Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

8 February, 2011

What is Filipino writing? Living on the margins, a bygone era, loss, exile, poor-me angst, postcolonial identity theft, Tagalog words intermittently scattered around for local color, exotically italicized. Run-on sentences and facsimiles of Magical Realism, hiding behind the disclaimer that we Pinoys were doing it years before the South Americans. … Our heartache for home is so profound that we can’t get over it, even when we are home and never left.

Wow, this is one hell of a literary ride. You know when you open a book and start reading and you get the sensation in the pit of your stomach that tells you that this book is good and that you want to bathe in the author’s prose? Ok, maybe not bathe, but you know what I mean. I felt it with this one. But it doesn’t mean that the book will be easy to read or that I’ll whizz through it. Oftentimes I find it incredibly difficult to read. But still, you just KNOW that you love the writing. Well, it happened with Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco but boy did it take me ages to finish the dang book.

As with a lot of very literary novels that probably began in literary workshops/creative writing programs, Syjuco’s novel takes the idea of a novel and tries to subvert the theme. Like with David Mitchell’s experimental Cloud Atlas which took its cue from Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller. I can’t quite remember where I read something similar to Syjuco’s style but I like all this novel-in-a-novel and who-wrote-what business. It’s clever and entertaining.

One of the things I was looking forward to about reading Ilustrado was that it’s about the Phillipines. I was excited to learn about the history and culture (both traditional and modern) of a country I have never visited, but to which I’ve always had some connection: one of our neighbours and best friends was a Filipina when we were growing up in Thailand, one of my friends in London is a Filipina, my eldest nephews’ nanny was Filipina and my father’s work often took him to the Phillipines in the early 80s and he has many friends there. So it’s a land I’m familiar with but know nothing about.

In Ilustrado we meet a young would-be novelist Miguel Syjuco (see what he’s done here?) whose mentor and Professor Crispin Salvador has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Whether it’s suicide, murder or an accident, nobody knows. Salvador, from a prominent political mestizo family similar to Miguel’s, who once belonged to the Cinqe Bravo collective that tried to destabilise and re-establish the literary and political scene in the Phillipines has offended many people in his native country and spent the later years of his life teaching literature in a prominent US college and trying to complete his magnum opus, The Bridges Ablaze, which seems to have vanished along with his life. Miguel who is planning to write Salvador’s biography feels it is his destiny to try and find out what happened and to search for that elusive manuscript. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he hops onto a plane and returns to the Phillipines to search the truth about Salvador and ultimately himself.

In some ways I’m glad I read it on my commute because reading it all in one go would have been too frustrating and irritating, what with Syjuco jumping from one thing to another on EVERY page and quotations sprinkled liberally. However, no one can deny that Syjuco can write. His brilliance shines through every sentence and reminded me of why I like to read. It’s just that 300 pages of brilliance is quite hard going. But part of me is very proud that finally we are getting some experimental writing from Asia that is being fully accepted in the West. And Syjuco has highlighted a country that many of us don’t know much about whether it’s history, politics or culture. I was mesmerised by the names that tripped off Syjuco’s pen, the latin names that felt so romantic and tied the Filipino people to their colonial history and religious conversion. It reminded me of Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai where the protagonist travelled to Nueva España to open trade negotiations. I never knew the Phillipines was part of Nueva España until then.

Because Ilustrado is brilliant, naturally there are several bees in my bonnet. One was the extreme nature of most of the characters Miguel comes across. Of course, it’s a novel, so everything will be larger than life, but come on. Take the character of Sadie. There was something about her that was just too much and a little too stereotyped. But then the whole novel was too much including the character of Crispin Salvador. And because it was too much, it was charming. Does that make sense?

And there were lots of references and in-jokes that I, as a non-Filipino, would probably not get. But that didn’t really bother me much and I enjoyed the insights into the pop culture and lifestyle of a new world. It’s just that it felt as though Syjuco was throwing everything he had into his first book which inevitably leaves you exhausted and gasping for breath.

The thing I liked most about Ilustrado is that, as we see in the quote above, he tries to move away from the sentimental and nostalgic novel writing so endemic in Asian and post-colonial contemporary literature. I love reading about Asia just to get in touch with my roots. But I’m really excited about this new direction that we are seeing more and more in contemporary literature. We are moving away from the saccharine, rose-tinted version of history that many diasporic writers can’t seem to get away from. There is nothing wrong with that as I think it’s the first step in trying to understand a culture that is no longer truly ours. We must reconnect with what we know and then branch out. And I think that is exciting.

One thing I am sure about is that Syjuco will go far and I will be eagerly awaiting his next piece of work.

In the meantime, can I direct you to two wonderful posts about Ilustrado by Sasha & The Silverfish and Tony’s Reading List?

I would like to thank the lovely people at Pan Macmillan for kindly sending me my copy of Ilustrado to review.