Book excerpt

Ilustrado

A Novel

Miguel Syjuco

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

1

A battered wooden chest in the bedroom, its inlay shedding, its key finally found in a locked desk drawer. Inside: A recent diary (orange suede cover, hand-burnished a smooth caramel [inside: translations, riddles, jokes, poems, notes, other]). First editions (Autoplagiarist, Red Earth, The Collected Fictions, The Enlightened, et cetera). A dilapidated overnight suitcase (white Bakelite handle; stickers from hotels long shuttered [the lock is forced open with a table knife: the scent of pencil shavings and binding glue, a sheaf of photographs {slouching at the edges}, his sister’s childhood diaries held together by a crumbling rubber band, pregnant manila envelopes {transcripts, newspaper clippings, red-marked drafts of stories, official documents <birth certificate, vaccination records, expired passports, et cetera>}, a canvas portfolio {charcoal, graphite, ink sketches <horses, facades, portraits, cutlery>}, a battered set of Russian nesting dolls {the innermost missing}, other assorted miscellany {a Parker Vacumatic fountain pen, inherited medals from the Second World War, a lock of amber hair, et cetera}]).

*

My friend and mentor was quite alive the night before. The door cracked open, only his nose and eye visible. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.” The blue door clicked shut, unapologetically. The dead bolt slid in with a finality I did not at the time recognize. I left and had a bacon cheeseburger without him, irritated by his uncharacteristic rudeness.

What could I have said to him? Should I have forced open the door? Slapped him twice across the face and demanded he tell me what was wrong? Days, weeks later, all the fragments still would not click together. The events seemed unreal, confusing. Some nights I’d tiptoe quietly out of bed, cautious not to wake Madison and risk igniting her anger; I’d sit on the couch, deep in thought until the sky turned lilac. Both suicide and murder seemed like two sides of the same prime-time seduction. In retrospect, this was healthy for me to feel. Clichés remind and reassure us that we’re not alone, that others have trod this ground long ago. Still, I could not understand why the world chose to take the easy way out: to write him off simply, then go home to watch TV shows with complicated plots. Maybe that’s the habit of our age.

Then, at four weeks after Crispin’s death, I was telephoned by his sister (her voice as thin and pale as a piece of string) and asked to divest his life’s possessions; I entered his musty apartment as if it were a crypt.

At four months, I found myself unable to sleep at night; I’d sit and listen to Madison’s breathing, thinking, for some reason, of the parents I never got to know, and how I missed Crispin, with his stupid fedora and strong opinions.

At six months, I began Crispin’s biography; the long hours in the library, the idea that his life could help me with mine, somehow kept me sane.

At eight months and one week, Madison left me for good; I hoped she’d call but she didn’t.

Late in the night of November 15, 2002, nine months to the day after Crispin’s death, I was watching my in box for any e-mail from Madison. With a bing, three new messages appeared. The first was from Baako.Ainsworth@excite.com. It said, in part: “Sharpen your love-sword rubadub soundess. Help that breeds arousal victories. How to last longer making love and have more feelings.” The second was from trancejfq22@skaza.wz.cz. It said, in part: “GET DIPLOMA TODAY!If you’re looking for a fast way to next level,(non accredited) this is the way out for you.” The third e-mail was about to be trashed when I noticed who sent it. The message said, in part: “Dear Sire/Madame . . . I was informed by our lawyer, Clupea Rubra, that my daddy, who at the time was government whistleblower and head of family fortune, called him, Clupea Rubra, and conducted him round his flat and show to him three black cardboard boxes. Along the line, my daddy died mysteriously, and Government has been after us, molesting, policing, and freezing our bank accounts. Your heroic assist is required in replenishing my father’s legacy and masticating his despicable murderers. More information TBA.” The sender was crispin1037@elsalvador.gob.sv. I brought up a blank message to respond. I wrote: “Crispin?” The cursor winked at me. I hit “send” and waited.

The next morning, I bought my plane ticket.

*

See the boy getting on an airplane. He’s not a young boy, but a boyish man, as he would describe himself. He sits in his middle seat, notebook open, pen in hand, en route to Manila (I almost wrote “ home,” he thinks with a smile). It is a trip he hates, both the voyage and arrival. He writes at this moment, “the limbo between outposts of humanity.”

