Criticism of didacticism is common fare when talking of works of literature. Poems or novels must not express political views. They must shy away from social commentary. Ideologies must not be hammered on the heads of the readers. Yet this general rule seems not to be the case with Ilustrado, an intensely political debut novel by Miguel Syjuco, a Filipino writer living in Canada.
Instead of encountering the usual admonitions on the necessity of maintaining literature as a neutral field that transcends class and time, Ilustrado earns Syjuco accolades from the literary establishment. The novel received praises from the leading papers in the West and won the author the 2008 Man Asian and Palanca Awards.
Ilustrado begins with Crispin Salvador, renowned writer and iconoclast, found floating in Hudson River. In typical postmodern fashion, the death of an author – who at the same time serves as a father-figure – marks the beginning of the novel.
Then we have Miguel Syjuco as his novel’s own main protagonist, whose investigation of Salvador’s death propels the novel forward. Syjuco is supposedly writing a biography of Salvador, the Eight Lives Lives and much of Ilustrado revolves around interrogating the narrator’s relation with the dead writer.
The novel takes the form of a seemingly endless bricolage of narratives, interviews, excerpts from fictional texts, emails, text jokes, blog entries, among others. It is a convoluted mess of a story, a bloated collage that seeks to represent in broad strokes the general sweep of Philippine history and society.
The medium is the message seems to be Syjuco’s mantra and this structure stands in for what the author perceives to be the inescapable fragmentation of Filipino society and identity. This also hints affinity to the cliché of how all grand narratives have lost their efficacy in the contemporary era.
At the time of his death, Salvador was working on a magnum opus The Bridges Ablaze that purportedly exposes all the rottenness and shenanigans of the domestic ruling classes, the class from which Salvador, like Syjuco himself, hailed.
The limits of class and distance
It thus comes as logical for Ilustrado to be promoted as heir to Rizal’s scathing novels against Spanish colonial rule, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Syjuco himself presents the novel in various occasions as a critique of contemporary Philippine society and history. Accordingly, the International Herald Tribune not only endorses Ilustrado but also eulogizes the circumstances of its literary production: “a novel that he could only have written from the distance, physical and emotional, provided by life in exile.”
Yet the limitation here is in its comprehension of society from a narrow perspective that is widely divorced from the experience of the vast majority Filipinos languishing in hunger and poverty. The problem is in the way the novel frames the experience of a particular class – namely the educated elites – to stand in for that of the whole country itself. The focus on the corruption and crimes of the ruling classes cannot in any way be a comprehensive view of Philippine realities.
At the same time, whatever moral indignation committed by this class is not situated in terms of historical and material causes. Instead, we are left with entertaining but tired satires of ruling class hedonism and an overwhelming barrage of tasteless caricatures that poke fun at the masses.
The Filipino people are described here as the perpetual tools of the ruling classes who manipulate them as pawns in their factional rivalries. Ordinary Filipinos are completely drowned in the imbecility of the mass media industry and the circuits of social media networks. They are duped by Filipino leaders such as Dingdong Changco Jr, Nuredin Bansamoro, and Reverend Martin who are thinly-veiled stand-ins for real-life political figures. The subaltern, in short, cannot speak.
What Syjuco leaves out here are those daily sorrows and joys, those instances of human solidarity and sacrifices by ordinary Filipinos in order to survive, eke out a living, preserve dignity, and endure an oppressive and exploitative social order.
The communist bogey
The weakness of Ilustrado is nowhere more visible than in its depiction of the communist-led armed revolutionary movement in the Philippines. It is here, as literary critic Edel Garcellano notes, that the limits of its privileging of distance and class standpoint is most apparent:
1. Are the NPA cadres trained from purely military purposes? Is this not reminiscent of Rambo movies and Kung Fu action films? Is this not recreating jungle warfare training for American marines by indigenous tribes?
2. Are Kalashnikov rifles locally produced? Does it not remind the reader of Taliban insurgents in their CNN visual landscape?
3. Does the Sparrow Unit operate as a separate command and in the countryside yet?
4. Is the transaction done by the soldiers themselves, or through civilian conduits? Do Red fighters get to drink with the military, like some bandit-guerillas in a Hollywood setting?
5. In the heat of battle, is the blame game already in play? Shouldn’t there be an investigation?
6. Is the Party alienated from its mass base?
The answer to these questions are not simple and yet these nuances are never even hinted at in the novel: First, Filipino revolutionaries following Mao Zedong have for most of the time emphasized the political objectives of their protracted people’s war. This focus shifted for a while in the 1980s when spells of military adventurism afflicted the underground.
Secondly, most of the arsenal if the revolutionary combatants are taken from government forces in daring raids, ambuscades, and agaw-armas operations. The third, fourth, and fifth concerns are pure products of Syjuco’s corporate media-inspired image of the underground rather than a realistic approximation of realities on the ground.
Lastly, the revolutionaries were firmly immersed with their mass bases, a feat that allowed them to become security threats to the ruling order for more than four decades but this element is sadly missing in Ilustrado.
One doesn’t have to agree with the politics of the underground Left in order to make, at the very least, an objective account of their struggles. After all, for all its flaws and weaknesses, this was the movement that served as the core to the anti-dictatorship struggles against the Marcos regime in the 1970s and 80s. But it would seem that Syjuco’s deceptive portrayal fits squarely with his own view of the movement as a mere phase of youthful rebellion that is eventually outgrown.
The Ilustrado narrative
Ilustrado presents the reader with choices. Like in a busy market, you can take your pick from a densely layered plethora of texts. But rather than serving as building blocks for a comprehensive view of the social totality, any such construction is shattered by the novel into an endless proliferation of texts and images that obscures the realities of class contradictions.
Here there is no more truth that can illuminate social reality, no anchor that gives meaning. All that is left is the chaotic play of signs over an endless surface. And yet the seeming diversity remains dominated by the voice of a single class. It is the privileging of the vantage point of the educated ilustrados, a fragmented view from the apex of privilege, as the only narrative.
The real lesson here is, of course, that admonitions made against didacticism in works of art and literature is often applicable only to those that challenge the prevailing order. For all the posturing as a work critical of the status quo in the tradition of Filipino national hero Jose Rizal’s anti-colonial and anti-clerical classics, Ilustrado has a fundamentally conservative core.
How then must we deal with books like this? In La Chinoise, French director Jean Luc Godard’s film about student radicalism in the 1960s, we find the following dialogue:
Should books be burned?
No, they shouldn’t.
We could not criticize them then.