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May 12, 2010

Book Notes - Miguel Syjuco ("Ilustrado")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Miguel Syjuco's debut novel Ilustrado won the 2008 Man Asian Prize as a manuscript, and before the book was even published his work was compared to the writing of Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolano, and David Mitchell.

Ilustrado is a stunning novel that lives up to its hype. Syjuco's storytelling deeply resonates as he explores the lives of noted (fictional) Filipino author Crispin Salvador and his student, friend, and future biographer, Miguel. Smart, witty, and compelling, this is both an auspicious debut and possibly the year's best novel.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Miguel Syjuco's wildly entertaining Ilustrado was the recipient of the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize. Such awards, as readers know, all too often go to earnest, high-minded, politically correct and rather dull books. In this case, I picture the judges, weary from perusing massive laser-printed works of heart-sinking merit, suddenly rejoicing at the discovery of a manuscript as engaging as this one, absolutely assured in its tone, literary sophistication and satirical humor."

In his own words, here is Miguel Syjuco's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Ilustrado:

Though it begins with a body, a potentially stolen manuscript, and a journey home to a country possessed by its own unique chaos, Ilustrado is a novel that owes much to other media. Crispin Salvador, lion of Philippine letters is drowned, and his young student Miguel pieces together the life of his dead mentor by plumbing through Salvador's life's works. Novels, stories, and memoirs are excerpted, and so are news articles, interviews, blog entries, text messages, corny jokes. This, to me, seemed to be an organic way of attempting a novel, because don't we nowadays piece together our perceived reality from disparate, rapid, relentlessly renewing sources? And always in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, is music.

The structure of my novel doesn't rely on the narrative conventions of rising action, climax, and conclusion. Instead, its momentum relies on the resonance of recurring themes – revolution, duty, compromise, parents versus children, heroism, exile – much in the same way progressions in jazz or classical pieces rely on recurring motifs. But that's beside the point. What's important is that in the early 80s, Crispin Salvador collaborated with the musician Bingbong Cadenza to stage a disco musical based on Ferdinand Magellan's scribe. What's important is that in taxis and streetcorners all over the Philippines, the Bee Gees still mix with G'n'R, generic techno mingles with muzak standards, and nights are always pierced by karaoke singers belting Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, or The Ramones. What's important is that the characters in Ilustrado turn to music, as does everyone everywhere, to guide them, comfort them, or inspire them.

Filipinos, I'm sure you know, are naturally talented dancers and singers. A book about the Philippines wouldn't be about any Philippines I know of without the omnipresence of music. That doesn't mean our music is "cool" by your standards. Ours is a country where glam rock is still glam, where all jazz is mellow, and where the most requested New Wave song is "More to Lose," by Seona Dancing (which, if you really know your stuff, you'd know was the 80s band fronted by Ricky Gervais. Did you know that? No? See? We did.) Check out my playlist and you'll agree I'm so uncool I'm super cool. Long live Filipino taste in music!

"Manila" – by Hotdog

What could be more rad than a seminal disco band named Hotdog? Their songs were a toe-tapping, hustle-inducing, totally-Pinoy brand of catchy, and in many ways they still define the way a generation danced away the hardships of the Martial Law years of the Marcos dictatorship. Hotdog's unforgettable classics are "Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko" (You Are the Miss Universe of my Life) or "Beh, Buti Nga" (Smack! Serves You Right!). But at the heart of every Manilan is the song about the city we love. And that is which Ilustrado's protagonist Miguel hears, his plane on final approach into Ninoy Aquino International Airport: "I've walked the streets of San Francisco. Rode the rides in Disneyland. Dated a million girls in Sydney, but somehow I still feel I don't belong. I keep looking for you, Manila. Your noise is music to my ears… take me back in your arms, Manila, and promise me you'll never let go."

"La Cucaracha" – traditional

This well-known Mexican corrido, said to be centuries old, can often be heard on jeepney and car horns. Given that the Philippines and Mexico were the most important hubs of Spain's galleon trade, it's no wonder it's so ingrained into our culture. Our protagonist Miguel returns to Manila, knowing full well that travellers will enter the Arrivals area serenaded by a band of blind musicians dressed in oversized sunglasses, flower-print shirts, and frayed straw hats. "La Cucaracha," along with other standards, like "Let It Be", or "Mas Que Nada", welcome the weary with a hopeful smile, a hidden warning, and a box filled with coins shaken like a tambourine – the sound of blind faith in your generosity.

Greatest Hits - Air Supply

Technically, this isn't a song, but an album. But when set on repeat on the CD player, it becomes the defining story of every young person's hopes. Don't we all want to be in love? And wow, this album is about nothing if not love. There's "Lost in Love," "The One that I Love," "All Out of Love," and "Making Love Out of Nothing at All." Heck, even the other songs without "love" in the title are all about amour: "Every Woman in the World," "Chances," "Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)", and "Sweet Dreams." What kind of heartless beast are you if you can't admit you know the words to at least one of these songs? What kind of fool are you if you can't admit you like singing them?