As the airplane is towed backward, he thinks of what he is leaving. Thinks of his lost friend and mentor, seated at the typewriter, working away in a slow accrual of letters, words, sentences, puzzling together pieces shed like bread crumbs on the path behind him.

The boy will return, heartbroken, lonely, dejected. His three brothers and two sisters are all abroad, free from home—atop a hill in San Francisco, washed under the big Vancouver sky, hidden amid the joyful noise of New York City. His parents, whom he cannot remember, are in graves he cannot bring himself to visit because he knows their bodies are not there. The grandparents, who raised him as best they could, are in Manila, though he no longer has contact with them because of the emotional violence of their last departure. He is coming home, though he doesn’t dare admit it. He knows well what empty houses are and the mischief memories can play when cast among unfamiliar echoes.

In the long hours spent in the airplane, he tries not to think about how his parents died, and therefore that is all he can think of. He flips through the Philippine newspapers, obsessively. He studies his files of notes, clippings, drafts. He unscrews the fountain pen he took from his dead friend’s possessions. Tries to write the prologue for Eight Lives Lived, the biography he wants to write about his mentor. He fidgets. Thinks. Observes his fellow passengers. Judges everyone, in the traditional Filipino sport of justifying both personal and shared insecurities. He reads some more, searching for a point of reference in a world that has never felt entirely his. He writes some more, trying to explain things to himself. He scribbles an asterisk.

*

Salvador was born to Leonora Fidelia Salvador in a private room at the Mother of Perpetual Help Hospital in Bacolod. Present were his eight-year-old sister, Magdalena (nicknamed Lena), his six-year-old brother, Narciso the Third (shortened to Narcisito), and their yaya, Ursie (no record of her real name). Their father, Narciso Lupas Salvador II, known to family and friends as Junior, was aboard the De La Rama Steamship Company’s M/V Don Esteban, en route from Manila, where he had been engaged with the Commonwealth Congress.

The newest Salvador came into the third generation of family wealth, acquired through a blend of enterprise, sugar, politics, and celebrated stinginess. The four years before the Japanese invaded would prove formative: throughout his life the familial roots in the Visayan region represented something promising and pure.

—from the biography in progress, Crispin Salvador:
Eight Lives Lived
, by Miguel Syjuco

*

. . . eyewitnesses reported two explosions, the second occurring thirty seconds after the first, both on the third floor of McKinley Plaza Mall in Makati. According to a spokesperson for the Lupas Land Corporation, there were no fatalities. No group has claimed responsibility for the . . .

—from Philippine-Gazette.com.ph, November 19, 2002

*

INTERVIEWER:

You wrote in the late 1960s, “Filipino writing must be the conquest of our collective self divorced from those we fear are watching.” Do you still think this true?

CS:

I used to believe authenticity could be achieved solely by describing, in our own words, one’s own fragment of experience. This was of course predicated on the complete intellectual and aesthetic independence of the “I.” One eventually realizes such intellectual isolationism promotes style, ego, awards. But not change. You see, I toiled, but saw so little improving around me. What were we sowing? I grew impatient with the social politics that literature could address and alter but had until that time been insufficient in so doing. I decided to actively solicit participation—you know, incite readers to action through my work. I think of the effect of José Rizal’s books in our own revolution against Spain a century ago. I think of the poetry of Eman Lacaba, who traded his pen for a gun and lived and died in the jungles with the communists in the seventies. “The barefoot army in the wilderness,” his famous poem called them. The epigraph of that piece was wonderful. Ho Chi Minh. “A poet must also learn how to lead an attack.”

INTERVIEWER:

Was there something that made you want to lead that attack?

CS:

Pride and fear of death. Truly. You smile but I kid you not.

INTERVIEWER:

Your return to the polemical is a criticism often cited. Did you . . .

CS:

It’s viewed as two steps backward. Erroneously. When you reach farther and farther, sometimes you come full circle. The task then becomes all the more difficult, false steps more likely—though the eventual outcome may become more pertinent. This of course opens you up to accusations of being quixotic or, worse—or perhaps better—messianic. Mind you, pretension and ambition are different words for the same thing. Truly, it’s the artist’s—the true artist’s—desire for causality that trips critics up.

—from a 1991 interview in The Paris Review

*

Three more hours until I arrive. At Manila. I almost said “at home.”

