Saturday, February 19, 2011

llustrado - Miguel Syjuco

This book had a distinction of winning the man Asian Literary award , even before it was published. I understand the book was in its manuscript form when it was conferred the one of the biggest Asian Literary Awards for writing in English. That probably a reason for me to look for this book, adding to the motive of not having read anything of a Philippines based writer ( Miguel Syjuco, is based out of the Montreal, though).

Crispin Salvador, a leading literary figure of Philippines, was found dead floating in Hudson river in New York. Though the authorities dismissed this as another case of suicide, one of his protege , the narrator of this book, who is named after the author himself, did not believe so, for reasons justified enough. Salvador, is reportedly, writing a novel, which is expected to cause major disturbances to the literary , political and social life of Philippines on its publication. Salvador, son of a rich sugar plantation owner, had his education done at the best of European schools , later known for his hard hitting political reportage and his wayward way of living ( often with communist guerrillas, with various women). A writer of various genre of literary works, spanning children's books, political reportage, cheap romance novels, action packed thrillers , novels of high literary value which won him couple of awards, short stories and a 'tell all' memoir, which alienated him from his erstwhile family and said to be the reason of his living exile in US.

Miguel Syjuco's curiosity picked up after he learned about the missing manuscripts of his 'work in progress' novel , the Bridge Ablaze (TBA) which is expected to threaten the social fabric of Philippines. Unable to accept the suicide theory, he chooses to investigate the truth by himself, bringing him to the islands of Philippines. His intention of meeting Salvador's friends and family members, his comrades and critics, and most importantly, his daughter living aloof. The story thus takes us through the fragments of the life of the rich and the political and social history of Philippines spanning over a century. Ilustrados are the educated rich class of people during the colonial period under the Spaniards. The current lots are the descendants of the those rich during the colonial period, who continue to control the government and hold influential positions in the state.

Syjuco's expectation about the reaction of the death of the writer wasn't shared by anyone he met at Philippines. "...nobody's going to the States to murder someone nobody remembers, who's writing a book nobody has seen." was the typical reaction. There wasn't any enthusiasm in the social circle about the obscure writer whose yet to be published book. Even the dead writer himself isn't very open about his book.

I truly wish I could tell you more about TBA ( the bridge ablaze) . I can't. Not yet. I can tell you only this. It is a necessary work. Because it will implicate them all. All those people who said hope was hopeless, and so instead took to begging with their eyes a portion of the booty.... now I'm bargaining, begging, for just one last chance to bequeath a book about all the lessons I've learned painfully over the course of my life. .. I once thought The Bridge Ablaze would be that masterpiece. I'm not so sure it matters much anymore
.The book also is critical about the current state of writing in Philippines.
What is Filipino writing ? Living on the margins, a bygone era,loss, exile, poor me angst, post colonial identity theft. Tagalog words intermittently scattered around for local color, exotically italicised. Run on sentences and facsimiles of magical realism, hiding behind the disclaimer that we Pinoys were doing it years before the South Americans
Mixing up the historical period and the social structure , Miguel Syjuco writes the tale from the current , corrupt , greedy, scandalous politics of Philippines ( naming the rulers and leaders ), to the period of US occupation and the period of Spanish colonial period, giving us glimpses of the history of the family of Salvador, Miguel Syjuco ( the narrator) and the current state of affairs. Interestingly, the resemblance of Miguel's life with that of Salvador's is very evident ( with his relationship with the family, the mostly exiled life, unhappy love life) and the tale is often interlaced and mixed.

The book itself id written with the new medium of communicating and experimenting with various styles. Part of the book is the narration by the protagonist, part is the writings of Salvador from his various works, the interviews published at Paris Review, few diary entry by the protagonist, e-mails, blog entries and the follow on comments and a few third person commentary on Miguel Syjuco ( the protagonist).there are also a parallel thread of funny anecdotes about a character who has nothing to do with the main story whatsoever ( some of the jokes are good for cracking at a party gathering though). All these are interesting, but does not add anything to the theme by itself and often diluted the seriousness of the theme. He has a good style of writing and the book itself is an easy read. But it does not classify to be a masterpiece.

If I may borrow the exact words from this book, it is a work of a writer who,
...sit at home in your Greenwich Village Penthouse, living off the family inheritance, writing in English about the Philippines for the entertainment of foreigners..."
I have the similar opinion about most of the Indian Writing in English.

Ilustrado ( 2010)

Miguel Syjuco


308 Pages
Other Reviews : Guardian , Washington Post , Complete Review, NY Times

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