I spent most of last week in Davao City, toting along my review copy of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and the Palanca Award. It’s a metafictional novel that pieces together the life of Filipino writer-in-exile Crispin Salvador as his student, Miguel weaves together fragments of Salvador’s body of work, personal interviews, blog entries, newspaper clippings, and many other sources as he investigates his teacher’s mysterious death.
I spent most of my spare time engrossed in the novel — at the airport, on flights, and before hitting the sack at the hotel room — and I was looking forward to coming back to Manila to attend the press conference and launch at National Book Store.
The review will have to wait; I just finished the novel and I’m reviewing it for Manila Bulletin, so here’s a recap of the launch, the first release of Ilustrado anywhere in the world!
I got to the NBS Glorietta 5 branch early, so I was one of the first to get my copy of the book signed. Off the bat, Miguel Syjuco noticed I’d covered my book in protective plastic — of course I did! Hahaha, you all know I can’t read a book without a gauge 5 plastic cover, and no way was I taking a naked book across the country with me!
Hence the dedication on the title page:
At the launch, Miguel talked about how the book came to be, inspired by a stint as a fact-checker for the Paris Review in New York.
“I was fact-checking the Writers at Work interviews, and I had to cobble together facts from literary biographies, interviews, introductions from books, excerpts from novels and poems and managed to create a profile of each writer, ” he reveals. “I thought it was an interesting way to present the portrait of an artist, and that’s what I ended up doing in the past four years, creating the character of Crispin Salvador based on the things a Filipino writer abroad has to deal with.”
He also reveals Ilustrado as a tribute to his literary influences (Vonnegut, Pynchon, Rizal, Bolaño and many more), and even references to art and music.
“There are a lot of references in the book, rewarding those who recognize it. Those who get it will feel that Easter egg feeling; it’s hidden treasure, a little wink wink,” he quips. “They’re inside jokes; I wanted to layer fiction upon fiction upon fiction to create a chord that would resonate in literature, I’m trying to establish that we’re all part of the same literary tradition.”
He also voices his views on the Filipino writer, stating that a lot of Filipinos jump on the magic realism bandwagon and tend to exoticize themselves, writing about carabaos in the field and mango-colored sunlight. He also expounds on the high expectations for Filipino writers.
“In the Philippines, people expect each novel to be the great Filipino novel, and they come away disappointed because the expectations are much too high.”
He echoes Roberto Bolaño’s belief that there are no masterpieces, that each work is part of a larger literary tradition. He quotes from Bolaño’s 2666 (which, incidentally I’d started before Ilustrado, except my hardcover copy is too heavy to lug around):
“Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
He also stresses the personal significance of launching a Philippine edition of the book:
“I wanted it to be affordable, and I wanted it to be published at home, before the  elections. The book is very political, and I hope that the universal truths book tries to bring out to encourage people to think more about their vote. I know I’m not going to change the world or the country, but if I can make some small ripple, it will all be worthwhile.”
I’ll be posting the review of Ilustrado here after it’s published, but in the meantime, here’s a clip of Miguel Syjuco inviting you to read his book:
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.