Culture & Conversation

A Mightily Entertaining Carnival: Ilustrado

If there is minimalism in writing, especially in poetry, then it stands to reason that there must be maximalism as well. Miguel Syjuco’s novel Ilustrado certainly falls into that camp. Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, this novel is a joyful grab bag of sometimes disparate elements that revolve around the life, times and career of Crispin Salvador, a fictional Filipino novelist.

Syjuco is from the Philippines as well, though in real life he now lives in Montreal. The fictional Salvador, like the real Syjuco, is an ilustrado, a member of his society’s elite, Western-educated, and with deeply ambivalent feelings about his home nation. The book starts off with a bang: Salvador’s corpse is hauled from the waters off New York City, launching a writer character named Miguel Syjuco on a quest for who Salvador really was. The quest centers around the search for Salvador’s final manuscript The Bridges Ablaze, that was apparently lost and may have never existed. Of course, this quest will lead the fictional Syjuco (in an interview, the real Syjuco claimed that’s not him) back to his home country, where all manner of adventures will befall him. He’ll be caught up in floods and various near-revolutions, while partying with his fellow members of the elite and doing hits of coke off a key.

There is something touchingly naive about the Miguel Syjuco character. He’s a kind of Candide, wandering through a very complicated place, and posing the simple questions that need to be asked. All the while, he is trying to reconstruct Salvador’s (and his own) relation to the Philippines, this place of corruption and excess where, indeed, history repeats itself in a succession of dictators. He brings Salvador to life by quoting passages from the deceased fictional writer’s many books, some of which, like Manila Noir, are parodies of Western styles. Here is where the grab bag comes in: we readers are asked to junp from one Crispin Salvador work to another, discovering in the process the various chapters of recent Filipino history: the Marcos clan, the Communist resistance, Corazon Aquino, etc. The effect is a little like a carnival, as we pass from one sideshow to the other. Syjuco (the real one, that is) is a deft writer with great descriptive talents, and readers will know a lot more about the Philippines after the Ilustrado experience, though there’s not a drop of the pedagogue in this writer; he’s too raunchy and critical for that. This book brings to mind Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a 2007 novel that reconstructed the history of the Dominican Republic through the fate of one particular family.

Syjuco’s style, so involved with pastiche, does run a risk, and that’s an emotional one: readers may never find themselves with the time or opportunity to identify with the Syjuco character in his quest to make Salvador Crispin live again. But they will be mightily entertained, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

DAVID HOMEL is a Montreal-based novelist and translator. His new novel with Cormorant will be out this year.

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