The resumé of the late Filipino writer Crispin Salvador is nothing less than staggering. He began his career with some strait-laced historical novels, but his ambition quickly grew by leaps and bounds, encompassing fiction as well as investigative journalism and provocative op-ed pieces (including “Why Would a Loving God Make Us Fart?”). He wrote a trilogy of magic-infused young adult books, a satirical travel guide to the Philippines, pulpy spy and naval adventures, and all kinds of other, frequently self-published, screeds and off-the-wall experiments. His autobiography, Autoplagiarist, was 2,572 pages long. At the time of his sudden and unexpected death in early 2002, Crispin was said to be on the verge of completing his magnum opus: a huge, inflammatory novel “unknotting and unraveling the generations-long ties of the Filipino elite to cronyism, illegal logging, gambling, kidnapping, corruption, along with their related component sins.” It was called The Bridges Ablaze, or TBA for short.
Of course, Crispin Salvador isn’t real, and never was. Who cares? As the key figure in Ilustrado, the spine-tingling and thrillingly ambitious debut novel by Montreal-via-Manila’s Miguel Syjuco, the man is as vivid a persona as they come. His bibliography is so meticulously and lovingly documented that he might as well have been real; it’s as if Syjuco has snuck Crispin’s portrait into the literary pantheon and nobody noticed it was a fake.
Ilustrado belongs to a growing, muscular tradition of postmodern puzzle-box novels that revolve around missing persons, mixed media, and fractured, often overlapping perspectives. It’s fitting, then, that Syjuco’s book is itself so entangled in and difficult to separate from its brethren—there are varying whiffs of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and Roberto Bolaño generally, not to mention scores of cleverly veiled references to Don Quixote and Jorge Luis Borges. There are font changes. There are jokes involving punctuation. There are pretty much all of the tricks that make a certain kind of literary nerd—raise your hands if you’re with me—squeal with glee.
A quick test: do you find the mere mention of a fictional prose poem called “Borges Disappointed by the Internet” howlingly funny? If so, Ilustrado has you squarely in its sights.
The main thread is narrated by one Miguel Syjuco (no relation, I’m sure), a former student of Crispin’s. After his mentor is found dead, possibly murdered, floating in New York’s Hudson River, Miguel goes back to Crispin’s apartment, only to discover the notorious TBA manuscript has gone missing. Among the remaining scraps of paper he finds a short, hand-written list of names. Before he even quite realizes what he’s doing, Miguel has begun writing a biography of Crispin, and finds himself on a plane back to Manila in search of the truth.
Apparently the real Syjuco began by writing the story in a linear fashion, moving all the way through one style and perspective before beginning the next. He eventually declared the 200,000-word manuscript unreadable—sight unseen, I’m tempted to agree with him—and instead sliced the stories into ribbons, cleared away the excess, and threaded the leftovers together like a tapestry. Ilustrado shows these seams with pride. Miguel’s internal monologue rubs up against text from his biography-in-progress, which butts heads with excerpts from Crispin’s stories and novels, which in turn make trouble for printouts of Philippine blog posts and old, corny jokes. For Crispin, Miguel, and the real-life Syjuco, the boundaries between life and text are extremely porous.
Over time, Miguel and Crispin’s lives start to overlap, and here Syjuco makes a generous move: he takes the reader’s confusion, the always-nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something important, and turns it into yet another of the novel’s moving parts. A certain kind of dream logic takes over—one that continues to build and disorient right up until the startling, phosphorescent final scenes, where everything is flipped on its head once more.
These kinds of novels also tend, curiously, to put heavy emphasis on geography and nationalism, and Ilustrado is no different. Syjuco’s Philippines are a place of energy and restlessness, where fledgling capitalist urges mingle with the lingering bitter aftertaste of foreign occupations. An entire country, with its own culture and conflicts, springs to life. It’s an effect comparable to what Junot Díaz did for the Dominican Republic in his similarly vibrant The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2007.
With all these skillful stylistic shifts, it’s too bad that the one voice Syjuco is hopeless at capturing is online lingo. He makes all politically minded citizens express themselves thusly: “IMHO, he s trying 2 cnvince us he s in control. Der4, dat shows he isnt.”
Get over that one little quibble, though, and you’re looking at a clear frontrunner for book of the year.
Hamish Hamilton, 320 pp., $34, hardcover
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, August 11, 2010)