Apr 29, 2010

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco won the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Palanca Award for his first novel in 2008. It was just a manuscript back then. Now it's published and out in bookstores all over the world.

It's not an easy-breezy read, but that's not to say it wasn't enjoyable. It's weird fun like a Philip Roth novel. In between moments of touching insight and human tragedy, you'll laugh, you'll cringe. You'll laugh and cringe. Or maybe because I overlapped reading The Anatomy Lesson and Ilustrado? I'm kind of ADD that way.

The authors I have relished reading are often funny, even when they're exposing sad truths and horrible realities. Miguel Syjuco now included. My friend Coey took me to the book club dinner for Ilustrado, so thanks to her I got to tell him myself. Hooray for mommy-dates!

That's Coey and the author. After dinner, we had our books signed.
Powerbooks was our gracious host. Thanks for the Cibo dinner!
I also got to throw probably the silliest question asked of him that night: Were you a good boy growing up? You and my son were both born on November 17. Fine, roll your eyes. But...

Instead of some glib comeback, he told me how he was always deeply motivated by pleasing his parents which made the decision to pursue writing more difficult then it already was. That made me think. I also wanted to give him a support-group hug for being so brave. I probably responded with some shallow quip which I tend to do when flustered plus distracted by reflection and a sudden feeling of sympathy for a stranger. In this case, the stranger happens to be a talented, cute, charming author to boot. Anyhooo....

Here's a glimpse of his novel which I'm guessing made his parents proud. This is a conversation between the protagonist, a young writer named Miguel and his mentor--the "controversial lion of Philippine letters" Crispin. Two lit-geeks, sharing existential thoughts over burgers and a chess game in Central Park.

He was watching the children play. He noticed me and smiled. "From time to time," he said, "I wonder at the value of things such as those. Maybe I should have mustered the courage to raise one."
I studied the board. "I think you made the right choice," I finally said. "The world's overpopulated. Don't you think we all have our roles? Your books will have a greater effect." I bit into my burger.
Crispin gestured with his thumb at the children. "If I'm not writing TBA for our offspring, then who for?" He watched them for a moment. "One day you'll understand."
"I get it now. It doesn't mean I agree."
"I think you'll find even literature has its limitations. That will be a good thing, if you discover that."
"Limitations keep us striving."
After the Tractatus, Wittgenstein became" --Crispin picked up his king, then put it back. I let it pass-- "a primary school teacher. Rimbaud grew bored with poetry and left for Africa. Duchamp gave up art for this very game we're playing." Crispin moved his king next to my knight. "With every new year come new regrets, Miguel. You'll have your collection of them."
"That's condescending," I said, surprised by the acid in my voice. "I have my own."
"I'm sorry that you didn't know your parents. But there's more to life than that."
"You wouldn't understand." I couldn't look at him. I wish I had. Maybe I would have seen. But I went on. "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." I moved my knight. "Check." I looked up at him.
Crispin's face was like how I imagine my father's to have been, magnanimous and amused. "Changing the world," he said, "is good work if you can get it. But isn't having a child a gesture of optimism in that world?"
"Ugh. That's a little twee for my taste."
"Seriously, intellectually speaking. Consider it a moment."
"Sometimes we just aren't given a choice in the matter." I heard myself. I'm ashamed of how I sounded.
"We always are." Crispin moved his king. "Checkmate," he said. Sure enough there was nowhere I could go. Crispin got up and looked at me with either naked disappointment or brutal pity. He put his hands in his pockets and went and watched the children splashing. I still remember the tune he started to whistle.
Ilustrado, pages 121 and 122

I had to look up Tractatus and Wittgenstein, but I was totally feeling that conversation. Also, it's the perfect snippet for this mama-blog that's home to my twee posts. If I could join Miguel and Crispin's conversation, I'd tell them... Having children does change the world. It changed me. It's planet's most basic engine-of-change.

There are plenty more touching, insightful parts in the book. Some laugh out loud funny. Some raunchy. And the ending, wow, I didn't see that coming. Now indulge me and more of my silliness. Check out the author's inscriptions...

He signed a book for Bear, the 6-year-old who shares his birthday.

I'm sure he says this to all the matronas, but I have to hand it to Mr. Syjuco, for knowing how to make aging, bedraggled moms feel a little better about themselves--even if it's just over one dinner and a few minutes of chit-chatting.

For Bear's mama who thinks November 17 Scorpio boys are awesome.
Martin Scorsese was born on that day too. And Lorne Michaels. Cool.

Swoon. Hahaha! Told you he was funny. Read his book. It's already available in Manila bookstores, Amazon US, Amazon UK and Macmillan.


Barni said...

There's truth in his dedication at least! :)

Nona said...

Haha! A sense of humor and a way with words runs in your blood. But let's not diminish his achievement... Barn, seriously read your cousin's book!

He better have more books in him. Reviewers keep comparing him to Robert Bolano. A Chilean author that supposedly wrote the first literary masterpiece of the 21st century - 2666. Book club book? Reminder: dust away your copy of Curious Incident.

Cely said...

Yes, yes! I completely agree with Barni! The dedications are so true!

Unfortunately, I can't buy the book from here. But I'm adding this to my 'List Of Things I Have To Buy' if I get back to London!
Thank you!

Nona said...

Hi Cely! If you read it, you'll get to know our country a little better : )