Friday, February 11, 2011

Ilustrado

Miguel Syjuco, a master of the English language and novel writing from the Far East, published “Ilustrado” in 2008, and I read about it on the list of notable novels of 2010 on the New York Times list, alongside “The Nearest Exit” by Olen Steinhauer. I read the article on “Ilustrado”, and was intrigued, as I love mysteries and works by foreign writers. I picked them both up at The Strand, a marvelous store worth noting, and began tackling them both despite the presence of other books that I’ve had for much longer and were ahead of the list for reading. Despite some hindrances, “Ilustrado” can easily be designated one of the best novels on my shelf. The mystery that the main character is attempting to solve is a subdued plotline at best, meant to propel the story into a bunch of other contemplative areas of life in the Philippines. Syjuco contemplates way too much in certain areas, but this was tolerable. His uber-colorful writing and ideas kept me reading and venturing with him into whatever avenue he chose to follow.

Miguel Syjuco (the protagonist’s name, not the author), a student, writer and child of a rich political family in the Philippines, comes into the picture upon news that his mentor and a disgraced Filipino author in his own right, Crispin Salvador, is found dead, floating in the Hudson River in New York City. The cops cannot decide whether it is a suicide or murder, although people who know of Salvador’s life lean to the latter amidst rumors that important political people wanted him dead to stop him from exposing certain candid matters in his new book “The Bridges Ablaze”. Syjuco sets out to uncover the mystery surrounding Salvador’s death, as well as compile a new biography on his life.

Despite the tiny premise described above (or perhaps because of it), the story then sprawls into segments from Salvador’s crime noir and fantasy novels, articles of interviews he’s done in the 80’s, and pieces of his own 2,572-page autobiography “Autoplagiarist”. Mixed with those are segments describing Miguel Syjuco’s progress in tracking down Salvador’s relatives and friends, his love life in America and its renewed version in the Philippines, the country itself dealing with terrorism, politics and its dealings with religion and corporate interests. This, at first, is a very captivating and creative way to deal with the various themes, history narratives and literature within the story. But shortly after Miguel Syjuco touches down in the Philippines, this gets to be overbearing, as new segments continue to pour in, old ones become as complex as the main story itself and it becomes a struggle to figure out which politician is being paid-off by whom or which character is generally being talked about or described. In addition to this, the novel is full of these long diatribes of philosophical bantering that take up full pages and render themselves completely and obviously unnecessary for anything going on.

In a particular scene where Syjuco is on a plane, reluctantly traveling back to his home land, the departure from the central mystery of the story and entry into disengaging rambling first rears its head, as a few sections of prose in that segment took way too long to get to the point and Syjuco uncharacteristically notes that someone “kicks the back of [his] seat to remind [him] to stop being so profound”, which rang a note of autonomous self-importance that was very unappealing. I was tempted to put the book down upon sludging through pages of that stuff for fear the majority of the novel resembling this, but I carried on due to the gravity and prose skill of the story all the way up to that airplane scene, and I will say that I was rewarded.

Hopefully, Syjuco has taken heed of this, as I’ve read a handful of blog posts and tweets of people saying that they can only carry on but for so long before putting the book down. Then again, I would never ask any artist to stop writing the way they desire to just to appease anyone besides themselves. Perhaps, in some way, it’s on us as readers to get up to par with Syjuco’s level, rather than wrestle with prose that could challenge and strengthen us. Supposedly, Syjuco is working on a second novel that surrounds a minor character from this one. I look forward to it, and anticipate an intelligent exposé.

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