ILUSTRADO by Miguel Syjuco

Book Quote:

“Could it be that he had 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. Wholly different from the zeitgeist lining the Western world, with its own chaos given order by multitudes of films and television shows, explained into our communal understanding by op-ed pieces and panel discussions and the neatness of stories linked infinitely to each other online.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (MAY 17, 2010)

The young Filipino expat, Miguel Syjuco, has some pretty high expectations riding on his shoulders. After all, his debut novel, Ilustrado, won the Man Asian Literary Prize (a cousin of the Booker) in 2008 when it was still a manuscript. Syjuco also seems to face an issue many expat authors invariably do—one of having to defend the authenticity of his voice.

However, as one reads Ilustrado, it becomes evident that the 33-year-old author has seen these issues coming. He is not only talented, but also quite clever. Through a neat writing device, Syjuco presents the dilemma—the question about who owns any nation’s experience—through a character’s voice and then goes about setting up his defense. The complaint is this: “Our heartache for home is so profound we can’t get over it, even when we’re home and never left. Our imaginations grow moss. So every Filipino novel has a scene about the glory of cooking rice, or the sensuality of tropical fruit.” In other words, works written by expat authors seem to ooze sentimentality. The solution, Syjuco suggests, is easy. “Be an international writer, who happens to be Filipino and learn to live with the criticisms of being a Twinkie.”

It is difficult to gauge whether Syjuco follows that sage advice in his debut effort but it is evident that only someone who has lived the life that Syjuco has, can create a novel like Ilustrado. At the book’s outset, a famous Filipino author, Crispin Salvador, is found face down in the Hudson River. At the time of his death, Salvador is a teacher at Columbia after having lived a flamboyant and colorful life back in the Philippines and around Europe. Many have been eagerly awaiting a new work—The Bridges Ablaze—a project Salvador is rumored to have been working on, for a long time.

Among Salvador’s many fans is a young Filipino graduate student of his at Columbia who incidentally, is also named Miguel Syjuco. Even if Salvador’s death is ruled a suicide, he suspects foul play. To add to his doubts, Syjuco gets a strange email from the Philippines implying that the author might have been murdered.

Syjuco, it turns out, has had an interesting life of his own. Born in the Philippines, he moved to Canada along with his siblings when his parents died and is effectively raised by his grandparents. Syjuco has a very fractured relationship with his grandfather, whom he calls Grapes, and a whole set of awkward family dynamics have made returning “home” to Manila not as attractive a proposition as it might seem.

But Syjuco decides he must return to Manila. He believes he can kill two birds with one stone: make some sort of tentative peace with his past and also find out more about Crispin Salvador for a planned biography. From this point on, the story splits into parallel narratives. There is one part that explores Salvador’s past mainly through his autobiography, The Autoplagiarist. Another narrative focuses on Syjuco’s own past and narrates his immigrant experience. A third thread focuses on the present, on Syjuco’s quest to find out more about his teacher. Thrown into this mix are flashes of humor, glimpses of Philippines’ history, and more snippets from Salvador’s work. These different pieces are written in different tones (and even presented in different fonts) and voices and the reader soon draws a larger picture from it all.

In an interview with the New York Times, Syjuco has pointed out that the way we consume information these days is fragmented and Ilustrado seems to cater to that trend. The fragmented pieces of the novel allow Syjuco to weave different narrative threads (varying in time and place) together to create a whole story.

The problem with such an arrangement is that the person whom the young Syjuco wants to learn more about—Crispin Salvador—never really comes fully alive. He remains a half-drawn character, a swashbuckling hero for sure, but not somebody the reader could really care about. So around two thirds of the journey, the attention begins to flag—you’re not so sure you want to learn more about Crispin Salvador, to follow the journey to its logical end. There’s a reason for this, which becomes clear in the epilogue but it might leave some readers wanting. You do, however, begin to care a lot about the young Miguel Syjuco himself—his fractured relationship with his grandparents, his unsettled expat experience, and his reactions upon returning to Manila.

All in all, Ilustrado finds it hard to break free from the weight of its ambitions. It’s difficult after all to encapsulate a nation’s history, maintain other narrative threads about two primary characters and still put together a cohesive story. But there are many flashes of inspired writing in here that make Ilustrado worth taking a look at. The streets of Manila come alive in the novel and one scene which describes the slow onset of a flood in the middle of a highway is simply spectacular.

“Your real home country will be that common ground your work plows between you and your reader,” an author tells the fictional Syjuco when he struggles to define his identity as a writer. At yet another time, he gets this counsel: “Take Mr. Auden’s advice: Be like some valley cheese, local but prized everywhere.” It is hard to gauge which piece of advice Miguel Syjuco seems to be going with in Ilustrado.

It is still early in Syjuco’s career though, and it is clear that he is an immense talent. So whichever path he decides to take in the future, one can rest assured that Syjuco will be going places. And reading Ilustrado can grant the advantage of having been on board right from the start.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (April 27, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Ampersand interview with Miguel Syjuco

Publisher page on Ilustrado

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another on the 2008 Man Asia short list:

Brothers by Yu Hua

A Filipino man’s NYC tale from  a few years ago:

Fixer Chao by Han Ong


May 17, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Asia, SE, Man Asia Award, New York City, Unique Narrative, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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