28 April 2011

The Folding Star

"So of course you saw him again."
"I probably would have wanted to, because I was a young romantic and to me ten minutes with a handsome stranger was clearly the same as true love, and besides it had the romantic complexities of danger, and sin, as I suppose I thought of it then. I can see now that it also conformed to the sense one had in those years that everything important was secret, and so anything secret must surely be important."
From The Folding Star, by Alan Hollinghurst.
  • I finished reading The Folding Star a couple of weeks ago, but it's only now that I've 'distanced' myself enough to take it in, and perhaps to write a few notes about it. 'Distanced', I guess, because it's a kind of novel that requires you think about it for a little, to sit by yourself and think and let the feelings flourish, in the same manner as one would during the credit roll of an emotional film.
  • The Folding Star isn't so emotional, of course, as it is horny. There's so much sex in it, written by Mr. Hollinghurst in a way that is at once beautiful and disturbing, and narrated by the Edward Manners character in a way that's simultaneously disaffected and right-in-your-face. But in fiction, sex isn't always about sex, or it isn't just about sex, and it is these implied meanings of the carnal — meanings beyond the carnal — that The Folding Star has implored me to contemplate.
  • Which begs the question: am I a reader old enough to contemplate? As shown by the above quote, to the young, beauty and sex are pretty much indistinguishable from love and importance. However, to me, I'm afraid, they are no longer quite so. I must be old! Or I must have grown so much older. Indeed, in a way, I would not have understood The Folding Star if I'd read it at nineteen as well as I did reading it at twenty-six. I would not have pushed the book back to my shelf and thought, for weeks afterwards, oh, how right you are, Mr. Hollinghurst.
  • My copy, by the way, is inscribed with "Wishing you all the best in your literary career". It would have missed the point if it wished me instead all the love in my life.

11 April 2011


Dear Mr. Miguel Syjuco,

You might remember me as one of the countless fans who wrote to you with a congratulatory note after a review of Ilustrado appeared in The New York Times. Or you might remember my thoughts on your first novel as being odd, for I had told you that I didn't quite know what to think of it. Well, forget that. I'm writing now to tell you how your work has come at just about the best possible time, at least for someone like me.

You have probably heard a crazy amount of good things about Ilustrado. (I notice you even have a "Fan Shrine" that's made its way to the top of a "Miguel Syjuco" Google search!) So what I have to say probably won't mean much, I mean compared to the positive coverage that I see, say, on the New York Times or Philippine Daily Inquirer or Time or even Smile Magazine. But do you know that the novel reminds me of Orhan Pamuk's Snow? There's that sense, for the reader, of being thrust into a story that flirts with simulations of the real. There's that same kaleidoscopic quality tinging every event while the story moves on and the main character investigates the details of a mysterious death, the dirt trails of politics, and the clues to a philosophical puzzle. Beyond all these, however, beyond whatever might be said about the story, I think that Ilustrado—its existence, and the acknowledgment of this existence—carries a significance similar to that carried by Snow on behalf of the Turkish people, or by The White Tiger on behalf of India. I make a reference to Aravind Adiga's novel because it was only when I read it that I realized the extent of what you have accomplished. Which is: put us on the damned map. You are likely to think of yourself as a writer who happened to be Filipino, and not a Filipino who happened to be a writer, but I believe very firmly that Ilustrado also successfully pushes a distinct Filipino agenda.

You see, before your book I'd never come across a review of a Filipino novel on any major international publication such as the NYT. I didn't even think that it was possible. Your Time interview was headlined by describing Ilustrado as a "Breakout Novel", but it may as well have used the adjective "breakthrough". A Filipino like me used to sit and dream and think that the biggest deal would be to receive grants from NCCA, win Palanca Awards, sign copies for fans at Powerbooks and National, hold readings at half-empty lecture halls in Ateneo, La Salle, UP. Then Ilustrado happened. I don't mean to glamorize your success, and I don't mean to take for granted these national institutions, but I hope you realize—and I write to you in case you don't—that Filipino writers need not feel so cynical about themselves and their professional fate. I hope you realize that, since reading your novel, my friend in New York, a mentor of sorts, has pushed me harder (and more furiously) to work, work, work, write, write, write. I hope you realize that my mother, a housewife who cannot be made to read Dostoevsky, is suddenly paying attention to an Inquirer feature story on Miguel Syjuco and teasing her son, why can't you be more like your namesake?

