Ilustrado, by Miguel Syjuco, Picador, RRP£14.99, 308 pages
Half way through Ilustrado, the debut novel by Miguel Syjuco, someone asks the narrator: “How can you write about the Philippines?” In other words: how can a young expatriate Filipino living in New York and writing in English produce an authentic depiction of his country of origin?
Ilustrado, winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, is Syjuco’s bold answer to that loaded question. The title refers to the ilustrados, or “enlightened ones” – a group of intellectuals, born in the Philippines and educated abroad, who in the late 19th century led their homeland’s struggle for independence from Spain.
Like the novel’s author, its protagonist is called Miguel Syjuco. Like the author, Miguel was born in Manila to a politician father and studied creative writing at New York’s Columbia University. Miguel’s relationship with his place of birth is clouded by distance and loss and longing, and further complicated by the push-and-pull of family ties. It seems natural to suppose this is true of the author, too, although Syjuco likes to keep his readers guessing about where autobiography ends and fiction starts.
The story begins with the discovery of a corpse in the Hudson River. It is Crispin Salvador, a once-celebrated Filipino writer ostracised by his countrymen, long since living in self-imposed exile and teaching creative writing in New York. Was it murder or suicide? The blogosphere is abuzz with speculation. There are rumours that he had been working on his final masterpiece, a vast novel likely to expose the rot in Filipino society and politics.
Miguel, one of Salvador’s students, takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of his tutor’s death by investigating his life. His opening summary of the career of the man who “set Philippine letters alight” includes all the milestones of literary success: reviewed in The Guardian, profiled in The New York Times, interviewed by The Paris Review; short stories in The New Yorker; an epic account of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship that “spent two weeks at the bottom of the New York Times bestseller list”.
In his final years, Salvador became a loner who dressed like “a flâneur with tenure” and possessed “the self-centeredness of the calcified lonesome”. Upon first meeting, Miguel had found him “kind in the way only the ungenerous can be”. Now, using Salvador’s novels, essays, interviews, autobiographical texts, photo albums and scrapbooks, Miguel attempts to sketch the portrait of a complex and deeply flawed artist.
But his interest is more than strictly intellectual. Miguel has latched on to Salvador’s life because he sees in it a vague reflection of his own. This becomes more obvious when Miguel’s research takes him back to Manila, the place of Salvador’s greatest triumphs and greatest tragedies. “Manila’s one big Rorschach test,” Miguel says. “You can tell loads about a person by what they think of it.” It is also home to the privileged few that Salvador and Miguel stem from – and despise.
They are the resentful peers who, in the same breath, could accuse Salvador of being “Not authentic enough”, “Too Manila-centric” and “Too provincial”.
Beyond Ilustrado’s furious skewering of Filipino elites is writing that bristles with surprising imagery. Life with a girlfriend, Miguel says, “was like walking naked around a cactus with your eyes closed.” Miguel notices how an old woman’s skin “sags on her as if she were a child wearing her father’s sweater”. An unruly and energising novel, filled with symmetries and echoes that only become apparent in its closing pages, Ilustrado pushes readers into considering matters of authenticity, identity and belonging. Despite its various comic turns, it is ultimately a tragedy – a raw reminder of the fact that we can never, really, find our way back home.