"Hold On" – Wilson Philips

Speaking about love, let's not forget that unforgettable trio comprised of two cute chicks and the larger one who favoured loose clothing. Our protagonist Miguel remembers what it was like growing up in a small city in the south of the Philippines. He and his friends would court girls at "discorals" (open-air disco parties, often in GI-sheet covered basketball courts, village streets, or dry paddy fields), listening to the much cooler sounds of Depeche Mode, The Smiths, or Rick Astley. But the song that defines that adolescent zeitgeist was one rooted in pain. Miguel was dumped by a girl with bad teeth via a note folded so many times it's the size and thickness of a trembling young heart. By way of explanation for the breakup, Darlene's written the wisdom of Wilson Phillips: "…I know that there is pain, but you hold on for one more day and you break free from the chains."

"Club Nitty Gritty" - Chuck Berry

Perhaps Chuck Berry's most underrated song, this is a funky ode to out-of-the-way juke joints, barrelhouses, love shacks, beer gardens, and dive bars everywhere. After Crispin Salvador's death, Miguel goes to his mentor's apartment to search for the missing manuscript. But Miguel is stricken with grief as he leafs idly through his friend's LP collection. He puts on "Club Nitty Gritty" and the rollicking piano and Berry's clanging guitar dispel the gloom and give solace in the way only true rock-and-roll can. At a dead end is a place where people are dancing: "They do the Mess Around, the Watusi, the Hully Gully, the Mashed Potato. And oh! Oh! They started Twisting. They did the Shimmy…"

"Cherish" – Madonna

I bet you, too, remember this music video. Sure, the tune was catchy, but it was the image of the efflorescing Madge rolling on the beach in her low-cut black frock, groping herself on the sand as the waves crashed into her body that proved an indelible image of self-love. At least it did to our protagonist Miguel, who, as a pubescent watching MuchMusic (Canada's MTV), discovered autoerotica by applying his dad's Hitachi magic-wand massager to his genitals. He found it wasn't just to Madonna that it would work, and promptly performed the same magic trick while watching Alannah Myles's "Black Velvet," forever cementing in his heart a love for tough brunettes in skimpy clothing, as well as black-and-white photography.

"The theme from The Golden Girls"

Miguel, as twentysomething men will, was having women troubles. His relationship with Madison was crumbling. Wearing on him were Madison's veganism, her niggling desire to run away to Africa to make a difference, and her insistence on decorating their Williamsburg apartment with Tibetan prayer flags and a supersized photo of the blue earth. Yet Madison said it was Miguel who was hard to figure out. What deep dark secret did he insist on hiding from her? Nobody, not even Miguel himself, reveals it in Ilustrado. Yet the reader knows. Out of frustration, whenever Miguel's trying to write in the bedroom, Madison takes to cranking up the volume while she watches her favourite TV show, The Golden Girls. "Thank you for being a friend," the too-loud lyrics go. And yet they become for Miguel an ode to a love affair where friendship has eroded into nothing.

Schumann's "Kreisleriana" and Vinteuil's "Septet"

Schumann's dramatic work for piano, dedicated to Chopin, was meant to represent Johannes Kreisler, the often misanthropic, always ingenious composer whose hubris and penchant for excess consumed him. On the other hand, Vinteuil's "Septet," which Proust said possessed "the real essence of life," will prove forever sweeter, imbibed with the eternal spirit of possibility. These two works, to our protagonist Miguel, present the contradicting forces of reality and imagination, love and hate, scarcity and abundance. One spring season, when the New York Philharmonic performed the pair (was it under Kurt Masur or Lorin Maazel? I can't be sure), Miguel brought Madison to a performance. Before it began, they sat outside by the reflecting pool, smoking some good bud beneath the stars, before going in to join the gray-hairs. The sound of an orchestra warming up, Miguel told Madison, before the tap-tap of the conductor's baton, is one of his favourite sounds in the world.

"Dahil Sa'Yo (Because of You)"

Popularized by Imelda Marcos, the "Iron Butterfly," who would sing it to her fans and to world leaders. This became the title of Crispin Salvador's monumental masterwork that dissected the rise and fall of the dictator and his regime. Sung by many before her, and many after, in Ilustrado what appears is not the definitive version by Pilita Corales (though did you know that Pilita Corales was the first female artist to top the Australian pop charts? Female. Ever.). No, not Pilita's version. Rather, it's Julio Iglesias's that is played over the radio that lonely night when Miguel finds himself in a car marooned with Sadie, his new love interest, in a Manila flood. Iglesias occasionally recorded Filipino songs because he had married a Filipina. Their son is Enrique Iglesias. We'd claim him as our own if only he wasn't so damn cheesy.