It’s a trip I hate, both the voyage and the arrival, the limbo between outposts of humanity. Remember when air travel was fun? Toy pilot wings and smiling stewardesses showing you the massive cockpit? Now they separate us from our valuables and herd us through security gates, shoeless and anxious; they scare us with tales of deep-vein thrombosis; they pack us in like animals, then run Keanu Reeves on screens on the seat backs to lull us into a squirming stupor. Soon after we fall asleep, they wake us. I bet anyone who is still a Marxist has never had an economy-class middle seat on a packed long-haul flight like this one.

Around me, in this tin can, my fellow travelers: we, the acquiescent, unaware insurrectionists; we who have left and returned so constantly throughout history our language has given us a name—balikbayan. Sloped-shouldered we are, freighted by absence; our hand-carries bulging with items that wouldn’t fit in overweight luggage, all the countless gifts for countless relatives—proof our time away has not been wasted.

These are my people. (Crispin once called them the “splay-toed, open-hearted.”) Beside me, a stocky, sturdy man in an acid-wash denim jacket and a slipping eyeshade, his head thrown back to snore efficaciously. Likely a construction worker, one of the millions-strong diaspora indentured by the persuasiveness of dreams. To my other side, two older ladies, sisters by the look of them, fidget and flip through the inflight magazine for the sixteenth time. Their inflatable pillows around their necks remind me of yokes on water buffalo, if that’s not too obvious a metaphor. One has a rosary wrapped around one hand. With the other, she turns the pages to the photographs. Her sister complains she’s going too fast. Across the aisle, a petite Filipina with towering shoes rests her blond head on the shoulder of a Texas-big American, his glasses low on his wedgelike nose, reading Dale Carnegie in a pool of light. A snake-and-dagger tattoo slithers up his forearm. Behind sits a spry, elderly Caucasian, his white hair, warm-up jacket, and khakis rumpled in the fashion of intrepid Jesuits or vacationing pedophiles. To his side, a duet of tirelessly gossiping domestic helpers continue their nine-hour run. Their heads, wrapped in eyeshades that hold back their hair, peck at morsels of hyperbole, like pigeons at rice dropped on the pavement of park promenades every Sunday, day off to the maids who flock by the thousands in the big cities of the world. I’ve twice heard about what Minda did to Linda and thrice cringed at the horrible thing Dottie said to Edilberto. I took notes, smiled, when I heard one complain: “She stabbed me in the back and my back wasn’t even turned.” The women’s bluster and brusqueness are crystallized by years of servitude, unconvincing confidence, irreconcilable distance from the things to which they once clung closely.

I myself didn’t see what Crispin had become to me until he was gone. My own lolo, Grapes, had been always too remote, the way grandfathers often are, to make up for my father’s death. He was hardly more than a ghostly silhouette I’d glimpse through the glass doors of his home office, writing letters at his desk or reading ribbons of paper from his telex until mealtime, when he’d come to the table and kid with me. The jokes had always seemed forced, and I laughed because I yearned for a connection. I keep telling myself nobody’s to blame. They’d already raised their children. By some accounts, they failed even in that. And suddenly they have six more. New orphans from Manila, shipped wholesale to Vancouver, disrupting my grandparents’ premature retirement—an exile which they had just learned to love.

Maybe the Filipino sounds in our English phrases, or the different ways we each looked like my father, reminded my grandparents too much of the life they had before the institution of martial law that drove Grapes from politics at the height of his career, that deprived Granma of her mahjong parties and battalion of maids, that turned them both into just another couple of doddering slant-eyed fools moving too slowly in the soup-cereal-baking aisle of Safeway. I had just turned five when we six arrived. My grandparents tried their best, gave up the small home they had built, moved into an ugly McMansion, hired a nanny to help with us. Grapes and Granma were intent on Canadianizing us, to prepare us for the melting pot into which we’d been thrown, and they prohibited us from speaking Tagalog lest we never master English. Even they cast off their traditional names, adopting my little brother’s mangling of “gramps” and “grandmom”: the man we knew as Lolo in the Philippines became Grapes (“sour,” he liked to say); Lola became Granma (“Like the boat that ferried Castro’s rebels”). As we all came to discover the limitations of assimilation, we grew closer as a family. I remember one time, after school, Granma and I stopped at St. Thomas’s to light a candle, as she did daily, for all souls gone and present and not yet born. A man sat up suddenly in a pew and started shouting at us. “Go back home, you gooks!” He must have been drunk or crazy, though at the time I didn’t know such distinctions. “We’re not gooks” was all my grandmother could say. “We’re Filipinos.” On the drive back to our house, Granma was quiet, ignoring my questions, as if I’d done something wrong.

