The body of Crispin Salvador, a somewhat passé Filipino writer living in America, is discovered floating down the Hudson River. His student and biographer, Miguel, searches among Salvador’s effects for the manuscript of a muckraking novel that had promised to return the old writer to the centre of the Philippines’ literary stage. Miguel’s quest to solve the twin mysteries of Salvador’s death and missing manuscript leads him back to their shared homeland, a place of infinite beauty, terror and corruption.
Ilustrados was the name given to the Philippines’ educated elite during Spanish occupation; here they appear historically important, self-important, pampered, tortured – and, for better or worse, vitally engaged with the fate of their nation and people. Ilustrado is a postmodern melange – Syjuco has dubbed it “récollage” – of interviews with the fictional Salvador, excerpts from his novels and memoirs, and first- and third-person accounts of the student Miguel’s adventures, blog pofsts, dialogues, dreams, radio news and a cruel running joke about a not overly bright sub-ilustrado called Erning. In amongst it all is a love story or two.
Tying all these disparate elements together are themes that include “the toothlessness of exile”, the complexity of postcolonial history and the way “private vice and public virtue” go hand in hand. Everything is at once bigger than life (a hung-over party boy discovers the head of a bomb-blast victim on his lawn) and grittily real (the household considers how best to dispose of the head).
Above all, Ilustrado is a meditation, if that’s an appropriate word for something so jump-cut, on the role of the writer in history, of literature itself. Miguel identifies as a “modern-day member of the ilustrados” but has too strong a sense of the absurd not to find this at least faintly ridiculous. He recalls how Salvador ranted against contemporary Filipino literature. The old man had despaired: “Truly, who wants to read about the angst of a remote tropical nation?” Miguel, embodying enough angst for three or four remote tropical nations, is much tested by this question.
A self-satirising thread runs through this texturally dense, Man Asian Literary Prize-winning novel, much of which Syjuco wrote while completing his PhD at the University of Adelaide. Miguel, a novice writer who shares the name of Ilustrado’s author, frets over his literary failures: “those damn confusing experiments with style. The thing is to write a straight narrative. That’s the trick: no trickery.” When the highly tricked up Ilustrado races along, this reads as clever irony; when it stumbles over yet another passage of potboiler purple from the pen of Salvador, stiff well before death, it seems more like an insurance policy.
Syjuco is a prodigious talent. He didn’t need to crowd the work with quite so much winking cleverness or hedging of literary bets. Ilustrado offers up a literary founding myth for the Philippines – “my first country, my Third World” – in a manner that recalls Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Even if slightly smudged by fingerprints from the dead hand of academe, Ilustrado is a tour de force.
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