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Excerpt: Miguel Syjuco's 'Ilustrado'

Excerpt: Miguel Syjuco's 'Ilustrado'

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

Prologue

"The Panther lurks no longer in foreign shadows—he's come
home to rest. Crispin Salvador's fitting epitaph, by his request, is merely his
name."

—From an unattributed obituary, The Philippine Sun, February 12, 2002

When the author's life of literature and exile reached its
unscheduled terminus that anonymous February morning, he was close to
completing the controversial book we'd all been waiting for.

His body, floating in the Hudson, had been hooked by a
Chinese fisherman. His arms, battered, open to a virginal dawn: Christlike, one
blog back home reported, sarcastically. Ratty-banded briefs and Ermenegildo
Zegna trousers were pulled around his ankles. Both shoes lost. A crown of blood
embellished the high forehead smashed by crowbar or dock pile or chunk of
frozen river.

That afternoon, as if in a dream, I stood in the brittle
cold, outside the yellow police tape surrounding the entrance of my dead
mentor's West Village apartment. The rumors were already milling: the NYPD had
found the home in disarray; plainclothes detectives filled many evidence bags
with strange items; neighbors reported having heard shouts into the night; the
old lady next door said her cat had refused to come out from under the bed. The
cat, she emphasized, was a black one.

Investigators quickly declared there was no evidence of foul
play. You may recall seeing the case in the news, though the coverage was
short-lived in the months following September 11, 2001. Only much later, during
lulls in the news cycle, was Salvador mentioned at any length in the Western
media-a short feature in the arts section of The New York Times[1],
a piece in Le Monde[2]
on anticolonial expatriates who lived in Paris, and a negligible reference at
the end of a Village Voice article about famous New York suicides[3].
After that, nothing.

At home in the Philippines, however, Salvador's sudden
silencing was immediately autopsied by both sides of the political divide. Both
The Philippine Gazette and the Sun traded blows with Salvador's own Manila
Times, debating the author's literary, and indeed social, significance to our
weary country. The Times, of course, declared their dead columnist the waylaid
hope of a culture's literary renaissance. The Gazette argued that Salvador was
not "an authentic Filipino writer," because he wrote mostly in English and was
not "browned by the same sun as the masses." The Sun said Salvador was too
middling to merit murder. Suicide, each of the three papers concluded, was a
fitting resolution.

When news emerged of the missing manuscript, every side
discarded any remaining equipoise. The legend of the unfinished book had
persisted for over two decades, and its loss reverberated more than its
author's death. Online, the blogosphere grew gleeful with conjecture as to its
whereabouts. The literati, the career journalists foremost among them,
abandoned all objectivity. Many doubted the manuscript's existence in the first
place. The few who believed it was real dismissed it as both a social and
personal poison. Almost everyone agreed that it was tied to Crispin's fate. And
so, each trivial tidbit dredged up during the death investigation took on
significance.

Gossip cycloned among the writing community that Salvador's
pipe was found by the police, its contents still smoking. A rumor circulated
that he long ago fathered and abandoned a child, and he'd been maddened by a
lifetime of guilt. One reputable blog, in an entry titled "Anus Horribilis,"
claimed extra-virgin olive oil was found leaking out of the corpse's rectum.
Another blog surmised that Salvador was not dead at all: "Dead or alive," wrote
Plaridel3000, "who would know the difference?" None among Salvador's colleagues
and acquaintances- he had real no friends-questioned the suicide verdict.

After two weeks of conjecture, everyone was happy to forget
the whole thing.

I was unconvinced. No one knew what I knew. His great
comeback was scuppered; the masterpiece that would return him to the pantheon
was bafflingly misplaced and the dead weight of controversy buried in his
casket. The only remaining certainty was the ritual clutter inherited by those
left behind-files to be boxed, boxes to be filled, a life's worth of stuff not
intended as rubbish to be thrown out for Monday morning pickup. I just about
ransacked his apartment searching for the manuscript of The Bridges Ablaze. I
knew it was real. I had witnessed him typing away at it at his desk.

He had spoken of it, puckishly, on many occasions. "The
reason for my long exile is so that I could be free to write TBA," Salvador had
said, that first time, spitting out the bones of chicken feet we were eating in
a subterranean Mott Street restaurant. "Don't you think there are things that
need to be finally said? I want to lift the veil that conceals the evil. Expose
them on the steps of the temple. Truly, all those responsible. The pork-barrel
trad-pols. The air-conditioned Forbes Park aristocracy. The aspirational
kleptocrats who forget their origins. The bishopricks and their canting church.
Even you and me. Let's all eat that cake." But what remained of the manuscript
was only crumbs: the title page and a couple of loose leaves scrawled with
bullet points, found sandwiched and forgotten in his disintegrating Roget's
Thesaurus. Missing was twenty years of work-a glacial accretion of research and
writing-unknotting and unraveling the generations-long ties of the Filipino
elite to cronyism, illegal logging, gambling, kidnapping, corruption, along
with their related component sins. "All of humanity's crimes," Salvador said,
spitting a bone atop the pyramidal pile in his bowl, "are only degrees of
theft."

I, of course, believe the conspicuous lack of clues is
stranger than the disarray of the domestic scene from which he was mysteriously
absented. Ockham's razor is chipped. Every bone in my body recoils at the
notion Salvador killed himself. Walking through his apartment afterward, I saw
his viridian Underwood typewriter loaded, cocked, and ready with a fresh blank
page; the objects on his desk arranged in anticipation of writing. How could he
have brought himself to the river without passing his conscience reflected in
that Venetian mirror in the hall? He would have seen there was still so much to
do.

To end his own life, Salvador was neither courageous nor
cowardly enough. The only explanation is that the Panther of Philippine Letters
was murdered in midpounce. But no bloody candelabrum has been found. Only
ambiguous hints in what remains of his manuscript. Among the two pages of
notes, these names: the industrialist Dingdong Changco, Jr.; the literary
critic Marcel Avellaneda; the first Muslim leader of the opposition, Nuredin
Bansamoro; the charismatic preacher Reverend Martin; and a certain Dulcinea.

Excerpted from Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. Copyright 2010 by Miguel Syjuco. Published in May 2010 by Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

[1] Natalia
Diaz, "Filipino Footnote," The New York Times,
May 6, 2002.

[2]
Carla Lengellé, "Les guérilleros de Paris: de Hô Chi Minh à
Pol Pot," Le Monde,
July 22,

2002.

[3]
Anton Esteban, "Grand Central Terminus," The Village Voice,
August 15, 2002.

November 23, 2010
by Jeff Tompkins