Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

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Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: This is a kaleidoscope of a book told in multiple ways, that only comes into focus in the last few pages. Unashamedly literary in style, it's not a book to dip into, but if you have the time and patience to persevere you will see why this investigation of the Filipino psyche won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330510004

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When the dead body of Filipino writer Crispin Salvador is found floating in the Hudson River, apparently having committed suicide, his student and fellow Filipino, Miguel is suspicious that darker forces may have been behind his death, particularly when there is no sign of Salvador's latest manuscript that threatens to dish the dirt on the sleaze and corruption of the rich and powerful in his native Philippines. In order to investigate further, Miguel decides to write a biography of his teacher and mentor. That's the premise of this book, but it tells you almost nothing about the experience of reading it. This is no straightforward narrative of a regular crime fiction. It's a kaleidoscope of sometimes apparently disjointed writing that gradually comes together to create a story that only starts to come into focus about half way through, but it's not until the final pages where the true picture is brilliantly revealed.

This is not a book to dip into casually before you drop off to sleep at night. Quite simply, if you try to, you won't have the foggiest idea what's going on. The story is told in a wide variety of short 'voices'. There is the narrator's story, extracts from his biography of Salvador, extracts of Salvador's writings, blogs by a Filipino literary critic, a series of Filipino jokes, extracts from an interview with Salvador and, most confusing of all, meta-narrative that comments on the narrator's actions. For this reason, it's not the easiest of books to get into and some commitment is demanded of the reader. Persistence is rewarded later on though and it starts to make a lot more sense.

In trying to understand Salvador and the forces that shaped his writing and actions, Miguel explores the complex, myriad of factors that make up the Filipino psyche, and in turn, this of course reveals to Miguel something about himself. There are clashes of big business, post colonial independence (several times), religion, communism, and general political corruption and inequalities. Oh, and a lot of rain. But it's mostly a book about ideas rather than character or place.

Ilustrado was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 which rewards young Asian writers. In a wonderful piece of irony that you couldn't make up, the prize was awarded before it was even published, and the fictitious Salvador also won a major literary prize for a book before it was published. You can certainly see why Ilustrado was thus rewarded. Not only is it a book about writers, which the literary prizes often appear to favour, but it also pushes the envelope of the novel (presumably in this case, that would be a Manila envelope).

It's a book that would stand a number of readings, even after you know how it ends. There are countless allusions and allegories in the inserted extracts from Salvador's works. Particularly early on, I'm sure I missed most of them and would be fascinated to go back and re-read this at a later stage. As the story progresses they become more overt, or perhaps I just got used to the style and found them easier to pick up on.

The book is unashamedly literary in style and while sometimes the writing is an absolute joy, at others you wonder if Syjuco has swallowed a Thesaurus or is just showing off a little. Also at times, it feels as if he is trying to force too many ideas into the book at the expense of simply getting his point over. This is Syjuco's first novel, and he certainly wouldn't be the first to try to cram too many ideas into his first book. Particularly early on, I couldn't help feeling that if he didn't try quite so hard to be literary, there might be an even more brilliant voice to come in the future. But if you have patience and time to devote to this jigsaw of a novel, you will be greatly rewarded.

Our thanks to the lovely people at Picador for sending a review copy to us at the Bookbag.

For another literary prize-nominated book about authors (this time the Orange Prize), this book has much in common with The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, while it's fragmented structure is also present in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Another writer of a post-Spanish colonial country Roberto Bolano may also appeal to fans of this book, and Amulet is again about a writer, this time a poet.

Buy Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco at

Buy Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco at


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