Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Re-inventing Filipino History

This appeared in the last issue of New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian. (I'm told the website should be operational soon.)

ILUSTRADO Miguel Syjuco

In his recent Reality Hunger, a manifesto for a new form of art and writing, David Shields applauds “the anti-novel, built from scraps”, going on to quote John Berger: “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one”. Although Shields’ interest is in the blurring of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, between allusion and invention – indeed between all sorts of genres themselves – it’s those sentences that are important in assessing Miguel Syjuco’s debut novel, Ilustrado.

In the prologue to the action itself, we’re told that “the facts, shattered, are gathered, for your deliberation, like a broken mirror whose final piece has been forced into place”. And at another time in the novel, a character debates the merits of literary bricolage as a narrative structure. Backing up these assertions is an extraordinary range of styles and allusions in the narrative -- from referencing actual periodicals such as The Paris Review to extracts from essays, short stories and works-in-progress as well as e-mails and blog posts. That all of this hangs together to create some sort of unity is testament to Syjuco’s skill.

Ilustrado begins with the discovery of the body of Crispin Salvador, expatriate Filipino novelist, floating in the Hudson. Tales are rife of the masterwork that Salvador has been working on for the last two decades, a capacious, corrosive work entitled The Bridges Ablaze or, more puckishly, TBA. This manuscript promises to unknot and unravel “the generations-long ties of the Filipino elite to illegal logging, gambling, corruption along with their related component sins”.

Salvador’s acolyte in New York, and a member of his writing class – called Miguel, like the author – resolves to track down this manuscript. This, among other things, entails a visit to his hometown of Manila to locate Salvador’s sister and then long unheard-of daughter. In the process, we’re made aware of Miguel’s own childhood in Vancouver and Manila, his fractious relationship with his grandparents, his failed affair, his current life in Manila and his increasing desperation as he, like Captain Ahab, attempts to get closer to the whale.

Along the way, Syjuco deftly manages to weave in mention of the last century and a half of Filipino history, including the Spanish and American periods, political infighting, martial law and more, including of course references to the Aquinos and the Marcoses.

In its ambition and its exposition, Ilustrado is a self-consciously literary work. The style ranges from intimate first-person to close third to pastiche of other modes of writing. Along the way, there are several digs at the authenticity – or otherwise – of current Filipino writing in English that ought to strike a chord with those who question the aims of Indian authors writing in a language not of their country.

All of this is leavened with doses of wit, such as when Syjuco follows the life of a Filipino worker through a series of ongoing jokes, or when he makes observations about flying cattle-class: “I bet anyone who is still a Marxist has never had an economy-class middle seat on a packed long-haul flight like this one”. Then again, some remarks are more trenchant, such as when the narrator muses on the character of the Philippines seen from abroad, in words that again could be applied to India: “Our industriousness, our inexpensiveness, two sides of our great national image”.

The book, then, progresses via a series of ingenious coincidences, nesting dolls, parallels and, ultimately, a circularity that brings us back again to the beginning. There is much bravura display of craft, even though some analogies seem a bit forced, such as when we realise that though Miguel is searching for Crispin’s daughter, he himself has a daughter whom he has forsaken years ago. It must also be said that there are times when the constant interruption of the straightforward narrative dealing with the travails of Miguel gets wearying. Thus, though this is a book that throws off several incandescent sparks, there are too many occasions when the sparks themselves become brighter than the core. Perhaps Syjuco ought to have heeded the words of his literary namesake when he muses on the best way of writing: “That’s the trick: no trickery”.

At one point in Ilustrado, the character of Crispin quotes Simon Leys on D.H. Lawrence to the effect that our imagination often cannot fully absorb the truth of a city or of a land unless a poet -- or writer -- first invents it for us. The re-invention of Filipino history through the medium of a dizzying, dazzling tale could well be the foremost achievement of this Man Asian prize-winning novel.

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