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52 Books #26: Ilustrado

July 2, 2011

Manuel Syjuco won last year’s Man Asian Literature Prize for his debut novel Ilustrado (Picador), the story of a writing student (also named Syjuco) who begisn the book learning of the death of his former tutor, the controversial giant of Filipino literature Crispin Salvador. Salvador upset a lot of people with his books, exposing the corruption rife among the Philippines’ rulers, and at the time of his death was at work on The Bridges Ablaze, a novel which would, he said, vindicate him and finally see off his foes. Syjuco’s suspicion is that Salvador’s death was not accidental, and he sets out, in this frustrating and fitfully brilliant novel, on an investigation of his own. Along the way the reader gets a faintly confusing crash course in Filipino political factions, lifestyle and culture, as Syjuco’s investigation fails — this is a spoiler — to uncover the new transformative facts he hopes it will, and simply leads him to look back on the culture that produced him and inspired such disdain from his writing hero Salvador.

It’s difficult to discuss this book further without alluding to (or spoiling) the ruddy great twist at the end of the book, which turns the narrative on its head by — spoilers! — revealing that it’s Syjuco who’s died, and all the foregoing has been Salvador’s work, imagining what might have happened if their roles were reversed — the investigation ‘Syjuco’ would have made. There are a series of clues along the way that all is not as it seems, notably sections in italics which feature a third-person Manuel Syjuco and suggest an author’s synopsis of his novel. Then there’s the giveaway reference to one ‘John Shade’ (of Pale Fire fame) among a list of canonical poets, and the massive coincidence that Manuel Syjuco and Crispin Salvador both get girlfriends with the name (presumably as uncommon in Manila as the UK) of Sadie. All is not as it seems, and so the twist about assumed identities writing each other in a sort of unending who-writes-the-writer orobouros isn’t all that surprising (in fact I had guessed — aided slightly by the leading hint on the back cover which describes an eleventh-hour “startling revelation” — by around page thirty that the living biographer and the dead writer might swap states by the end, and was rather disappointed to discover I had got it broadly right).

This is a slight narrative, bulked out with excerpts from Salvador’s novels, lectures and interviews. These are more or less successful pastiches on various genres — I particularly enjoyed the excerpts from Salvador’s trilogy of YA books which end with a neat and dark twist on the spells-and-pubescence formula of Rowling, Elizabeth Knox et al — but perhaps doesn’t adequately convey the breadth of Salvador’s writing: a little stylistic variation wouldn’t have gone astray. It isn’t always very distinct from Syjuco-the-character’s style either, which raises one of several problems I had with the final twist: it seems to negate so many of the potential criticisms one might raise against Ilustrado the novel. Not enough variation in style between ‘Syjuco’s style and ‘Salvador’s? Well, of course: they’re the same person after all! Not enough happens on ‘Syjuco’s quest? Well, that’s obviously because Salvador hasn’t been inventive enough! Shifting the twist into the narrative in this way is a risky strategy — I felt dissatisfied by the ending, not just because I’d half-figured out what was going on, but because the whole exercise became just that: an exercise, faintly smug, somehow faintly cowardly, in fooling the reader. It scuttles the book, which simply hasn’t been incident-crammed enough for the twist to be as shocking as Syjuco-the-author intends.

Where Ilustrado‘s successes lie is in the novel’s depiction of a new, to me, world of Philippines politics and culture, the internecine political machinations and changing alliances (Syjuco’s grandfather is a sort of kingmaker whose seal of approval can swing the direction of a foregone-conclusion election or coup — think Rupert Murdoch) against which ordinary people live their lives, studying, working, clubbing, telling jokes: I liked the recurring jokes about the ‘Filipino idiot’, though several of them were clearly not Philipines-specific before Syjuco got hold of them, and their appeal lies not in the punchlines (which are often generic) but in the way they form a parallel narrative, the fall-guy of the joke marrying and giving birth to a second-generation schlemizel who becomes the butt of the next generation of jokes. It’s a neat, simple way of conveying a culture’s view of itself, a perennial whipping boy at the mercy of grand forces, brave or silly enough to speak up against them, but never able quite to say the right thing.

Other reading in Week #26:

Ryszard Kapuściński The Shadow of the Sun (Penguin)

Gordon Burn Alma Cogan (Faber)

Fredric Jameson The Political Unconscious (Routledge Classics)

Téa Obreht The Tiger’s Wife (Phoenix)

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