Excerpt of Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
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The Panther lurks no longer in foreign shadowshe'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 mediaa short feature in the arts section of The New York Times, a piece in Le Monde on anticolonial expatriates who lived in Paris, and a negligible reference at the end of a Village Voice article about famous New York suicides. 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 friendsquestioned the suicide verdict.
After two weeks of conjecture, everyone was happy to forget the whole thing.
Excerpted from Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. Copyright 2010 by Miguel Syjuco. Published in May 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.