For the past few weeks, I’ve been raving about Miguel Syjuco’s “Ilustrado” to anyone who will listen! Hahaha, I’ve even managed to convince a bunch of people to go out and get copies (Dianne and Mike and Mike’s uncle, haha —  I hope you like it as much I did!) because I couldn’t contain my excitement about it. Here’s my full length review (originally published in Manila Bulletin), and I hope it makes more people want to read it!

“When the author’s life of literature and exile reached its unscheduled terminus that anonymous February morning, he was close to completing the controversial book we’d all been waiting for.”

Thus begins Miguel Syjuco’s “Ilustrado,” winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Award and the Palanca Award, recently launched in the Philippine edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (International release is due this week — I think I’ll get myself a trade paperback of the international edition). I was waiting to board a plane to Davao, and I relished the ominous beginning as I settled down at the airport lounge for the first few chapters of this highly anticipated read.

Filipino writer-in-exile Crispin Salvador’s corpse is found floating in the Hudson River, and his student, Miguel Syjuco (yes, the same name as the author), wants answers.  Miguel sets out to piece together Salvador’s life with fragments of his mentor’s body of work, personal history, interviews with friends and relatives, and other sources, telling his own life story along the way.

“Ilustrado” is not your typical Filipino novel, eschewing carabaos in the fields and sunlight the color of mangoes in favor of epistolary-style metafiction that uncannily mirrors Philippine culture, history and politics.

Miguel is obsessed with finding out all he can about Crispin Salvador, and taking his cue from the leads he sifts from his mentor’s personal belongings, he flies home to the Philippines, seeking out Salvador’s family and friends while carefully avoiding his own.

Miguel is writing “Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived,” a biography of his mentor, and the reader gets to sample his work in progress as he finds out more about the man. The novel traces as far back as Salvador’s paternal great-grandfather Capitan Cristobal Salvador, his birth to parents Narciso and Maria Clara and four other siblings, growing up in a wealthy family and turning his back on his privileged life, and how he makes it on his own to become a legendary albeit controversial figure in the Philippine literary scene.

As Miguel cobbles together Salvador’s story, parallels are drawn between their two lives, allowing us to get to know Miguel, a young man also descended from a powerful political clan, who steps out from the shadow of his family history and struggles to set his own path as a writer.

Foregoing the conventional linear progression of a start-middle-end plotline, “Ilustrado” manages to flesh out the two personalities – as well as 150 years of modern Philippine history – using a variety of snippets, including Miguel’s narration and drafts of the biography; newspaper clippings and blog entries; correspondence; excerpts of Salvador’s interviews, novels, short stories, poetry, and autobiographical works; and even colloquial jokes shared by Miguel and Salvador.

Ilustrado” challenges the traditional views of Filipino literary craft (and even the so-called Filipino literati) as it indulges in a variety of genres and techniques to probe the relationship between fiction and reality.  Its richly descriptive prose has a touch of self-deprecating humor that entertains the reader from start to end, and the gritty slice-of-life observations of Philippine society are articulate, insightful, and amusing.

The novel is also a pantheon for Syjuco’s literary and artistic influences – including Kurt Vonnegut, Roberto Bolaño, Thomas Pynchon, Jose Rizal, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and many more – replete with references for those who can read between the lines and recognize them.

But perhaps the true gift that “Ilustrado” presents to Philippine literature is how it makes Filipinos aware of the art of writing fiction and the realm of possibilities opened up by exploring new ways to tell a story, and gives them new ways to read it.

While “Ilustrado” is not the first metafictional work by a Filipino writer, it is a laudable effort to move away from the use of metafiction as a  bells and whistles spectacle, as an affectation of writers who write metafiction just to prove they can.  As it juxtaposes fabrication against reality to convey moral truths about society, “Ilustrado” presents a fresh voice that provokes readers to examine the principles they value and the truths they hold real.

Ilustrado is available at all National Book Store branches at the special introductory price of P308 (20% discount, SRP P385) from April 8 to 30, 2010.

Ilustrado, FSG Philippine Edition, 4.5/5 stars, book #50 for 2010