Reading Note:
Enough With the Cleverness
Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado


As I was reading the last pages of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, it occurred to me that the defining characteristic of literary fiction these days is cleverness. It’s not enough to tell a good story and to tell it well — if it were, then we’d have heard a lot more, in mandarin quarters, about the excellence of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. The mandarins want something more, a twist, a parable, a parody.

Vladimir Nabokov did cleverness very well, but what makes other writers want to imitate him? It must be the clean blue flame of Nabokov’s agility that lures them. For Nabokov is never a difficult writer. James Joyce is difficult: on the simplest level, it is not easy to know what he is trying to say. Nabokov’s writing, in contrast, is never opaque. His references are clear even if the referents are not. Whether or not you can follow them, you’re not stopped in your narrative’s tracks. It may sting a bit to register the presence of jokes and allusions that you don’t get, but the clever writer (unlike the difficult one) does not condition his text’s intelligibility upon his reader’s broad learning. You move along; you fall under the spell of Lolita.

I was thinking about cleverness because, when he stops being clever and settles down into straightforward prose, Miguel Syjuco is one of the best writers I’ve come across in ages, and certainly one of the top male novelists.

In the evenings we ventured beyond permission, three of us boys pressed together on my tiny motorcycle, our heads unhelmeted, our legs bent, our feet held an inch off the ground — to visit girls we planned to admire, to half dance, half pose at the open air discos, to marvel and pity and squirm at the freak shows in the fiestas with their naked bulb and the sounds of gambling and the scent of fallow fields. We courted our crushes. Brought them to movie houses that screened films without show time, coming in halfway through and watching the end, then the beginning, then the end again.

Oh, for a book written like this, from beginning to end!

Not that Ilustrado is a bad read. One you’ve penetrated its atmosphere — assuming that your interest hasn’t been toasted, first by a somewhat miscalculated Prologue, and then by the welter of ostensible extracts from fictional fictions — you grasp that the novel winds two narrative strands. two life stories that mirror one another. There is the biography-in-progress of Crispin Salvador, a Philippine writer living in artistic exile in New York City, written by one of his students, our narrator, (also) Miguel Syjuco; and there is the (longer) story of Miguel’s trip to the Philippines to research Salvador’s life. The would-be biographer and his subject, although a generation apart in age (if not more), come from similar backgrounds in the Philippine elite. The families of both are headed by politicians, both are and beset by epic, historic disasters. Both men are haunted by daughters with whom they are not in touch. The doppelgänger trope is worked through to its logical conclusion, with an Epilogue written in the voice of the Prologue’s subject, not that of its narrator. Strewn between these paired expositions are extracts from the work of Crispin Salvador. If I were better read in Philippine literature, I would describe these patches as a gallery of locally-inflected genre writing: folk tales, historical fiction, noir, comic book/science fiction — even literary autobiography. All very clever, needless to say, but hardly more welcome to the appreciator of Mr Syjuco’s default prose style than fallen timber on a remote roadway.

Not that Miguel’s cleverness — I speak of the book’s narrator — isn’t delightful. Mr Syjuco is fundamentally, I think, a humorist who genuinely likes the absurdities of homo sapiens sapiens; I can’t remember laughing so hard at no one’s expense. Unless of course, it is at the expense of the narrator himself, as he chronicles the breakup of a two year romance with a girl called Madison, half Filipina, half American.

For so long, we made plans. Being in love is all about making plans. Or maybe it was just us. Everything was outlined, researched, and refined. Our nonreligionist wedding ceremony. Our ecofriendly funerals. We wanted to be wed somewhere sacred, yet not under the eyes of any god except our love, our selves, and, as Madison said, the wonderful communion of the humanity close to us. We wanted to be buried outside of cemeteries, under trees, in muslin shrouds, close to the earth that would easily reclaim us; we wanted our relatives to avoid carbon emissions and instead hold secular memorials for us in the cities where they lived. We planned the sound track of our lives (Lakme’s aria for her matrimonial march; the bridge in Eric Clapton’s “Layla” for my funeral cortege). We talked about adoption as the only moral choice for the world today, and debated about which country we’d rescue an orphan from. Sometimes, though, Madison would say: Maybe I’d like to have one of our own; or, Maybe it would be nice to be married in a cathedral. To which I’d reply with logic and reason.

The charm of Mr Syjuco’s touch not only makes this harmless youthful narcissism amusing but also prevents our feeling superior to the the too-young lovers; if we’re at all honest, we remember being just like this, once. Ilustrado is shot through with a kindness that is sadly uncommon in men.

In the middle of the book, Miguel talks about Crispin Salvador with two older Philippine writers, each of whom has a different reason for deprecating Salvador’s output. That he wrote in New York City is a predictable offense; more subtle is the complaint that Salvador wrote “more about Filipinos than for Filipinos.” A besetting problem at the frontiers of Anglophone literature is the nationalist issue of cui bono: who is supposed to benefit? It is a false issue, of course, because the principal mission of modern Anglophone literature is its effacement of national boundaries, which it dissolves into cultural differences, and its insistence on a unified community of Anglophone readers. That’s who benefits: people like me, reading in New York City, at the heart, you might say, of the culture; my sensibilities tested and enriched by familiarization with the initially exotic inflections of English as it is spoken, written, and thought in by men and women in the Philippines. Paradoxically, it’s the capturing of what’s unique to foreign parts that situates a writer squarely within our literary tradition. The critic who wants more literature “for Filipinos” harbors the unconscious delusion that the opportunity to read about themselves would encourage more Filipinos to read. That this is nonsense is made clear in a very funny fight scene between Miguel and his grandparents, early in the book.

I steeled my voice. “This is about my short story. Right? I knew I shouldn’t have shown you the magazine. It’s always this way. Why do you think the father figure is always you?”

“I’ve never understood why you can’t just write nice stories. Stories your grandmother would like and can show off to her friends.”

“Granma, is that what this is all about?”

Granma spoke up. Her voice was surprisingly angry. “Why can’t you write nice things?” Her voice softened. “Why would anyone read your story and want to visit our country?”

“A writer has to talk about the things that go untalked about.”

Grapes banged his pillbox on the table. “Don’t argue literary aesthetics with your grandmother,” he said. “She’s right. You are always trying to shock. You have all this horrible stuff in your work. Not very Christian things. Not very patriotic. And you say things that are not yours to say.”

I pray that Miguel Syjuco will write more as a Filipino, with less regard for the current craze for cleverness. I’m happy to forgive the distractions of Ilustrado; the novel would never have attracted the attention that it did without the razzle-dazzle virtuosity. Now that he has demonstrated that he can write like us, however, let’s hope that he will write like himself. Finding out how to do that ought to keep him plenty busy. (July 2010)