Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A semblance of home

The premise of the entire novel was intriguing: a very famous Filipino writer by the name of Crispin Salvador was found dead, his corpse floating in the Hudson river. The manuscript of his final book The Bridges Ablaze is gone as well, a book that will expose the crimes of many ruling corrupted political families in the Philippines. His apprentice Miguel, an aspiring writer, sets out to Manila to investigate and untangle the mysteries surrounding the Salvador family, going back as far as three generations. In doing so, Miguel has to re-visit his mentor’s poetry, interviews, novels, polemics and memoirs, and this made Ilustrado not a linear work of fiction as a reader may hope it would be. In fact, as much as there is a consistent plot being followed, the entire novel is so fragmented that it’s visually challenging to read. Syjuco has invented Crispin Salvador as a prolific writer and therefore quotes ‘excerpts’ from the fictional author’s works. Reading this book required time because of the explorative way it was written. I don’t think anyone can consume it in just a few days. By its very definition, Ilustrados are ‘enlightened’ Filipinos who lived abroad and were able to understand firsthand what centuries of colonization have done to our nation, and so they seek for reform in an intellectual sense. Jose Rizal is one. And so are the characters Crispin and Miguel in this book. Most of the time it’s difficult to distinguish whose story it truly is, and about halfway through the novel, I realized that it is every Filipino’s story; all of us who never stop yearning for progress in a country with a decaying economy, dirty politics and hypocritical Christian values.

Syjuco’s prose is beautiful in the most harrowing and irritating sense. The passages are filled with feelings familiar with a Filipino individual, with all the aches, desires and disillusions we share as a colonozied nation, and yet the prose manages to alienate a more critical reader because the entire novel is a tapestry so convoluted and overwhelming at times that there was no defining bigger picture to put the puzzles neatly together. This is both the magic and weakness of Ilustrado. As terribly enchanting and genuinely humorous the excerpts from Salvador’s works were, Syjuco’s plot is hardly distinguishable; his side of the story alternates between autobiographical lamentations to psychological examinations of the Filipino identity or lack thereof. Though this book is a work of fiction, it translates more as a memoir of a person (who is by all accounts not even real), though perhaps that was the intention. If Salvador was meant to mirror the neglected Philippine literature, then Miguel (not the actual author but the ‘protagonist’) is the reflection of a generation of youth who is a mix of different cultures that are not its own, and the only distinctive quality that makes it unique is the diversity itself.

I battled within myself how I could review this novel while I balance both subjective and objective opinions. In a more personal sense, this book was an accomplishment of multitude proportions. It was intelligent, funny and intense. It casted a spell on me the whole time I was reading it. It was the kind of story that feels important because you relate strongly to it, even if the true reason is unknowable. I applaud Syjuco’s grasp of the English language while at the same time using it as distinctively Filipino. His prose has the same layers as our national identity like the scattered entities of our own geographical distance; we live separately because our country is an archipelago but in a more symbolic sense than the literal. When this book was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize, Syjuco claimed that "I’m a Filipino. I’m nothing else but a Filipino. I’d like to be a writer, not just defined by race." The product of his literary quest is a novel where fact and fiction are interchangeable at both its best and worst. Realities are blurred in this work of art, and oftentimes that it became exhausting to keep up with.

I’m almost afraid to be critical of this book, and it’s probably because in doing so I fear that it would devalue the enjoyment and other more sentimental feelings I have for Ilustrado. But two days after finishing it, I was finally able to de-mystify and make more sense of this book once I’ve separated myself from its transformative hold. This was also made possible when I finally figured out the epilogue. It took me a while but once it hit me, I was more confounded than satisfied. It enabled me to re-examine the book again with a more critical stance. There was definitely an overreaching quality to the way Syjuco wrote this story. There are so many threads that he had to connect together but the threads were not gracefully woven in the first place so the endgame was composed of many frays rather than with something concrete. I was not too happy about that. It certainly felt like all that time I spent in the darkness was absurdity itself because there was a candle behind me the whole time and all I needed to do was to turn around and grab it. I suppose that Syjuco’s novel is what it is because he is still defined by the Filipino’s search for national identity, even if he doesn’t want to believe it himself. We cannot escape the pull of our race and all its trappings. Much like Luna’s painting of Spolarium, we bask in our colonization, and our struggle to be individualistic still comes back to our purgatory where we are never going to be complete as persons, or whole as a nation. And there’s beauty in that decay.


Even with its flaws in narrative and consistent storytelling, Ilustrado is stylish and daring for its literary execution. The prose is crisp with memorable passages and its defying structure makes it unable for readers to put it in a specific genre. This novel can be enjoyed best if you read nothing else. Because of the fragmented way it was written, you shouldn’t put it down for too long if you do take a break. It may take a while to develop a momentum when you read it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"The toughest membrane imaginable"

This was an extraordinary find while I was sifting randomly through the dusty boxes of a booksale outlet store. The price tag was shocking as well; it only cost 10 pesos. I enjoy reading anthologies, whether they're short stories in fiction or non-fiction essays. Lewis Thomas' The Lives of a Cell falls in the latter category. The book is composed of 29 of the most succinct but unforgettable essays on subjects not just narrowed down to scientific fields but also about their ongoing connection to more humanistic fields of knowledge and endeavor such as mass communications and music. Thomas' aim is to show readers that everything in Earth is connected even if such connections are microscopic and neglected by the human populous.

Recommending this book to a general audience may seem like a strange thing, especially since most people would view this as an academic piece of literature that not everyone can enjoy in passing. True, Thomas's work belongs to classrooms and for students who actively pursue science as a vocation but I believe The Lives of a Cell has accomplished a surprising feat: anyone can enjoy the essays he had composed, and he composed them with such delicacy, craft and mastery, successfully employing a literary voice to deliver his pieces. The result is worth at least a day of your life (and I've finished this while on a bus ride during a field trip). The essays themselves are harmonious; Thomas not only has a great grasp on the fundamentals and implications of biology as a scientific field but also as a philosophy which we can look at nature and man's place in it with a renewed understanding. He definitely has an ear for music while he writes the essays; his sentences are so melodious, often resonating beyond our scholarly comprehension.

Here is a sample of his first essay that immediately gripped me by the throat:

"We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits in the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsing legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet. In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds.

But it is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death. We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia. Nor is it a new thing for man to invent an existence that he imagines to be above the rest of life; this has been his most consistent intellectual exertion down the millennia. As illusion, it has never worked out to his satisfaction in the past, any more than it does today. Man is embedded in nature."

There is nothing I could say that could offer you any kind of consolation if you ever pick up this book except that it's a transformative experience you shouldn't miss out on. You can view The Lives of a Cell as a scientist's journal--but don't expect it to be stifling or dreary at all. Thomas' musings and observations are quite whimsical and heartfelt. Trust him while you read his work and he may open your mind with things a lot of us are quick to overlook in our lives.

* A collection of sublime and compelling examinations on man and nature, written with deftness and childlike curiosity

Since I don't believe this book is available in print anymore unless in bargain sales, I decided to research it online and was happy to find a PDF copy which you can read HERE