July 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Ilustrado’ by Miguel Syjuco

By Linda Jaivin

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.

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

'Ilustrado' by Miguel Syjuco, Random House, 306pp; $32.95
Cover: July 2010

July 2010

From the front page

Not-so-hard Labor

Albanese has every reason to keep doing what he’s doing

Image of Fire Fight Australia

The fraught politics of Fire Fight Australia

The imperatives of commercial media mean that the bushfire crisis is unlikely to be a tipping point for denialism

Image from ‘Requiem’

Celebrating beauty’s passing: ‘Requiem’

Italian director Romeo Castellucci on his radical reimagining of Mozart’s classic

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Written on the skin

Trading the joys of a childhood spent in the sun for an adulthood under scrutiny on a skin clinic table


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Douglas Mawson & Scott of the Antarctic

Life sentence

Labor Party candidate Maxine McKew with a fan. During the 2007 federal election campaign for the NSW seat of Bennelong at which she defeated the sitting Prime Minister John Howard.  © Samh_78/Flickr

The battle for Bennelong: Round two

'Indelible Ink' by Fiona McGregor, Scribe Publications, 464pp; $32.95

‘Indelible Ink’ by Fiona McGregor


More in Arts & Letters

Untitled (Pollo Frito), 1982, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Stopped in the street: ‘Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines’

Early death meant the work of these renowned artists never fully emerged from ’80s New York subcultures

Image [detail] of Agency, by William Gibson

Days of future passed: William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

The cyberpunk pioneer’s latest novel continues his examination of the present from the perspective of a post-apocalyptic future

Image of Gordon Koang

The king in exile: Gordon Koang

The music of the South Sudanese star and former refugee offers solace and a plea for unity

Image from True History of the Kelly Gang

Kills, frills and Kelly aches: Justin Kurzel’s ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’

The Australian director brings a welcome sense of style to the unusually malleable story


More in Noted

Image of L’Arlésienne [detail], by Pablo Picasso

‘Matisse & Picasso’: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Hanging works by the two masters together highlights their artistic rivalry and mutual influence

Image of A Couple of Things Before the End, by Sean O'Beirne

‘A Couple of Things Before the End’ by Sean O’Beirne

The Australian author’s debut story collection confidently converts the linguistic detritus of our era into something of lasting value

Utagawa Yoshimori, The Tongue-cut Sparrow [detail]

‘Japan supernatural’

The Art Gallery of NSW’s examination of Japan’s centuries-long artistic traditions depicting the spirit world and the macabre

Cover of ‘The Topeka School’

‘The Topeka School’ by Ben Lerner

The American author’s latest novel canvasses the seething hate speech of the burgeoning alt-right and white-boy rap battles in the Midwest


Read on

Image of Fire Fight Australia

The fraught politics of Fire Fight Australia

The imperatives of commercial media mean that the bushfire crisis is unlikely to be a tipping point for denialism

Image from ‘Requiem’

Celebrating beauty’s passing: ‘Requiem’

Italian director Romeo Castellucci on his radical reimagining of Mozart’s classic

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

A gap too far

Despite fine words in response to the latest Closing the Gap report, the PM insists that politicians know best when it comes to the question of recognition

Image from ‘Extinction Studies’

Wildlife’s whispered traces: ‘Extinction Studies’

Lucienne Rickard’s durational art performance at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery reckons with extinct species


×
×