I also remember, years later, us six kids with our grandparents in front of the TV. Dinner on the table had long gone cold as we watched images of Edsa Boulevard thronged with people in yellow T-shirts, praying and singing, nuns linking arms to stop armored personnel carriers, a young girl placing a flower in the rifle barrel of a soldier who was struggling not to smile. The CBS anchorman was saying: “This could be as close as the twentieth century has come to the storming of the Bastille. But what’s remarkable is how little violence there has been.” A small woman in glasses was shown talking to the people. “That’s Cory Aquino,” Grapes explained to us. The anchorman continued: “We Americans like to think we taught the Filipinos democracy. Well, tonight, they’re teaching the world.” Helicopters land and soldiers join the singing masses, everyone smiling. Then Granma said, tears in her eyes: “We can go home.”

I’ve been old enough for a long time, but only now do I begin to understand. Around me on the plane, I hear what she meant: the singsong of Ilonggo from the aisle seat nearby, the molasses accent reminding me of the way my grandmother said things. From farther down comes the clunking consonance of Ilocano by the lavatories, Bicolano by the bulkhead. A stewardess is speaking Tagalog to an elderly fellow, a man the age of my own grandfather, telling him all the places she’s been to. He nods at each, as if he’s been there, too. Maybe these people are coming home to make a difference. Maybe I can be like them.

My seatmates glance at me as if I were a foreigner. I save my Tagalog words for the proper time, to surprise them with what we share. Their accented imperfections remind me of my own, like that time in class, my first day at Columbia, when I pronounced “annals of history” as “anals of history” and how I’d wanted to flee the room, though nobody had seemed to notice. I eavesdrop on my countrymen, on their tentative English spoken to the cabin crew, never quite perfected despite years in the West: f’s still often traded for p’s, vowels rounded, tenses mixed, syllables clipped—only the well-practiced Western colloquialisms wielded with conviction. Like those phrases, we’re a collection of clichés, handy types worn as uniforms over our naked individuality. We are more real than that philosophical conceit of humanity as the milieu of light: we are the milieu of sweat. Our industriousness, our inexpensiveness, two sides of our great national image. That image the tangible form of our communal desire for a better life. Someone kicks the back of my seat as a reminder to quit being so profound.

On my left, my seatmate has long capitulated in the battle for the armrest (involving my performing many a subterfuge and feint, about which he didn’t even know), and I relish my elbow’s lebensraum. When I tell the stewardess my meal choice, I feel my neighbor observing me from the corner of his eye. He chooses differently, oppositely. When our food is passed down and unwrapped, I immediately regret my beef and covet his chicken. I slather my hands with alcohol disinfectant gel. My neighbor looks at me and smiles. I pass him my little bottle and he cleans his hands as well. Then he nonchalantly puts the bottle in his breast pocket. We eat our rectangles of food as if our elbows are fused to our sides. I pretend to be deep in thought and stare into the darkened screen of the TV in front me.

On my agenda, visit Crispin’s childhood home.

Interview his sister and aunt.

Investigate those names found in his notes: Changco. Reverend Martin. Bansamoro. Avellaneda. Dulcinea.

Sift through the ashes of the bridges that he burned.

Reassemble his many lives.

I know when we touch down in Manila my fellow passengers will all clap at the pilot’s landing skills. I know they will all jump, the plane still taxiing, to claim possessions from overhead compartments. I know a voice will reprimand them over the public address system and peeved stewardesses will swat at their upraised hands and shut the compartment doors. Always the same. That’s good, isn’t it? These fellow travelers have logged thousands more miles than most in the world, hugging hello and goodbye, working and saving, remitting money each payday, writing letters on onionskin paper to save on postage, telling their clan they’ll soon be home, finally; they’ll arrive unrecognized by unrecognizable children, to spouses whose kisses have become ostensible and indebted. It’s like that aphorism of Ovid’s that Crispin once shared with me: Everything changes, nothing ends.

Excerpted from Ilustrado by .
Copyright © 2010 by Miguel Syjuco.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Miguel Syjuco received the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and the Philippines’ highest literary honor, the Palanca Award, for the unpublished manuscript of Ilustrado. Born and raised in Manila, he currently lives in Montreal.