Ilustrado, By Miguel Syjuco
Stylish mystery, played out in pieces
Sunday 29 May 2011
Miguel Syjuco's first novel, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008, is an astonishingly ambitious work full of avant-garde twists and metafictional turns.
The plot, such as it is, runs something like this: when his literary mentor and compatriot, the exiled novelist Crispin Salvador, is found floating face down in the Hudson River, a young Filipino writer resolves to discover the truth behind the great man's death. He leaves his New York home and returns to Manila to search for a missing manuscript that he hopes will illuminate the case. But the narrative is splintered and inchoate – in an aside, Syjuco describes his work as "shattered ... a broken mirror" – and it is up to the reader to assemble the fragments. We are presented with a bricolage of passages from Salvador's writings, texts and blogs from political commentators, and a picaresque tale of the protagonist's wanderings.
It is a compelling performance and with its juxtaposition of sources and vertiginous shifts in perspective, one feels Ilustrado is attuned to the internet age; the kind of book Jorge Luis Borges might have written if he'd lived long enough to Google himself.
There are flaws: Syjuco's running conceit that truth is merely a matter of perspective means his commentary on Filipino politics lacks authority, and his tendency to change tack weakens the book's dramatic force. Nevertheless, this uncommonly stylish and audacious debut deserves its accolades.
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