Miguel Syjuco’s novel “Ilustrado“ won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize as an unpublished manuscript. Published in 2010, it garnered much-deserved international attention and acclaim.* A bricolage, it builds the character of Filipino author Crispin Salvador through excerpts from his impressive body of work (including a 2,572-page memoir, short stories, novels, essays, even interviews).**
The novel, like many good ones, is a voyage of discovery. The protagonist, also named Miguel Syjuco (and whose life trajectory closely parallels the author’s), returns to the Philippines to investigate Crispin’s untimely death (was it suicide or murder?). On his way from New York to Manila, Miguel wonders what has kept Crispin from returning home:
Could it be that he had just grown too soft for a city such as this, a place possessed by a very different balance? Here, need blurs the line between good and bad, and a constant promise of random violence sticks like humidity down your back.
(Emphases mine.) I confess, I often wonder the same about myself.
Indeed, in our impoverished country, need blurs the line between good and bad. I have resigned myself to this sad reality. I have used it to rationalize our “damaged culture.” But now, I am beginning to change my mind. Yes, need can turn good people into bad, but greed does that too. Perhaps the right question to ask is: how much can we attribute to need (environmental), and how much to greed (personal)?
The shameless greed and corruption of our politicians are universally and endlessly lamented over. But corruption in our country lurks in almost every place you (dare to) look. Journalist Maria Ressa nails it: “Corruption is endemic. It infiltrates so many aspects of our lives.” Addressing 500 medical sales representatives of the global pharmaceutical company MSD (known as Merck in the U.S.), she asks them to look in the mirror: “it’s not easy to be both successful and ethical in our country today” but “I KNOW you can do it.”
I urge you to listen to the full speech, “How Good People Turn Evil: Corruption in the Philippines” (the full manuscript is here). A tour de force, I guarantee it is worth your time today. By clearly and boldly naming the unnamed, she renders it un-ignorable. She trumpets a call to action, within it a transformative message: in each of us lies the power to say NO.
(*Recent awards include New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Amazon.ca’s Books in Canada First Novel Award.)
(**Apparently, many readers were fooled into thinking that he [Crispin Salvador] was a real person, warranting his own Wikipedia entry (which has since been revised). I’m not sure how much of this should be credited to Ilustrado‘s verisimilitude, and how much to the gullibility of some readers. Surely, it takes both.)