By Miguel Syjuco
Vintage Books, 2010
Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008
General reading value: 4.5/5
Armchair travel value: 4/5
Fly-by summary: Literary protege travels to Manila to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of his mentor – big and unexpected twist at the end!
Why this book? The author wrote this book as a creative writing student at my former university; also intrigued to see what could have been so good that the judges of the Man Asian Literary Prize awarded it to an as-yet unpublished novel.
Take the full tour: The little “i” in my title for this post is not how Ilustrado is written in Syjuco’s book. My title is intended to convey that I think this novel would appeal to the generation of readers for whom “I” is increasingly becoming “i” in the sense that much of their culture and cultural experiences are derived from, and conveyed by, devices preceded by a little”i”.
In what one reviewer of this book described as “literary bricolage” (Dirda, The Washington Post, May 6, 2010), Ilustrado is composed of a sort-of mash-up of straight first-person narrative, repetition of that narrative from the third-person point-of-view; excerpts from one of the main character’s novels, autobiography and interviews; text messages; emails; newspaper articles; Filipino jokes and blog posts! Phew! Are you confused yet? I must admit, it took me awhile to get used to this style of writing but what it reminded me of (and hence the title and intro to this blog) is the process of flipping pages on an i-pad or using a remote to watch several tv shows at once. It is as though Syjuco is giving a nod to the notion that these days we tend to multi-task – or perhaps a better word is multi-filter – the various and numerous stimuli our senses are constantly exposed to, hardly ever focusing on one thing at a time but preferring instead to rapidly acccess grabs of information and try to form some sense out of them in the end.
What I have just described is the process I went through in reading this book. I never really felt as though I had a handle on the plot but rather allowed myself to be pin-balled around by the author, hoping that by the end I would be sent careering towards the bulls-eye where the rewards of this experience would be some coherence about what I had just read. I don’t know if this ultimately happened but I don’t really care because the experience was fantastic and, more than that, the twist at the end was so deeply satisfying and unexpected that it more than made up for any remaining confusion I might have head about the events in this novel.
I don’t want to spend much time on the plot(s). Other reviewers have done that and probably more commendably than I would. However, so you have some sense of what I have been talking about so far, Ilustrado begins with the mysterious death (“unexpected terminus”) of Crispin Salvador, a Filipino author who was living in exile in New York, having inflamed many of his countrymen with his rather ascerbic and ultimately damning descriptions of his homeland and particularly its political and class system. His protege, Miguel Syjuco, decides to investigate his death and also attempt to unearth a much spoken about yet never seen book Salvador had apparently been working on named The Bridges Ablaze.
Through the aforementioned collage of narrative forms, three main strands of story emerge. One strand is the life of the young Miguel who, orphaned as a child, along with his siblings, is taken into the care of his grandparents, wealthy figures in the Filipino political system. Miguel eventually moved to the US where he formed a relationship with Madison, described as having the “opinionated manner of beautiful women not blessed with big breasts”. The pair’s relationship worked by taking issue with everything in the world until they ran out of targets and began to take issue with each other. The relationship has only recently ended when Miguel begins his quest to learn more about his enigmatic mentor and therefore Miguel’s story continues to develop before our eyes.
The second strand is Crispin Salvador’s colourful and one suspects somewhat exaggerated life (his autobiography is titled Autoplagiarist suggesting some degree of deceit), told both through his own work, the eyes of Miguel and the commentary of various critics and bloggers. Salvador is what I would describe as a literary never-was or as Syjuco puts it, “full of profligacy, lacking in gravitas”.
The third strand is much of the 20th century history of the Philippines which is vicariously conveyed through both Miguel and Crispin’s own stories and is a fascinating account.
But for me, the mark of a good book is the number of times I underline sentences or passages (yes I am a chronic book defacer) and my copy of Ilustrado is now almost unreadable, I particlarly love Salvador’s comments on national vs world literature. Prior to his death he asked Miguel “what is Filipino writing?” and answers it himself:
“Living in the margins, a bygone era, loss, exile, poor-me angst, postcolonial identity theft. Tagalog words intermittently scattered around for local colour, exotically italicised…every Filipino novel has a scene about the glory of cooking rice or the sensuality of tropical fruit”.
I also love the following piece of advice he has for Miguel’s own writing career:
“Be an international writer who happens to be Filipino. Goethe called it World Literature. He said, ‘National literature no longer means much these days, we are entering the era of Weltliteratur…take Mr. Auden’s advice: be like some valley cheese, local but prized everywhere’.”
Something tells me that if Syjuco keeps up the quality of Ilustrado with his next works, he will achieve this aim and I look forward to following his career.
Next time, we will be Purge-ing in Estonia…
The Literary Nomad xx
| More on the Philippines…
Area: 299,764 km2
Delay your stay: The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd; The Music Child by Alfred Yuson; The Dead Season by Alan Berlow; Below the Crying Mountain by Criselda Yabes; Soledad’s Sister by Jose Daisay Jr.; The Descartes Highlands by Eric Gamalinda