of conjectures - what if the government weren't corrupt, what if Filipinos weren't so parochial and hidebound - which paints a picture of a progressive Philippines. For Miguel the best part of this fictional picture is that every detail can be manipulated until success is achieved. "That's why with literature, at least I can control what happens. We can create, revise. Try better next time. If we fail, we only screw ourselves... But if we succeed, we can change the world."

Miguel is poised on the double edged sword of believing he can make a difference through literature while at the same time agonizing he will fail. He does not dream in America nor does he tell his American girlfriend that he cannot, "I never told her that I don't have dreams or can't remember whether I do." Yet on his very first night back in the Philippines he dreams - of death. Moreover, Miguel dreams of a meaningless death which will change nothing, "I'm going to die, a simple everyday death. I didn't make things right." Upon his return to the Philippines, Miguel can dream again. But these dreams constantly morph into nightmares where Miguel's life is ineffective.

Ilustrado's insistence that literature can change the world (or at least the Philippines) is reflected in the composition of the novel itself, it is a book composed of different literatures, different possibilities for various characters at various times. Varied texts make up the DNA of Ilustrado, from the pulpy adventures of Antonio Astig, excerpts from the Autoplagiarist, the Enlightened, fictional blogs, message boards, comments and emails, newspapers. This jumble of texts and potentialities cohere to form the world of Ilustrado, a world where change may be possible.

Crucially, the lowliest text of all, spam from crispin1037@esalvador.gob.sv, is what finally pushes Miguel to go to the Philippines. In desperation Miguel even replies to the spam, "I wrote: 'Crispin?' The cursor winked at me. I hit 'send' and waited. The next morning, I bought my plane ticket." That lowly spam can set the entire plot of a novel in motion suggests that no text is inconsequential and that all texts (yes, even spam) have some meaning.

Literature, fiction and the various texts of a life offer the possibility of change both at the personal and political (social) levels. Specifically, this change has to do with righting the wrongs of the past, of redemption. Thus, in attempting to unearth Crispin's TBA (a novel which was to change society at large), Miguel also attempts to write Crispin's biography; a personal effort to restore his mentor's name. In the same vein, the ongoing joke of the life of the AMA student (personal change) leads to the birth of an infamous president of the Philippines (change at the societal level). Crispin reverses the trend of personal to society when he burns the reviews of his autobiography (personal) as an impetus to begin TBA (society).

Ultimately though what the ilustrado seeks is not the reform of society but a redemption at the personal level, amends for personal sins. He returns with the nation in mind but ultimately presents his gifts to those he left behind. As such, Miguel in the climax of the novel chooses to save siblings who are about to be drowned in a flood.

This one action ties the multiple themes of Ilustrado together; it is a reenactment of the past (his parents' choice to save lives in a hopeless situation), a further parallel between Miguel and Crispin (Crispin also allegedly downed in a river) and is Miguel's response to what does he bring with him on his return to the Philippines, "it will make him feel fulfilled, because he will have written with the vigor of the newly liberated, because he will have, in one single soggy act, absolved himself of our sins."

Ironically, while Miguel puts himself in danger in attempting the rescue, after he reaches the siblings, "It is our young man who now feels safe." In rescuing the children he is finally at peace with himself and the inner turmoil he has struggled with throughout the novel. Fittingly then, after the rescue of the children he is able to finally meet his grandparents, a decision he has been avoiding ever since he arrived in the Philippines.

Miguel's redemption mirrors the redemption that Crispin seeks from his daughter. The interplay between Miguel and Crispin (M&C) goes beyond the former enacting the unfulfilled wishes of the latter. Crispin admits that, "I had seen, you see, something of myself in him." There are numerous parallels between M&C, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell the characters apart on occasion. M&C both grew up under father figures who were extremely political and disapproved of their leanings towards literature. M&C both have daughters they do not know, an ignorance they neglect. Ms. Florentina, a close friend of Crispin, often confuses Miguel for Crispin. Crispin's brother is treated at Fresh Starts Rehabilitation Retreat Home, the same place Miguel's grandmother is treated.

These parallels between Miguel and Crispin set up the novel's culmination where we go from a situation where Miguel is alive and Crispin is dead, to one where Miguel dies and Crispin lives. The novel's ending is further argument for the redemptive power of literature as well as the ilustrado's quest for atonement. Crispin, in telling his story through Miguel's voice, finds the courage to return, "Home to what remains of my family. Home to my child, for whenever she's ready." Crispin finds in Miguel's end the courage to forge a new beginning for himself, a beginning which will entail a return home after a long journey.

Review:

It's a common complaint that the special effects in movies today are extraneous, explosions and computer graphics inserted into a narrative simply because the director/studio can. Filipino writers in English (IMHO) have the tendency to be the Jerry Bruckheimers or George Lucases (I still love Star Wars though) of literature. They are skilled and they can write and they are hell bent on proving these facts by using every special effect in their writing arsenal.

This penchant for writing FX is on full display in Ilustrado - multiple texts, multiple authors/readers, multiple timelines (via multiple texts), multiple obscure dreams; all topped off with drugs, sex and rock and roll. It sounds kind of cool at first, just like all the gee whiz special effects are fun to watch at first. But ultimately getting through it all is kind of tiring.

Ironically, Ilustrado itself is aware of the tendencies of Filipino writing, which it describes as "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."

There are fulfilling moments in Ilustrado, quiet moments when the writing FX ebbs slightly, when the language shines. Particular highlights for me were Crispin's description of the doomed Philippine cavalry marching to war as well as the occasional wry observations of Miguel, "Cliches remind and reassure us that we're not alone, that others have trod this ground long ago."

It's hard to appreciate these quiet moments though as they are constantly drowned out by the literary fireworks and explosions which Ilustrado revels in.

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