"Sabotage Love" -- The Cool Kids of Death

The group, formerly known as Hipsters on Speed, formerly known as Kaos in Chelsea, with bandmates changing constantly, finally morphed one legendary New York City summer into The Cool Kids of Death. Best known for their blistering track "Sabotage Love," The Cool Kids had no success, likely with good reason. But the song, as is said, remains the same. Part Ramones, part The Clash, all drums and noise and little talent, the band sang in unison: "This is your reality, you are where you want to be… Ouch! Sabotage Love! Sabotage Love! This is your tragedy, you are who you want to be. Ow! Sabotage Love." And this is the song Miguel remembers before Sadie, the new chick he's chasing, goes down on him in the car.

"Mr. Sexy-Sexy Theme" – by Vita Nova

In a world where ringtones rule, and celebrities run my country, music is power. Nothing could be more indicative of this than Vita Nova's "Mr. Sexy-Sexy Theme." Heard everywhere from the northern to southern tips of our archipelago, the contagious bubble-gum-pop ear-worm first started on the noonday variety show Eat Bulaga! Vita Nova was then nothing more than a lead dancer, buxom, bold, and beautiful in the way only a half-American half-Filipina can be. She, and her song, have since gone on to become something of a national obsession, with the song's happy tune forcing even the most respectful Filipino to try the dance moves – butt out, hands on knees, back arched, bum bobbing up and down, side to side. Think of the "Macarena" craze titted up, think of "The Hustle" for the masses starved for some symbol of sex and glamour from their midst. (Full disclosure, Vita Nova's asked me to write her biography, and has become a huge fan of Ilustrado, even putting up a fanpage at

"Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" -- Neil Diamond

Goddamn, can that Neil Diamond write songs! Not only does Miguel's new love interest Sadie have a poster of a bare-chested and sweaty Diamond on her wall, but this song is, like, totally her obsession. Not only does it reach deep into every young girl's hope of finding a misunderstood badboy to fall in love with, it also resonates with every man who understands that deep down inside he harbours fantasies of being that badboy. Look at how Urge Overkill's remake defined the scene in Pulp Fiction, with a kept woman dancing like a barefoot teen while a good bodyguard tries his best not to turn bad. In Ilustrado the song's connotations are more chaste – it represents a man's search for someone he lost that he wants so badly to find. Bless you, Neil, for such a timeless song.

Music by Ferry Corsten, Paul Oakenfold, Sacha & Digweed

If you can remember the names of the tracks, you weren't there. It was like the 60s, only darker, with stretchy clubwear, and flashing lights, and, of course, the zenith of the superstar DJ. Heck, throw in Underworld, Chemical Brothers, Junior Vasquez, Paul Van Dyke, and you've got the anthems of a generation. In Ilustrado, Miguel returns to Manila to find his old haunts changed, the bouncers at the VIP cordons unfamiliar, the dancers with the glowsticks a tenth as graceful as he ever was. For the first time in his life, he finds himself fantasising about what was, rather than what could be, and he realises he's come of age, or maybe gotten old, or just tired, or perhaps wiser. He's not sure. Who ever is? He does know he had a great time, back at Twilo, back at the Ministry of Sound, back in the fields beneath the stars in British Columbia, back when people dyed their hair blue or pink or green, believed in peace-love-unity-respect, and thought they could pop a pill and change the world with every beat, four to the floor, one by one.

"Every Rose Has Its Thorn" – Poison

Whoever you are, dear online reader, I bet you can sing this tune. I bet you know exactly what Bret Michaels was going on about. I bet you feel the indignation and ignominy when you watch someone who once knew how to squeeze a heart so intimately now touting himself as a reality TV star. But forget about the present, consider the past. The past always seems much better somehow. You were younger then. You learned the chords on your friend's battered guitar. You thought it wasn't so hard, maybe you could be a rock star, too. That was the puissance of the power ballad, when men looked like girls, and women looked tougher than their men. Because, in many ways, they were. And still are. Some may say glam rock was the nadir of rock-and-roll, when all that was represented by Led Zep, King Crimson, Spinal Tap, and, yes, even Boston, slid into a drunken stupor of sentimentalism and makeup on dudes. But you're wrong. Ask any gritty street vendor or chainsmoking hustler in the mean streets of Manila, consult with any white-bread frat boy from Ohio, and they'll be able to whistle the intro to "Patience," they'll be able to explain to you that life is hard, that love ain't easy, and that there's nothing wrong with singing away the pain. There's a lot of pain in the Philippines. And yeah, there's still a lot of glam rock.

Miguel Syjuco and Ilustrado links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book (the prologue)
excerpt from the book (chapter one)

The Book Show review
Bookmarked! review
Globe and Mail review
Guardian review
Library Journal review
Montreal Gazette review
NPR review
Publishers Weekly review
Quill & Quire review
Trisha Andres review
The Walrus review
Washington Post review

Asian Journal profile of the author
CNN profile of the author
Globe and Mail profile of the author
Manila Bulletin profile of the author
Montreal Mirror interview with the author
National Post interview with the author
National Post profile of the author
New York Times profile of the author
Time interview with the author
Wall Street Journal profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists