Book review: 'Ilustrado' by Miguel Syjuco, reviewed by Michael Dirda
By Miguel Syjuco
Farrar Straus Giroux. 306 pp. $26
Miguel Syjuco's wildly entertaining "Ilustrado" was the recipient of the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize. Such awards, as readers know, all too often go to earnest, high-minded, politically correct and rather dull books. In this case, I picture the judges, weary from perusing massive laser-printed works of heart-sinking merit, suddenly rejoicing at the discovery of a manuscript as engaging as this one, absolutely assured in its tone, literary sophistication and satirical humor.
"Ilustrado" is a term used to describe the well-to-do intelligentsia of the Philippines. At the heart of the novel are two strangely similar examples of this class, writers living in New York as voluntary exiles from their wealthy and influential families in Manila. The first is the internationally famous man of letters Crispin Salvador, till recently a teacher at Columbia. Over the course of his life, Salvador has been the author of hard-hitting reportage, every sort of literary fiction, children's fantasy novels, James Bond-like thrillers, steamy romances and a scathing memoir. Passages from his various books are quoted throughout "Ilustrado," along with exchanges from his notable interview in the Paris Review.
Salvador is, in fact, a man who has lived many lives, and "his work borrowed liberally and embellished" each of them: "his upbringing as the son of a sugar plantation owner, the sentimental education in Europe, Mediterranean evenings spent womanizing with Porfirio Rubirosa or drinking zivania with Lawrence Durrell, the meteoric fame from his scoops as a cub reporter, training with communist guerrillas in the jungles of Luzon, the argument with the Marcoses during dinner at Malaca?ang Palace."
While Salvador constantly renews himself, he nonetheless remains consistently flamboyant and outrageous. According to rumor, he gave Manila's leading critic "that scar on his face during a duel with butterfly knives." Once he "drunkenly, though surreptitiously, vomited in the seafood chowder bowl at a George Plimpton garden party in East Hampton." At the same time, his usual "fastidiousness of manner . . . opened him to rumors of homosexuality, yet he was criticized for being a womanizer 'with the lascivious energy usually found in defrocked clergymen.' And he could never live down his 1991 TV commercial which showed him being served lunch in a book-lined study, shaking a cruet over his food before turning to the camera to deliver the now immortal words: 'Silver Swan Soy Sauce, the educated choice.' "
The other major character in "Ilustrado" is a young Filipino editorial assistant at the Paris Review and a former student from Salvador's writing class at Columbia. His name is, yes, Miguel Syjuco, and he has decided to research the life of his mentor, discover the whereabouts of the great writer's missing masterpiece, "The Bridges Ablaze," and even, perhaps, solve the mystery of how Salvador came to be found floating face down in the Hudson River. Was it suicide, casual murder or planned political assassination? The search naturally enough takes Miguel back to the Philippines.
At this point "Ilustrado" has begun to spool out three major plot lines.
First, there's the gradual revelation of the narrator Miguel's previous life, especially his traumatic relationship with his powerful politician grandfather, nicknamed Grapes, and his memories of an intense two-year affair with "the unfathomable Madison Liebling."
Second, Syjuco provides a potted history of the modern Philippines recounted through the lens of Salvador's family, with flashbacks to the colonial era, the battles for independence from Spain, the Japanese occupation during World War II, and the present day. Corruption is pervasive in every generation. What happens when Miguel's grandfather's inheritance is contested? "Having funded the appointment of a Supreme Court justice years earlier, Grapes won every suit."
In the novel's third plot thread, we follow Miguel's adventures in contemporary Manila as he interviews Salvador's aging sister and friends while also hanging out at the Club Coup d'Etat with his own spoiled former classmates and getting involved with a sexy, Manolo-Blahnik-wearing Filipina named Sadie. Every day, moreover, brings news of terrorist bombings and horrific crimes. A wealthy couple force their maid to drink Clorox after the distracted young woman allowed their child to drown in the bathtub because she was busy texting on her cellphone. This ongoing story grows increasingly sensational, the stuff of National Enquirer dreams.
And like the tabloid, "Ilustrado" itself increasingly blurs the line between the real and the fake. Narrator Miguel mentions that he wears an ersatz Oyster Perpetual that is virtually indistinguishable from a genuine Rolex. He attends a concert that includes Vinteuil's Septet -- a piece of music that exists only in Proust's "In Search of Lost Time." Toward the end, Miguel even discovers a copy of "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," by the Bombay lawyer Mir Bahadur Ali. This is a book -- part detective story, part metaphysical quest -- imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, who clearly inspired the conclusion of "Ilustrado."
And that, I think, is the only cavil one can raise about Syjuco's extremely enjoyable novel. Throughout, the book has been an example of "literary bricolage" -- bringing together Filipino jokes, transcripts from "The Burley Raconteur" blog, real history and people, made-up footnotes and the narrator's increasingly nightmarish dreams and experiences, some heightened by snorts of cocaine. In its last pages, however, the book seems to be going in several directions at once, as it grows phantasmagoric and then suddenly stops, before a final, not wholly unexpected, revelation.
"Ilustrado" is, then, more a novel of wonderful parts than a completely successful whole. But Syjuco is only in his mid-30s, and he already possesses the wand of the enchanter, conjuring up striking scenes like this one: After buying a tiger for a pet, Salvador's blustering father decides to hand-feed the wretched animal some bacon. Utterly terrified, the "king of the jungle" retreats to a corner of its tiny cage:
"My father threw the bacon at the tiger and hit it in the face. This puddle of piss formed under the animal, like some fluorescent toxic spill. I can see it like it was yesterday. The tiger cowering in its urine. Papa standing over it screaming. Mama still reading. We children averting our eyes, watching the flies land on sliced mango on the fine china in front of us."
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