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.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Putting The Coo In Coorg

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

TIGER HILLS Sarita Mandanna

Rubies flash fire, chills run down spines, soothsayers predict losses, missionaries have eyes the colour of the afternoon sky, amulets attached to fraying cords bring good fortune, fireflies glitter in darkening courtyards and a strong-willed woman chooses between a dimple-flashing tiger hunter and a sensitive childhood playmate.

If such over-ripe romanticism is your cup of filter coffee, Sarita Mandanna’s Tiger Hills will have you enthralled. This is prose as luxuriant as the land it describes, charting the lives of characters whose fortunes undergo as many ups and downs as a playground see-saw.

Prepare, then, to meet Devi, pampered daughter of an established Coorg family; Devanna, a tragically orphaned boy who grows up with her; and Machu, who achieves early fame as a killer of tigers, but soon has to choose between duty and love.

The novel follows these three characters and then their offspring, beginning in the Coorg of 1878 and moving on to the glimmerings of Indian independence, with a detour to Jazz Age Berlin. We also enter into The Far Pavilions territory when Machu sets off to fight in an Anglo-Afghan Wars, an episode romanticized out of all proportion.

Along the way, Devanna spirals into despair and desperation following an unfortunate incident of ragging at a medical college; Devi becomes a headstrong Scarlett O’Hara-type managing a coffee plantation; and Machu continues to oscillate between the love of his life and his actual life. As most of novel is given over to the travails of these three, the later sections describing the fortunes of their children come across as an extended coda more than anything else, down to an unfortunately contrived ending.

Much of Mandanna’s writing demonstrates that she has immersed herself in the rhythm and ritual of the Karnataka hills. We learn of the food, customs, apparel and ways of life of a variety of people, from the indigent to the well-heeled who retire to their club every evening. Throughout, the descriptions of such lore are marked by extravagance.

Every so often, the dialogue begins to quiver: with rage, indignation, despair and, of course, passion. On one occasion Machu asks Devi: “What rice does your mother feed you that you are so wilful?” This is a man whose laughter is “a low, easy sound” that glides over Devi’s skin “like sun-warmed glass”. A little later, his voice sounds like “lush, full-bodied moss”. How alarming.

Such examples, however, pale in front of the occasion when Machu, musing on his relationship with Devi, suddenly has a Debbie Boone moment: “It cannot be wrong when it feels so right”. Whether Tiger Hills feels wrong or right depends on how much of a stomach you have for this sort of sentiment.

Not Much Of A Stranglehold

This appeared in today's The Hindustan Times


Thug. In mid-19th century Britain, that word was enough to send delicious shivers down the spine of the novel-reading public, conjuring up tales of Oriental deceivers with knotted handkerchiefs waylaying innocent passersby and then performing rites to the Goddess Kali. Much of this was because of the popularity of Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor, dealing with the revelations of one Amir Ali, master strangler. This tale, clearly inspired by William Sleeman’s own account of stamping out the cult, was allegedly one of Queen Victoria’s favourite novels.

Nowadays, it’s understood that Sleeman’s account was either exaggerated or simply a case of reading too much into the stories behind the mass graves he unearthed. In his new novel, The Thing About Thugs, Tabish Khair is keen to turn the tables on such Occidental fancies. This is a postcolonial fable of another young man named Amir Ali who flees to Victorian London in 1839 – the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation -- and is thought of by his benefactor, Captain William Meadowes, as a thug with a nefarious past. Meadowes, in fact, is writing a book, modeled on Sleeman’s account, at the heart of which is this supposed thug’s confession.

As is made clear soon enough in a letter to his beloved, Amir Ali’s murderous background is entirely a fabrication. We begin to learn of his actual past while also being plunged into skullduggery in the dark heart of the British Empire involving a supply of skulls to a phrenologist anxious to prove his theories right.

The narrator – who may or may not be Khair himself – conjures up this tale from the library of a whitewashed house in present-day Bihar, surrounded by the work of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, among others. Khair is adept in showing us how the narrator dreams of this work through a clever juxtaposing of the books he’s read and the people he’s met. The atmosphere of foggy London town is also ably evoked, although it must be said that a surfeit of adjectives are pressed into service to perform this task.

From Amir’s adored Jenny, a charwoman, to high-born lords to vicious workingmen, The Thing About Thugs flits in and out of characters’ minds and motivations with ease. It’s also because of this, however, that the centre of gravity slips away from the novel on more than one occasion. Many fragments remain parts not cohering into a whole.

Khair also flings his net too wide in his attempt to write back to the centre, with allusions to Jane Austen as well as a misguided investigator whose sidekick, inevitably, goes by the name of Watson. It is this, as well as only a slight contemporary resonance, that prevents The Thing About Thugs from establishing a firm stranglehold on the reader.