So thank you. And I am sorry that, on my first note, I'd complained that Ilustrado left me without opinion. I tell you now that it has certainly brought inspiration.

02 April 2011

Thank You For Drinking Gasoline With Me

(I wrote this in 2007, as another writing exercise. Having closed the old blog, I thought of publishing the piece here. Don't laugh as hard as I just did!)

Thank you for drinking gasoline with me. May the bartenders of CafĂ© Adriatico never call that a martini ever again. “Oh my god,” you said, smiling, “it does taste like gasoline, with a hint of puttanesca sauce. Or at least that's what you expect gasoline to taste like.” Not tight enough, I was slightly embarrassed by my choice, which does not mean that I wasn’t to blame, since I really ought to have studied the cocktail list more curiously. But there were formidable distractions all around us that evening, weren’t there? From the oval marble fountain on our left side came a childish jingle; we both wondered where the speakers were. A glittered man in a shiny gold intergalactic costume with a sort of antenna on his head was lurking nearby to frighten families promenading along Eastwood City Walk, which never fails to turn into somewhat of a posh carnival during holiday season. The powdered high school students whom father used to mistake as prostitutes for call center employees were there, too, using the word ‘like’ in their sentences to replace the commas, and then pushing each other playfully towards the Central Plaza for the Kuh Ledesma concert. Oh, the concert: we, too, were desperate to catch that. And so, contemplating liqueur amid the fluffy adult wonderland, I inadvertently ordered a glass of unleaded. But thank you all the same; it would have been a very dull birthday.

Thank you for drinking ice-cold bottles of San Miguel with me that velvet midnight. You paid me sweet attention, despite the presence of handsomer men on your periphery, and you promptly let me light your cigarette, despite the health hazards of smoking. And you whispered, whispered despite the surround sound that was blaring all that had gone wrong after the seventies. You kept drinking with me in a charming display of solidarity. Were you aware how unbelievably tired I was? That day, before our little rendezvous, I interviewed a source for a story, typed the transcript afterwards, wrote dozens of letters to friends, scoured the bookstore for a copy of Ethan Frome, played billiards with my holidaying cousins, and promenaded along Manila Bay. I thought that the beer would make me indefatigable—especially when taken in your company. It did not. I excused myself to go to the bathroom. On my way back, the world fluctuated violently and the dark became neon darkness. You witnessed me fall down under the weight of divine intoxication, once, twice, thrice, and I swear I heard you cry, “Mercy!” Mercy, indeed. But would you like to know what I was then about to tell you, if only I didn’t have to leave for the car park and remove myself from the vomit all over my Abercrombie and Fitch cargo pants? I was about to say thank you, thank you kindly for drinking ice-cold San Miguel with me. The year would have been utterly forgettable without tragedy or self-destruction.

Thank you for drinking Merlot with me, and for pleasantly surprising our party host with your mere presence. I forgot to buy him a present, you see, but reckoned that your coming along with me was enough, which in fact proved to be true. The view from the penthouse of the Greenhills condominium was beautiful; it held me in thrall. I gazed quietly at the impressive Manila cityscape right after leaving you at the round table to mingle with mutual friends from the university—artists and bohemians, directors and actors, advertising executives and vacationers from abroad, successful youth, all of them filled with congee calories and the heady goodness of red wine. Then they took photographs, many of which were of themselves with you, whom they might not see again for a long time. “I don’t want to take the spotlight,” you joked before our fashionably late arrival, “but I’m afraid it’s inevitable.” I was afraid, though, of some other inevitability: the usual prolonged exchange of pleasantries, not just with those other guests whom I didn’t recognize but also with people I knew very well. So thank you for doing my share of talking, for thus happily did I bask in my moonlit standoffishness. Thank you very much, even though this year there will decidedly be less to be thankful for, because, according to Jonathan Franzen, “the end of the binge is the beginning of the story,” at writing which I am no good.